Muslim Brotherhood: Islamist Reformers or Revolutionary Fundamentalists?

The rise in terror, sectarianism and social tensions in Egypt begs the question: can the Muslim Brotherhood be a stabilizing alternative to Islamist violence, or does its political project represent a more sophisticated strategy towards repressive Islamic theocracy?

Mideast Egypt
Muslim Brotherhood protest outside Egyptian Supreme Judicial Council, April 19, 2013.

The Muslim Brotherhood is a foremost demonstration of how the power of Islamic fundamentalism is in ideas rather than in organizations. After extended efforts to annihilate the organization by Egyptian authorities over the last nine decades, the movement’s substantial following and political presence in Egypt and in the Muslim world has persisted. The Arab Spring’s series of revolutions manifested itself in the triumph of the Brotherhood in Egypt with Mohammed Morsi’s presidential victory in June 2012, as well as electoral success among allied Islamist parties Tunisia, Morocco and Libya. Despite his short-lived throne, Morsi’s election was a regional breakthrough for the Brotherhood, who since its formation has been a leading movement for Sunni-Muslim revivalists throughout the Muslim world.

Although the Muslim Brotherhood is a pan-Islamic political movement, I will in this essay focus on the group in Egypt, where it originated and where its regional headquarter in Cairo is located. Since Hassan al-Bannan’s founding in 1928, the Brotherhood has evolved significantly in the theological, political and strategic realm. Their current ideological identity and vision are nonetheless intertwined with the group’s preliminary struggles for Islamist independence. The group’s historic background is central in answering whether the Muslim Brotherhood is a revolutionary movement in its present form.

A Conflicted, Divided Nation
The Brotherhood was founded as an explicit revolutionary movement with the principal aim of uniting all Muslims under a caliphate; henceforth, their Salafi ideological foundation has inspired diverse Islamic fundamentalist groups, including terror-listed Jihadist organizations.[1] The Brotherhood, though, is characterized by internal fractions with often divergent ideology. Intellectual and positional disputes are present in most political organizations, especially the most sectarian such as Marxist and Islamist groups. Like most doctrinaire movements, the Muslim Brotherhood, seeks an outward facade of ideological unity,[2] which holds true for virtually every revolutionary movement. Yet its diverse and fluctuating ideological interpretations are crucial to bear in mind when examining the current revolutionary – and violent – prospects of a group that has existed for nearly a century.

In recent years, the Brotherhood has sought to be regarded as a legitimate political party in Egypt and committed to human rights in the international community. The party is comparatively peaceful for its advocacy of Sharia laws, and it officially profess to advance Muslim’s interest in compliance with democratic systems.[3] Their strong parliamentary presence in several Arab nations is conjectural evidence of this. However, adverse tensions have long permeated the relations between Egyptian authorities and the more secular society, on the one hand, and the Brotherhood and their followers on the other.

After the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces removed Morsi from power in July 2013 the polarization has further deepened. Official accusations that the Brotherhood is covertly anti-democratic and allied with domestic and regional terrorist organization are prevalent, despite repudiations from party officials.[4] However, distrust of the movement is owing to its historically devout militant activities. Morsi’s removal, conducted by defense minister Abdul Fattah al-Sisi with the military council’s backing, was partly justified by his disregard of the Egyptian constitution.

The rationale for this accusation is supported by abundant declarations made by Morsi himself in the election. He frequently stated, like he did in a campaign speech at Cairo University, that the “Quran is our constitution” and “we will not accept any alternative to Sharia.”[5] In the same speech Morsi also stated, “Jihad is our path and death in the name of Allah is our goal”, exemplifying the strong revolutionary ideals of the Brotherhood.

Nonetheless, the group’s political path to international and regional support is electoral and non-militaristic. Irrespective of the group’s actual commitment to the democratic schemes in which it operates, their political strategy is ultimately non-revolutionary. Their strategy of conforming to existing political institutions, though, might be an efficient approach in overthrowing the existing political hierarchy. If Egypt’s military-backed government is unable to improve the social discontent that led to overthrow of Mubarak, the Brotherhood support might gain even more ground among the nation’s Muslims, which presumably could lead to the orthodox Muslim populace spontaneously attempting to overthrow the current regime. Indeed, a central justification for the removal of Morsi was that his allegedly disregard for political minorities could lead Egypt into Civil War; yet toppling his mandate does not seem to reduce the risk of such scenario, as the increase in terror attacks against minorities confirm.

In the months before Egypt’s 2012 election, the military council prohibited ten Islamists presidential candidates, professedly because of their commitment to Islam above the Egypt’s constitution.[6] In fact, Morsi was the Muslim Brotherhood’s back-up candidate. His unanticipated victory alarmed Egypt’s secular and moderate forces, of which the military council belongs, while the military coup infuriated Egypt’s Muslim orthodox. This situation has resulted in increased accusations from competing Egyptian officials that the Brotherhood is a revolutionary organization seeking to radicalize the country’s populace.

One of the harshest indicters against the country’s Islamists were Hisham Barakat, Egypt’s former Attorney General, who prosecuted thousands and executing hundreds of Islamists affiliated with Muslim Brotherhood since the overthrow of Morsi.[7] When Barakat was killed in a terrorist attack in June 2015, the Egyptian government accused Hamas in complicity with the Muslim Brotherhood of the murder. This led to more prosecution against Islamic radicals, many who sympathize with the Brothers. Historically, comparable clashes with the authorities – exemplified in the faith of Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, the group’s spiritual fathers – have unified the Brotherhood around their ideological basis of struggle and, its counterpart, a sense of victimization.

For many devout Muslims, conflicts with the authorities may appear as existentially threatening, enabling the yearning for a strong pan-Islamic or national Islamic leader that can guide the country’s orthodox Muslims. An alternative possibility is that the accompanied political anxiety might create a void that facilitates a more extreme political direction for the Brotherhood. Historian Sami Moubayed argues that Sunni Muslim have felt “weak, leaderless, victimized and abandoned” in the twenty-first century, in particular, because Sunni leaders have not managed to serve as charismatic role models for their faith.[8] Moubayed describes these sentiments as central to the rise of ISIS; but if there is truth to his plausible generalizations, then they also illuminate the causes of the Arab Spring and the election Morsi.

The Roots and the Struggle

Hassan Al-Banna, 1930

The present absence of Sunni Muslim spiritual leadership strongly corresponds with the circumstances during the formation of the Brotherhood in 1928 in the wake of the Ottoman Empire’s collapse. Al-Banna arose as the pioneering and coalescing leader during the menacing disappearing of the Muslim caliphate. Upon the Brotherhood’s founding, al-Banna promised that the “new spirit making its way into the heart of this nation” inevitably would “to unite all Muslims” under a new Islamic caliphate.

The group was to be “neither a welfare organization nor a political party, nor a local association with strictly limited aims.”[9] Rather, since Islam is “the truthful doctrine” it must “deal with all aspects of life”. Hence nation states, governments, judicial systems, culture, and science, according to al-Banna, should adhere to the literalism of the Quran’s Sharia law.[10]

Resistance against not only “Westernization” and the European colonial powers but also against “neo-colonial” Egyptian leaders was ingrained in the Brotherhood’s intellectual founding. Al-Banna regarded local leaders as similarly corrupt as European leaders, who had “established schools and cultural institutions to spread agnosticism, atheism and scorn of religion and of homeland” which they reserved “only for upper class children who would become the rulers and leaders of society.”[11]

According to al-Banna, Europeans sought to make the Muslim population “abandon their culture and religion and to revere whatever westerners do”, for both cultural and economical reasons. As he states, “the Europeans lured Muslim countries to borrow money from them which was later used for economic intervention, and then filled the country with their capital, banks and firms. They were able to shape the economic system as they wished and to exploit the wealth of the country to their own advantage.”[12]

Al-Banna’s ultimate mission was to subordinate Muslims to Islamic fundamentalism, where the highest spiritual authorities control individual lives and culture. His ideological project corresponds impeccably with how Hannah Arendt first described totalitarianism, where freedom outside of the state’s approved doctrine is intolerable.[13] Notably, however, totalitarian ideology takes multiple shapes. It does not equal revolutionary activity, although the potential for such strategy to reach their desired society is impending in all totalitarian movements.

Many Salafi Jihadist groups that have been strongly influenced by al-Banna justify their terror and militancy based on similar totalitarian pretexts; al-Qaida, for example, has not been shy of resorting to any violent means in their struggle to damage social and political structures. Here it is important to distinguish between intellectual ideals and organizational activity, not merely strategically but also ethically. Nonetheless, totalitarian ideology endorses revolutionary potential precisely because it presumes absolute moral authority. As we have seen countless times in history, in a constructed ideological universes where political opponents are regarded as morally inferior enemies, the rationalization of any action to achieve the ultimate goal recurrently becomes a viable solution.

The Brotherhood’s conceivable militant potential is directly linked to the group’s historical development: the movement was conceived in struggle and it was reinvigorated in struggle. Three years after the assassination of al-Banna by Egyptian secret police in 1949, the socialist Gamal Abdel Nasser gained power in Egypt, vowing complete national sovereignty and economic modernity. For the next decade, the Nasser regime murdered several of the group’s key leaders and imprisoned and tortured thousands of its followers.[14] The confrontation between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Nasser regime is essential for the Brotherhood’s ideological identity where morally pure and dutiful Muslims are believed to be persecuted by secular and morally corrupt authorities.

Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones (1964)

New Milestones, Persistent Totalitarianism
Sayyid Qutb rose as the period’s focal martyr after the void of al-Banna death. Qutb’s lifework Milestones (1964) is a foundational text for the Brotherhood’s ideology. The book’s historical context has indeed strong parallels with the current political prosecution of Brotherhood officials, which indeed especially occurs in Egypt. Just as the group’s present rhetoric against the Egyptian political establishment, the defined enemy – the Nasser regime – was solely regarded as prosecutors against the holy for their unholy and material gains and power. The potential for further radicalization is inherently interlinked with Islamists’ sense of being victims because of their beliefs, just as it was half a century ago.

Written while imprisoned and tortured in Egypt by “his own people”, Qutb’s Milestones was an explicitly revolutionary manifesto, which belligerently advanced al-Banna’s aim to establish a true Islamic state. The book was dedicated to the “Vanguard of the Ummah“, whose mission was to lead Muslims to an authentic caliphate.[15] Qutb distinguished sharply between an Islamic society under Sharia and the existing society of Jahiliyya, which meant that Kafirs, or infidels, controlled Muslim societies through force and ideas.[16] Thus, Qutb sought to liberate Muslims from the Jahiliyya, which he regarded as the real totalitarian threat. Although Qutb does not apply this term, he describes the Jahiliyya as a society which forces Islam into the private sphere and therefore actively represses truth at the expense of a morally corrupt “liberal ideology”. Militant Jihad is hence legitimized because of this perceived state repression.[17]

Qutb’s fundamental distinction between Muslims and infidels is arguably the clearest totalitarian elements adopted from al-Banna’s thought. In Milestones, Qutb furthers the existential notion of Muslims being at peril from corrupt and secular governments controlled by the infidels’ ideology. These notions became part of the justification for his death sentence in 1966, alongside a conspiracy to topple the government. His death coincided with Islamic revivalism throughout the Muslim world, where post-colonial Muslim nationalism and Islamism induced upheavals and the shaping of new regional identities of the period. To this day, anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism is a core tenet in the Muslim Brotherhood’s platform.[18]

All Islamists group share the idea that the infidel’s materialistic, hypocritical and exploitative culture poses an existential threat to Islamic way of life. This has, in various degrees, influenced most Muslim cultures in general, not only among the orthodox believers. The accusation that Egyptian former dictator Hosni Mubarak was a corrupt puppet for the Western states was a central argument used against the toppling of his regime, when he resigned after persistent upheavals in February 2011 . This accusation has a basis in reality, as America aided his regime with billions over his three decades reign. Barack Obama suspended US aid to Egypt after democratically elected Morsi was overthrown in 2013, though his administration restored the 1.3 billion annual funding in 2015 to assist the country in their fight against Jihadism.

Common Identity, Current Ideologies
Sayyid Qutb contributed significantly to a further radicalization the Muslim Brotherhood, though his militant strategy was controversial among many older members of the Brotherhood. Arguably, his historical legacy has contributed more to the cause of Jihad among Islamic fundamentalists groups in general than the Brotherhood specifically. With the surge of Jihadist groups in the eighties, an emergent critique against the Brotherhood was that they no longer believed in Qutb’s holy war.

For example, Tal’at Fu’ad Qasim, a founder of al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, an Egyptian terrorist organization in ideological competition with the Brotherhood, declared in an interview with Islam scholar Hisham Mubarak: “The Muslim Brothers today have abandoned the ideas of Sayyid Qutb.”[19]

Similarly, many Jihadist organizations are extremely hostile to the Brotherhood’s democratic endeavors. The extent to which al-Qaeda sees the group as an ideological competitor is evident in Ayman al-Zawahiri’s, current al-Qaeda leader, condemnation of the group for “luring thousands of young Muslim men into lines for elections … instead of into the lines of jihad.”[20]

Nonetheless, Qutb became a symbol of oppression for millions of moderate Egyptians, in addition to being regarded as the “the spiritual leader of radical Islamism”.[21] Few moments capture these sentiments better than the famous picture of Qutb where he thoughtfully and gloomily gazes from the inside of a cell in the Nassers regime’s concentration camp.

Sayyid Qutb imprisoned before his execution in 1966

Qutb’s deep influence in the world of Islamic thought corresponds to how al-Banna inspired a wide nexus of future Islamist leaders, including Abdullah Yusuf Azam, founder of al-Qaeda; the founder of Syrian branch of Muslim Brotherhood Mustafa al-Sibaii[22]; and Abul A’la Maududi, a leading activist for instituting strict Sharia in a “true Islamic state” through lawful political means.[23] According to A.Z al-Abdin, a renowned al-Banna expert, the reason for al-Banna’s diverse influence is that his discourses focus more on spiritual purification and cultural improvement above political strategy, which provides the diverse members of the Brotherhood with a pretext to mirror their own particular thoughts in his doctrines, and to justify them with reference to parts of his writing.

Al-Banna’s diverse ideas have also contributed to an intellectual space for a more moderate Brotherhood wing and acceptance in parliamentary systems. Conceivably, though, the extent which the Brotherhood is regarded as moderate is precisely because their strategy differs from terrorist organizations, not because of their fundamentalist ideas about Islam. Nonetheless, it is arguably better for Egyptian officials to cooperate with the Brotherhood, and thus channel the discontent among orthodox Muslims to the Brotherhood as opposed to competing Salafi-Jihadist movements.

The Brotherhood’s basis of the reinvigoration of an Islamic caliphate is shared with all Islamic fundamentalists. The struggle for a caliphate has, especially since 9/11, been associated with Islamic revolutionaries, because it has been publicized in conjunction with spectacular terrorist events. Yet, a desire for a Muslim caliphate is not sufficient proof that the Brotherhood is covertly revolutionary. On the contrary, this by itself is an insufficient basis for deeming a person as a “Muslim fundamentalist”. According to various Gallup Polls, a majority of Egyptians wants to unite Muslims under an Islamic State independent from Western values.[24]

Significance of the Arab Spring
The election of Mohammed Morsi is arguably a strong indication of the widespread desire among Muslim to form a caliphate. The aim of Islamic fundamentalists differs from how most Muslims regards a caliphate, though terrorist organizations have sought to capitalize on the Arab Spring by hailing the remarkable electoral support for Islamists parties and especially the success of Muslim Brotherhood. Among them was Osama Bin Laden, who after the election of Morsi stated, “a sizable element within the Muslim Brotherhood and those like them hold the Salafi doctrine… So their return to true Islam is only a matter of time”.[25]

This is in stark contrast to how the widely unexpected Arab Spring was described by many academics in the West and Middle East, namely as a secular and, above all, democratic transformational event.[26] The targeted dictators of the mass uprisings, however, were predominantly long-time enemies of Islamic fundamentalist and Jihadists organizations. The sentiment that the uprising represents a ”Westernization” or “liberalization” of Muslim countries has changed after the success of Islamists parties, which occurred despite resistance by powerful state forces. The Brotherhood’s professed ideology of reform over revolution has a key role in Egypt’s future because it represents the sentiments of a large part of the population while they simultaneously are perceived as a major threat.

Judgments of the Brotherhood vary considerably depending on interests and ideologies. Their belief in long-term Islamization through the electoral system is a moderate strategy compared to many operating Jihadist group. Similar to how the Brotherhood consists of diverse ideologues, the ideology of each Islamist group should be scrutinized independently. Nonetheless, the Brotherhood shares a similar intellectual basis with fundamental Islamists, which makes it difficult to deem the group inoffensive to religious minorities and secular values, especially for the various minorities living in Egypt.

The Brothers’ current strategy suggests that they have differentiated themselves ideologically from their past revolutionary struggle. Yet their revolutionary potential is present in their ideological foundation. With Egypt’s political institutions and discourse being dominated by the aftermaths of the Arab Spring, alongside the region’s increased radicalization, the future course of the Brotherhood is highly unpredictable. There are, though, good indications that excluding the group from the political process may deepen the radicalization of orthodox Muslims. In order to minimize the problem of sectarian violence, Egyptian officials should listen attentively to the Brotherhood’s rhetorical defiance of corruption, which is the foremost root of desolation in any society. Hence, the government forces resisting the Brotherhood should be extremely sensitive to domestic and international “collaborations” that appears motivated by cash and power.



[1] Trager, Arab Fall, 63.

[2] Trager, “The Unbreakable Muslim Brotherhood”, 115-116.

[3] Leiken and Brooke, “The Moderate Muslim Brotherhood”, 111.

[4] Selim, “Egypt Under SCAF”, 195-196.

[5] Kirkham, State Responses to Minority Religions, 55.

[6] Al Jazeera and Agencies. “Egypt bars 10 candidates from election”

[7] Amer, “Egyptian government accuses Hamas of killing attorney general”

[8] Moubayed, Under The Black Flag, 20.

[9] Moubayed, Under The Black Flag, 13.

[10] Al-Abdin, “The Political Thought of Hasan Al-Bannā”, 219.

[11] Al-Abdin, “The Political Thought of Hasan Al-Bannā”, 222.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism.

[14] Kepel, The Roots of Radical Islam, 35.

[15] Qutb, Milestones, 52.

[16] Ibid. 56-58.

[17] Ibid. 72.

[18] Kessler, “Muslim Brotherhood site rife with anti-Semitism”

[19] Beinin, Political Islam, 317.

[20] Leiken and Brooke, “The Moderate Muslim Brotherhood”

[21] Burgat, Face to face with political Islam, 54.

[22] Although al-Sibaii participated in Jihad in Palestine in 1948, he is called ”the last gentleman Jihadists” because he struggled for Islamic fundamentalism through democratic means. But he ultimately inspired a generation of Jihadi fighters.

[23] Al-Abdin, “The Political Thought of Hasan Al-Bannā”, 220-221.

[24] Moubayed, Under The Black Flag, 14. Importantly: it is unspecified how the respondents regards a caliphate.

[25] Atwan, After Bin Laden, 37.

[26] Ismael, The Arab Spring and the Uncivil State, 238.



Al-Abdin, A. Z. “The Political Thought of Hasan Al-Bannā.” Islamic Studies. Vol. 28, No. 3 (Autumn 1989), pp. 219-234. Published by: Islamic Research Institute, International Islamic University, Islamabad Stable.

Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1973.

Atwan, Abdel Bari. After Bin Laden. Al-Qa’ida, The Next Generation. London: Saqi Books, 2012.

Beinin, Joel. Political Islam: Essays from Middle East Report. ‪Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Burgat, François. Face to face with political Islam. London: I. B. Taurus, 2003.

Ismael, Jacqueline S. and Shereen T. Ismael. “The Arab Spring and the Uncivil State.” Arab Studies Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 3, Special Issue: Perspectives on the Arab Uprisings (Summer 2013), pp. 229-240. Published by: Pluto Journals.

Kepel, Gilles. The Roots of Radical Islam. Translated by Jon Rothschild. London: Le Pophète et Pharaon, 2005.

Kirkham, David M. State Responses to Minority Religions. London: Ashgate, 2013.

Leiken, Robert S. and Steven Brooke. “The Moderate Muslim Brotherhood” Foreign Affairs. Vol. 86, No. 2. pp. 107-121. Published by: Council on Foreign Relations.

Moubayed, Sami. Under the Black Flag. At the Frontier of the New Jihad. London and New York: I.B.Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2015.

Trager, Eric. Arab Fall: How the Muslim Brotherhood Won and Lost Egypt in 891 Days. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2016.

Trager, Eric. “The Unbreakable Muslim Brotherhood: Grim Prospects for a Liberal Egypt”  Foreign Affairs. Vol. 90, No. 5. pp. 114-122, 124-126. Published by: Council on Foreign Relations.

Selim, Gamal M. “Egypt Under SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood: The Triangle of Counter-Revolution” Arab Studies Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 2. pp. 177-199. Published by: Pluto Journals.

Qutb, Sayyid. Milestones. USA: SIME journal (, 2005.



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