As the world community condemned the recent bombings in Boston, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm joined the chorus. “The Freedom and Justice Party categorically rejects as intolerable the bombings committed in the US city of Boston,” reported Ikhwanweb, the official English website of the Muslim Brotherhood. “The FJP offers heartfelt sympathies and solemn condolences to the American people and the families of the victims and wishes a speedy recovery to the injured.” The statement proceeded further to use the bombings as a teachable moment.
“Islamic Sharia (law), accepted by the FJP as a framework of reference, strongly condemns attacks on civilians and terrorizing innocent people, regardless of their religion, race, color or sex. “The heinous attacks in Boston today highlight the need for the international community to unite in order to achieve justice and a decent life for all peoples and communities to ensure non-recurrence of such violent and tragic crimes.”
Given the post-September 11 history of misappropriated linkage between terrorism and Islam, it is understandable the Brotherhood wishes to make clear its condemnation and the innocence of shariah in these bombings. ‘Shariah’ is a bit of a boogeyman among many in the United States; it is good they put the record straight.
In Arabic, however, they muddy the waters. The otherwise commendable call for international cooperation is given interpretation by Essam al-Erian, vice-president of the FJP, on his personal Facebook page. To be sure, he calls the bombings ‘criminal’ and offers ‘sympathy’ to the families of the victims and the America people. But these “do not stop us from reading into the grave incident.”
Erian proceeds to establish a timeline of suspicious violence, from Mali to Syria to Somalia to Kurdistan. No further mention is made of Boston, and he is led to questioning.
“Who disturbed democratic transformations, despite the difficult transition from despotism, corruption, poverty, hatred, and intolerance to freedom, justice tolerance, development, human dignity, and social justice?
“Who planted Islamophobia through research, the press, and the media?
“Who funded the violence?”
Erian’s musings on conspiracy are nowhere to be found on the Brotherhood’s English language websites.
This is not the first time the Muslim Brotherhood has been called out for its posturing. In September 2012 outrage at a film deemed insulting to Muhammad prompted demonstrations at the US Embassy in Cairo and the murder of the US ambassador to Libya in Benghazi. Responding to condolences from Ikwanweb’s Twitter account, the Cairo embassy tweeted back, “Thanks. By the way, have you checked out your own Arabic feeds? I hope you know we read those too.”
The comments of Erian on Boston, however, were not highlighted by the embassy, but by a personal blog – mbinenglish – run by two Egyptian journalists.
“It’s clear when comparing English and Arabic language media disseminated by the Brotherhood, there’s a clear filter any Arabic content goes through,” said Basil el-Dabh co-founder of mbinenglish and a reporter for Daily News Egypt. “We hope to remove the filter that exists between the two in an objective manner devoid of any spin or personal opinions.”
Clearly, he has stumbled onto a common complaint. Dabh and Sarah Carr, of Egypt Independent, translated the first of over thirty articles on April 7. Already they are averaging between 1,500 and 2,000 hits per day. The entry on Erian drew over 16,000.
Dabh explained the vision for the website came through his frustration with Brotherhood doublespeak, but he wishes to be exceedingly fair.
“We’ve been very careful to translate pieces as literally as possible and either provide a link to the original Arabic article or a screen shot if it has been taken down,” he said. “Transparency for us is very important and we want our readers to know exactly where a piece came from and verify that our translations are fair representations of the original text.”
Carr sees the Brotherhood as imitating Mubarak in their media strategy, relying on unnamed sources and ‘security experts’. During the clashes at the presidential palace, for example, they translated a FJP Arabic article linking a prominent opposition member to Christian militias in Lebanon.
Other times, she simply sees the Brotherhood media as disrespectful, such as when an FJP article questioned why Copts insisted on a cathedral burial for those killed in the sectarian incident of Khosus. “They can’t even be buried in peace,” she said.
“The Brotherhood is very upset with media, and for good reason,” qualified Dabh, referring to media distortions on both sides. “But if we hear them say the media overplays sectarian tension, their media also prints rather incendiary things.”
For example, an FJP article described “a growing case of hatred of the majority of Copts towards Islamists in general,” and “the Coptic spirit of hatred for everything Islamic.” The article concerned anti-Brotherhood chants during the funeral, but failed to condemn the subsequent attacks on the mourners exiting the cathedral.
In May 2011 Abdel Galil al-Sharnoubi resigned as editor-in-chief of Ikhwanonline, in a row, incidentally enough, with Erian. The website outraged activists with its coverage of a massive anti-military council protest, which it described as having a low turnout. Though the article repeated the Brotherhood line criticizing the protest, calling its organizers ‘secularists’ and ‘communists’, Erian was outraged at the bad press. Sharnoubi believed he was made the scapegoat, even accusingthe group of later trying to assassinate him.
The mbinenglish website does not get into such wrangling; it simply translates what the Brotherhood puts online. Some Twitter feedback has angrily reacted to the postings, believing the site is aligned with the Brotherhood.
“Part of our appeal is that we make it very neutral – not in selection, but in translation,” said Carr. “We’re challenging the Muslim Brotherhood, but in an indirect way, we want it to be subtle.”
It is both subtle and a challenge, but Dabh and Carr are committed, expecting either the best – or the worst.
“We’ll continue until the Brotherhood falls or we fall,” said Carr. With a laugh she continued, “Or get shot.”
Jayson Casper is a writer with Arab West Report, Christianity Today, and Lapido Media. He blogs on Egyptian politics, religion, and culture at A Sense of Belonging, and can be found on Twitter at @jnjcasper