- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 22, 2011

By Lorenzo Vidino
Columbia University Press, $29.50, 336 pages

The Society of the Muslim Brothers (Al-Ikhwan al Muslimeen, the Muslim Brotherhood) is one of world’s largest and most influential Islamic political organizations. Its affiliates operate as the main opposition parties in several Arab states, as a ruler in the Palestinian Gaza Strip and as the leading Muslim institutions in Western Europe and the United States.

In today’s Egypt, where it was founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, a 22-year-old schoolteacher and strict Islamic fundamentalist, and following an 83-year period of operating as a mostly underground organization, it is on the verge of emerging as a potential governing party when parliamentary elections are held, as expected, in September.

Lorenzo Vidino’s “The New Muslim Brotherhood in the West” is an important contribution to our understanding of how the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has evolved over the years to become the pre-eminent Islamic organization in Western Europe and the United States. While it does not focus on the Muslim Brotherhood’s activities in the Middle East, especially how its Palestinian offshoot, Hamas, operates, or on its affiliates in Jordan and other Arab states, it still presents a valuable framework for understanding the organization’s far-flung operations worldwide.

The book is not without some flaws, however. In his discussion of the Muslim Brotherhood’s early period, Mr. Vidino only focuses on al-Banna’s solution to what allegedly ailed Egypt in the 1920s and 1930s as “resistance to foreign domination through the exaltation of Islam,” but the country’s problems at the time were far more deep-seated and required different developmental solutions.

Moreover, when Mr. Vidino writes that al-Banna’s “reference to Islam’s mythical past as the cure for the umma’s [Islamic nation’s] ills does not contradict his embrace of modernity,” he appears not to understand that modernization entails a transformation of traditional society, including the separation of state and religion but not religion’s permeation of all aspects of life, which was al-Banna’s solution.

Finally, Mr. Vidino underplays the Muslim Brotherhood’s terrorist operations in the 1940s and 1950s, which contributed to its repression by the Egyptian government.

Once Mr. Vidino begins to discuss the spread of the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence in the 1950s to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, Western Europe and America, he is on more solid ground. With the organization’s violent activities leading in 1948 to its official banning and al-Banna’s assassination by government operatives, many of its ideologues and activists found refuge in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states in the 1950s and 1960s. There they became “teachers, lawyers, administrators, and bankers, taking intellectual jobs that the cash-rich but educationally underdeveloped Gulf countries had to fill in great numbers.”

This is how 84-year-old Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who joined the Muslim Brotherhood as a teenager and graduated from Cairo’s prestigious al Azhar Faculty of Theology, landed in Qatar in the early 1960s, where, as described by Mr. Vidino, he proceeded over the years to establish an elaborate network of radical Islamic institutions that comprised religious schools, think tanks, publications and websites that disseminated his extremist theological views to millions of Muslims around the world.

After a 50-year exile, last week Sheik al-Qaradawi, whom Mr. Vidino describes as the Muslim Brotherhood’s “Pope,” returned to a hero’s welcome in Cairo, where he is likely to play an important religious role in the new regime.

It was also during this period that Muslim Brotherhood members began establishing the infrastructural seeds for what would become their dominant role in the life of Muslim communities in Western Europe and the United States.

It is among these communities, where, Mr. Vidino writes “there is no other Muslim movement that has the means to organize events even remotely on such a large scale. If a young Muslim or a potential convert wants to know more about Islam, he or she is more likely to have easy access to Brotherhood publications than to those of any other Islamic group.”

He adds, “Although their membership has remained fairly small, the Brothers have shown an enormous ability to monopolize the Islamic discourse, making their interpretations of Islam perhaps not yet mainstream but at least the most readily available, and putting their ideological stamp on any Islam-related issue, be it strictly religious or more properly political.”

The Muslim Brotherhood also succeeded in gaining access to Western government officials, Mr. Vidino observes, using them as a supposed “firewall” in some of their counterradicalization programs to counter the spread of pro-al Qaeda sympathies among Muslim communities in those countries. Such cooperation is problematic, Mr. Vidino explains, because it hasn’t reconciled its public condemnation of terrorism in general with its support for the Palestinian Hamas’ use of such tactics against Israel.

How should Western governments deal with the Muslim Brotherhood? Mr. Vidino recommends that “for the time being, given this uncertainty, a policy of cautious and informed engagement appears to be the most appropriate.”

With the Muslim Brotherhood set to play a significant role in Egypt’s political life, Mr. Vidino’s book is essential reading for those concerned about understanding its past and future activities and directions.

Joshua Sinai is an associate professor for research, specializing in counterterrorism studies, at Virginia Tech.

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