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Documentary Examines Muslim Brotherhood

Religion

Documentary Examines Muslim Brotherhood

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A new documentary about the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group, airs Friday as part of the PBS series, "America at the Crossroads." Michael Isikoff, an investigative correspondent for Newsweek magazine who is featured in the film, talks about the documentary.

REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. Neal Conan is on assignment.

All week long, PBS stations have been airing "America at the Crossroads," a series of 11 documentaries about the post-9/11 world. Among the many topics the series has taken on are wiretapping, the evolution of the jihadist movement, the war in Iraq, and the lives of Muslims from Iowa to Indonesia.

Tomorrow night, the series concludes with a focus on the Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood. Newsweek reporters Mark Hosenball and Mike Isikoff try to shed light on this secretive organization. Is the Muslim Brotherhood what is says it is, a peaceful movement dedicated to the spread of Islam?

Early in the film we hear from Kamal Helbawy, a former spokesperson for the group.

(Soundbite of documentary, "The Brotherhood")

Mr. KAMAL HELBAWY (Former spokesperson, Muslim Brotherhood): If you fight, only fight against those who are fighting you. And don't do any aggression, because Allah does not love aggressors.

ROBERTS: But what about allegations that the Muslim Brotherhood actively supports terrorism? If you have questions about the Muslim Brotherhood, what it is, how it functions, give us a call: 800-989-8255. That's 989-TALK. Or send e-mail to talk@npr.org.

Michael Isikoff joins me now in Studio 3A. Thanks for coming in.

Mr. MICHAEL ISIKOFF (Correspondent, Newsweek magazine): Good to be here.

ROBERTS: So let's get a little background here. What exactly is the Muslim Brotherhood?

Mr. ISIKOFF: Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928 by fundamentalists who were really opposing both the way Mid-East governments were ruling at that time - in that case it was mostly colonial powers - and also the whole trend towards modernity, which Muslim fundamentalists saw as a deviation from the Koran, from a strict adherence to the words of Allah.

And it evolved into a very powerful political force in Egypt, violent at first. It was linked to multiple assassinations and violent uprisings, was cracked down on by the Egyptian government. And has since dispersed throughout the world, over 70 branches in countries around the world, has become really the most powerful, influential, and best known Islamist group.

And it has led to, particularly since 9/11, quite a bit of debate within the United States government and Western governments about what sort of approach to take towards such an organization like this.

ROBERTS: So if they were formed in response to, as you say, modernization, secularization of governments in these countries, what is their ultimate goal? What would they like to see happen?

Mr. ISIKOFF: Well, their publicly proclaimed goal is the creation of a worldwide Islamic caliphate that would govern according to sharia, Koranic law. And that to Western ears sounds pretty extreme, pretty radical. The leaders of the group in most countries today, including the sort of founding central organization based in Egypt, disavows violence, disavows terrorism.

Yet there have been many examples - and we go over them in the film, report on some of the most intriguing ones in the film - where people who have been grown out of the Brotherhood, who have been principles in the Brotherhood, have been linked to terrorist acts or financing of terrorist acts.

ROBERTS: And how coherent a group is it? I mean, do they have offices and infrastructure, or is it more of a loose brotherhood?

Mr. ISIKOFF: That is - it's really more the latter, and that's what makes it so difficult to get a handle on. There is a central governing council sharia that purports to sort of speak for the entire movement. But it's really more a movement than hierarchical organization. In some countries it is openly a part of the political process.

ROBERTS: Members of parliament in any?

Mr. ISIKOFF: Members of parliament in Egypt, in Jordan, in Kuwait. In other countries it's underground. And there is quite a split between some of the public statements and what spokesman for the group have said in other countries.

ROBERTS: And what is the connection between the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas?

Mr. ISIKOFF: Hamas is the Palestinian offshoot, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and of course they don't disavow violence at all.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Charles in Modesto, California. Charles, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

CHARLES (Caller): Thank you. I was just curious if the Muslim Brotherhood consisted more of Shiite Muslims or Sunni Muslims, and how does that change their views and their politics and how they make decisions.

Mr. ISIKOFF: It is Sunni Muslim, unquestionably. Grew out of Egypt, it's strongest in Sunni Muslim countries, and that's its primary base of support.

ROBERTS: We are talking about the Muslim Brotherhood with Michael Isikoff. He's an investigative correspondent for Newsweek magazine. His documentary, "The Brotherhood," part of PBS's "America at the Crossroads Series," will air tomorrow, Friday, April 20th on PBS stations. So why did you choose this topic as your contribution to the series?

Mr. ISIKOFF: Well, this was - the series actually began - has a long history. It was first talked about several years ago, and we really were looking for a subject that would, given a long lead-time, still be timely and interesting several years down the road.

But my colleague, Mark Hosenball, and I have been sort of covering the whole war on terror intensely since September 11th. And in every step of the way we kept running into the Muslim Brotherhood and issues arising out of the Muslim Brotherhood. Many of the most prominent figures in international terrorism - Osama bin Laden, Zawahiri himself - grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood. They don't - you know, they split off from it, but they began with the Muslim Brotherhood. So we thought it interesting to look at what this organization was, what it was all about, and try to get a handle on it.

ROBERTS: The number to join us is 800-989-TALK. That's 800-989-8255. Or send us e-mail, talk@npr.org. So when you embarked on the documentary, how much did you feel you sort of already knew that you knew you wanted to include, and how much of it was investigative as you went?

Mr. ISIKOFF: Well, we had done a lot of work before we began, but we did learn quite a bit as the process went along. And probably the most fascinating part was we got access to a really interesting figure who's featured prominently in the film, Youssef Nada, who's a wealthy, cultivated Swiss financier born in Egypt, who really has served as one of the central figures in the Brotherhood for decades. He's the de facto foreign minister of the Muslim Brotherhood, dispatched by Muslim Brotherhood leaders to meet with world leaders around the world - Saddam Hussein, many others. And he's also been accused by the United States government of financing terrorism.

In fact, he was designated as a specially designated global terrorist by the U.S. Treasury Department, announced by President Bush in the fall of 2001. Yet, he adamantly denies the allegations against him, and neither the United States nor Swiss authorities who have investigated him intensely have been able to make a criminal case against him. So there is a bit of a mystery that surrounds Youssef Nada, which makes him such an interesting figure to get very great access to, which we did.

ROBERTS: And what did you make of him?

Mr. ISIKOFF: Well, he is very smooth, very polished, very suave, beguiling in many ways. He's sort of the star of the movie if you watch it. And like so many Muslim Brotherhood leaders, he disavows violence and terrorism in all its form, but when pressed, when pressed, you see how sort of confusion might arise and how people might come away with different takes.

We asked him about the suicide bombings of Hamas, or attacks against U.S. soldiers in Iraq with suicide bombings. And he says, well, when you're fighting an occupier, that's a different thing. So sometimes it really comes down to this whole question of, you know, who is the occupier, what is aggression. You even saw that in the quote you had from Helbawy which started off this, that makes this. That's why you have such different and such intense debate about the Muslim Brotherhood.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Robert in Florida. Robert, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ROBERT (Caller): Thank you. I have a question for the guest. I've done quite a bit of reading since September 11th about, you know, the Muslim Brotherhood and the way Islamic charities have financed terrorism around the world. I was wondering, have there been any ties of charities funded by the Muslim Brotherhood directly to al-Qaida in regards to what happened on September 11th, or any of the al-Qaida attacks or even the insurgency in Iraq since then?

Mr. ISIKOFF: Well, the film does focus on one character, a man by the name of Darkazanli, who is a German import-export businessman, who was an - who grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. Syria was one of the more violent offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood, and he was a number of Syrians who emigrated to Europe after a crackdown by the Assad government in the 1960s and '70s.

And he was a very close associate of the 9/11 hijackers. In fact, we show some very interesting footage where he's attending a wedding with the 9/11 hijackers, a lot of intersections between him and al-Qaida. But again, he has never been criminally charged - a lot of suspicions about him by Western intelligence agencies, but no hard proof.

Similarly with Nada, there was direct allegations for the U.S. government that Nada's Bank Al Taqwa was financing al-Qaida, that a top al-Qaida leader had a secret line of credit at Bank Al Taqwa. But it was not something that U.S. authorities were able to make a criminal case against it, although they still stand by these charges.

ROBERTS: Does the U.S. have an official policy about the Muslim Brotherhood? Are they classified as a terrorist group?

Mr. ISIKOFF: It is not classified as a terrorist group, and there is, as I said before, very different views within the U.S. government. Fran Townsend, who's the White House Homeland Security adviser, the top adviser to the president on terrorism, is interviewed in the film, and she takes a very hard line. She says she would not even meet with a member of the Muslim Brotherhood if they wanted to see her until the group more clearly renounces violence.

Yet just a couple of weeks ago, Steny Hoyer, the House majority leader, is over in Egypt at a party for the U.S. - at the U.S. ambassador's residence, and he's suddenly introduced to a prominent leader of the Muslim Brotherhood by members of the embassy staff. This was a very different shift in U.S. policy that was approved - as we reported in Newsweek this week - at the State Department itself. There are people in the State Department who think that this is a group that has to be engaged, that there has to be a dialogue with if we want to reach a rapprochement in the Mid East.

ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

A lot of the literature about the documentary says things like, you know, Muslim Brotherhood: a group we should negotiate with or deadly enemy? You know.

Mr. ISIKOFF: Right, threat or menace.

ROBERTS: Right. Where did you come down on that after this documentary?

Mr. ISIKOFF: Well, it is a conundrum. Although we did find a lot of these really troubling ties and a lot of people in the counterterrorism community who say you can't trust what Muslim Brotherhood people publicly say, at the very end of the film we say, look, a dialogue with groups that you might not like and might distrust is not unique for the United States. We have since reached a rapprochement with Libya's Kadhafi, who was for long on the terrorism list. And we do say that talking to leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, at least those who at least publicly say they're interested in peaceful dialogue, is probably not a bad thing.

ROBERTS: Are they active here in the U.S.?

Mr. ISIKOFF: They are, and in fact in the film we focus on one particularly intriguing example of a Muslim Brotherhood figure, Abdul Rahman al-Amoudi, who was very active in American Muslim groups, did not publicly identify with the Muslim brotherhood. In fact, critics say this is part of the problem that they don't - they're not public about the fact that they are Muslim Brotherhood. Here it's got access to the highest levels of the government, met with Bill Clinton, met with George W. Bush. We have a picture of him meeting with George W. Bush and Karl Rove while Bush was running for president in 1999.

And yet a few years later, when he hit the full extent of al-Amoudi's connections were revealed, he was criminally charged. He's now in prison. He was linked to a bizarre assassination plot against the Saudi prince. So this is an example of how Muslim Brotherhood people can get a great deal of access within the United States.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Mohammed(ph) on Long Island. Mohammed, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

MOHAMMED (Caller): Thank you for the call - for taking my call. My question is, how you can - if I want the world to fight the corrupted government or one body government over the Middle East, is my question. I'll take the answer off the air.

Mr. ISIKOFF: Well, it's - yes, it's certainly true that what gives the Muslim Brotherhood its base of support throughout the Mid East in Egypt and a number of other countries is the corruption and authoritarian nature of a lot of Mid East regimes and…

ROBERTS: And the charitable…

Mr. ISIKOFF: Oh, yes. Absolutely.

ROBERTS: …(Unintelligible) in this country.

Mr. ISIKOFF: That's a very big part of it. The Muslim Brotherhood has many different faces, and one of it is social welfare. It's a charitable organization. They get a lot of support that way. And also positioning themselves as the opposition figures to governments that, after all, are not the most democratic in the world. And Egypt's Mubarak government has cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood repeatedly. It's done so quite forcefully in the last few months in ways that we in the United States would view as anti-Democratic. And that is very often is what creates support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

ROBERTS: So as you report in Newsweek, Steny Hoyer was surprised to see this Muslim Brotherhood figure at a cocktail party in Egypt. You implied in that article that their signals are softening towards them in some policy aspects. How far do you think that reaches, and what do you think it could potentially accomplish?

Mr. ISIKOFF: Well, it's hard to say because there is this sort of a dichotomy within the government. You have the counter-terror, the intelligence people who wanted to take a hard-line. You have the diplomats who want to take a softening approach. That's not unique. But as the Muslim Brotherhood sort of gains in forces, as it gets more support, as it becomes a more significant player in Mid East politics, I suspect that the diplomatic side of that debate will gain greater currency.

Within Egypt, they - or the Muslim Brotherhood - is now the primary political opposition to the Mubarak government. Mubarak is not going to last forever. He's been in power for something like 30 years. And the real question - and Egypt is, after all, probably the most important single Arab country - the real question for U.S. policy makers is what is the Mid East going to look like down the road five to 10 years…

ROBERTS: Do you see the sense of the Mohammed - the Brotherhood in political power as inevitable, or do you see it coming in other countries?

Mr. ISIKOFF: Well, it's certainly gaining support, gaining adherence. I think the trick for U.S. policy is to try to engage the Brotherhood and to somehow sort of co-opt them, to bring them in to a mainstream dialogue that the United States can live with.

ROBERTS: Michael Isikoff, investigative correspondent from Newsweek magazine. He's been talking to us here in studio 3A. Thanks so much.

Mr. ISIKOFF: Thank you.

ROBERTS: Ira Flatow is here tomorrow. We'll talk to you again on Monday. I'm Rebecca Roberts. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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