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Muslim Brotherhood

The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Muslim Brotherhood

    Founded in Ismailiyah, Egypt, in 1928 , the Muslim Brotherhood is a popular Islamic reformist organization. From the beginning, the brotherhood's goals were both social and political—the organization promoted charitable causes as well as nationalism, independence, and the reform of society according to Islamic principles.

    The Muslim Brotherhood (in Arabic, Ikhwan al-Muslimun) grew into a significant movement in Egypt and beyond. Branches were established in such places as Syria, Jordan, and Sudan, and similar groups took shape in many parts of the Islamic world. To achieve their goals, various factions within the Muslim Brotherhood have used tactics ranging from social activism and support of existing regimes to militancy and antigovernment violence. Although some governments have outlawed or restricted its activities, the brotherhood has mass appeal, and it remains a very important Islamic movement in the Arab world.

    Building the Organization.

    During the 1920s, Great Britain dominated political and economic affairs in Egypt. Anti-western sentiment grew as foreign business owners and managers prospered while Egyptian workers remained poor and secular ideas appeared to threaten Islamic culture.

    Egyptian schoolteacher Hasan al-Banna advocated a return to Islamic principles as the remedy for the economic and social concerns of Egyptian Muslims. In 1928 he founded the Muslim Brotherhood. Over the next several years, al-Banna and fellow members gathered support for the organization by vigorously preaching Islam in the mosques, as well as in coffeehouses, workplaces, and homes across Egypt. The result was that the movement grew rapidly.

    During the 1930s, the organization began to pursue a political agenda. The brotherhood started a weekly newspaper, Al-Nadhir (The Warning), to spread its message throughout and beyond its membership. Al-Banna communicated directly with the leaders of Arab governments. The Muslim Brotherhood raised money for Palestinian Arabs resisting Zionism (the movement to create a Jewish state in Palestine).

    The brotherhood built its own schools, factories, and hospitals, and its members became active in various organizations, including the trade unions and armed forces. The brotherhood gained popularity, especially among the lower and middle classes in urban areas. Although teachers, skilled craftspeople, and merchants formed the base of its membership, the movement also drew support from lawyers, doctors, accountants, and industrial workers. By the 1940s, the organization had more than 500,000 active members and many supporters. Some even considered the Muslim Brotherhood “a state within the state.”

    Determined to support the Arab struggle in Palestine and to resist British imperialism, the organization also established an armed unit. Acts of violence against British and Jewish targets in Egypt escalated, and inevitably, some Egyptians were killed or injured. In response, the Egyptian government outlawed the brotherhood in December 1948 . Shortly afterward, a member of the organization assassinated Prime Minister Mahmud Fahmi al-Nuqrashi . The following year, Egyptian secret police killed al-Banna.

    After the death of its founder, the Muslim Brotherhood placed an even greater emphasis on political issues. In 1952 a group of army officers led by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser seized control of Egypt in a coup. As allies of these officers, the brotherhood hoped for direct participation in the new government. When they failed to achieve their objective, one of their members attempted to assassinate Nasser. In response, the government executed several leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and imprisoned thousands of others, forcing the movement to operate in secret.

    Activist Sayyid Qutb emerged as the brotherhood's leading spokesman during the late 1950s. In the writings he produced between two periods of imprisonment, he promoted a radical version of Islam, calling for jihad against pro-Western and secular governments. In 1966 Nasser had Qutb executed. Considered a martyr by many, Qutb's writings helped inspire Islamic activist movements in the following decades.

    After Nasser died in 1970 , Anwar el-Sadat became the president of Egypt. He released members of the brotherhood from prison, hoping to gain the movement's support for his policies. Even so, Umar al-Tilimsani , the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood at that time, and Sadat were unable to agree on numerous issues, especially the question of peace with Israel. In September 1981 , Sadat arrested al-Tilimsani , other leaders of the brotherhood, and members of other Islamic groups. A month later, a member of al-Jihad, an Egyptian militant group, assassinated Sadat.

    During the 1980s and 1990s, the Muslim Brotherhood pursued a platform of political moderation and nonviolence. The organization's more radical elements broke away and formed militant Islamic groups. Brotherhood members made political alliances and gained seats in Egypt's parliament. In recent years, the movement has experienced renewed appeal as part of widespread religious revival in the Muslim world.

    The Syrian Branch.

    Soon after the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the movement spread to nearby countries. In Syria, the ideas of Hasan al-Banna found an eager audience. During the 1930s, the Syrian people were struggling to achieve national independence from French colonial rule. They also sought relief from their economic woes, the result of expanding European trade, high inflation, drought, and debt. Disappointed with the local leaders of the independence movement, they turned to newer reformist groups.

    Working through schools and publications associated with the brotherhood, the Syrian organization promoted Islamic morals and education and encouraged anti-imperialist activities. It formed a strong constituency in urban areas, especially among artisans and tradespeople. Syria gained its independence in 1946 , and in 1954 , the Brotherhood called for a government based on Islamic law. The Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, however, lacked a clear program of action.

    In 1963 the Ba'th Party seized power, establishing a secular, socialist regime. The new government brought a large number of people from the rural parts of Syria into the state bureaucracy. The Muslim Brotherhood opposed the regime's policies, viewing them as a threat to Islamic principles and to the economic welfare of its members.

    Tensions between the Syrian government and the brotherhood escalated during the 1970s. After Hafiz al-Assad became president and adopted a secular constitution, the brotherhood waged a jihad against the government. The organization particularly opposed the increased power that Assad had granted to his own rural-based community of Alawis, a religious minority, at the expense of the country's Sunni majority, especially those who lived in the towns. The Muslim Brotherhood carried out large-scale demonstrations and armed attacks, which led to the government's banning of the organization in 1980 . Two years later, the brotherhood sparked an armed uprising in Hama, its stronghold. Assad's troops crushed the revolt, and the influence of the brotherhood declined. It has not been a major opposition force in Syria since the defeat at Hama.

    Ties to the Monarchy.

    During the 1940s, members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood sought to establish branches of their movement in Palestine and Jordan. In 1946 the first Jordanian branch was formed. King Abdullah extended his approval to the brotherhood, which registered with the government as a charity, on the condition that its members abstain from political activity.

    Initially, the members of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood focused on religious issues, including a return to Islamic values and the education of Jordanian society. Through acts of charity, such as the construction of health and welfare facilities, they were able to spread their message.

    After the Arab-Israeli War ( 1948 ) and the Jordanian occupation of the West Bank (the section of Palestine west of the Jordan River), the organization's membership increased and its activities became more politicized. In 1957 King Hussein banned political parties. Although the brotherhood had often functioned as a political party, he permitted its members to continue their activities, believing that they would be strong allies for his regime. His assessment proved correct for nearly three decades. During the mid-1980s, however, the brotherhood began to criticize Hussein's government, charging it with corruption and immorality. Unwilling to tolerate an attack on the legitimacy of his rule, the king used arrests and other forms of harassment against members of the organization.

    The rift between Hussein and the movement was short lived. In 1989 the king decided to hold free elections for the first time in more than 22 years. The brotherhood gained more than 25 percent of the seats in parliament. In 1991 the organization supported Iraq in the Persian Gulf War. Although unpopular with its Kuwaiti and Saudi financial supporters, this position increased the movement's appeal at home. The brotherhood's message remains popular in Jordan.

    Key Player.

    The Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt spread its influence to neighboring Sudan during the 1940s, and the Sudanese branch of the movement was officially founded in 1954 . Most of the new members came from the educated classes but had strong ties to more traditional Islamic values. They were devout Sufis and strongly opposed communism.

    The movement was not a significant political force in Sudan until the mid-1960s. Led by Hasan al-Turabi , the brotherhood entered politics with the founding of the Islamic Charter Front (ICF) in 1964 . The ICF joined other groups in urging the Sudanese government to outlaw the communist party and to adopt an Islamic constitution. In 1969 , however, Jafar al-Nimeiri overthrew the government with the aid of Sudanese communists. The new regime arrested several brotherhood leaders, including al-Turabi.

    During the mid-1970s, al-Nimeiri moved away from secular, nationalist policies and embraced Islam. The brotherhood reconciled with al-Nimeiri, enabling its members to gain important positions in the regime and to strengthen the organization and improve its finances. The brotherhood also helped persuade al-Nimeiri to adopt a program of implementing Islamic law in 1983 .

    Democratic forces overthrew al-Nimeiri in 1985 , and the National Islamic Front (NIF), the brotherhood's political organization, took an active role in parliament as the major opposition party. Four years later, the leaders of a military coup established an Islamist regime. The brotherhood supported the new government. The NIF gained control of the construction industry, the media, banking, transportation, and education. From their dominant position, the brotherhood helped shape debates on the proper role of Islamic law in Sudanese society and politics. See also Charity; Egypt; Jordan; Qutb, Sayyid; Sudan; Syria.

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