The recent op-ed in the New York Times by Tariq Ramadan is full of lies. Yet virtually no Western reader, no matter how suspicious of the Muslim Brotherhood, will notice any of them.
Ramadan is supposedly the most sophisticated Islamic intellectual in the world as well as being a professor at major universities. The article carries an Oxford dateline. Yet it is typical of the polemical misinformation regularly put out by Islamists and swallowed whole by the Western media.
Let's go through the article:
"The Islamist presence has for decades justified the West's acceptance of the worst dictatorships in the Arab world. And it was these very regimes that demonized their Islamist opponents...."
Well, let's see. Which were the worst dictatorships in the Arab world that demonized their Islamist opponents? Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt; Algeria's military junta; Syria and Iraqi Ba'thist regimes? None of them were Western-backed.
What countries were Western-backed? Saudi Arabia, which gave refuge to Islamists including many members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood; Jordan, whose government often worked with Islamists; Lebanon, where Islamists could operate freely. The United States supported Anwar al-Sadat's Egypt and Sadat had ended the Nasser-era oppression. The Gulf sheikdoms never repressed non-terrorist Islamists.
Every Western reader of his op-ed thought he was being accurate but other than Tunisia, it is hard to make any case for what he wrote as being true, except for Mubarak's Egypt. As for that latter country, (the American-sponsored) Mubarak repressed Islamists much less after some of them murdered his predecessor, Sadat, than (the anti-American) Nasser after their attempted assassination of him.
What Ramadan also doesn't say is that the Islamists want to establish new dictatorships that will certainly not be backed by America because they will be sinking their claws into America's back, so to speak. Hamas in the Gaza Strip; Hezb'allah in Lebanon are the first two.
While Ramadan says the "worst dictatorships" demonized Islamism, they also -- and to a greater extent -- demonized the United States, the West, and Israel. Ramadan wants to create new "worst dictatorships" that also demonize the United States, the West, and Israel.
Those "dumb" Americans actually thought that an Islamist regime in Iran would be bad for them? Ha-ha! How silly!
So was the Islamist "threat" such a fantasy? In Iran, the Islamist regime has compiled a record of repression and mismanagement. In Afghanistan, it was even worse. In the Gaza Strip, Hamas has repressed its nationalist rivals, expelled Christians, and is steadily tightening the noose. In Sudan, Islamist governments were also extremely repressive.
So has the fear of radical Islamism proven to be such an illusion?
Ramadan continues that Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood:
"Historically represents that country's first well-organized mass movement with the political influence to match. For more than 60 years, the Brotherhood has been illegal but tolerated. It has demonstrated a powerful capacity to mobilize the people in each relatively democratic election -- for trade unions, professional associations, municipalities, parliament and so on -- where it has been a participant...."
There is an interesting little misstatement here -- designed to leave out Sadat's tolerance of the Brotherhood's return to operation -- by claiming that nothing has changed in 60 years. To admit the man who made peace with Israel also made peace with the Brotherhood is unacceptable for the Brotherhood's own distorted history.
He also assumes, correctly no doubt, that his readers have no idea what the Brotherhood members actually do in parliament when they get there. They propose precisely the kind of legislation you'd expect, expressing the goals that Ramadan pretends don't exist.
Yet there is also an element of truth in this passage. At a time when the theme is to downplay the Brotherhood's strength, Ramadan can't help but brag by how powerful it is.
"Islamism [is] a mosaic of widely differing trends and factions, but its many different facets have emerged over time and in response to historical shifts."
In other words, Islamism is too complex to understand. Now of course, there are many Islamist groups and these use different strategies and tactics. But all of them, as Ramadan knows perfectly well, have the same goal: the seizure of state power and the revolutionary transformation of their societies into countries ruled only by Islamists and exclusively by their interpretation of Sharia law.
Despite their many differences, the Brotherhood has this in common with al-Qaida, the Taliban, the Iranian regime, and many other such groups.
"The Muslim Brothers began in the 1930s as a legalist, anti-colonialist and nonviolent movement that claimed legitimacy for armed resistance in Palestine against Zionist expansionism during the period before World War II. The writings from between 1930 and 1945 of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Brotherhood,show that he opposed colonialism and strongly criticized the fascist governments in Germany and Italy. He rejected use of violence in Egypt, even though he considered it legitimate in Palestine, in resistance to the Zionist Stern and Irgun terror gangs. He believed that the British parliamentary model represented the kind closest to Islamic principles."
This is a lie so shameless that Ramadan knew he was fabricating just to fool the Western audience. The Brotherhood was founded by his grandfather in 1928. It was not only anti-colonialist but, as noted above, intent on gaining power for itself and suppressing the other anti-colonialist movements, be they liberal, leftist, or nationalist.
But "nonviolent"! What about the famous Muslim Brotherhood terrorist unit which assassinated political rivals? His own grandfather was killed in revenge after his men murdered the Egyptian prime minister! To say, "He was assassinated in 1949 by the Egyptian government on the orders of the British occupier," is of course a typical fabrication, to play on the theme that only imperialists and their stooges opposed the Brotherhood.
What he writes about Zionism is also a lie. The Brotherhood's attitude toward Jews is full of basic anti-Semitism expressed in virtually every document of the organization. And, of course, the Brotherhood was fighting against any Jewish state long before either the Sternists or Irgun did anything.
Among the most profound lies is to claim that the Brotherhood was anti-fascist. In a forthcoming book, Germany, the Nazis, and the Making of the Modern Middle East, Wolfgang Schwanitz and I will show how the Brotherhood was in fact subsidized by the Nazi government in the 1930s through Amin al-Husaini, the mufti, and became a wartime ally of Germany. In 1942, the Brotherhood received German weapons to stage an uprising once the German army entered into Egypt. It also was incorporated in plans to massacre all of the Jews of the Middle East. Ramadan's grandfather was a Nazi collaborator.
"Following Gamal Abdel Nasser's revolution in 1952, the movement was subjected to violent repression."
Might the newspaper's readers wonder why Nasser violently repressed the Brotherhood? No massmarket newspaper has mentioned the little fact that this "nonviolent" organization tried to assassinate Nasser but missed. Naturally, this made him a bit petulant.
Ramadan then invents a fantasy history in which most of the Brotherhood "remained committed to the group's original position of gradual reform." What actually happened is that the Brotherhood devised a two-stage revolutionary strategy. Given its weakness and the likelihood of repression, it would stay away from violence and focus on "da'wa," long-term recruitment and base-building. One day, leaders promised, it would return to its revolutionary ways.
That day, from my reading, came last October when the Brotherhood's leader, Muhammad Badi, declared that the time had come for jihad. The current revolution is the product of high food prices, the rise of a middle-class youth group wanting democratic freedom, and the Tunisian upheavals.
But a fourth factor was the Brotherhood's strategic shift, believing that the Mubarak regime was on its last legs and that there was strong popular opposition to the transfer of power to the apparently weak and out-of-touch son, Gamal Mubarak. To what extent the Brotherhood prepared and planned for an uprising we will only know in the future. It didn't have to be the whole or main reason for the revolution but it might be far more significant than we have known.
Ramadan continues that many members were forced into exile, but then he tells another lie to set up his own role: "Still others settled in the West, where they came into direct contact with the European tradition of democratic freedom."
That, of course, was him. But is this the story of his background? Not at all. His father's whole early career was based on being an assistant to the Mufti, who had backed the Nazis, excoriated the Jews, and advocated genocide. His father later arrived in Switzerland because he fled from an anti-American dictatorship in Egypt that had extended its rule into Syria. His job was to set up a base for a European-based Islamism; to create an anti-democratic society, not to imbibe the benefits of Western democracy. Vladimir Lenin lived in exile in Switzerland, too, but that did not make him into a democrat.
Ramadan then returns to his original themes: the Brotherhood is diverse and largely moderate; the United States and Israel want to stop Egyptian democracy. He is setting up the long-standing, temporarily underground, but soon to return virulent hatreds that the Brotherhood speeches.
"By deciding to line up behind Mohamed ElBaradei, who has emerged as the chief figure among the anti-Mubarak protesters, the Muslim Brotherhood's leadership has signaled that now is not the time to expose itself by making political demands that might frighten the West, not to mention the Egyptian people. Caution is the watchword."
This is also a lie. The fable here is that the Brotherhood saw that ElBaradei was the "chief figure" and so in good democratic fashion supported him. In fact, ElBaradei has been largely a creature of the Brotherhood which supplies most of his base, activists, support, and maybe funding. The young pro-democracy anti-Mubarak protesters are not at all supporting ElBaradei who has been out of Egypt for 30 years. The Brotherhood is "behind" ElBaradei but in quite a different way than Ramadan implied.
The more the Brotherhood lies, the more suspicious I become. If it came clean about its past, that might mean it was indeed willing to change. If it openly expressed its goals of a Sharia state, it might show itself willing to take a place as one party trying to exert influence on the direction of society (something like this has happened in Iraq). Yet to pretend that the Brotherhood is about peace, love, and democracy is like watching a wolf dressed up as a sheep: you know it's up to no good.
Ramadan is indeed accurate, however, when he says that the Brotherhood's leadership "has signaled" that now is the time to act in a moderate fashion so as not to "frighten" the West or the Egyptian people. His op-ed is an example of that misdirection. Later, when the Brotherhood has at least a big share of power, it can reveal its true nature and aims. By then it will be too late.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The GLORIA Center's site is www.gloria-center.org and of his blog, Rubin Reports, www.rubinreports.blogspot.com.