On March 7, the Washington Post published a confounding piece titled “Is the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization or a firewall against violent extremism?” by Mr. Marc Lynch. The piece seemed to alternate jarringly between political commentary and academic analysis, seemingly attempting to employ the faculties of both journalism and academia to whitewash the terrorist history of the Muslim Brotherhood and portray the group in a deceptively positive light.
It is evident that the true concern of the article is to attack the US Republican Party and their stance on the Brotherhood, as part of the ongoing electoral battle in the US. Mr. Lynch is clearly seeking to undermine the credibility of the Republican party’s front-runners by branding anti-Brotherhood positions as inaccurate and Islamophobic. US domestic politics are not our concern, but the writer’s political agenda leads him to wipe the Brotherhood’s slate clean despite historical and contemporary evidence of their serious involvement in terrorist activity, resulting in a manipulation of history that negates the threat posed by one of the world’s oldest terrorist groups. It also leads him to muddle what is a very important dividing line between anti-terrorism stances and Islamophobia, a dangerous mix-up that has implications on the distinction between terrorism and the faith of Islam, ironically strengthening the anti-Islam narrative he seeks to counter.
The article asserts several times that the Muslim Brotherhood is ‘not a terrorist organization’, a claim that could not have come at a worse time. On Wednesday March 9th, Egypt’s Ministry of Interior revealed the details of the assassination of Egypt’s former Public Prosecutor Hisham Barakat, which was carried out by the Brotherhood. The Minister of Interior explained at length the evidence related to the case, which included the confessions of the perpetrators, who also admitted to belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood and taking orders from the group’s leadership to carry out the attack. The tragedy of the assassination is fresh in the memory of Egyptians, as are the results of the investigations.
While this is the most recent instance of recorded and verified terrorist activity by the Muslim Brotherhood, it is far from the only one. The Brotherhood’s terrorist credentials are well-documented. Recent attacks and assassinations verified by solid evidence, not to mention a history of political violence, glorification of terrorism, and covert support and financing to known terrorist groups, all place the fact that the Brotherhood is a terrorist organization beyond a shadow of a doubt. The evidence is far too vast to include here, but it has been documented at length in academic works and official reports, including in the report issued last year by UK law firm 9 Bedford Row, as well as the official British government inquiry, which Mr. Lynch counts as a victory for the Brotherhood despite the report explicitly linking the Brotherhood to radical ideology, extremist narratives, and terror-financing. It is thus bizarre to see someone so ardently insist that they are not a terrorist organization but in fact a force for democracy.
The article also seems to make a great deal out of the fact that the Brotherhood has on several occasions publicly endorsed democracy and non-violence, overlooking the simple fact that stated positions do not necessarily reflect actions, particularly in this case. No terrorist group labels itself as such, and the Brotherhood’s attempts to market itself as a ‘moderate’ group to the West should mean nothing in the face of concrete, documented evidence of its engagement in and support of terrorism.
Even worse, the article insists that the Brotherhood, until recently, served as a ‘firewall’ against extremism and terrorism, allegedly providing an alternative to radicalization. This claim is frankly absurd considering the countless Brotherhood offshoots, established by Brotherhood members and disciples, that essentially make up the map of modern-day terrorist groups, including Al-Qaeda and its offshoots. In fact, the extremism and radicalism which serve as the lifeblood of today’s terrorist groups is based directly on Brotherhood thinkers and ideologues that are still venerated and closely adhered to by the organization, such as Sayid Qutb. To put it simply, the threat of terrorism as we see it today owes its existence to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The article points to conflicts between the Brotherhood and other terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda as evidence of the fundamental difference between them, but this is once again a deceptive argument, as conflict with terrorists does not indicate innocence or non-violence. As a clear example, the region has recently seen open, and in some cases armed conflict between extremists such as Al-Nusra Front and Daesh, as they compete for territory and spoils. This does not acquit either group of terrorism, and it is a dangerous implication that Mr. Lynch makes, and one which could lead to the acceptance of less spectacular terrorist acts as ‘moderation’ and shift the spectrum of what is tolerated and accepted in an alarming direction. Similarly, the Brotherhood’s competition with other radicals does not mean we should accept the group with open arms simply because it does not record and broadcast public beheadings.
Mr. Lynch attempts to provide evidence of his ‘firewall’ claim by referring to the fact that terrorism has been on the rise since the ouster of the Brotherhood from power in Egypt and what he refers to as the subsequent ‘repression’ of the group by the Egyptian government. This argument contains several fallacies. The increase of terrorist activity in Egypt following the removal of the Brotherhood from power via mass protests in 2013 is poor evidence of the assertion that it is state policy that is fueling extremism. The Brotherhood’s year in power witnessed the most intensive smuggling and accumulation of illegal weapons by militants in Egypt’s history, as well as the highest volume of militant training and the highest number of illegal tunnels dug in Sinai (tunnels still used by terrorists today). As the Brotherhood freed extremists from prison and eroded oversight mechanisms during its time in power, the military capabilities of radicals increased dramatically.
The Brotherhood was effectively arming its militias and allies in preparation for the potential ‘day after’ scenario, which did indeed come when the Egyptian people became aware of their agenda and ousted them from power after a single year. Having never abandoned their militant ideology, they immediately began reaping the seeds of terrorism they had sown during their year in power, greatly intensifying attacks in order to forcefully implement the agenda they failed to impose on the Egyptian people through political means. The rise of terrorist attacks in Egypt in the wake of the Brotherhood’s ouster is not a reaction to state policy, but a pre-conceived campaign to retaliate against the Egyptian people.
The article then goes on to justify the Brotherhood’s engagement in ‘bad behavior’ (i.e. terrorism and murder) during recent crises and transitions such as the war in Syria and the revolution in Egypt, citing the fact that while the Brotherhood engaged in these actions, ‘so did virtually everyone else’. In essence, what is being argued in this piece is that it is okay to practice violence and terrorism in an environment in which such actions are rampant; that it is acceptable to kill innocent civilians because so many other people are doing it.
Just as alarmingly, the article compares between violent attacks, torture, and murder by Brotherhood members against peaceful anti-Morsi protesters on the one hand, and the burning of Brotherhood headquarters during the same period by Brotherhood opponents on the other, arguing that the Brotherhood’s actions are acceptable because “context matters”. Context does indeed matter. Spontaneous angry crowds acted out of individual motivations by burning the headquarters of the Brotherhood. Conversely, members of the Brotherhood, a group to which Mr. Lynch himself attributes ‘an exceptionally tight organizational structure, with a rigid hierarchy and extremely effective command and control’, systematically attacked and terrorized peaceful demonstrators and members of the general public under orders from their leadership. In this context, equating the erratic actions of a minority of individuals in the general public to the systematic and calculated acts of a tightly controlled and disciplined organization is illogical and is another manipulation of the facts in an attempt to wash blood off of the hands of the Brotherhood.
This justification of violence and terrorism is significant, not least because it provides the Brotherhood with an excuse to continue carrying out acts of terrorism against the Egyptian people. The argument made in this article amounts to an endorsement of bombs being planted in markets and bus stations by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, indiscriminately targeting anyone who gets in the way, including civilians.
In a day and age when the world is increasingly coming to grips with the dangers of extremist discourse and radicalization, and their direct links to the rise of terrorism, it is alarming to see such irresponsible claims. Naïve arguments regarding the extent of the Brotherhood’s engagement in terrorism are not new; but it is upsetting to see these arguments stretching to the extent of wiping the group’s slate entirely clean. Attempts to rewrite history are unacceptable and counterproductive, particularly when they go as far forward as last week, when Brotherhood members confessed to the assassination of Egypt’s Public Prosecutor Hisham Barakat, no doubt an act that in Mr. Lynch’s view does not qualify as terrorism.