An interesting development in the world of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated organizations: a long simmering disagreement has broken out into open discord, as Tariq Ramadan, son of Said Ramadan and grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hasan Al-Banna, formally announced that he was pulling out of attendance at the Islamic Society of North America annual convention in Detroit.
The high-profile Muslim Brotherhood leader was once banned from entry to the U.S. after allegedly providing funds to a charity known to support Hamas. That ban was lifted in 2010 by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Since that time, Ramadan has been a frequent guest speaker at a number of events put on by Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated organizations.
The Islamic Society of North America is a longtime organization with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. It is listed as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation case, where the federal government produced documents leading federal judge Jorge Solis to state the government had produced “ample evidence” to show ISNA’s ties to other Brotherhood fronts. These fronts included CAIR, NAIT, the Holy Land Foundation, the Islamic Association of Palestine and, most importantly, Hamas. ISNA was formed out of the Muslim Brotherhood’s first organization, the Muslim Student’s Association, and has been historically considered the “nucleus of the Islamic Movement” in North America, and an “apparatus” of the Brotherhood.
Ramadan’s statement on his website accuses ISNA of failing to adequately challenge U.S. policy on a host of issues, including U.S. counterterrorism matters, and especially in failing to be active on the issue of Gaza. This criticism has come to a head over whether or not Islamic organizations should have attended the Obama Administration’s White House Iftar dinner. Some, like Ramadan, have vocally opposed the decision to attend, while ISNA defended its presence. Regarding ISNA’s interactions with the U.S. government, Ramadan writes:
However, the ISNA leadership is too often silent, as if paralyzed by fear. It fares no better with respect to American foreign policy. Its silence over American support for the outlaw and inhuman policies of Israel cannot be justified, even less so after attending an iftar organized by the White House during which President Obama defended Israel while the Israeli ambassador tweeted his delight! We cannot be forever silent: what kind of active and responsible citizenship does the ISNA leadership offer young American Muslims? What kind of example? That of silent, fearful sycophants…”
ISNA leaders have also taken many opportunities in recent months to speak directly with high level officials on behalf of the American Muslim community. Each time, whether at the White House iftar or at any other gathering, leaders take great care to consider the interest of the American Muslim community and the context in which they live. I participate in many dialogues with the President of the United States…”
As we observe a policy question for the Brothers being settled in a vaguely public form, in a manner likely familiar to many Cold War era Kremlinologists, there are two possibilities regarding the ISNA-Ramadan debate’s deeper significance.
It is possible that the dispute represents a disagreement among the Ikwhan over whether the Islamic Movement (as the Brotherhood views it) should take an increasingly confrontational policy against the United States, as Ramadan seems to suggest, or whether to continue to advance under a policy of influence operations and cooption which the current ISNA leadership seems to prefer.
Alternatively, the Muslim Brotherhood has in the past expressed concerns regarding its grip over the Islamic Society of North America, because ISNA is a broad-based member organization, and there has previously been a lack of full-fledged Ikhwan with which to manage the organization.
For example, in the 1988 Brotherhood archival document titled, “Preliminary vision for preparing future leadership” (in court filings known as Elbarasse Search-4), the Brothers note an attempt to,
satisfy the current shortage public work leadership and its different organizations, and (ISNA) in particular, and to cover the major shortage in the educational and guiding leadership.
Given the Muslim Brotherhood’s view of itself as the vanguard of the wider Islamic Movement, and ISNA representing the nucleus of that movement in North America, the inability to direct ISNA activities in line with a wider Brotherhood policy would be worrisome, and might necessitate such a public chastisement as the one issued by Ramadan.
If so, this may represent a play by the Ikhwan to bring ISNA back into line, embarrass current leadership, and strengthen control over the organization. Historically, despite its concern over manpower shortages, the Brotherhood has maintained the ability to set ISNA policy.
Take for instance, “The Implementation Manual For the Group’s Plan for the year (1991-1992)” (in court filings known as Elbarasse Search-9) which contained a detailed plan by the Brotherhood calling for “Restoring the existence of the Group in ISNA”. In that plan, despite acknowledging difficulties, the Brotherhood seemed confident in the ability to set “expectations for ISNA for the next decade.”
So far, ISNA appears defensive, hoping to placate Ramadan and others with evidence of the usefulness of their approach. They even cite one of Ramadan’s own works, “Footsteps of the Prophet,” in order to justify their efforts. ISNA leaders, including Prof. Sherman Jackson, whose Islamist credentials are well established, have publicly pleaded with Ramadan to reconsider, and promised an open forum with which to address his concerns.
It is highly unlikely that this public squabble represents anything more than a temporary disagreement. It certainly shouldn’t be considered anything approximating a break between ISNA and other Brotherhood groups. But even so, it provides a moment of insight into how the Brotherhood deals with internal disagreements.
Kyle Shideler is the Director of the Threat Information Office at the Center for Security Policy.