By Barry Rubin
When it came to light that Egypt’s new president had made blatantly antisemitic (in the Western context today they could also be called racist) remarks, it finally became necessary--albeit only when the New York Times covered a story (putting it in the most apologetic light, by the way) that's been evident during many years--for the U.S. government to reluctantly and grudgingly remark on these statements, through the medium of spokesman Jay Carney. A State Department statement said that Mursi's saying he is against intolerance was an important first step and expected him to show that he believed in religious tolerance.
My problem in dealing with such statements is that they are seen as isolated acts. As I’ve been writing now for about 30 years, the Muslim Brotherhood has always talked this way as do Hamas, Hizballah, the Ba’th Party, the Iranian regime, and many—though not all—Arab intellectuals, journalists, politicians, and journalists in living memory. In fact, already a new Mursi statement has surfaced, "We must nurse children on hatred towards Jews." Note he did not add, until I become president and then we can start teaching them to live in peace with others of different faiths.
It isn't just pathetic but also weird that educated Euro-North Americans who are eager to destroy the career of anyone who has ever uttered a single sentence that was or can be portrayed as hate speech will accept those who issue whole reams of the stuff. What is truly ridiculous about this kind of controversy is the outrage or apologia over one statement. In fact, Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood leadership including leading figures in the ruling party have made hundreds of radical statements. They are either ignored or explained away as insignificant.
Here are just two from the very top of the organization.
First, Khairat El Shater, the Brotherhood’s Deputy General Guide said in April 2012: “Our main and overall mission as Muslim Brothers is to empower God’s Religion on Earth…and to [establish] the subjugation of people to God on Earth.”
Second, Muhammad Badi, the Brotherhood’s head, explained in his September 2010 speech which virtually announced the launching of the revolution to overthrow the Mubarak regime: “…the factors that will lead to the collapse of the United States are much more powerful than those that led to the collapse of the Soviet empire….The United States is now experiencing the beginning of its end, and is heading towards its demise...."
Yet people who point to the Brotherhood's radical history, extremist statements, and intolerant behavior now in a systematic way are ridiculed. We aren't even hearing the pragmatic-sounding argument: "Of course, these people are extremist, totalitarian, and anti-American but we have to deal with them. " No, what we are getting instead is: "They aren't really extremist, totalitarian, or anti-American and we prefer to deal with them because they are moderate and a bulwark against the Salafists."
All three of the top foreign policy appointments just made by President Barack Obama--John Kerry as secretary of state; Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense, and John Brennan as CIA director--strongly endorse that latter stance. Indeed, Brennan practically created it.
The White House's response to Mursi's remarks was in the framework of that approach, condemning the language of one particular statement while praising Mursi for some things he's done. He is praised for not abrogating the Egypt-Israel peace treaty--yet--and for helping get a ceasefire in the latest Israel-Hamas war. It is good that Mursi helped U.S. goals in that case but since he was, in effect, doing even more to help his ally Hamas, one should be entitled to a certain element of cynicism. The Egyptian regime is apparently blocking some--not all--of the weapons going into Gaza because a direct confrontation with Israel is not in its interests. Of course, direct confrontation with Israel (after 1973) wasn't in Egyptian, Syrian, or Iraqi interests either. That's why they used terrorist group clients to do the job.
But the main problem with the White House response is not that it was too weak but that it deals with calling Jews the offspring of pigs and monkeys against whom eternal war must be waged as entirely isolated from any analysis or policy consideration. None of these factors are considered as part of the Egyptian president's and Muslim Brotherhood's ideology and worldview.
This kind of hate speech is not equivalent to an American politician making a gaffe--many such examples can be given--but as a core aspect of the Islamist and Brotherhood ideology from which its policy behavior will flow.
Carney's government-crafted statement also reflects a strong hint that Mursi is now older and wiser so the things he said before becoming president don't matter any more. He's being disciplined by the requirements of wielding power. Such concepts have failed repeatedly in the Middle East--Arab nationalists did not become moderate, neither did Islamists in Iran, or Yasir Arafat in the Palestinian Authority--and other parts of the world. Indeed, hate speech is more significant when it doesn't just feature a banned ethnic slur word but is followed up by stirring up violent hatreds among millions of people that are likely--as they have in the past--to lead to war and terrorism.
It is ridiculous that such disproved, mistaken ideas form the basis for U.S. policy in 2013. The response to Mursi's rants is like condemning some nasty anti-capitalist statements made by Lenin before the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia but implying that this is merely a problem of intemperate language, of hate speech, that will probably go away now that he is facing the responsibilities of power. Carney adds, "This type of rhetoric is not acceptable or productive in a democratic Egypt." That is correct diplomatic language but those who use it are supposed to know that such sentiments are also ridiculous. Acceptable? That type of rhetoric is the norm now. And whatever Mursi says about keeping the treaty with Israel his view of Jews, as sub-humans who should be wiped out, may have something to do with his behavior as president in future.
Note, too, that Mursi and his colleagues believe that to think that way is a direct command from God, a personage in whom they place a high level of respect.
The White House did not respond on the fact that Mursi's statement is based on key Islamic texts. There was no need for the White House to say that--and it wasn't asked. But it is vital that the White House understands that fact. Islamist ideas are interpretations that are not inevitable but the fact that they are quite arguably proper interpretations of the proper Islamic religious worldview makes them far more powerful than behaving as if they are the zany misinterpretations of marginal would-be hijackers of Islam.
It isn't easy to deal with this situation. The problem, though, is that it needed to be managed before it got to this point.
Consider the question of whether the U.S. government should supply Egypt with advanced military equipment.
How's this for a joke:
The reason why America has been giving Egypt arms for the last 30-plus years is to use them against the people who are now in power in Egypt.
Of course, it isn't that simple but the weapons were also provided to keep the existing regime in power, to keep it at peace with Israel, and to ensure a close relationship with the United States. Only the last of these points still applies. Yet that, too, is compromised. The premise now is that military officers will constrain the Brotherhood regime. But, of course, they won't, at least not short of the direct launching of a war on Israel. Many officers sympathize with the Brotherhood and radical Islamism. Besides, the regime will pick and choose the generals it will put in charge of those weapons to ensure they will follow its orders. We know, of course, that congressional efforts will fail to stop the arms' supply, that any conditions placed upon it can be easily disregarded, and that the transfer of weaponry will go through.
Another issue is the U.S. insistence that Mursi show he opposes religious intolerance. It is safe to say that during each month of 2013 there will be several anti-Christian actions--church burnings, prohibitions on building, attacks on Christians, kidnapping of Christian women and their forcible "conversion" to Islam, etc--in which the Egyptian government will do nothing and the U.S. government will say nothing.
So to sum up, the U.S. government will provide arms, money, and diplomatic support to a regime whose ruling forces openly evince hysterical antisemitism and call for genocide against its neighbor based on the belief that they don't really mean it. Perhaps one day somebody in the American mass media will publish some of the things Muslim Brotherhood leaders say in Arabic about the United States, including explicit support for anti-American terrorism. No doubt, Carney could explain that away as well.
Footnotes: Check out Samuel Tadros's excellent analysis of Muslim Brotherhood strategy here and Eric Trager's excellent lecture on the Brotherhood's structure. The New York Times also ran an op-ed from Ayaan Hirsi Ali about how many or most Middle East Muslims are raised with the kind of beliefs Mursi evinces.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.