Lawrence Wright: Explaining Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood Lawrence Wright talks about the history of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group banned in Egypt by the regime of President Hosni Mubarak that could play an important role in the future of the country.
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Explaining Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood

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Explaining Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood

Explaining Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

One of the questions facing Egypt is what role the Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood will play in the future. The group supports an Islamic state. The brotherhood has been officially banned since 1954, but members of the group have served in Egypt's parliament. As the Washington Post points out today, the group has a split image here, as a hostile Islamic organization whose fundamentalist wing could be dangerous for the United States if it took control, and as a band of aging revolutionaries who would play a vital, but minority role in any coalition government.

Lawrence Wright describes the history of the group in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11." Lawrence Wright taught English at the American University in Cairo and has made many reporting trips to Egypt.

Now, the Muslim Brotherhood participated in the meeting on Sunday with other leaders of the opposition in talks with Omar Suleiman, the vice president, the new vice president of Egypt. And after that, they said they are uncertain if they'll continue to participate in these talks or if they'll withdraw. So there's been so much speculation about what the Muslim Brotherhood stands for now and what their participation in the creation of a new government would mean. What is the Muslim Brotherhood's philosophy now?

WRIGHT: Well, you can't say that it's just one philosophy, because the brotherhood itself is fractured. And there are different factions within it, that some are - you know, the Brotherhood in Egypt has made a decision that, in general, they agree with democratic politics. But originally, that was not the case. So there are, let's say, hard-liners. There are moderates, and there are progressives who want to be much more a part of the modern world. So it's difficult for that organization, although it's certainly the most coherent political opposition party in Egypt. Even within that organization, there are factions, and no doubt right now, they're really churning about how they're going to react to the situation in Egypt.

GROSS: The group has officially denounced violence. And they're not on good terms with al-Qaida, even though bin Laden and his number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, were once members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

WRIGHT: Yeah. In fact, Ayman al-Zawahiri wrote a book called "Bitter Harvest," in which he attacked the Muslim Brotherhood because of its willingness to engage in politics. And he never misses an opportunity to lambaste the Muslim Brotherhood and even its offshoot, Hamas, in Gaza.

GROSS: Let's go back to the early history of the Muslim Brotherhood. The group was founded in 1928. Who founded it, and why did he create it?

WRIGHT: Well, Hassan al-Banna was the founder. And it was a period of time when Egypt was still under British colonial rule, although there was a King Farouk who was, you know, the nominal ruler of the country. And many Egyptians were looking for a way to establish their own identity. And Hassan al-Banna was a very religious man, and he created, really, the first Islamist organization.

Until that point, Islam had not really been engaged in politics. It wasn't a political force. Most Muslims saw Islam as being separate from political affairs. It was the religion. And what's significant about the Muslim Brotherhood is that they took the religion and combined it with politics. This was a force that had never really appeared in the Islamic world before then, and Islamism is what we call it. But that force was transfigurative of politics - not just in Egypt, but in the entire region.

GROSS: And by Islamism, you mean that the state should be an Islamic state, under Islamic law.

WRIGHT: That's correct.

GROSS: So was his goal to have Egypt under Islamic law, or to have that kind of spread through the Arab world?

WRIGHT: Well, Hassan al-Banna was a nationalist, and his focus was very much on Egypt, although I'm sure he cast his eye over the horizon. But Egyptians believe that Egypt is the heart and soul of the Arab world, at least, and that, you know, even Gamal al-Nasser, you know, who took control of Egypt in the 1952 revolution, had the same feeling, that where Egypt went, the rest of the Arab world would follow.

GROSS: Now, one of the members of the Muslim Brotherhood early on, who became their kind of ideological and spiritual leader in a lot of ways, was Sayyid Qutb, who also helped inspire al-Qaida. Tell us a little about him and his role in the Muslim Brotherhood.

WRIGHT: Actually, you know, he was a kind of rival - or at least in his mind - to Hassan al-Banna early on. Sayyid Qutb came to America in 1948. He was more or less run out of Egypt at the time. He was writing articles against the king and against the British, and it became politically inconvenient for him to be in Egypt. So he left Egypt and came to America for couple of years and hated America, hated his experience here. But when he returned to Egypt, Hassan al-Banna had been assassinated by Egyptian security forces, and there was a vacuum inside the Muslim Brotherhood, which Sayyid Qutb filled. He became, you know, a very powerful ideologue, and he also was allied with the very violent faction within the Muslim Brotherhood.

GROSS: So how did that change the Muslim Brotherhood?

WRIGHT: Well, that faction that Sayyid Qutb was engaged with, they tried to assassinate Gamal Nasser in 1954. And in result, Nasser rounded them up and threw them all in prison and eventually hanged Sayyid Qutb - became a martyr to the cause. But for many years, the leadership of the Muslim Brothers were in the prisons in Egypt, and that was very formative. It's in those prisons that they spent a lot of time working out their ideology and their dogma. I was living in Egypt, as a matter of fact, when Nasser died. His successor, Anwar Sadat - a very pious man himself - decided to release the Muslim Brothers from prison and, ironically, it was that decision, in many respects, that led to his assassination.

GROSS: How so?

WRIGHT: Many of the radical elements of that organization were so opposed to Sadat's decision to sign a peace treaty with Israel, and also other things that they objected to - for instance, his view about women's rights and the need for women to dress in the hijab, the head covering, which he - Sadat ridiculed as a tent. They were furious with him. And so, when they had the opportunity, they killed him.

GROSS: So when did the Muslim Brotherhood renounce violence?

WRIGHT: After the death of Sayyid Qutb, a new leader, Hassan al-Hudaybi, became the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. And he wrote a refutation, or let's say, a counter-argument to the ideology that Sayyid Qutb had propagated, arguing for a much more moderate place in the society. And that dynamic between Sayyid Qutb and Hudaybi continues to this day. The tension in that relationship is reflected not only in the Muslim Brotherhood, but in other Islamist groups around the Muslim world. And it wasn't until the mid-'80s that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt made the decisive step of actually running for office, and that has defined modern Muslim Brotherhoods to this day.

GROSS: And when you say running for office, there isn't a Muslim Brotherhood party because the Muslim Brotherhood is officially banned, but members of the Muslim Brotherhood have served in parliament.

WRIGHT: That's correct. The voters know who they're voting for, but the party has been banned.

GROSS: So was Mubarak president at the time that the Muslim Brotherhood renounced violence?

WRIGHT: Yes. And since then, they really haven't engaged in the kind of violence that they had in the past. You know, this is an organization that's been around a long time - over 80 years old now, which is unusual for any of those kind of political parties in Egypt.

It's certainly the oldest and now the most established party in the country. It has a long history of civil service. It has learned and evolved in many of its political views. When I was living there, the - really, the only political idea the Muslim Brotherhood had was to put headscarves on women. And now - you know, "Islam is the solution" was the only thing that they had to say. But now they've been in politics for a long time, and they've had to cope with a lot of real problems - education, illiteracy and those kinds of things - that - where simple statements don't really satisfy. And so answering to the voters, I think, has been an educative process for those people.

GROSS: What do you think they represent now?

WRIGHT: It's going to be interesting to see how this plays out, Terry, because, you know, they've said that they are not going to field a candidate for president. And to me, that was one of the most remarkable things that's come out of this very tumultuous and interesting period in Egypt. They have an opportunity to put forward their own candidate, but they recognize that the West is terrified of seeing Egypt turn into an Islamist state. They also recognize that the Mubarak administration has for years used the Muslim Brotherhood as a kind of scapegoat in giving credence to the fears that the Islamists will take over if Mubarak and his henchmen leave office.

So I think, very wisely, they declared they're not going to run a candidate, which vitiates that whole argument that they are - after Mubarak, comes the deluge. I think it's that decision alone could really be the turning point in what happens in these next several days.

GROSS: My guest is journalist Lawrence Wright, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11."

We'll talk more about the Muslim Brotherhood after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: We're talking about the banned Egyptian group the Muslim Brotherhood and the role it may play in Egypt's future. My guest, Lawrence Wright, wrote about the book in his Pulitzer Prize-winning - he wrote about the group in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11."

If the Muslim Brotherhood plays a part in the new government but doesn't run a candidate, and if the Muslim Brotherhood participates in the government and doesn't try to, like, overthrow it or undermine it or create a theocracy, what significance would that have in the larger Islamist movement?

WRIGHT: It's going to allow the Muslim Brotherhood to find its proper place, its proper size inside Egyptian civil society. We don't really know what size of a constituency they have, but I suspect that it wouldn't be over 30 percent at the maximum.

The reason they seem so outsized is that other organized opposition has been so crippled by the Mubarak administration, simply hasn't been allowed to function and organize. So other parties, more secular or even more radical, simply haven't had a chance to get their roots out among the people. And if the Mubarak regime comes down, as seems likely, it's pretty clear that there needs to be a period of time where people actually have the opportunity to organize new parties with new candidates. One of the real problems in Egypt is that there just aren't very many democrats. They haven't had that experience, and they're going to have to have it in an extremely compressed period of time.

GROSS: Why has the Muslim Brotherhood been able to function, even though it has been banned for decades?

WRIGHT: They have terrific discipline in a country where that's unusual among political organizations, a tremendous amount of commitment. It's one of the very few organizations that people trust as not being corrupt, and that gives them credibility among a population that may not entirely agree with their religious perspectives. But they realize that they can count on them to be much more honest and much more helpful in an emergency than the government has been.

GROSS: Does the Muslim Brotherhood still stand for creating an Islamic state in Egypt?

WRIGHT: I think there's no doubt that that's their ultimate goal. But I think they also recognize that they're going to be a long way from getting there. A large portion of the Muslim Brotherhood agenda is what they call Dawa, which is spreading the word and trying to convince people to come over to their side. And I think that what they're engaging in now is, you know, they're going to work in ordinary politics. They're going to participate, but they're going to carry out their Dawa and see if they can persuade the country to become more Islamist in the future. Whether they can do that will be a matter of how people respond to their message.

GROSS: Where do they stand, where does the Muslim Brotherhood stand on Israel now?

WRIGHT: Well, the Muslim Brotherhood has made many different statements about Israel. There are members of the Muslim Brotherhood who absolutely believe that Israel has to be eliminated. And remember that Hamas is an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, is - and their views are powerfully reflected in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

On the other hand, there are members of the Muslim Brotherhood who say that the treaties will be honored. So I think once again, we see a division within that organization.

GROSS: Do you know where the Muslim Brotherhood stands on Coptic Christians in Egypt and other religious minorities there?

WRIGHT: There are several different crises that the Brotherhood is going to be facing in terms of trying to exert its power in Egypt. One is the role of women and - which it's still not clear that it's willing to accept the kind of modern terms that most Egyptians want where women are concerned.

Another is the role of minorities, and especially the Coptic Christians. In the past, many Islamists in Egypt have said that they would not accept, for instance, a Christian to be president of the country. It's - one of the parts of Islamist dogma is that in an Islamist state, that minorities will pay a tax for the privilege of living in an Islamic country. It's going to be difficult for the brothers to renounce that as - but impossible for them to rule in a majoritarian way in a democratic country if they don't accept the participation of other religious minorities.

And then the third thing will be its stance on the existence of Israel. Those three things are going to be facing the brothers in a very short space of time, I think, and it'll define whether that organization will be an active and vital part of Egypt's future, or if they will be relegated to some sort of crank religious party that will gradually become less and less relevant.

GROSS: So there's a lot of people in America now who are really afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood, and they have been, by some people, made into a bogeyman. And certainly Mubarak made them into a bogeyman. I mean, Mubarak basically has said that if there is a democracy, the Muslim Brotherhood are going to take over. It will become an Islamic extremist state and, you know, America won't like the outcome, a lot of Egyptians wouldn't like the outcome, and it would change the whole Middle East. So what do you think of the fear of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and in the United States?

WRIGHT: Well, fear is never the best principle to organize around. And Saad Eddin Ibrahim, for instance, was a very distinguished sociology professor at the American University in Cairo, where I taught. And he did a study back in the '70s, I think, about Muslim Brothers and, you know, how - what percentage of the population they actually represented. And - which was a very small one at the time, and the Mubarak government put him in prison - for other reasons, they claim. But I think it was the findings of that study that showed that there really wasn't such an Islamist threat in Egypt.

The Egyptian government has kept this alive for a long time, and the Muslim Brothers provide a very convenient scapegoat for them. That's why the decision on the part of the brotherhood not to run a candidate for president I think is so astute, because it removes that scapegoat from this discussion, at least at the present time.

GROSS: My guest is journalist Lawrence Wright, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11."

We'll talk more about the Muslim Brotherhood after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: We're talking about the banned Egyptian group the Muslim Brotherhood and the role it may play in Egypt's future. My guest, Lawrence Wright, wrote about the group in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11."

What do you think about the fear that some people have that the Muslim Brotherhood is going to work hard to turn Egypt into Islamist state and set a tone for other countries to become Islamist states?

WRIGHT: Well, I think they will, Terry. There's no doubt that that's their goal. And in a democratic society, they would have the freedom to do that. It would be up to other parties who differ with them to work equally hard to prove themselves.

GROSS: So that's what you think is ahead?

WRIGHT: I think that it's a contest, and I think the Islamists have an advantage in that they have a long history. They're well-organized. They're committed to their goals. What we have is a kind of vacancy in the opposition that has yet to be filled by leaders.

We just - you know, those people out on the streets of Tahrir, most of them are not Islamists, but they don't have proper leaders at this point. They may come forward. They may materialize. Sometimes you see, in great revolutionary movements, extraordinary figures make themselves known. That hasn't happened yet in Egypt. We're waiting for those figures to come into view.

And until that happens, the Muslim Brothers will have an outsized advantage that's much, much greater than their actual numbers. But if the opposition parties can find their leaders and organize around their principles and make their statements known to other Egyptians, then I think that we will see an actual democracy in Egypt in which the Muslim Brothers play a part, but not a decisive one.

GROSS: Now, because you wrote a book about al-Qaida, you're probably very aware of Egypt's role in supplying a lot of intelligence to the United States. And it's one of the real bases of the alliance...

WRIGHT: Right.

GROSS: ...for America. So you probably understand that part of the relationship. Can you explain a little bit about the nature of Egypt's cooperation in helping the United States keep tabs on terrorists?

WRIGHT: Egypt has been extremely helpful to the United States during the war on terror, and it has a very, very close alliance with our intelligence agencies. So they work extremely closely together, and they work frequently on cases together. So one would have to say that, you know, that these - it's been hand-in-glove between U.S. intelligence and Egyptian intelligence.

GROSS: And how much of - how much of that part of the relationship between the United States and Egypt is at risk now?

WRIGHT: I don't know if that's going to change anything. The Egyptians themselves have been traumatized, if anything, more than Americans by terrorism. During the '90s, there was a terrorist war on the state of Egypt, and more than a thousand Egyptians were killed. It was - the battles between the state security agencies and the terrorists was unbelievably bloody and savage on both sides. And so I don't think the Egyptians have much tolerance right now for terrorists in their midst. We have a common interest in subduing the terrorist elements in both our societies. So I don't see that changing very much, regardless of who comes to power in Egypt.

GROSS: Finally, are you amazed at what's going on in Egypt? You've spent a lot of time there over the years. You taught English in Cairo.

WRIGHT: Terry, this is - it's thrilling to me. I just hope so much that it comes out all right. You know, this is a country that has long been ready for democracy, but many of those civil institutions - you know, back when the king was there in the '40s and '50s, it was, in many respects, more of a democracy than it ever has been before or since. So it has a tradition of democratic participation in politics. It's just been so crippled by such a long period of semi-military rule and dictatorship.

Now there's finally a chance for the people to exercise their voice. And what happens in Egypt is going to ripple out all over not just the Arab world, but the entire Muslim world, I'm convinced. People are waiting to see what's going to happen in Egypt. And, you know, there are many examples in the world of revolutions that have gone poorly, and this could be one of them. Certainly, in that neighborhood, there are many - you know, typically - we're in the Middle East, and typically things don't turn out well.

But this is the most promising moment in the long time that I've known Egypt, and I'm just praying that the principles of nonviolence and justice and democratic freedom take root in that country and are allowed to prosper. And in that case, I think Egypt will become one of the great countries of the world, as it should be.

GROSS: Lawrence Wright, thank you so much for talking with us.

WRIGHT: It's been a pleasure. Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Lawrence Wright is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11." He's also a staff writer for The New Yorker. In the current edition, he writes about the Church of Scientology. You can find links to the article and to primary source documents obtained by The New Yorker about Scientology's founder, L. Ron Hubbard, on our website:

I'm Terry Gross, and this is NPR.

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