Egypt and the Islamists
Feb 4, 2011 | AIJAC staff
Feb. 4, 2011
Number 02/11 #04
With the crisis in Egypt apparently getting more violent and chaotic, this Update contains a number of pieces dealing with what most observers agree is the most worrying possible outcome of the Egyptian crisis, the possible takeover of Egypt by Islamists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood.
First up, explaining who the Muslim Brotherhood are, and debunking arguments that their goals are actually moderate, is Israeli academic and former UN Ambassador Dore Gold. Gold reviews past involvement of the organisation in terrorism, its recent statements about its aims, and the many prominent leaders of Islamist terrorism who have come out of the Brotherhood. He urges the Obama Administration not to be fooled by the growing trend to argue that the organisation can today be regarded as moderate. For his complete argument, CLICK HERE. Other arguments about the role of the brotherhood come from Israeli writers Yaakov Lappin and Nadia Beider.
Next up is an editorial from the Jerusalem Post, arguing that too rapid a transition to democracy in Egypt, before democratic parties have time to organise, can only benefit the Brotherhood. Noting recent Administration statements urging an “immediate” start of a transition to Egyptian democracy, the paper points out that radical Islam seems to be the regional zeitgeist at the moment, that the Muslim Brotherhood is already making major inroads in Egyptian civil society, and that its stated approach to democracy appears purely tactical. It urges that too rapid a rush toward democracy could mean that the first democratic election in Egypt could be the last. For all that the paper has to say, CLICK HERE.
Finally, we bring you an interview with noted Iran scholar Abbas Milani, a participant in the 1979 Iranian revolution, who explains in detail his concerns that the Iranian experience of Islamists hijacking a largely secular and democratic revolution could be repeated in the Egyptian case. Milani explains how the hijacking happened and how Khomeini successfully concealed his real aims throughout the whole revolution – implying the Egyptian Islamists may well be doing the same. Most frighteningly, he notes that contemporary Egypt is much less liberal, moderate and secular than Iran was in 1978, and thus apparently more, not less, vulnerable to such a takeover. For all the details of Milani’s concerns, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, Barry Rubin takes on some reporting which attempts to downplay parallels with 1979. Rubin also had an interesting piece on the apparent determination of many not to hear realistic analysis because it interferes with their preconceived policy preferences.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Washington Institute head Robert Satloff gives US President Obama high marks for his latest statements on Egypt. Meanwhile, Washington Institute military expert Jeffrey White offers updated analysis on the role the Egyptian military is currently playing.
- An article on the American relationship with the Egyptian military.
- Michael Totten argues that what Egypt needs is not democracy, as such, but liberalism.
- Israeli intellectual Ari Shavit argues that Egyptian events both shadow and accelerate the decline of the West in the Middle East.
- An argument that Lebanon is actually more telling about the future of the Middle East than Egypt.
- Yemen’s president follows Mubarak and announces he will not stand in the next election. (More on Yemen here). Plus, good analysis of the situation in Jordan.
- A report that Gazans have been inspired by events in Egypt to organise an anti-Hamas facebook page and rally.
- The plea, and the fate of Egyptian blogger “Sandmonkey” (whose was arrested and beaten and whose website has recently been deleted.)
- Reports about the targeting of the media in Egypt here, here, here and here.
Jerusalem Issue Briefs Vol. 10, No. 26
2 February 2011
- Will the Obama administration’s policy toward Egypt be based on a perception that the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood would be extremely dangerous? Or have they taken the position – voiced in parts of the U.S. foreign policy establishment – that the Brotherhood has become moderate and can be talked to? Initial administration reactions indicate that it does not rule out Muslim Brotherhood participation in a future Egyptian coalition government.
- Since January 28, the Muslim Brotherhood’s involvement has become more prominent, with its support of Mohamed ElBaradei to lead the opposition forces against the government. In the streets of Cairo, Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators disdainfully call people like ElBaradei “donkeys of the revolution” (hamir al-thawra) – to be used and thenpushed away – a scenario that sees the Muslim Brotherhoodexploit ElBaradei in order to hijack the Egyptian revolution at a later stage.
- There has been a great deal of confusion about the Muslim Brotherhood. In the years after it was founded in 1928, it developed a “secret apparatus” that engaged in political terrorism against Egyptian Copts as well as government officials. In December 1948, the Muslim Brotherhood assassinated Egyptian Prime Minister Mahmoud al-Nuqrashi Pasha. It also sought to kill Egyptian leader Abdul Nasser in October 1954.
- Former Brotherhood Supreme Guide Muhammad Akef declared in 2004 his “complete faith that Islam will invade Europe and America.” In 2001, the Muslim Brotherhood’s publication in London, Risalat al-Ikhwan, featured at the top of its cover page the slogan: “Our Mission: World Domination.” This header was changed after 9/11.
- The current Supreme Guide, Muhammad Badi’, gave a sermon in September 2010 stating that “the improvement and change that the [Muslim] nation seeks can only be attained through jihad and sacrifice and by raising a jihadi generation that pursues death, just as the enemies pursue life.”
Initially, it was widely observed that the Muslim Brotherhood has been very low-key during the current crisis in Egypt. Most analysts admitted that it is the best organized and largest opposition group in Egypt, but they played down its role. Yet since January 28, the Muslim Brotherhood’s involvement has become more prominent. One tangible example is the support the Brotherhood has given to Mohamed ElBaradei to lead the opposition forces against the government.
In the streets of Cairo, Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators disdainfully call people like ElBaradei “donkeys of the revolution” (hamir al-thawra), to be used and then pushed away.1 Thus, there is a scenario that sees the Muslim Brotherhood exploit a figure like ElBaradei in order to hijack the Egyptian revolution at a later stage.
What is the Muslim Brotherhood? It is known as Ikhwan al-Muslimun in Arabic, or just Ikhwan, established in 1928 by an Egyptian schoolteacher, Hassan al-Banna. Outwardly, it was a social and religious organization, but over the years it developed a “secret apparatus” that engaged in military training of its cadres and political terrorism against Egyptian Copts as well as government officials. This dualism continued years later. In December 1948, the Muslim Brotherhood assassinated Egyptian Prime Minister Mahmoud al-Nuqrashi Pasha. It also sought to kill Egyptian leader Abdul Nasser in October 1954.
The Muslim Brotherhood also had an expansionist agenda right from the start, and called for the re-establishment of the Islamic Empire. In the late 1930s, its newspaper called for retaking “former Islamic colonies” in Andalus (Spain), southern Italy, and the Balkans.2 This theme was maintained in recent years by its former Supreme Guide, Muhammad Akef, who in 2004 declared his “complete faith that Islam will invade Europe and America,” with the caveat that Westerners will join Islam by conviction.3 Others have also made this point. According to Sheikh Yousef Qaradawi, widely regarded as the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood:
Constantinople was conquered in 1453 by a 23-year-old Ottoman named Muhammad ibn Murad, whom we call Muhammad the Conqueror. Now what remains is to conquer Rome. That is what we wish for, and that is what we believe in. After having been expelled twice, Islam will be victorious and reconquer Europe….I am certain that this time, victory will be won not by the sword but by preaching.4
Over the years, the Muslim Brotherhood opened branches in a number of Arab countries and even has front organizations in the UK, France, and the U.S. But it has not disavowed its original commitment to Islamic militancy and its global ambitions. For example, the Muslim Brotherhood’s publication in London, Risalat al-Ikhwan, has maintained a clearly jihadist orientation; in 2001 it featured at the top of its cover page the slogan: “Our Mission: World Domination” (siyadat al-dunya). This header was changed after 9/11, but the publication still carries the Muslim Brotherhood’s motto which includes: “Jihad is our path; martyrdom is our aspiration.”5
The current Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Muhammad Badi’, gave a sermon in September 2010 stating that Muslims today “need to understand that the improvement and change that the [Muslim] nation seeks can only be attained through jihad and sacrifice and by raising a jihadi generation that pursues death, just as the enemies pursue life.”6 In short, the Muslim Brotherhood remains committed to supporting militant activities in order to advance its political aims. From looking at the biographies of its most prominent graduates, one can immediately understand the organization’s long-term commitment to jihadism:
1. Abdullah Azzam (of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood) and Muhammad Qutb (of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood) taught at King Abdul Aziz University in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, where they had a student named Osama bin Laden. Azzam went off to Pakistan with his student, bin Laden, to help the mujahidin fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.
2. Ayman al-Zawahiri (bin Laden’s deputy) grew up in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
3. Khalid Sheikh Muhammad (the al-Qaeda mastermind of the 9/11 attacks) came out of the Kuwaiti Muslim Brotherhood.
Given this background, the Muslim Brotherhood has been widely regarded in the Arab world as the incubator of the jihadist ideology. A former Kuwaiti Minister of Education, Dr. Ahmad Al-Rab’i, argued in Al-Sharq al-Awsat on July 25, 2005, that the founders of most modern terrorist groups in the Middle East emerged from “the mantle” of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Many columnists in the Middle East have warned in recent years about the Brotherhood’s hostile intentions. Tariq Hasan, a columnist for the Egyptian government daily Al-Ahram, alerted his readers on June 23, 2007, that the Muslim Brotherhood was preparing a violent takeover in Egypt, using its “masked militias” in order to replicate the Hamas seizure of power in the Gaza Strip. And columnist Hussein Shobokshi, writing in the Saudi-owned Al-Sharq al-Awsat on October 23, 2007, said that “to this day” the Muslim Brotherhood “has brought nothing but fanaticism, divisions, and extremism, and in some cases bloodshed and killings.” Thus, both Arab regimes and leading opinion-makers in Arab states still have serious reservations about the claim of a new moderation in the Muslim Brotherhood.7
Ironically, in the last five years, prominent voices in the West have considered opening a political dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood. For example, Dr. Robert S. Leiken and Steven Brooke published an article in the March-April 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs called “The Moderate Muslim Brotherhood” in which they advised the Bush administration to enter into a strategic alliance with the organization, which they referred to as “moderate,” calling it a “notable opportunity” to use the Brotherhood to promote American interests. James Traub echoed many of their arguments in the New York Times Magazine on April 29, 2007, in which he claimed that “the Muslim Brotherhood, for all its rhetorical support of Hamas, could well be precisely the kind of moderate Islamic body that the administration says it seeks.” In addition, a committee in the British House of Commons also advocated the UK opening a dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood, as well.
At the same time, some U.S. officials and dignitaries seemed to have softened their approach to the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pressed President Mubarak to open up participation in the Egyptian parliamentary elections, resulting in a major increase of elected Muslim Brotherhood members from 15 to 88. Subsequently, Mubarak became more reluctant to take U.S. advice.
Visiting U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer met twice in 2007 with the head of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc, Mohammed Saad el-Katatni, according to Brotherhood spokesman Hamdi Hassan.
The critical question is whether the Obama administration’s policy toward Egypt will be based on a perception that the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood would be extremely dangerous. Or have they taken the position – voiced in parts of the U.S. foreign policy establishment – that the Muslim Brotherhood has become moderate and can be talked to? The initial reactions of the Obama administration indicate that it does not rule out Muslim Brotherhood participation in a future Egyptian coalition government.8 Unfortunately, there is a dangerous misconception about the Muslim Brotherhood in parts of the foreign policy community in the West that could affect calculations in Washington and London in the weeks ahead.
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1. Yoni Ben Menahem, Israel Radio – Reshet Bet, February 1, 2011.
2. Brynjar Lia, The Society of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt – The Rise of an Islamic Mass Movement 1928-1942 (Reading, UK: Ithaca Press, 1998) p. 80.
3. Lorenzo Vidino, The New Muslim Brotherhood in the West (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), p. 92.
4. Lt. Col. (res.) Jonathan Dahoah-Halevi, “The Muslim Brotherhood: A Moderate Islamic Alternative to al-Qaeda or a Partner in Global Jihad?” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Jerusalem Viewpoints, No. 558, 1 November 2007.
6. “Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide: ‘The U.S. Is Now Experiencing the Beginning of Its End’; Improvement and Change in the Muslim World ‘Can Only Be Attained Through Jihad and Sacrifice,'” MEMRI (Middle East Media Research Institute), Special Dispatch No. 3274, October 6, 2010;
7. Halevi, “The Muslim Brotherhood.”
8. Paul Richter and Peter Nicholas, “U.S. Open to a Role for Islamists in New Egypt Government: But the Muslim Brotherhood Must Renounce Violence and Support Democracy, the White House Says,” Los Angeles Times, Latimes.com, January 31, 2011; http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/la-fg-us-egypt-20110201,0,2958266.story/.
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Ambassador Dore Gold, President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was the eleventh Permanent Representative of Israel to the United Nations (1997-1999). Dr. Gold served as foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his first government and has advised Israeli governments since that time on U.S.-Israel relations. He is the author of the best-selling books: The Fight for Jerusalem: Radical Islam, the West, and the Future of the Holy City (Regnery, 2007), and The Rise of Nuclear Iran: How Tehran Defies the West (Regnery, 2009).
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JPOST EDITORIAL, 03/02/2011 21:42
Nobody wants Egypt’s first democratic elections to be its last.
The White House is calling for an “immediate” transition to democratic representation in Egypt. “Ordinary transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now,” US President Barack Obama told Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak by phone Tuesday. And as if the president’s message was not clear enough, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs added, “Now means yesterday.”
Not only must transition to democracy be quick, but it must include “a whole host of non-secular actors,” added Gibbs.
And though the White House spokesman did not specify, the US administration apparently does not “rule out engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood as part of an orderly process,” according to sources quoted by The New York Times.
There are a number of profound flaws to this “hurry up and democratize” approach, perhaps the most obvious being historical precedent. If Hamas’s victory in 2006’s Palestinian elections did not illustrate the danger of a reckless rush toward hoped-for democratic representation without first carefully and systematically building the necessary democratic institutions – a free press; a legislature with a healthy opposition standing a real chance of coming to power; an honest judicial system not dictated by religious or ideological prejudices; and strict, effective and fair law enforcement – there is the much fresher example of Hizbullah in Lebanon.
In Iraq, with all the aid and military support provided by a US-led coalition, the road to democratization faces sometimes seemingly insurmountable challenges with sectarian turmoil threatening to throw the country into anarchy.
Even Turkey, with its 80-year-old history of civic society with a strong focus on secular values safeguarded by its military, constitution and long history of democratic practices, seems headed in a decidedly Islamist direction under the Justice and Development Party, or AKP.
Radical Islam is the zeitgeist of the region. Egypt is no exception.
In the past few decades Egypt has become increasingly more prone to extremism. Mubarak, aware of the strength of the Islamists, has given them more freedom to aggressively pursue their radical agenda, while maintaining ultimate political authority and a monopoly over the security forces in the hope of directing the process of reforms and protecting the ruling secular elite.
Islamists have gradually assumed control over Egypt’s major professional unions, including the lawyers’ syndicate, once the country’s most liberal and secular professional association. Shari’a law is increasingly being applied in the courts to prosecute secular intellectuals, writers, professors, artists and journalists for purely religious “crimes” such as blasphemy and apostasy. The Muslim Brotherhood has also taken over the Teachers’ Training College, producing educators who disseminate radical Islamic ideas in the classrooms. This process has taken its toll. Just last month Islamists attacked a church in Alexandria, massacring 23 Coptic Christians.
Riding on popular support, the Muslim Brotherhood has succeeded in making inroads despite being deprived of political power. In 2005’s Egyptian parliamentary elections, an “independent” party affiliated with the Brotherhood – officially banned from political activity – obtained almost 20 percent of the vote, five times higher than in 2000’s elections, and would have garnered more if not for blatant government interference. More aggressive ballot-rigging in the November and December 2010 elections – ranging from removing the names of opposition candidates to blocking their representatives from monitoring polls, from shutting polling stations in the face of would-be- voters to simple stuffing of ballot boxes – kept a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated party down to just one seat in the 454-member parliament, though it also stoked anger on the street.
AND WHAT does the Brotherhood think of the democratic process? “We accept the concept of pluralism for the time being,” Mustafa Mashur, former supreme guide of the Brotherhood, noted a few years ago. “However, when we will have Islamic rule we might then reject this concept or accept it.”
For a radical Islamic movement that openly states its intention to establish a state run in accordance with Shari’a law and which views anyone who does not adhere to such a vision as an apostate, our bet is that rejection of liberalism is much more likely than acceptance. We hope the US administration will recognize the dangers implicit in too speedy a transition to the trappings of democracy, without first laying the necessary groundwork. Gaza, Lebanon and Iraq are instructive lessons in the dangers of a faulty democratic processes.
Nobody wants Egypt’s first democratic elections to be its last.
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by Michael J. Totten
February 1, 2011
Abbas Milani, like most educated Iranians, detested the Shah’s tyrannical regime that ruled over his homeland until it was overthrown in 1979 by a coalition of liberals, leftists, and Islamists. Unlike the vast majority of the liberals and leftists, however, Milani knew in advance what the Islamists were up to. The Shah had cast him into the dungeon at the notorious Evin Prison and for six months his cell mates were the ideological and physical brutes who later would found the Islamic Republic.
Today Milani is the director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University and a co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution. His new book The Shah was published a few weeks ago by Palgrave MacMillan. I sat down with him in his office at the Hoover Institution to talk about what’s happening right now in Egypt.
MJT: So why, when you published a piece in The New Republic a few days ago, did you compare the upheaval in Egypt to the Iranian Revolution 31 years ago rather than to Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution that toppled Ben Ali less than 31 days ago?
Abbas Milani: Iran and Egypt are very similar. They have been, along with Turkey, the key bellwether states in the region. What happens in these three places has shaped what happens in the Middle East for a hundred years.
Tunisia—in terms of size, history, and trajectory—is far less like Iran than Egypt is. Egypt is the most important center of Sunni learning while Iran is the most important center of Shia learning. And the two countries have been very much in competition with each other for hegemony over the Islamic world. The Shah spent his last days in Egypt. There is a fifty year connection between the Pahlavi dynasty and Egypt.
Look also at the events themselves and the way the United States has tried to position itself. What’s going on right now in Egypt is eerily reminiscent of the events in Iran in 1979. The United States supported Pahlavi and Mubarak overtly. In both cases there was behind-the-scenes pressure to democratize and open the system. The Shah resisted, claiming a communist threat. Mubarak resisted, claiming a Muslim Brotherhood threat.
After a while the Shah became impervious to American pressure because he had oil money. He had more money than he knew what to do with. During those very crucial years the Iranian middle class mushroomed. The educated class was increasing. These were the years when pressure for democracy was most urgent, but the Shah was impervious to it.
MJT: How big was the middle class in 1979?
Abbas Milani: It depends on how you define it. If you look at the income, the amount of urbanization, the number of educated people, the number of people who lived in their own domicile, the number of people who could travel outside the country—all these grew rapidly in the 1960s and 1970s thanks to the push for industrialization that began in the early 1960s. It began before the oil money came in.
We had a class of brilliant Iranian technocrats, many of them educated in the United States, including right here at Stanford. They put into effect a remarkable process of industrialization that by 1970 was bearing fruit. These people demanded political rights, and the Shah, instead of opening the country, clamped down with the one-party system.
I am absolutely convinced that in 1975, when he was at the height of his power, if the Shah had made just a third of the concessions he later made in 1978, we would be looking at a very different Iran today.
MJT: It was too late in 1978.
Abbas Milani: What Mubarak and the Shah both failed to understand is that if you make concessions when you’re weak it just increases the appetite for more concessions. If they would have made concessions when they were in a position of power, they could have negotiated a smooth transition to a less authoritarian government.
In Egypt, when the US pressured Mubarak to announce that he would not run again, that he should come out publicly and say he has cancer and that there will be a free election soon, he instead tried to create a monarchy.
MJT: He wants his son to succeed him.
Abbas Milani: The reverse happened to the Shah. He also had cancer, but he hid it from everybody. He had a son who was then eighteen years old. If he had given up the throne and created a regency in 1977, as some had advised him to do, instead of making concessions under pressure in 1978 when all hell was breaking loose, I could easily imagine a different Iran.
I went back to Iran from the United States in 1975. I had just gotten my PhD and was part of the opposition to the Shah. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that change was coming, but Islamic revolution was absolutely not inevitable. This was partly the Shah’s fault for only allowing the clergy to organize. Not to give him credit, but in context this was the Cold War. Everybody was worried about communism, and he completely clamped down on everyone but the clergy.
In my book about the Shah I chronicle a very interesting period in 1973.
The oil money was coming in. He was beginning to reach the height of his power, and he was starting to worry about succession and the political process. He brought in one of Iran’s most respected technocrats and told him to create a viable political party. They worked for six months establishing the parameters of this political party. We have the minutes from their discussions. And then, just as the party is about to take shape with ten of the best technocrats lined up as the founders, all of a sudden the price of oil quadrupled. The Shah then pulled the plug on this party.
Mubarak keeps missing these moments. If he would have announced last week that he was not going to run, one can imagine a different trajectory. These things catch like wildfire.
MJT: Right. No intelligence agency can see events like this coming. They’re spontaneous. None of these people knew they’d be in the streets a month ago, so how could anyone else know?
Abbas Milani: They couldn’t imagine it.
MJT: Mubarak couldn’t imagine it either.
Abbas Milani: But what I think they could have imagined, and should have imagined, is precisely this: in today’s day and age when people are connected with the Internet, satellites, Al Jazeera, and CNN, you cannot rest your stability on fear. Governments could do this in Stalin’s time, but today, at any moment, the fear can dissipate.
Six months before the June uprising in Iran I wrote an article about the coalition that became the Green Movement. I said it was already in existence and ready to challenge the regime. But even I didn’t predict that three million people would come out into the streets overnight. I can tell you right now, though, that the minute people in Iran believe that the apparatus of terror has lost its capacity to terrorize people, we will see another three million.
MJT: For a total of six million, you mean?
Abbas Milani: Yes, absolutely. We will see six million people. Overnight. We will see a huge outpouring of protest because people resent the fact that they are oppressed. Governments can no longer rely on fear alone. It’s much easier now to break through it than it used to be.
MJT: Jimmy Carter often gets blamed for Khomeini coming to power in Iran. Do you think that’s fair? What could he have done to stop it?
Abbas Milani: I don’t blame the revolution on Jimmy Carter, but I think he does bear some responsibility. He could not develop a cohesive policy. He wasn’t paying attention to Iran. He was preoccupied with Camp David. He couldn’t bring Cyrus Vance and Zbigniew Brzezinski into a cohesive position. He kept vacillating from one extreme to another. This only exacerbated the American inability to understand what was going on.
The failure to understand what was going on dates back to the Lyndon Johnson years. The Johnson administration succumbed to pressure from the Shah to cease all contact with the opposition inside Iran. The US remarkably even agreed not to contact a former prime minister because the Shah didn’t trust him. The Shah even created a diplomatic row when a former Iranian ambassador was invited to a party. Not to a secret meeting, but to a party.
Because the US was involved in Vietnam and had listening centers in Iran monitoring Soviet activities, and because Iran was flush with cash in 1972 and was willing to sign contracts with American companies, the US agreed to cease contact. Yet the CIA predicted an Iranian revolution as early as 1958. And what they said would happen is almost exactly what happened. They said Iran’s rising technocratic class, the teachers, and the new urbanites are all disgruntled and that if the government doesn’t open up the system they’ll find any leader they can and topple the Shah.
The Kennedy administration pressured the Shah to make changes that were based on the standard modernization theory. You modernize the infrastructure, you educate the people, you create a better economy, and you open up the system politically. Kennedy pushed the Shah toward this and the Shah complied. He himself wanted to make changes. He wanted to make Iran a better place. The Kennedys hated the Shah. Bobby Kennedy absolutely despised him. John Kennedy disliked him, if not outright hated him.
But just as the economic changes were bearing fruit, making political change more necessary, the oil price shot up. Nixon came in and made the decision to cease pressuring the Shah. The Shah had stopped listening anyway because he had all the money he needed.
Carter came in and renewed the pressure for democratization, but he renewed it at the worst possible time, when the economy was diving. Iran was borrowing money that year. The Shah went from giving away a billion and a half dollars to borrowing 700 million from Chase Manhattan. So the economy was diving, the Shah’s health was deteriorating, and suddenly the suppressed opposition felt that the Shah was fair game because Carter was talking about human rights.
MJT: But what should Carter have done instead? Are you saying he was he wrong to talk about human rights?
Abbas Milani: No, he should have talked about human rights, but he also should have understood that you have to go step by step. Concessions need to be made in a timely fashion from a position of power. Carter should have made it clear that he was for change, but not for change at any price. Brzezinski understood this much better than anyone else in the administration but didn’t get his way. And on the other side we had the Shah undergoing chemotherapy and his endogenous paranoia, depression, indecisiveness and vacillation. The result was disaster.
And lurking around the corner was Khomeini who cleverly understood what the Americans wanted. The Americans wanted a more responsive democratic government, and Khomeini promised it to them. I have found evidence of his contacting Americans.
MJT: Who in the US did he contact?
Abbas Milani: The American Embassy in Paris. He also sent a letter to Carter. His allies in Tehran were also in contact with the American Embassy. They were saying Khomeini was not as bad as the Shah was making him out to be. All of them were helped by Iranian intellectuals who have a great responsibility in all this.
MJT: What did you think about Khomeini at the time?
Abbas Milani: I was an opponent of the Shah. I spent a year in prison. For six months I was in Evin Prison. The future leaders of the Islamic Republic were my cellmates.
MJT: You knew these guys?
Abbas Milani: I knew all of them. I spent six months with them. I knew they were bad news. I knew that what they were going to deliver was not democracy.
But most people had never read any of Khomeini’s writings because they were banned. The Shah, instead of making them mandatory reading, banned them. In the 1960s and 70s Khomeini had already talked about almost everything he did. Even in 1944 he talked about how evil democracy and modernity are, how evil the rule of law is. He talked about the establishment of Velayat-e faqih, the rule of Islamic jurists. These books could have been an absolutely clear indication of where his regime would go, but they were banned. Even those who were willing, like me, to actually read this stuff, we dismissed it because we were under the Age of Enlightenment illusion that religion is the opiate of the masses and that there is an inverse correlation between reason and science on the one hand and religion on the other. We believed that Iran was too advanced for these ideas.
If you had told me in 1978 that the government would soon stone women to death for adultery, I would have laughed at you. If you had told me in 1978 that we were going to have a government where one man, Khomeini, is going to claim that he’s receiving divine guidance, that his legitimacy comes from God, I would have laughed at you. Nobody took these guys seriously.
The SAVAK was putting down everybody while actually encouraging the clergy. I have found remarkable statistics about the number of mosques built in Iran during the last decade of the Shah’s rule. He thought they were the antidote to communism. When the Americans saw the crisis, and when the British saw the crisis, they looked around and the only force that seemed capable of holding the country together and keeping the Soviets out and delivering some modicum of democracy was the clergy.
Khomeini played it brilliantly. He hid his real intentions during the last 118 days of his exile when he was under the glare of the international media.
MJT: He knew his ideas were unpopular in Iran.
Abbas Milani: Absolutely.
MJT: Otherwise he wouldn’t have pretended to be something else.
Abbas Milani: Not once in those entire 118 days before his return to Iran did he mention the words Velayat-e faqih.
France gave him a visa in consultation with the Shah. The Shah believed that if Khomeini went to Paris [from exile in Iraq] that people would see what this guy was really about and would be frightened. But the media never asked him any tough questions. They hadn’t read his books. And he completely hid his intentions.
And to lay blame where blame must laid, some Iranian intellectuals had begun to flirt with the clergy. They were propagating the idea that the clergy were on the forefront of the anti-colonial struggle. One of the most influential intellectuals of the 1960s, a man named Jalal Al-Ahmad, tried to rehabilitate the clergy and marched against the Enlightenment mentality. He was a secular leftist with social democratic leanings, but he wrote an embarrassingly shallow but very influential treatise called Westoxication. He lambasted the West and liberal democrats who supported Western democracy. And he said that we, the intellectuals he thought he represented, had been wrong by looking at the clergy as reactionaries. He said they were profoundly revolutionary and at the forefront of the struggle.
MJT: So what happened to him after 1979?
Abbas Milani: He died in 1968.
MJT: People like him didn’t do well in Iran after 1979.
Abbas Milani: His brother tried to use his name and the social capital that came with it. The government gave him a job after 1979, but when Khomeini began to consolidate power they threw him out and marginalized him. Many people who followed him were murdered by the regime, even those who facilitated the rise of the regime by making the argument I just told you about. They lost life, limb, and liberty during Khomeini’s march to absolute power.
MJT: How do you suppose things might have gone differently if the average person in Iran knew Khomeini’s agenda from the very beginning?
Abbas Milani: He wouldn’t have had one chance in a million.
Abbas Milani: Absolutely. Maybe 70 or 80 percent of the people at the time found him appealing, but his ideas were hidden. Nobody knew. In Paris he said he wouldn’t take any position in the government. He said no cleric would have any position in power. This is what he promised. The first draft of the constitution had no mention, none, of Velayat-e faqih. Iran was to be a republic with a Rousseauian social contract.
The demands of the movement were clearly democratic. Khomeini was popular under false pretenses and because he stood up to the Shah. He stood up to the Americans when the US demanded a Status of Forces Agreement in 1963 before sending advisors. He made his name by opposing that SOFA. He was in exile for fourteen years and refused to compromise on anything. He looked like the defiant loner who called for the overthrow of the Shah even before it was popular.
In Shia Islam there are two schools. One is the quietest school. Iraq’s Ayatollah Sistani is a quietest. The other is Khomeini’s. Khomeini’s version has always been a very very small minority. In Paris he pretended to be a Sistani, but in Tehran he realized he could impose his maximalist program. He had a minimalist program and a maximalist program. He started by saying society should be Islamic in a very general sense but that he wouldn’t seize political power. He changed when he got to Iran, and he used the occupation of the American Embassy and the war with Iraq as essential tools for getting rid of the liberals who had provided him cover, who had convinced the Americans that he would deliver democracy.
There is an inherent contradiction between liberal democracy and Khomeini’s interpretation of Islam. You cannot be a democrat of any persuasion if you believe that rule belongs to a person chosen by God and that that person, who is always a man, must not be responsive to the people but is judged instead by somebody up in the heavens. That is the current version of Islam as propagated by Khomeini. In their honest and rare moments, they even admit it.
They changed the constitution in 1988. It no longer says Velayat-e faqih, the rule of Islamic jurists, but the absolute rule of the jurist council. They tightened the screws even more. Khomeini said, and Khamenei repeats this ad nauseum, that if the ruling faqih issues a fatwa, even a fundamental principle of Islam can be suspended. Khomeini said that if he says the hajj is not required that year, it will be suspended. That’s how absolute his claim was. And of course that’s undemocratic.
MJT: It’s also un-Islamic.
Abbas Milani: Yes, it’s both. Absolutely.
MJT: What if he issued a fatwa saying Mohammad is no longer the final prophet?
Abbas Milani: That’s why the majority of the Shia clergy are opposed to him. For precisely the reason you said. They say Khomeini’s regime is heresy.
MJT: And it is.
Abbas Milani: Khomeini said he came to power to implement Sharia. Then he claimed that Sharia is the tool to ensure his own rule. He said he could play with Sharia as he saw fit. It’s a remarkably audacious claim. That’s why they have to steal elections. They can’t win any elections.
MJT: I find this very disturbing. Iran in the 1970s—and I guess today, too—was much more liberal and modern than Egypt.
Abbas Milani: Oh, absolutely.
MJT: And yet Iran got this government. If it can happen in Iran, it can certainly happen in Egypt where the middle class is very small and people are not nearly as well educated.
Abbas Milani: And there are a lot more Islamists, and they are much better organized.
MJT: The liberals in Egypt are, what, ten percent of the population?
Abbas Milani: I’m not sure about that, but I do know something about the Muslim Brotherhood.
MJT: Okay, so what do you know?
Abbas Milani: They are extremely well organized.
MJT: Are they moderate? Many experts are saying so now, but I’m skeptical.
Abbas Milani: There are moderate elements within the Muslim Brotherhood. But if the Muslim Brotherhood still stands behind Sayyid Qutb, then no. He, along with Hassan al Banna, was one of its founding fathers. You should read him. He was absolutely uncompromising.
MJT: What about the guys running it now? There is all this talk about how they’re no longer as dangerous as they used to be, that they’ve renounced violence and want a democracy. I don’t really buy it, but some people insist this is the case, that the Muslim Brothers have gone mainstream and we have nothing to worry about.
Abbas Milani: I don’t know the Egyptian scene as well as Iran, so let’s look at the Iranian case. If you look at the whole Islamic movement you can see that there were moderate forces in the early part. There were quietist ayatollahs who took part in the revolution, including some who were senior to Khomeini in clerical status. They had an enormous popular base. They were truly moderate and they truly understood the dangers of Khomeini.
Within this movement was also Fadayan-e Islam, the Islamic terrorist group founded by Navvab Safavi who was very much enamored of the Muslim Brotherhood. He even met with Sayyid Qutb. If you look at how this vast network, that included moderates and radicals, evolved once the revolution came, it was the radicals who won. Because they were the most ruthless. They were the most brutal.
Everything I’ve seen indicates that there are moderate Muslim Brothers, but if the society goes into a protracted struggle, I have no doubt that the radicals would win.
Almost every radical group in the Middle East is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.
MJT: All the Sunni Islamist groups are, right? I mean, are there any that aren’t?
Abbas Milani: Here’s an interesting fact. Three of the major works that Khamenei translated before the revolution were written by Sayyid Qutb. That’s how much cross-sectarian pollination there is.
In 1975 I took a group of students on a tour of Iran as a professor.
Half of them were leftists and half were Islamists. All were opponents of the Shah, as was I. When the tour ended the Islamist students gave me two of Qutb’s books as a gift. I had never heard the name before, but my eyes were opened to this incredible world that was lurking there in Iranian society. It was right in front of everyone’s eyes, but nobody was watching.
SAVAK was obsessed with the left, and the intellectuals were obsessed with themselves. They thought they were the only game in town. If you look at the intellectual critical discourse in Iran, almost nothing was written about the Islamists. Almost nothing. I worry that the same thing might be happening in Egypt.
MJT: You’ve looked closely at mistakes the United States made in the 1970s in Iran. Based on that, what would you say to President Obama if he asked you what he should do about Egypt?
Abbas Milani: I would tell him he has to make it absolutely clear where he stands. He has to make it clear that he supports a peaceful and gradual democratic transition. He has to make it very clear to the Egyptian people that the US has, in fact, been pushing for this behind the scenes.
There is a whole subtext to American foreign policy, what happens behind the scenes, that very few people pay any attention to. When you look at Wikileaks you can see a lot of very interesting work behind the scenes that isn’t getting reported.
In the case of Iran, I can say with some certainty that the US consistently, with the exception of the Nixon era, pushed for more openness in the system. The Americans were telling the Shah that he was getting himself into serious trouble. They weren’t picking a fight with him publicly, just as they weren’t with Mubarak. But even in the case of Mubarak, the Americans pushed. Condoleeza Rice gave a remarkable speech in Cairo. But then they backed down because Mubarak pushed back. Mubarak held an election.
MJT: And he gave the Muslim Brotherhood 20 percent, or however much it was.
Abbas Milani: Yeah. And he said, look, do you want these guys to take over?
I would say to President Obama that he must make it clear to Mr. Mubarak that he must clearly and categorically say he won’t run again and that his son won’t run, that he will turn over the daily affairs of the state to a coalition of opposition parties. There might be a chance for a gradual transition and the absorption of the elements of the Muslim Brotherhood that really are moderate.
If this doesn’t happen, if Egypt goes into a protracted period of lawlessness, or if there is a Balkanization of the society, Mubarak will do a tremendous disservice to Egypt, to democracy, and to the United States. He’s going to put the United States in a very difficult situation.
The most important lesson that needs to be learned is that the United States must push its allies to make concessions when they are in a position of power, not when they are in peril.
The majority in Turkey, Egypt, and Iran once accepted the notion that enlightenment, democracy, modernity, reason, and the rule of law were good things, that the West has used these things to good purpose, and that we in the Muslim world should find our own iteration of them and catch up. Now the radical fringe is much stronger and directly challenges this. They say they do not want reason, they want revolution. They don’t want laws, they have the Koran. They don’t want equality because the Koran says there is inequality and they abide by the Koran. They say they don’t want democracy, that it’s a trick of the colonial Crusaders.
Thirty years ago people laughed at these ideas. Now they’re being said more and more often and openly. If the Muslim Brotherhood wins, or if Egypt becomes democratic…
MJT: It’s a big deal either way, isn’t it?
Abbas Milani: It is. Because it is Egypt.
Abbas Milani is the director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University and a co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution. His new book The Shah was published a few weeks ago by Palgrave MacMillan.