Despite their denials of involvement in clandestine activity, many Islamist clerics are in fact quite active in Muslim Brotherhood organizations and cells, even if they do not appear to publicly associate with them. However, revelations in the memoirs of repentant extremists and converts remain a rich source of information about the real organizational work of these different groups. Clerics, or those who work under the banner of the clergy, maintain their image by refraining from legitimizing any extremist secret activities and organizations. Thus, it is rare for a known cleric to enthusiastically speak about covert activities or to reveal extremist tactics. But that is exactly what happened with Mohammed Al-Hasan Al-Dedew al-Shanqeeti.
Step 1. Speak at a Palestine Scholars Youth Forum in Turkey.
Since mid-2014, Turkey has become a hub for Islamists. They hold meetings in Turkey and seek refuge there when expelled from Arab countries or elsewhere. Islamists’ friendly relationships in Turkey have enabled them to find and rent conference and commercial facilities there, making the Islamist presence in Turkey beneficial to both the extremists and the Turks. As a result, Turkey has been the site of many Islamist conferences, including one in November 2017 that was broadcast by Al-Jazeera Mubasher (which, like C-SPAN, airs live events without commentary) and convened by the Palestine Scholars Association in the Diaspora under the name of “Youth Forum II.”
First, let’s take a deeper look at the Palestine Scholars Association in the Diaspora.
In its Youth Forum II invitation, the association indicated that the event would “ask the difficult questions and discuss the thorny issues that are triggered by crises in the minds and souls of youth.” This would happen “in interactive meetings without barriers or ceilings.” The forum invited Al-Dedew, and others, to answer questions raised by the young audience.
The Palestine Scholars Association in the Diaspora defines itself as an independent body with its own legal and financial resources. Its vision is to gather Palestinian sharia scholars in the diaspora under the umbrella of “serving the Palestinian cause.” However, the event’s organizational affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood is clear to anyone who reads the list of names of the people and the activities involved.
Like many other new Muslim Brotherhood institutions, the headquarters of the association is located in Istanbul. The executive board is composed of nine to eleven members. The association has several committees, including Public Relations, Information (headed by Hafez Al-Karmi, the chairman of the Palestinian Forum in Britain), Fatwa, and Dawah. The group, whose chief executive is Muhammad Al-Hajj, cooperates with other Islamist societies, unions, and religious institutions. In fact, the Palestine Scholars Association in the Diaspora could be considered one of the small arms of a global organization, the International Association of Muslim Scholars, headed by Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, a prominent player in the intellectual leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Palestine Scholars go on field trips to visit the Islamic Jihad movement in Lebanon, and they participate in international campaigns to free Raed Salah, a Hamas funder. The Palestine Scholars also sponsor a program broadcast by the Al-Quds satellite channel of the Islamic Jihad, and one of the Palestine Scholars’ website pages features a letter from Wajdi Ghunaim, an imam who has been banned from the United States and the United Kingdom, among other countries, for supporting Hamas and promoting hate. The Palestine Scholars Association in the Diaspora also publishes interviews and articles by a legion of other extremist voices: Salman al-Awda, Nasser al-Omar, Abdul Razzaq Qusum, and, of course, Al-Qaradawi. In 2015, it even hosted a seminar by Hozifa Abdullah Azzam, known as the “Father of Global Jihad.” The group as a whole strives to serve the agenda and ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood.
But what explains the return of the Muslim Brotherhood, and why are they preparing their masses for a new phase of mobilization? Are their political ideas being reintroduced through religious speeches? One thing is clear: The forum had a demonstrable impact on the group of young people in attendance, who produced a large number of messages after the event. Some of the messages are about military action, others are about the organization’s secret work, and still others are about the need to follow the example of the Koranic stories.
Step 2. Tell a Koranic Story.
All of the speakers at the conference spoke enthusiastically and at length. Visionary exclamations and strict instructions flooded the assembly before finally revealing the event’s spiritual underpinnings with an open exploration of religious law, hopes, and challenges. No one seemed to mind that extreme Islamist sentiments were being aired out in the open for the world to hear. It’s possible that’s because the broadcaster was not a mainstream media channel.
Months after the initial broadcast, however, a recruitment channel on YouTube that sympathizes with Islamists reran excerpts from the forum in Turkey. Mohammed Al-Hassan Al-Dedew, the Mauritanian cleric known for overwhelming every conversation he has with theological rhetoric, appeared in one of the excerpts:
In the video, Al-Dedew said that the youth forum is like the story of the cave in the Koran, an intimate setting for likeminded believers. Education in the cave, he said, requires a special number of participants, a number that achieves brotherhood and camaraderie. This number, he noted, should be odd tin order to make decision-making easier and to support the overall security situation. According to the Koran, he said, the best numbers are odd numbers. However, Al-Dedew added, God did not determine this to be universally true but dependent on individual circumstances. He also mused about what the dog stretching its forelegs symbolizes in the Koran; he linked it to caution and security measures.
Al-Dedew said that companions of the cave had a two-point program, two values each member of the cave should internalize: mercy and a true direction. Mercy should be given among themselves to members of the group, and a true direction should be loyalty to their own institutions and communities. Education in the cave, he said, requires real teaching, not boring lecturing that goes nowhere. When it comes to work, Al-Dedew said, the companions of the cave must rely on one another so that they do not expose themselves to security threats. Let one of your own take this “silver coin”—necessary financial contributions that the group controls—he said, and despite having no outstanding debts, present it to the city, the seat of decision-making and civic institutions: in other words, a system that can be penetrated to the benefit of the group. Why send one of your own out of the cave and into the city? Because, Al-Dedew said, in addition to the bribe, he is on a mission to find the best foods and bring you back provisions. Al-Dedew then talked specifically about who can be authorized to select the food: He should be cautious in dealing with others; he should remain true to his mission and not get preoccupied with other tasks or expose himself to problems. Al-Dedew added, “Let no one be aware of you,” not just the police and security: no one. It is important, he said, not only to defend yourselves but to defend your project and its continuity.
Step 3. Stay on Message.
There is nothing new in what Al-Dedew said. And the fact that these strategies endure is deeply unsettling. It’s important to emphasize that Muslim Brotherhood movements do not undergo radical revisions, and they do not abandon their ideological foundations. Rather they undergo tactical adjustments. Al-Dedew’s vision for the Muslim Brotherhood is to use democracy, human rights, and coexistence as a cover, an ideological disguise for their true pursuits. But Muslim Brotherhood members still think that society is misguided and that it is imperative to carry out secret action to disrupt the status quo, which prevents their expansion and suffocates them.
It is remarkable to think of public forums as caves. For Al-Dedew, the cave does not necessarily mean a place to hide. Rather the cave is a place to form their ideal civil-society, a place where they enjoy legal legitimacy, a place that is a refuge, and a place for the Muslim Brotherhood to convene.
Al-Dedew’s ideas are a reference to Sayyid Qutb, a Muslim Brotherhood leader in the 1950s and 1960s who advanced theories about emotional separation. Adding civil institutions as an element of the cave is just another tool to achieve emotional separation. Like Qutb, Al-Dedew thinks that society outside the cave is manifestly wrong, and thus they need to protect the faith of their group of believers from outside dangers or influences.
Al-Dedew’s use of the story of the companions of the cave shows that the Muslim Brotherhood feels the pressure on them. But the Muslim Brotherhood attributes this to rank injustice—not to the global social and cultural changes that have caused many people around the world to dislike the Brotherhood and political Islam in general.
Today’s Islamists must wait until injustice is lifted from society, Al-Dedew said, then another generation will come to honor and sanctify them as the companions of the cave after the demise of the rule of the oppressors. But, unlike in the Koranic tale, for Al-Dedew, waiting is not a passive act; it is a period of intense activity in which Islamists must build caves inside the community and use them when the time is right.
Converting the symbols of Al-Dedew’s Koranic story at the youth forum into political messages exposes the contradictions of a man claiming no affiliation to the Brotherhood. The obsession with security—transforming a dog into a reference to vigilant secret action—and precautions against law enforcement reveal the extent to which the cell mind-set pervades the thoughts of someone who claims no ties to the organization. It is also worth remembering that this event was held in Turkey—under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who more than a year ago Al-Qaradawi declared a “Sultan of Muslims.” Thus, religious warnings emphasized by Muslim Brotherhood scholars—portents and declarations that compel their bases to unquestioningly accept Erdoğan as a leader—are accumulating. And of course, the written word of the Koran is distorted as well.
Meetings like that of the Palestine Scholars Association in the Diaspora’s Youth Forum II reveal that the Muslim Brotherhood movement is expending all efforts to adapt to the times and that they are preparing themselves for a new and long period of clandestine work, one that will end with a great confrontation. The danger is that they are pushing with all their might: Even a cleric who had once remained steadfast in distancing himself from extremist groups now justifies engaging in secret work, disguising oneself from the state, and violating the law.