By Yvonne Ridley
I’ve often wondered why the Muslim Brotherhood strikes fear into the hearts of Arab regimes. Prisons across Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are filled with thousands of political prisoners drawn from the leadership and membership of the movement, which is also banned as a “terrorist organisation” by this tyrannical triumvirate.
The exaggerated fear — shared in equal measure by the extreme right wing in Israel and the outgoing Trump administration — is such that it has become one of the most demonised political groups in the Middle East today. If you listen to Riyadh, Abu Dhabi or Cairo you’d be forgiven for thinking that they have rounded up and caged the most dangerous and violent terrorists in the world. The reality, though, is quite different. You would be hard pushed to find any “terrorist” act committed or claimed by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Indeed, among its members caged in these prisons there are probably more university professors, PhDs and other senior academics than anywhere else in the world. Those behind bars are probably more intelligent than their jailers and even the judges who sent them to prison, but they are treated with contempt by the intellectual midgets who swarm the corridors of power in the Gulf States. It is they who fear them the most, for the simple reason that they want to hold on to their gilded thrones at any cost.
Now we hear that the Saudi government has sacked 100 imams and preachers who gave sermons in mosques in Makkah and Al-Qassim because they failed to condemn the Muslim Brotherhood as instructed, according to a report in Al-Watan newspaper. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Dawah and Guidance issued instructions for all imams and preachers to blame the Muslim Brotherhood for causing divisions within society.
When I embraced Islam nearly 20 years ago, I did so for the intellectual freedom that Islam gives me. I certainly don’t go and listen to the “scholars-for-decades” set who are told by governments what to preach on Fridays.
Personally, I think that the state should not meddle in religious affairs. As a former practising Christian, it would be unconscionable to imagine priests and ministers of any denomination stepping into the pulpit on a Sunday morning to spout the policies and thoughts of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. I can’t see German Christians being impressed if Chancellor Angela Merkel scribbled notes for church preachers. And imagine the outcry across the Roman Catholic world if Italian President Sergio Mattarella or any other national leader told the Pope what to say in his Christmas speech from the balcony of Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
In Saudi Arabia, however, as elsewhere in the Arab world, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs ordered imams to dedicate their Friday sermons to supporting a controversial statement issued by the Saudi Council of Senior Scholars in which the Muslim Brotherhood was described as a “terrorist” organisation that does not represent Islam’s true teachings but rather serves its partisan interests. I would suggest that this instruction is nothing more than heresy, certainly not “Islamic” and definitely a clear example of state interference in distinctly religious matters. The order has the DNA of the Kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, all over it. Like other dictators in the region, he brandishes the word “terrorist” around like confetti; what he and they really mean is “someone who can tell the people the truth and I lose my wealth and power”. When everyone is a terrorist, then nobody is; think The Boy Who Cried Wolf. And I wish that journalists and politicians in democratic countries would call such nonsense out for what it is.
Displaying a lack of moral fibre and courage, the Council of Senior Scholars said: “The Muslim Brothers’ Group is a terrorist group and does not represent the method of Islam, rather it blindly follows its partisan objectives that are running contrary to the guidance of our graceful religion, while taking religion as a mask to disguise its purposes in order to practice the opposite such as sedition, wreaking havoc, committing violence and terrorism.”
It’s hard to know what “instructions” — for which read “threats” — were issued to the scholars to produce this sort of garbage so perhaps I should not be overly critical. However, it is clear that Bin Salman and his cronies fear above all else the people they rule with an iron fist having free will and freedom of thought. Throw in the prospect of democracy and suddenly these delusional rulers become very frightened of the people they claim to represent.
The Saudi-UAE-Egypt cabal saw to it that the Arab Spring failed in many countries, and we can see the cost of their catastrophic meddling in Yemen, Libya, Syria and elsewhere. In 2013 Saudi and the UAE backed the military coup in Egypt which saw General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi overthrow the country’s first democratically elected President, Dr Mohamed Morsi. The following year, Riyadh designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation and in 2019 began arresting and rounding up those perceived to be active or supportive of the movement.
Bearing in mind that the Kingdom gave shelter in the 1950s to thousands of Brotherhood activists facing jail and repression in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere in the region, this is another U-turn by an Arab government which either has historic amnesia or an incurable dose of paranoia.
The focus of much of my work these days revolves around miscarriages of justice and the plight of political prisoners. As a journalist, and certainly long before my own detention by the then ruling Taliban in Afghanistan, rough justice has always attracted my attention. Thankfully, my own ordeal in 2001 was relatively brief and I was released on humanitarian grounds.
Since then I have become even more immersed in judicial wrongs, visiting prisons run by the US, including Guantanamo Bay, and other detention facilities in Europe, South Africa, Asia and the Middle East. I’ve also listened to the gruelling testimonies of those locked up alongside their leader Nelson Mandela and have stood in the same cell that was home to the great man during his years on Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town.
Some of the most harrowing stories have come from Irish Republicans who took part in the infamous hunger strikes of 1981 in which ten men starved themselves to death in a bid to force British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to recognise their status as political prisoners. Among the most depraved accounts are those told to me recently by female detainees who’ve emerged from the dark sites, cages and dungeons run by the Syrian regime under President Bashar Al Assad during the ongoing civil war.
However, a special place in hell must surely await those responsible for the prison regime in Egypt today where there is zero respect for gender, religion, justice or humanity. “Those responsible” means the corrupt judges who are swayed by money and influence; the guards who ensure the harshness of the prison regime; government ministers and politicians who know fine well what is happening; and, of course, Al-Sisi himself, who could stop the brutality tomorrow.
To learn a little about what goes on inside the Egyptian prison system, read the words of the late Zaynab Al-Ghazali; her memoir Return of the Pharaoh had me in tears. She holds nothing back as she recounts what the regime did to her. That was back in 1965 and I’m reliably informed that little has changed in terms of brute force, starvation and torture.
Many of the Brotherhood prisoners — men and some women, in their sixties, seventies and eighties — are held in solitary confinement and are forced to sleep on the floor. They are denied family visits, essential medicine and basic food as a matter of routine. Imagine if your parents or grandparents were being treated in such a despicable way.
This is nothing new. In July 2007 I travelled to Egypt to join other human rights observers monitoring the military trials of Muslim Brotherhood members. The Cairo government wanted me to believe that these men were dangerous terrorists and so I spent time interviewing the leaders; I discovered a disciplined, well run, intellectual organisation with Islam at its heart.
Talking to the Egyptian media, I urged the then President, Hosni Mubarak, to embrace the Brotherhood and “exploit its knowledge and power for the benefit of the Egyptian people.” That night, when I returned to my hotel room overlooking the Nile, I found the door wide open, the bed upended and the contents trashed following a visit by the police.
Undeterred, the next day I went to the courtroom where scores of Muslim Brotherhood members were being tried on trumped up charges. I was barred from attending the hearing. I concluded that whenever powerful men do not want journalists to do their job, you know that there are dark deeds going on.
The trials were presided over by judges who clearly had a very remote relationship with the concept of truth and justice; a fair trial was not on the agenda. Or maybe they were just weak and feeble men.
Since Al-Sisi led the coup which overthrew the late Morsi, the country has descended into yet another dictatorship. When will leaders like Sisi realise that government oppression is nothing more than a sign of their own weakness and failure? Try as he might to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood, you simply cannot kill an idea or stamp out such a movement.
Much to the annoyance of what passes for a government in the UAE, British Prime Minister David Cameron said in 2015 that he would not outlaw the Brotherhood despite being pressurised by Abu Dhabi to draw up a report which would “expose” the movement as a “violent terrorist organisation”. The UAE was accused of trying to subvert western democracy at the time.
Rather embarrassingly for Cameron, the author of the report gave the Brotherhood a clean bill of health and so it remained gathering dust on a shelf for nearly two years before it was reluctantly published after much internal wrangling. A year later, another British Foreign Office report described Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood as being the “best firewall” to support democracy.
It remains unclear if there was a diplomatic or economic cost, but I am glad that the British Government did not fold under the pressure. However, it still does business with the tyrants responsible for such gross human rights abuses.
Even more sadly, others have also been bought, including those “scholars for dollars” from East to West who happily demonise the Brotherhood in return for dirty money. They can call it patronage, expenses or scholarly gifts, but I know a bribe when I see one, so let’s call it what it is.
Be in no doubt, I really do pity these wretched scholars who have adopted the passive position and are unable to speak without fear or favour. A coward’s cloak is not an easy garment to wear. However, my overwhelming sympathy and admiration goes to those thousands of political prisoners in Middle East prisons who are holding on so courageously to the rope of their faith. May The Almighty bless them all. Amen.