Martyn Frampton

 

On his book The Muslim Brotherhood and the West: A History of Enmity and Engagement

Cover Interview of May 14, 2018

In a nutshell

This book examines the history of the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood—the world’s most important Islamist movement—and the Western powers that have dominated the Middle East over the last century—the British and the Americans. The subject, which is touched upon in other works, but here is made the central prism of analysis, continues to have contemporary resonance; the conspiracy theories that surrounded Brotherhood-western relations during the Arab Spring, for example. But, to be clear, this is not a book about the Arab Spring per se. My narrative arc reaches from the founding of the Brotherhood in 1928 down to 2010; the entire history of the relationship is crucial for understanding events that came after 2011.

For a brief period, it seemed as if the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements would emerge as the real “winners” from the Arab Spring. The question of their relationship with “the West”, both at a practical and intellectual level, rose to the top of the political agenda. Both sides came to this issue with accumulated historical baggage that explains some of the choices they made.

The Brotherhood, from its beginnings, saw the West as the critical “other” by which it defined its own “self”. The founder of the Brothers, Hasan al-Banna, was really a man of his time. His writings reveal that he saw changes around him in Egyptian society, and that he associated those changes with “the West”. Al-Banna, it seems clear, was profoundly disturbed by the broader process of socio-cultural change—what we tend to label ‘modernization’—and in particular, by the growing secularization of his country. To his mind, this process had been unleashed by the western powers, with the deliberate intention of destroying Islam, so as to cement their own power. Al-Banna created the Muslim Brotherhood in order to challenge this process. Its worldview comprised a unique form of anti-imperialism, which blended opposition to western political power, with a socio-cultural project centered on the politics of authenticity. In the context of 1930s and 1940s Egypt, this proved to be a potent admixture (for reasons explained in the book); and from then on, the Brothers have been a critical part of the Egyptian, and wider Middle Eastern, socio-political fabric.

The western powers that exerted primary influence over Egypt and the wider region could not, for those very reasons, ignore the Brotherhood. The British and later the Americans paid close attention to the movement and debated its character and role. The book traces the contours of that debate as it evolved over the years down to the Arab Spring and provides an important case study of Anglo-American policy-making, both in the Middle East and more broadly. In all this, I would hope readers find an empirically rich, yet engaging account of a story that, until now, has reached only marginal attention.