Islamists: A large audience without wise leaders

The shutting down of Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in Amman is a further blow to the movement

Jamal Khashoggi

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The shutting down of the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in Amman by Jordanian authorities is a further blow to the movement following their loss of power in Egypt after decades of patience and struggle. This has led to self-criticism and calls for the accountability of Brotherhood leaders in Jordan.

Ahmed Farajallah, secretary of the Islamic Action Front (IAF) - the Brotherhood’s political wing in Jordan - published an article accusing the movement’s leaders of denying the existence of a serious internal crisis. He also warned them they could experience a crackdown in Jordan similar to that in Egypt.

Regardless of whether political Islam is right or wrong, and whether chaotic Arab societies need it, there is a large audience that still believes in its ideas, sees it as a saviour, and is ready to vote for it in elections.

However, while political Islam cannot be excluded or ignored, in some Arab countries it is under bad management. Turkish President Recep Tayyep Erdogan, Moroccan Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane, and Rached Ghannouchi - co-founder of the Ennahda movement in Tunisia - are exceptions to the rule.

Causes of failure

Why is political Islam excelling outside the Brotherhood but failing inside it? After studying the case of the Brotherhood, and meeting and interviewing its members and leaders for a quarter of a century, I think the main reason is that it gave priority to its first generation of leaders, who were able to patiently face detention, temptations and pressure.

Political Islam is successful in Turkey because all political leaders - secular or Islamist - work within the democratic structures of a civil state that is dominant and consistent throughout the country

Jamal Khashoggi

However, giving them priority over leaders who were efficient on the ground and close to the ruling circles has always had devastating consequences, as in Egypt in 2013 and Jordan in 2016.

Another reason is that the Brotherhood’s ideas and theories are full of speeches, memories and poems about patience, prisons and trials. It needs a wakeup call. Its concept of “either everything or prison” is used as an excuse and an escape from responsibility and concessions.

The third reason is the culture of obedience, and loyalty over competence. This culture expels reformists and qualified politicians from the movement, and keeps the narrow-minded who are always ready to listen and obey.

Models to follow

Political Islam is successful in Turkey because all political leaders - secular or Islamist - work within the democratic structures of a civil state that is dominant and consistent throughout the country.

Erdogan and many others were successful first in their own towns and villages by working professionally within civil structures, with budgets and important projects. They did not get success through preaching. This gave Erdogan the opportunity to appear as a national leader, not a group leader.

Ennahda in Tunisia is forward-looking compared to similar movements in the Middle East. In Morocco, Benkirane did not rail against his political opponents from outside his Justice and Development Party, but against conservative sheikhs inside the Islamist movement.

He presented himself first as a politician and second as an Islamist, acknowledging the legitimacy of the king and the state, and thus being able to gain a wide audience of Muslim youths looking for better opportunities in life.

It is time to tell the Brotherhood that reform will only happen when it dismisses the first generation of its leaders living in denial, and replaces them with qualified politicians who are aware of reality.

This article first appeared in Al Hayat on Apr. 23, 2016.
Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels. Twitter: @JKhashoggi

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