Apparently, my April 2nd Foreign Policy article on Mohamed ElBaradei's Islamist flirtation generated quite a bit of criticism, including a lengthy response from Georgetown University's Samer Shehata. These critiques are useful for a number of reasons, not least that they highlight some common tropes about radical Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood, and how we in the West see both. Herewith, my attempt at a reasoned response:
With regards to referencing Mohammed Badei as an "ultraconservative cleric," I stand corrected – at least partially. Badie is not a "cleric" per se, since his doctorate is actually in veterinary medicine from the University of Zagazig. But an ultraconservative he undoubtedly is. To be sure, Badie has mouthed a commitment to "nonviolence" and political participation. Most Brotherhood officials have, since doing otherwise can be hazardous to your health in Mubarak's Egypt. But Badie hails from a conservative segment of the movement that – at a certain level – still sees an existential conflict with the West (hence Badie's somewhat tiresome reference, in his acceptance speech, to the need for "continuous jihad to liberate the nation from any foreign dominance or intellectual, spiritual, cultural hegemony and economic, political or military colonialism.") This isn't just my opinion, incidentally. Even Al Jazeera has depicted Badie's election to the Brotherhood's top post as a clear victory for the organization's "conservative" wing. To sell it as anything but is simply dishonest.
This, of course, doesn't mean that Badie is an unreconstructed throwback. Quite the contrary; he appears to be a sometime blogger, and is even rumored to boast a Facebook profile. But he was also an associate of Sayyid Qutb, the Brotherhood's most famous (and radical) son, in the 1960s, and continues to adhere to Qutb's views about Islam and the West. Not making note of this fact is a glaring omission.
Samer also made much of my use of the word lethargic. Methinks he doth protest too much. While it is certainly true that opposition groups in Egypt have seen spurts of dynamism, they have also – as he himself admits – exhibited periods of passivity as a result of (quite justified) political fatigue. My perhaps unartfully phrased point is that movement toward a meaningful, unified opposition has thus far been lethargic – which is precisely the reason why ElBaredei's notional candidacy is so invigorating.
Finally, I stand behind my reference to the Muslim Brotherhood as "the world's most influential font of radical Islamic ideas." After all, the group's seminal thinkers, especially Sayyid Qutb, continue to cast an exceedingly long intellectual shadow over the global jihadi movement, a point to which anyone who has read the writings of modern-day ideologues like al-Suri and Muhammad Khalil al-Hakaymah can attest. This is perhaps an inconvenient truth for Brotherhood supporters who would like the organization to toe a more moderate line. I do too, for the record. But wishing does not make it so, and recent signs (chief among them the organization's controversial 2007 political platform) suggest that, despite the desires of many, the Brothers still have a long way to travel in this regard.
Which gets to a larger point. There is now a struggle underway within the Muslim Brotherhood – a tug-of-war between a conservative old guard with exclusionary ideas and a new, more pluralistic generation that seeks to meld Islam and contemporary politics. The Arab world, and the United States, has a stake in the outcome of that intellectual contest. Simply arguing that the Muslim Brotherhood is a fact of Egyptian politics, and must be accepted as it is, shortchanges the organization's potential for evolution. Indeed, everyone – Egyptians most of all – should have a stake in prompting such a transformation. That they have abdicated this responsibility in favor of denigrating those who highlight the organization's faults is perhaps the saddest commentary of all.