The Muslim Brotherhood is probably one of the most important organizations in the Islamic world, so I was delighted when I was asked recently to take part in a public meeting at New York University’s Center for Law and Security to debate whether or not the U.S. government should be talking to them.
Despite its mass support in countries such as Egypt and Jordan (where it is the official opposition), the Brotherhood has been largely ignored by Western policymakers, despite its opposition to the extremists of al-Qaeda and other Salafist organizations
The panel was chaired by CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen, and my fellow speakers included Alexis Debat, senior fellow at the Nixon Center, and Dr. Abdel Monem Abo el-Fotouh, senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood Guidance Council in Egypt and general secretary of the Arabic Medical Union.
A week or so before the event on Oct. 19, it became clear that Fotouh was not going to be granted a visa to enter the U.S. On short notice, Dr. Kamal el-Helbawy, founding president of the Muslim Association of Britain and former spokesman for the Brotherhood in Europe, agreed to take part in his place.
Helbawy is a much-respected figure in Britain, where he has been one of the guiding lights behind the reorganization of the notorious Finsbury Park mosque, once the haunt of Abu Hamza and his band of die-hard Islamist extremists. Whereas once the mosque was a center for indoctrination of the worst kind of jihadist propaganda, the mosque today is once again serving its community, with up to 1,000 attending Friday prayers.
It was only when I arrived in New York the day before the meeting that I was told Helbawy had been taken from the plane at Heathrow shortly before takeoff and interviewed by an official from the U.S. Homeland Security.
“The individual was inadmissible to enter the U.S.,” said U.S. Customs and Borders Protection spokeswoman Kelly Klundt. “I can’t speak specifically to this case as to why he was inadmissible.”
Despite the absence of two prominent members of the Brotherhood on a platform that aimed to explain the organization’s policies to the public, the meeting went ahead. More than 200 people turned out to listen to an excellent discussion, which was, however, impoverished by the unwillingness of U.S. authorities to allow two renowned moderates to put forward their views.
Speaking at the American University of Cairo in June last year, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, “For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East and we achieved neither. Now we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.”
Fine words, but only a few months later, in the light of the Egyptian elections, they began to ring hollow. Although still a banned organization, Brotherhood candidates standing as independents won 88 seats 20 percent of the total. This was despite the fact that the Brotherhood stood in only 150 out of 454 constituencies. In the second and third rounds, more than 1,000 Brotherhood members were arrested, many thousands more were prevented from going to the polls, and votes were fixed, according to independent monitors, in at least seven districts.
A month later in the Palestinian territories, Hamas won 74 out of 132 seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council in free and fair elections.
Their reward? Almost total silence from the State Department over Egypt and a clear denial of recognition to Hamas in Palestine an act that has cast the Palestinians into a maelstrom of internecine rivalry. This refusal to uphold democracy makes statements by President Bush and other members of the administration about the need to bring democracy to the Islamic world look hypocritical.
We in the West can hardly be surprised if supporters of these organizations who have taken their leaders’ advice and supported democratic processes should now feel the need to reassess their commitment to elections and instead turn toward the jihadists.
There is another strand to this. I cannot help wondering if the denial of entry to Helbawy and Fotouh was also partly aimed at damaging the credibility of the Center for Law and Security. Under Karen Greenberg, the Center has been doing sterling work uncovering and highlighting U.S. abuses in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. The Center’s scholarly work is an example of what can be achieved by people who take democracy seriously.
A majority of people now in both Britain and America realize that the war in Iraq and the subsequent occupation of that country have been huge and terrible failures. Even according to the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, made public last month, the insurgency is gathering strength, and generals are now falling over themselves to criticize the politicians. All the while, those Muslims who want moderation and political diversity are being sidelined and ignored. Isn’t it time someone got a grip on things?