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Profiling the Muslim Brotherhood: Radicalization and Extremism


The Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwān al-Muslimūn) is normally viewed as a radical organization known for resorting to violent jihad and fundamentalist means, a sentiment based on episodes of its history when some of its members have indeed resorted to violent means. This view is held not just by the al Sisi government of Egypt, but also by many in the press and government in Western countries, although this often fails to take account of the competing narratives that have developed from the many internal schisms within the Muslim Brotherhood as a whole. While extreme elements have arisen from these recurring internal divisions, it can also be argued that the mainstream organization is still mainly composed by “moderate” members.[1] The subject of the Muslim Brotherhood is frequently controversial, but it is important to understand how these moderate elements have pushed back against the violent extremes of the Brotherhood, which are outlined here.
Muslim Brotherhood Flag-lrg

The Society of Muslim Brothers

The Society of Muslim Brothers (al-ʾIkḫwān al-Muslimūn), better known as the Muslim Brotherhood, was founded in Egypt in March 1928 by the Islamic scholar and school teacher Hassan al Banna, and has since then grown to become one of the leading and most discussed Islamist political organizations in the world.[2] It started as a grassroots, pan-Islamic, and religious movement and soon came to represent a powerful religious and political opposition force in Egypt. Its comprehensive ideology and conception of Islamic values as the core pillars of society lent it an exceptional level of regional and international resonance.[3] Identified by the slogan “Islam is the solution” the Brotherhood combines political activism and revolutionary activities with Islamic principles and social/charity work, while aiming to constitute an inclusive society that is regulated by the teachings contained in the Quran and the Sunnah.[4] Despite the official Muslim Brotherhood commitment to the use of peaceful means, the organization has been historically linked to political violence and more recently to violent jihad, as some Islamist groups such as Hamas are considered to be a direct offshoot of the Brotherhood, while some prominent members of al Qaeda claim to be directly inspired by the teachings of various Muslim Brothers.[5] These violent offshoots have frequently arisen as a result of the Brotherhood’s extreme dynamism, which has manifested in internal schisms and in the very different narratives and strategies employed by its members.

First wave of radicalization – the Secret Apparatus

The Muslim Brotherhood is in fact often linked to extremism and political violence and, while that is true for some of its followers, it is important to keep in mind that such actions do not account for the narrative and aims of the mainstream organization. The first wave of radicalization that swept the Brotherhood, in terms of both ideology and use of violence as a means to an end, came at the peak of the organization’s popularity in the early 1940s. It was then that the Brotherhood started splintering between its more traditional members and those who wanted to be more involved in politics, and the differences in opinion led to the creation of the ‘Secret Apparatus’ (al-jihaz al-Khas), the organization’s paramilitary wing that openly countered the Brotherhood’s commitment to peaceful means and interpreted the slogan “Jihad is our way” literally.[6] Created to protect the Brotherhood’s leaders and to further the organization’s aims through the use of political violence,[7] the Secret Apparatus was particularly active in the years between 1947 and 1949, and the escalation of violent activities linked to the paramilitary group led to the dissolution and outlawing of the organization in 1948.[8] However, such aims were not officially sanctioned in any way by the “moderate” mainstream organization, nor shared by many members who remained faithful to al Banna’s teaching.[9] Consequently the emergence of such opposing ideological positions caused a distinct schism within the Brotherhood, between those subscribing to non-violence and those adopting a more radicalised narrative, disagreements which worsened during the second radicalization wave and which drastically affected the organization’s political development. This militia cell of the organization was distinct and separated from the “original” narrative of the Brotherhood in terms of both strategies and aims and this should be taken into account when branding the entire organization as extremist and fundamentalist.[10] While this is true for some of its members, such a radicalised narrative does not account for the views of the Brotherhood as a whole.

Second wave of radicalization - Qutbism

The second wave of radicalization hit the Brotherhood in 1954, with the emergence of “Qutbism” as a direct response to Gamal Nasser’s crackdown on the organization. The resort to extremist means and militant actions was fuelled by one of the Brotherhood’s chief ideologues, Sayyid Qutb, who in his famous work “Milestones” argued that Western influence and jahilyyhia (ignorance of divine guidance) were the main obstacles to the achievement of an Islamic society.[11] He argued that such obstacles had to be removed through the practice of jihad, intended in both the greater sense as “personal/internal battle” and in a lesser sense as “armed struggle”.[12] Qutb therefore developed a very precise set of notions that justified the use of violent jihad as opposed to peaceful means to express opposition against the regime. This appealed to many Brothers especially during Nasser’s oppression and consequently led to a deep ideological division within the organization. These radical narratives continued to fascinate numerous Muslim Brothers even after Qutb’s death in 1966,[13] and his legacy still lives on today.[14] Subscription to Qutb’s ideas is the main reason why the Muslim Brotherhood is so easily linked to extremism and political violence, although the existence of a paramilitary wing and the recourse to violent means is and has been condemned multiple times by the mainstream organization, and ultimately by the supreme guide at the time, Hasan aI-Hudaybi, who excommunicated Sayyd Qutb and declared that his ideas never represented those of the Brotherhood.[15] Therefore, while the group’s affiliation to such practices is undeniable, one must always keep in mind the Brotherhood’s diversity and internal divisions, which means that, while there have been periods when the Brotherhood has acted violently, this has not always been supported by all its members, nor have they all been involved in violent activity.

The increasing adoption of violent narratives within the Muslim Brotherhood from the 1940s onwards fed into an ongoing debate regarding the historical influence of the organization, as some view it as a laboratory for political Islam and democratic development while others identify it as one of the main cradles for Islamic political violence.[16] It is undeniable that the group resorted to violent jihad and political violence at various times throughout its history, and the peak of such activities can be identified in the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981.[17] Moreover, Qutb’s influence went beyond the use of violent jihad, to impact upon the Brotherhood’s core ideology towards more radical ends as well. Under Qutb’s legacy, many young Muslim Brothers grew increasingly dissatisfied with what they identified as the organization’s passivity towards government oppression and persecution.[18] Such frustration and dissatisfaction with the organization’s strategies led to further schisms and internal division, with many members leaving the organization in order to form more militant groups.[19] However, the moderate membership of the Muslim Brotherhood, led by Hasan aI-Hudaybi, remained committed to peaceful means, increasingly focused on social provision and political activism as a way to engage with the Egyptian population and government. This internal shift was further accentuated in the 1970s, when the Muslim Brotherhood’s guide and moderate Hasan aI-Hudaybi condemned and de facto excommunicated Sayyid Qutb in his book Du’a la Quda (“Preachers, not Judges”).[20] In Hudaybi’s words: “Sayyid Qutb represented himself alone and not the Muslim Brethen”.[21] Therefore, while it is clear that the Brotherhood has indeed been subjected to some waves of radicalization, it should also be noted that the mainstream organization has at times distanced itself from its more radical elements.

Morsi and the Freedom and Justice Party

The legacy of internal division lived on throughout the years, and manifested itself once again when it came to Mohamed Morsi’s participation in the presidential campaign in 2012. There were many within the Brotherhood who believed that the organization should remain focused on its role as a civil society actor rather than trying to be actively involved in politics, and who were strongly opposed to the creation of the Freedom and Justice party.[22] Arguably, some of Morsi’s more controversial choices while in power had been strongly influenced by the Brotherhood’s ‘Old Guard’, whose members subscribed to a more radicalised ideological position than the mainstream organization’s moderate one. Interestingly, since the coup d’etat led by the army and Morsi’s ousting in July 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood has largely refrained from, or failed to engage in, political violence as a means of defending its own existence. This might be due to the unprecedented level of persecution of its members perpetuated by al Sisi’s government, whose objective is clearly the removal of any trace of the Muslim Brotherhood from the country.

Al Sisi and the future

By declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization the current Egyptian government risks provoking a further radicalization of certain parts of the movement, which might subsequently destabilise the country and the region even more.[23] Instances of the Brotherhood’s radicalization in the past have all been in response to government repression and growing authoritarianism, both conditions that are currently escalating daily in Egypt. Al Sisi’s banning of the organization, combined with the freezing of its funds and resources, is threatening the Brotherhood’s own existence and marks a clear change in Egypt’s cyclic history. In fact, while in the past the Brotherhood was allowed outlets for civic actions despite its illegal state, its current criminalisation by the al Sisi government means that these opportunities have been taken away. Such circumstances are having drastic impacts not only on Egyptian society, as the majority of the population relies on the Brotherhood’s provision of social services to meet its needs, but also on the organization’s attitude towards the use of violence in order to survive. It could be argued that al Sisi’s harsh crackdowns on the Brotherhood are aimed at provoking a radicalization of the organization’s members, which would further justify governmental violence on its members and supporters. Moreover, a more radical Brotherhood would also result in many of its followers leaving or stopping to support the organization, which would also benefit Sisi’s attempt to demonise it. However, despite Western perceptions and the new regime’s efforts to brand the organization as “terrorist” once again, the Brotherhood has not called for its members to resort to violence against the Egyptian regime, once again emphasising its commitment to peaceful means and rejection of political violence.[24] Whether the Egyptian government’s continued efforts to criminalise and persecute the organization result in Brothers becoming frustrated with peaceful means and resorting to violence is yet to be seen.

Further reading


[1]By “moderate” (and “mainstream”) I mean those who subscribe to al Banna’s original narrative and aims, which are the gradual Islamization of society through a bottom-up approach and through the focus on civil society. BACK UP TO TEXT
[2]El-Ghobashy, M., “The Metamorphosis of the Egyptian Muslim Brothers”, in International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 37, No. 3, (August 2005), pp. 376-377 BACK UP TO TEXT
[3]Johnson, T., “Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood”, Council on Foreign Relations, (3 December 2012) BACK UP TO TEXT
[4]El-Hudaibi, “The principles of the Muslim Brotherhood”, Ikhwan Web, (1 February 2010) BACK UP TO TEXT
[5]Sennot, M., C., “Inside the Muslim Brotherhood”, Frontline: Special Reports, (21 February 2011) BACK UP TO TEXT
[6]Stilt, K., “Islam is the Solution: Constitutional visions of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood”, in Texas International Law Journal, Vol. 46, No. 73, (2010), pp. 76-78 BACK UP TO TEXT
[8]Zahid, M., The Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s succession crisis: the politics of liberalisation and reform in the Middle East (London: Tauris Academic Studies, 2010), pp. 75-77 BACK UP TO TEXT
[9]Violence and sabotage against the British colonial forces are attributed to the Secret Apparatus and not to the mainstream organization, whose aim was to challenge colonialism through a bottom up approach and gradual Islamisation of Egyptian society. See: Lia, B., The Society of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt: The rise of an Islamic mass movement 1928-1942. (Reading: Garnet, 1998), pp. 172-181 BACK UP TO TEXT
[11]Qutb, S., Milestones (Indianapolis: American Trust Publications, 1990), p. 8BACK UP TO TEXT
[12]Zollner, B., The Muslim Brotherhood: Hasan l-Hudaybi and ideology (New York: Routledge, 2009), pp. 58-63 BACK UP TO TEXT
[13]Qutb was hanged in 1966 under the accusation of having participated in the plot to assassinate Nasser. BACK UP TO TEXT
[14]“Qutbism” is still followed by groups who have long ago split away from the Muslim Brotherhood, such as the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, separated from the mainstream organization since the early 1970s. See: Wright, L. The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the road to 9/11 (New York: Knopf, 2006), p. 123 BACK UP TO TEXT
[15]Zollner, B., The Muslim Brotherhood, chapter 3. BACK UP TO TEXT
[16]See the works of Mona el Ghobashy and Carrie Wickham for an overview of the Muslim Brotherhood’s contribution to democratic practices in the country. Ziad Abu-Amr’s book Islamic Fundamentalism in the West Bank and Gaza: Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic Jihad gives a good review of the ways in which the Muslim Brotherhood can be seen as fostering and promoting terrorism in the region. BACK UP TO TEXT
[17]Anwar Sadat was assassinated by a member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. See: Fletcher, H., “Egyptian Islamic Jihad”, (Council of Foreign Relations) BACK UP TO TEXT
[18]Soage, A., Franganillo. J., “The Muslim Brothers in Egypt”, in Rubin, B., (ed). The Muslim Brotherhood: The Organization and Policies of a Global Islamist Movement. (New York: Palgrave, 2010). BACK UP TO TEXT
[20]Zollner, B., The Muslim Brotherhood, chapter 3. BACK UP TO TEXT
[21]Ayoob, M., The Many Faces of Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Muslim World (Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 2008), p. 80 BACK UP TO TEXT
[22]Egypt Independent Staff, “Muslim Brotherhood to establish ‘Freedom and Justice Party’”, in Egypt Independent, (21 February 2011) BACK UP TO TEXT
[23]Byman, D., Cofman, T., “Muslim Brotherhood Radicalises”, in Brookings, (23rd January 2014) BACK UP TO TEXT
[24]Al-Baltaji, M., “The Muslim Brotherhood will not turn to violence to fight the coup in Egypt”, (The Guardian) BACK UP TO TEXT

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