WASHINGTON — The Bush administration is quietly weighing the prospect of reaching out to the party that founded modern political Islam, the Muslim Brotherhood.
Still in its early stages and below the radar, the current American deliberations and diplomacy with the organization, known in Arabic as Ikhwan, take on new significance in light of Hamas's successful coup in Gaza last week. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is widely reported to have helped create Hamas in 1982.
Today the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research will host a meeting with other representatives of the intelligence community to discuss opening more formal channels to the brothers. Earlier this year, the National Intelligence Council received a paper it had commissioned on the history of the Muslim Brotherhood by a scholar at the Nixon Center, Robert Leiken, who is invited to the State Department meeting today to present the case for engagement. On April 7, congressional leaders such as Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the Democratic whip, attended a reception where some representatives of the brothers were present. The reception was hosted at the residence in Cairo of the American ambassador to Egypt, Francis Ricciardone, a decision that indicates a change in policy.
The National Security Council and State Department already meet indirectly with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood through discussions with a new Syrian opposition group created in 2006 known as the National Salvation Front. Meanwhile, Iraq's vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi, is a leader of Iraq's chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood. His party, known as the Iraqi Islamic Party, has played a role in the Iraqi government since it was invited to join the Iraqi Governing Council in 2003.
These developments, in light of Hamas's control of Gaza, suggest that President Bush — who has been careful to distinguish the war on terror from a war on Islam — has done more than any of his predecessors to accept the movement fighting for the merger of mosque and state in the Middle East.
Should Mr. Bush ask his diplomats to forge new channels to the Muslim Brotherhood it would also be a recognition of the gains their parties have made in elections in the last three years. In Egypt, Iraq, and the Palestinian territories, Islamist parties trounced their secular rivals. In part this was because these parties offered an uncorrupt alternative to the more secular parties in power, but some advocates inside the administration also say it reflects a tangible momentum for parties that seek to create Islamic republics. One State Department official yesterday said, "Our policy has to change from more democracy, fewer headscarves."
Nonetheless, administration officials this week also stressed that no decisions have been made as to a new initiative. One leading European Islamist, Tariq Ramadan, who is the grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, is being denied a visa to assume a professorship he has been offered at Notre Dame University. The policy debate inside the administration is also contentious, with law enforcement agencies such as the FBI skeptical that the Muslim Brotherhood is not clandestinely more involved in supporting violent jihad than the organization's emissaries let on.
A State Department spokesman for the Bureau of Near East Affairs, David Foley, confirmed the meeting Wednesday to discuss a new approach to the Muslim Brotherhood. "We do these seminars, they help inform the policy making process. I am not suggesting someone would decide on a new policy on the Muslim Brotherhood as a result of this," he said. "This is the kind of consultations we often do. When there are alternative views, let's hear both sides. We are certainly willing to listen to voices from the outside."
Making the case today for outreach is Mr. Leiken, who co-authored with Steve Brooke a paper for the March-April issue of Foreign Affairs titled, "The Moderate Muslim Brotherhood." That paper argues that Ikhwan has drawn contempt from violent Islamists such as Al Qaeda for its general disavowal of armed struggle. Tracing its history to its founding, the paper says the group today, particularly in Egypt, is genuine in its desire to participate in democratic politics.
Mr. Leiken said yesterday that there are two reasons why America should begin to rethink its prohibition of meeting with the brothers. "A new policy begins to combat some of our isolation in the Muslim world. I see the Muslim brotherhood, particularly in Egypt, as having what the communists used to call a two-line struggle, between moderate and dogmatic factions. Our outreach would help the moderates. That would strengthen those forces who are most willing to recognize the fact of Israel's existence and more democratic."
Mr. Leiken is a Harvard graduate and longtime expert on Latin America who broke with the hard left in the 1980s to oppose the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and who became associated with Social Democrats such as Penn Kemble and Joshua Muravchick. He said he thinks diplomacy with Ikhwan could help us help them to moderate Hamas. "It is conceivable that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, aware Gaza could serve as an index, will try use its influence to get Hamas to be constructive," he said. The Egyptian government has used the Muslim Brothers for at least 10 years as a back channel to Hamas.
Mr. Leiken's Foreign Affairs paper and classified study for the National Intelligence Council has gotten the attention of senior National Security Council officials and Secretary of State Rice, according to two administration officials.
"The NIC asked me to provide an analysis of the Muslim Brotherhood and I was happy to oblige," Mr. Leiken said.
Arguing against a new policy on the brothers today will be a Hudson Institute expert on Islam, Hillel Fradkin. Mr. Fradkin declined to comment on his presentation ahead of the meeting. A colleague of his at the institute who has also taken a skeptical view of the brothers, Zeyno Baran, did say she was worried about a new direction by the Bush administration.
"The thinking is that to deal with terrorism, we need to deal with Muslims who will take care of their communities so there will not be people here and there doing terrorism," she said. "So we treat the brotherhood like an umbrella organization, like the Council on American Islamic Relations or the Islamic Society of North America. You make them partners. They might Islamize the Muslims, but it's okay because they can think or do what they want as long as they are not violent. That is the misunderstanding and mistake."
The issue of the Muslim Brotherhood has also come up in the presidential contest for 2008. At the May 3 debate of Republican contenders for the presidential nomination, a former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney, included the Muslim Brotherhood as a component of the "worldwide jihadist threat."
"This is about Shia and Sunni. This is about Hezbollah and Hamas and Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. This is the worldwide jihadist effort to try and cause the collapse of all moderate Islamic governments and replace them with a caliphate," he said in response to a question about what he would do to capture Osama bin Laden.
One of the more contentious issues with the Muslim Brotherhood is whether the group was connected to the 1981 assassination of an Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat. This reporter was told by leaders of the group last year that the ex-president's killers were from a breakaway faction known as the Islamic Group and that his murder was not condoned by Ikhwan. Sadat softened the government policy against the brothers in the early 1970s, allowing them to organize in universities, a decision many of the Brotherhood leaders in Cairo credit with laying the foundation for their gains in the 2005 parliamentary elections.