Time to Engage the Muslim Brotherhood


Rabbi Francis Nataf



Some have compared what is going on in the Middle East to the fall of the Soviet bloc, specifically looking for what they called “Berlin Wall moments.” Ultimately, these pundits are looking for another region to finally reach what Francis Fukayama calls “the end of history,” when  all nations will endorse the Western social and political model. Whether they are right or wrong about the outcome of the various states in transition, they are right that the self-congratulatory mood in the West does certainly remind us of how we reacted to the end of Soviet Communism.


Hence, it  is no surprise how often we must hear how the old conventional wisdom, that Muslim countries are not ready for Western-style democracy, has been brought down by the masses in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya…? Regrettably, this new conventional wisdom celebrating the “facebook revolution” is not much better than the old. More likely, it is just the latest expression of the Western intellectual arrogance responsible for so much of the trouble and rancor in this part of the world.


The latest mood is in sharp contrast to a number of encouraging intellectual currents in recent years that have acknowledged Western liberalism to be the cultural construct that it is. Multiculturalists, for one, have understood that judging the rest of the world by Western standards is the exact opposite of the tolerance that liberalism supposedly stands for. Indeed, Barak Obama’s early statements towards Islam were largely inspired by these admirable trends. With the new developments in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, however, the American president has been convinced to move back to the Bush doctrine espousing Western style democracy as a universal vision of the good. Rather than a step forward, it is more likely taking two steps back.


Like it or not, Islamic groups are, and will likely remain, popular in Muslim countries. Translated into practical terms, that means that they will exert much power and often govern if, and when, allowed to compete at the polls. Such an idea is difficult for Westerners to understand. They still don’t comprehend that Islam and Islamic parties don’t only support values anathema to the West, like hierarchical structures, gender roles and governmental enforcement of religion. Most Westerners are not even aware that fundamentalist Islam also represents clearly commendable ideas such as racial equality, personal virtue and social responsibility. Indeed, Islamic societies generally represent these values in a much more effective way than do liberal democracies.  


Surprising as it may sound to Western ears, support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, like support for the Islamic Revolution and for Hamas in Gaza is not primarily a reaction to Western support of corrupt dictators. More than anything else, it is based on respect for the values of Islam and those that try to live up to it. Moreover, it is based on the fact that Muslim fundamentalist organizations, far more than their secular counterparts, take care of the sick, the poor and the needy. Again, Western cynicism may ascribe this to ulterior motives – more likely, however, is that this is part and parcel of an ancient tradition of communal concern.


In place of the self-congratulatory punditry in the West, it is time for truly thoughtful voices to point out that successful bridges need to be two way streets. The notion that the Arab world must learn from the superior West and that there is nothing to admire in fundamentalist Islam is as bankrupt as it false.


Likewise, In Israel, our prime minister is hopelessly captive to the Western thinking of yesteryear. He showed as much in his celebrated 2009 speech at the UN, when – alongside many important and valid pronouncements – he made sure to try to capture American and European sympathies by equating Islamic regimes with medieval religious intolerance. He does so now again by warning of the threat of an Islamic government in Egypt. As much as these utterances may help Israel in the short term, it is not clear that it will win it many regional friends in the long term.


For many reasons, Egypt is a relatively moderate society and its version of fundamentalism is probably the most likely Islamic candidate for coming to terms with the Jewish state. In this early stage when the Brotherhood may still have an obvious interest in rethinking its stance towards Israel and the Jewish people, we may be privy to a rare window of opportunity. Were a meaningful dialog to begin between the Brotherhood and sympathetic Israelis, we might one day see the first popular Islamic government in the region with a benevolent view of its Jewish neighbor. And such would be even more significant than the important peace treaties Israel has been able to sign with transient pro-Western Arab elites. Hence, whereas many have written that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is the biggest threat to maintaining Israel’s peace with Egypt, I see it as its greatest opportunity.


In the “Clash of Civilizations,” for too long Israel has blindly sided with the West against a culture with which Judaism actually has much more in common. This is not the only option available – in the same way that Israel has been a physical bridge between continents, it is time for new thinking about also being a bridge of civilizations; one that continues to value the good to be found in the West, without rejecting the equally important values of our native region. On some level, these two value-worlds represent offshoots of our own Jewish civilization. Hence, there would be none better suited to appreciate both of these world cultures.


Ultimately, Israel’s conflict with our Arab neighbors and with the Palestinians is a geo-political conflict, and for Israel to better understand and value Islamic culture may not be enough to break the deadlock. Still, it is hard to imagine that the spirit of goodwill that such would represent would not give us a much better shot at it.