Like thousands across the world, I celebrated the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden. He rejoiced in killing. But bin Laden’s murder is not the end of Al Qaeda. And even if Al Qaeda were totally eliminated, the world would still have to deal with Al Qaeda’s progenitor.
Bin Laden was many things, but he was not original. He was himself introduced to the doctrine of jihad by the late Palestinian theologian Abdullah Yusuf Azzam. Significantly, before Azzam begun teaching bin Laden and others in Saudi Arabia, he was a member of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood.
Unlike Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood has evolved and learned the hard way that the use of violence will be met with superior violence by state actors. The clever thing to do, it now turns out, was to be patient and invest in a bottom-up movement rather than a commando structure that risked being wiped out by stronger forces. Besides, the gradualist approach is far more likely to win the prize of state power. All that Khomeini did before he came to power in Iran was to preach the merits of a society based on Islamic law. He did not engage in terrorism. Yet he and his followers took over Iran – a feat far greater than bin Laden ever achieved. In Iran the violence came later.
The point is that fighting violent extremists is only part of the battle; perhaps the easier part. The bigger challenge may be to deal with those Islamists who are willing to play a longer game.
In the West, bin Laden’s ignominious death in a Pakistani hideaway has frequently been contrasted with the mass protests that have swept the Middle East in recent months. Policymakers and commentators have drawn the conclusion that the Arab Spring has triumphed over jihadism, setting the region on a high road to democracy. This is too hasty a conclusion. Let’s take Egypt as an example.
Just how likely is it that Egypt will end up – after the inevitable transition period – being ruled indirectly or directly by the Muslim Brotherhood?
The answer depends on a combination of three factors – two domestic and one foreign:
1. The Brotherhood’s strength within the Egyptian military, which is still in charge of the country;
2. The absence of a formidable secular rival within Egypt;
3. The willingness of America and her allies to underestimate the ambitions and the political skills of the Muslim Brotherhood.
For the moment it looks like all three factors are working in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Make no mistake: The Brotherhood are working to realize the vision summarized in their motto: “Allah is our objective; the Prophet is our leader; the Qur’an is our law; Jihad is our way; dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.”
A series of concrete goals derived from this motto used to be available on their website, though this is (perhaps not surprisingly) unavailable at the present time. Fortunately, some of the contents have been republished at http://mideastweb.org.
A closer look at the Brotherhood's goals
Among the “sub-goals” of the Muslim Brotherhood:
True, the Brotherhood’s leaders have insisted that they are committed to democracy and the rule of law. But they will give an idiosyncratic twist to these commitments.
I expect them to establish a political order based on the Sunni version of an Islamic state. Based on lessons learned from their Islamist brethren elsewhere, they will seek to establish a political order of shariah, or Islamic Law. This would include a judicial system that does not question but merely applies shariah law, a “virtue and vice” police to enforce the Sharia lifestyle and an education and information system that seeks to indocrinate the youth and build “the Muslim individual.”
A department of state or caliphate would seek to establish and nurture relations with allies while urging those allies to undertake joint economic, diplomatic and military action against perceived adversaries. The Organization of the Islamic Conference is one example of this. And note the recent leading role that Egypt’s interim government has taken in reuniting Hamas and Fatah while excluding the U.S. and Israel from these activities.
How will such a political order in Egypt affect affairs at home and relations abroad?
In order to “build the Muslim individual,” the Muslim Brotherhood will take control of the institutions of education, from preschool to university; they will establish a curriculum of indoctrination geared toward instilling submission and loyalty to the regime, rather than the educational requirements that a modern economy needs to be productive and competitive in a global economy. Graduates from such an education system will not only be limited in their capacity to establish successful businesses; most graduates will be more or less unemployable.
In order to “build the Muslim family,” we will see the introduction and enforcement of legislation (marriage, divorce and inheritance) that strips women of their rights; their freedom of movement will be limited to the home and a handful of occupations such as teaching, nursing/medicine and other mono-gender occupations. The discretionary power of the male guardian over his female relatives will become absolute. The age of marriage will be lowered for girls to the time of their first menstruation. Flogging and stoning will be the norm for alleged violations of Islamic sexual sensibilities, which will mean an existence in perpetual terror for women and homosexuals.
In order to “build the Muslim Society,” basic freedoms such as the freedom of conscience, speech, press and association will be heavily curtailed for dissidents, moderates and particularly religious minorities. In Egypt, the biggest religious minority is the community of Christian Copts. Already they are the victims of discrimination, intimidation and occasional terrorist attacks. Under a Muslim Brotherhood government, the repression will get worse. Some will convert or pretend to convert to Islam to survive; more will flee. In the worst case, the fate of the Copts could resemble that of the Christian minority of Darfur.
In order to “build the Muslim state” (Umma), relations will improve in the short term between Hamas, Iran’s regime, Hezbollah and Turkey. Money will be spent on empowering other Islamist organizations, creating alliances in the region, the ultimate goal of which will be, of course, to eliminate Israel. The peace treaty with Israel will either be gradually eroded or Israel will be provoked into war. A Muslim Brotherhood government will also work within the Organization of the Islamic Conference to weaken leaders and regimes of member states that do not share the Islamist vision.
Saudi Arabia vs. Egypt
The interesting thing to watch carefully will be the new Egypt’s relations with Saudi Arabia. For the West, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a place that holds the world’s largest oil reserves. For the Islamists who dream of a Muslim caliphate, Saudi Arabia is the location of the two Holy Shrines of Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood and its allies will work to take control of the Hijaz (Mecca and Medina); if they realize this dream, the oil will be simply a bonus.
The Muslim Brotherhood sees the Saudi monarchy as decadent, hypocritical and traitors of Islam. In the coming months we shall see a dance of power as the House of Saud and the Brotherhood seek to outmaneuver one other.
The prospects, in short, of an Egyptian government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood are as alarming as the prospect of a French government dominated by the Jacobins in the early 1790s.
Repression at home will cause human rights violations, economic crisis and an exodus of refugees, beginning with those who have money and a reasonable level of education, deepening Egypt’s poverty and destabilizing the region and perhaps even Europe. Growing conflict with Israel could lead to war.
For all these reasons, Western policymakers should be exceedingly wary about the influence of the gradualist jihadists on the events now unfolding in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East. Bin Laden is dead. Al Qaeda may soon follow him to the grave. But the doctrine of jihad lives on.