Middle East

The Muslim Brotherhood: Who Are They?

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood members shout anti-Israeli slogans in Cairo on May 21, 2010.

Recent events in Tunisia and Egypt have suddenly brought to light this organization that few Americans have ever heard of, the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Muslim Brotherhood is the world's oldest, largest, and most influential Islamist organization and has been active in the United States since the 1960s. Its stated goals have included propagating Islam and creating havens for Muslims in the United States and integrating Muslims. They are not on the U.S. Foreign Terrorist Organizations list.

Founded in 1928 in Egypt, The Society of the Muslim Brothers (often simply, The Brotherhood or MB) is an Islamist transnational movement and the largest political opposition organization in many Arab states. It is also considered the largest Sunni opposition party in the world.

By 1936, it had 800 members, then this number increased greatly to up to 200,000 by 1938. By the late 1940s the Brotherhood had as many as 2 million members.

The Muslim Brotherhood is banned in Egypt, and members have been arrested for their participation in it. As a means of circumventing the ban, supporters run for office as independents. In the 2005 parliamentary elections, the Brotherhood's candidates (who ran as Independents) won 88 seats (20 percent of the total) to form the largest opposition bloc.

The Brotherhood is still periodically subjected to mass arrests. It remains the largest opposition group in Egypt, advocating Islamic reform, a democratic system and maintaining a vast network of support through Islamic charities working among poor Egyptians.

The Brotherhood is a movement, not a political party, but members have created political parties in several countries, such as the Islamic Action Front in Jordan and Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank.

In Bahrain, the Muslim Brotherhood is represented by the Al Eslah Society and its political wing, the Al-Menbar Islamic Society. Following parliamentary elections in 2002, Al Menbar became the joint largest party with eight seats in the 40-seat Chamber of Deputies.

The Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood was formed in 1942 and is a strong factor in Jordanian politics. The Jordanian Brotherhood has formed its own political party, the Islamic Action Front, which has the largest number of seats of any party in the Jordanian parliament.

Although Iran is a predominately Shia country and the Muslim Brotherhood is Sunni in doctrine, Olga Davidson and Mohammad Mahallati claim the Brotherhood has had influence among Shia in Iran.

In the north of Iraq there are several Islamic movements inspired by or part of the Muslim Brotherhood network. The Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) holds seats in the Kurdish parliament and is the main political force outside the dominance of the two main secularist parties, the PUK and KDP.

The Brotherhood has been tolerated by the Saudi government, and maintains a presence in the country. The Muslim Brotherhood in Kuwait is represented in the Kuwaiti parliament by Hadas. Always close to Egyptian politics, Sudan has had a Muslim Brotherhood presence since 1949. Somalia's wing of the Muslim Brotherhood is known by the name Harakat Al-Islah or "Reform Movement" and has inspired many Islamist organizations in Somalia.

Like their counterparts elsewhere in the Islamic world in general, the Muslim Brotherhood has influenced the Tunisia’s Islamists. Many believe that the Muslim Brotherhood was the fermenting cause of the revolution in Tunisia that recently overthrew the government.

The international media have been reporting on remarks by Yemeni cleric Abdul-Majid al-Zindani, in which he raised suspicions that the United States intends to send troops to seize Yemen’s oil resources and strategic Red Sea and Gulf of Aden coastlines if Yemen’s government collapses. The United States has accused the sheikh of having ties to al Qaeda, but Yemen’s government has openly allied with him in the past and still courts his support. But what media reports have failed to mention is Zindani’s role as leader of the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood or the Brotherhood’s role in Yemen’s recent uprising.

The Brotherhood has also been strengthened by the large number of Libyan students who became members or supporters of the Brotherhood while studying abroad in the United Kingdom and the United States, and have returned home to spread its ideology.

Since 1982, the Brotherhood has ceased to be an active political force inside Syria, but it retains a network of support in the country, of unknown strength, and has external headquarters in London and Cyprus. The leader of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is Ali Sadreddine Bayanouni, who lives as a political refugee in London. Membership in the Syrian Brotherhood became a capital offense in Syria in the 1980s, and remains so, but the headquarters of the MB-linked Palestinian group Hamas is located in  Syria's capital of Damascus, where it is given Syrian government support.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Israel is divided between the southern and northern branches. The southern branch is represented in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, while the northern radical branch boycotts Israeli elections.

Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, was allowed to participate in the Palestinian Authority's (PA) 2006 election, and in 2007 they claimed Gaza for themselves and threw out the PA from Gaza. The Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007 was the first time, since the Sudanese coup of 1989 that brought Omar al-Bashir to power, that a Muslim Brotherhood group ruled a significant geographic territory.

Is Gaza a foreshadowing of what’s to come for Egypt and perhaps other countries in the Middle East?

The Muslim Brotherhood is currently playing an active role in the unrest in several Arab countries. Hammam Saeed, head of the Muslim Brotherhood of Jordan and a close ally of the Hamas's Damascus-based leader, Khaled Meshaal, recently said, "Egypt's unrest will spread across the Mideast, and Arabs will topple leaders allied with the United States."

Ms. Teri Schure is the founder of Worldpress.org, lectures on issues pertaining to publishing, and is a consultant in the magazine, web development and marketing industries.

Check out Teri Schure’s blog The Teri Tome.