What can we learn from Cameron’s inquiry into the Muslim Brotherhood?

Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision last Tuesday to launch an investigation into the Muslim Brotherhood thrust political Islam into the spotlight once more.   Once again the binary perspectives on the Muslim Brotherhood are grabbing headlines and taking up column inches. We hear how David Cameron will come to regret a decision that will isolate millions of Muslims at home and abroad. We too can hear those who welcome the decision with open arms. Those who agree with the former MI6 boss Sir Richard Dearlove, that the Muslim Brotherhood is a “terrorist organisation at heart”. If you live in central Cairo, home of the Muslim Brotherhood, then perhaps you would have heard the three bombs detonated by Islamist parties last Wednesday, which seem to echo Sir Dearlove’s sentiments.

What you aren’t likely to hear amidst the noise is the much-needed historical background of the West’s long and complicated relationship with political Islam.

When Con Coughlin, The Telegraph’s Defence Editor, stated that “now Downing Street is facing up to the error of its ways” he insinuated that the government were naïve when previously dealing with the Brotherhood. Britain and the West’s long history of collusion with Islamist forces in a region of strategic importance suggest otherwise, making Coughlin’s statement one of many within the mainstream media that omitted historical context.

Muslim Brotherhood
Muslim Brotherhood

The most pertinent example of Western-Islamist complicity is the funding and mobilisation of the mujahedeen following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Fearing the spread of the Soviet influence southwards, both the United States and Great Britain threw their weight behind the Islamist resistance. Critics, keen to point out American hypocrisies in the region, often refer to the $3billion worth of aid the U.S. gave to the mujahedeen across the 1980s. Much less is said, however, of Britain’s support, which in many ways was more direct as the British government faced less constitutional restrictions than the U.S. It is often forgotten that then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher berated the BBC in 1986 for referring to the mujahedeen as “rebels” as opposed to what she apparently saw them as, “freedom fighters”. Support went beyond the Afghan boarders and bled into the surrounding Muslim republics, radicalising the region beyond measure.

Britain’s manoeuvring of political Islam goes a lot further than facilitating rebel groups. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia owe their current existence in part to the British government. Unlike Saudi Arabia, the creation of Pakistan is shrouded in controversy. However, there are certain facts that have come to be increasingly accepted. As India struggled for independence, Britain was sensitive towards what could be its’ diminished influence in the region. The British government were aware that supporting independent Pakistan would guarantee a stronghold in the region.  Simultaneously, this dealt a blow to the anticolonial Indian National Congress, who strongly opposed the breakup of India. Thus, by 1947, the creation of Pakistan, the new state had the full support of Britain’s military chiefs of staff.

The ruling al-Saud family that preside over modern day Saudi Arabia also owe their position, to a degree, to the British government. Britain actively supported, through money and arms, Ibn Saud’s very bloody establishment of ‘Saudi’ Arabia. The United Kingdom signed the 1927 Treaty of Jeddah alongside Ibn Saud, which recognised his sovereignty over the nation. In return, Ibn Saud withheld from attacking the neighbouring British protectorates. The move was invaluable for Britain. They had gained an ally at the centre of the ‘Muslim World’, the home of Mecca and Medina.

An Islamist militia, who were committed to the spread of Islamic law, supported Ibn Saud. Akin to the modern day Taliban, they were dogmatic in their beliefs and bellicose in their actions.  Then Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill is quoted telling the House of Commons “they hold it as an article of duty, as well as of faith, to kill all those who do not share their opinion”. This did not stop him however from professing his “deep” admiration for Ibn Saud for “his unfailing loyalty to us”.

The existence of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan discredits any assertion that Britain is incompatible, and cannot negotiate, with ‘irrational’ Islamists. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are the only two states in existence that owe their domestic legitimacy entirely to Islam. Although Saudi Arabia banned the Muslim Brotherhood in March this year, they are widely considered to be one of the most significant donors to radical Islamist terror groups, with Pakistan following not too far behind.

Britain has had a history of dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood. Reports have shown that Britain had a plan to work alongside the Brotherhood to overthrow Egypt’s former President Nasser. Thus, statements from Downing Street that they wish to “get a better handle of what the Brotherhood stands for” are misleading.

This analysis has provided the smallest snapshot into Britain’s complicated history of sovereignty and real politick. Whilst this backdrop doesn’t lift Cameron’s political smokescreen, it lets us know that there is one. In many ways the outcome of Cameron’s investigation into the Muslim Brotherhood is insignificant. It is just another example of Britain’s strategic relationship with political Islam. It certainly won’t mark the end of Britain’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Leena El-Refaey

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