Former British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Co-Author of the Muslim Brotherhood Review Reflects on Lessons Learned

WASHINGTON -Joseph Braude

Last week’s edition of Majalla covered the visit by H.R. McMaster, President Trump’s National Security Advisor, to a Washington conference convened by the leading British think tank Policy Exchange. Among other remarkable panels that day was a session titled, “The Islamist Challenge at Home and Abroad: Lessons Learned.” It featured Sir John Jenkins, the UK’s former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Syria, among other countries; and co-author of the UK Government’s landmark Muslim Brotherhood Review. Jenkins now serves as Executive Director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies - Middle East. In holding court before an audience in excess of 100 Washington policy elites, Jenkins offered some rare reflections on his work in co-authoring the Muslim Brotherhood Review.

To begin with, he recalled that the story began rather unexpectedly: “I was approached in March 2014 on very short notice by the National Security Advisor to Prime Minister David Cameron and asked if I would take on this review, into the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, its activities, significance in the context of contemporary Middle East and North Africa and the wider Muslim world, and the domestic aspect. So there were two specific issues. One was the impact of Islamism — or Islamisms — on our foreign policy objectives; the stability or otherwise of countries in the Middle East and more widely; and the sociological significance of these movements, framed against the background of the Arab Spring. And by Arab Spring in this context I mean most particularly Egypt and Tunisia but also in Libya and Syria. And then there was also the domestic aspect, which was essentially about social cohesion, but also about the impact of transnational Islamisms on the sociology of Muslim communities inside the UK and what this meant in terms of government policy, both externally and domestically.”

Jenkins recalled that merely for having embarked on the study, he drew fire from public intellectuals, mostly in the academic community, who held “preconceptions, none of which were true. And none of them ever called me and asked for the truth.” The true origins of the initiative, he added, was not a child of yesterday. To the contrary, he said, “Prime Minister Cameron had been thinking about it for a long time. He gave a 2011 speech on Islamism which in many ways was a foundational text for him about all this.”

But what struck Jenkins the most, he said, was “how much fog there was over this particular policy battlefield. And that’s an impression that stayed with me throughout the research and writing of the review, and actually, it has stayed with me ever since. The sense that this is not simply a contested and sensitive issue; it’s also an issue which is highly fluid, definitionally fluid … and it’s also one in which many have preset political positions.”

During the period in which the report was generated, Jenkins recalled, there was diversity of viewpoints on the Muslim Brotherhood within the British government itself. “Within the cabinet there were different views about this,” Jenkins said. “Within the institutions of the British state there were different views. In the Foreign Office you had an incredibly wide range of views about this, for a number of interesting reasons, and the same in the Department of Education, communities, and so forth. Trying to reconcile these different approaches was a task beyond me. It was something officials themselves couldn’t reconcile — that had to be done in the sense of a national conversation about the whole issue, which hadn’t happened, didn’t, and hasn’t happened since. And that has continued to make it difficult for anyone who wants to produce a different and coordinated set of policies on Islamism at home and abroad.”

The report is still not available to the public, but Jenkins did read small excerpts aloud. Among them was the observation that jihadist ideologues Abdullah Azzam, Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, and Abu Bakr Naji — the latter, Jenkins said, a pioneer of “savage practices” as a deliberate strategy — together with Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, promoted an ideology which continues to appeal to a small but significant number of disaffected people throughout the world. “[But] in some ways, in focusing on the violence, we lose sight of the real threat: the ways in which Islamism seeks to take the place of a tolerant and inclusive experience that is the daily practice of Islam.”

Jenkins’ advised the audience that the challenge of Islamism needs to be understood by policymakers as an ideological challenge: “While we get excited about the theatrical violence of ISIS and Al-Qaeda — which is important to crush — we’re losing sight of the main issue, which is the enduring power of this ideology to mobilize small but committed groups of individual activists who will engage in a range of political activity, ranging from sedition to the practice of revolutionary violence to overthrowing states. And governments find it extremely hard to deal with ideologies. What officials like to do is deal with the problem they can identify, frame, and deal with in 24 hours. They don’t like the enduring challenge of dealing with ideas, and we still don’t do this very well.”

Jenkins then went into detail about the domestic challenge posed by Islamists in the UK: “Rather than say “Islamism,” I use the word ‘Islamisms,’ because there’s a range of interpretations, both regionally and domestically. In a way, dealing with this issue abroad is a little easier than dealing with at home, because it’s a function of foreign policy, and the consequences for domestic stability and cohesion seem to be lower if this is happening somewhere else than in Branford or Bricklane or parts of Manchester or Liverpool. And yet they are indeed connected. You think about the Middle Eastern version of Islamism, coming into its Brotherhood form, then Mawdudist, coming out of Pakistan; and the Turkish version coming out of the AKP. They have slightly separate sources — but they're all very similar and cross-fertilize with each other. And this creates a toxic soup of ideology and effects us domestically as well as effecting stability of the wider world.”

Jenkins also recalled what he had hoped the Muslim Brotherhood report could accomplish: “I made it very clear to David Cameron that this review would not produce recommendations that could be dealt with instantly. This is a highly dynamic and transformative set of issues which demands sustained attention overall. You need to pay the sort of attention that governments have not paid to this over the past 50 years. So, the principle I recommended mainly was to reorganize parts of government that dealt with it and to introduce greater professionalism and cohesion. There needed to be a mechanism within government — a hub which brought together police, subject area specialists, linguistic expertise, forensic experts, lawyers, and intelligence, all in the same place. This has not happened. We’ve had security and counterterrorism in the home office, but not linked it to the machinery of education, for example, or elsewhere. Perhaps in part, Brexit may have added to the challenge — but the problem may have happened anyway.”

Jenkins also engaged in a healthy bit of self-criticism as a British national reflecting on the political legacy of his own country’s history and what it may have brought to bear on Brotherhood policies. “One of the things that strikes me about the way in which we've handled Islamism in the UK -- one is, this confusion between Islam and Islamism. The second is, we seek to mirror the communalism that is at the heart of claims of Islamism. So when we talk about the Muslim community in the UK — there is no “Muslim community.” There are lots of Muslims, who share different versions of the faith, come from different places, and have different attitudes about the phenomenon. Meanwhile, there’s enormous integration into the mainstream of society. London now has a Muslim mayor, for example. Where we have problems are very enclosed communities in particular areas from particular places, who live together and in some ways have failed to integrate. This is the patchwork. The way we've dealt with this is to try and manage self-proclaimed communal leaders. But this is in truth a British imperial tradition. I find it bizarre that we still do it in the 21st century, which if anything is based on individual equality before the law. We also sought in the report to talk about the relevance of British values. The problem is, it's very problematic in a highly complex political community in the UK to say there is a set of British values. But I don’t see how you can go around doing it.”

Frustrated by the imposition of British political cultural legacies on the novel problem of a Brotherhood presence in the UK, Jenkins referred admiringly to Germany — “one country in Europe that does this well,” he said. “They’ve got a post-1945 constitution, which is the basis of the tasking of a domestic intelligence agency called the “Constitution Protection Service.” And if you look at their reports, and they organize this through the [federal] Länder system in Germany, they’ll say specifically that certain groups — including Islamists — are enemies of the constitution. Because they have a constitution. We Britons have one too, but it’s a set of laws and practices going back to the 16th and 17th centuries, and people are reluctant to use history as a means of managing policy now. But unless you find a way … addressing this challenge will be very difficult."