Conflicting Reports: Which is the “Real” Muslim Brotherhood?

Nicholas Kristof, writing for the New York Times, shares what he learned about the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s dominant political party, during a recent visit to Cairo. A couple of the Brotherhood’s activists invited him to their home for dinner, where he interviewed the hostess, a well-educated young woman named Sondos Asem. Sondos, who wrote her master’s thesis on social media, helps manage the organization’s English-language Twitter feed, @Ikhwanweb. She wore a hijab during the interview with Kristof.

Kristof does not say how he met Sondos and her husband. It is not unlikely that they were introduced by the Muslim Brotherhood itself. Interviews with New York Times columnists are not to be left to chance.

Here is, in a nutshell, what Sondos had to say about the Brotherhood:

  • Women are not repressed or marginalized. Fifty percent of the Brotherhood are women. Many of the Brotherhood’s Parliamentary candidates are women.
  • The Brotherhood is opposed to female genital mutilation (circumcision), which is inflicted on the vast majority of Egyptian girls.
  • The Brotherhood believes that illiteracy, lack of education, and poverty are obstacles to improving the status of women.
  • The Brotherhood is not planning any changes in the laws about alcohol (which is currently tolerated) or the veil (which is not required).
  • The Brotherhood’s priorities are economic ones, and its politics are moderate. The peace treaty with Israel will be respected, and Egypt will continue to have good relations with the U.S.

Eric Trager, writing for The New Republic a week after Kristof’s article appeared, asks, “Where did Nick Kristof get the idea that the Muslim Brotherhood is moderate?”

During his own recent trip to Egypt, Trager interviewed seven recently elected parliamentarians from the Muslim Brotherhood. One of them, Saber Abouel Fotouh, had on his office wall a huge anti-Zionist banner showing an image of a burning Israeli flag. When Trager asked him about it, he replied, “We burned [the flag] for our soldiers and for Gaza, and we will burn it again and again if they infiltrate anything in the region.”

All seven of these MPs, Trager reports, “share a commitment to theocratic rule, complete with a limited view of civil liberties and an unmistakable antipathy for the West.” All law, in their view, should be based on a pragmatic interpretation of sharia, with a particular emphasis on reinstating certain prohibitions. Among these are the bans on alcohol consumption, on “immodest” women’s dress, and on criticism of Islam (blasphemy).

One of the parliamentarians, Essam Mukhtar, told Trager, “There is no ultimate freedom, because your freedom ends at the freedom of other people. And if I humiliate things that you respect, I violate your freedom.” When Trager mentioned a recent Salafist call for holy war against the Jews, Mukhtar suddenly became, in Trager’s words, “a civil libertarian” and replied, “People are free to say what they want.”

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