America's Muslim Brotherhood And Mahdi Akef - EWI EXCLUSIVE | by J. Millard Burr
Friday, January 4th, 2013 @ 11:18PM
“To Hell with Anyone who Does Not Accept Islamic Rule,” Mahdi Akef, Cairo, 11 August 2012, MEMRI, 15 August 2012)
From the founding of the Muslim Student Association in 1963 until 9/11/2001 the US government paid little attention to the international Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Muslimun) and its various arms active in the United States. Given that lack of interest it was quite easy for major Ikhwan figures to visit or even live in North America without being noticed.
One example was Muhammad Mahdi Othman Akef (1931- ). This Muslim Brother powerhouse, who was placed under constant surveillance for more than a half-century while residing in Egypt, found the freedoms of movement and speech in the United States much to his liking.
After joining the Ikhwan in 1948 Akef had soon graduated to become a member of its “Secret Apparatus, a special section, involved in assassinations. He was later sentenced to death following the attempted assassination of Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954. His death sentence was eventually commuted to twenty years in prison, which time he served.
Akef moved to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in 1974, from where he served as an official in the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY).
Founded at Riyadh in 1972, WAMY had been sponsored by King Faisal. It was one of a basket of organizations to receive Saudi royal family sponsorship. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has constantly claimed that Saudi organizations, including WAMY, Al Haramain charity, and the Muslim World League (MWL), act independently of the government. Such claims are false;
while carrying the title of nongovernmental organization (NGO), their operations are overseen by various Saudi ministries, including the Ministry of Education, and its Department of Islamic Education.
In Saudi Arabia Akef was given significant responsibility, and for years he was reportedly being placed in charge of WAMY youth camps – including camps founded in North America and conferences held throughout the world.
Despite the years spent in jail, it was thanks to his relationship with WAMY that Akef next surfaced in Germany. Settling in that safe haven, he was already included among a small inner circle of Ikwhan leadership. He was so important that while administering the Munich Islamic Center from 1984 through 1987, “visiting statesmen from the Muslim World visited the Munich mosque to pay respects to the world’s most powerful Islamic organization.” And after his Islamiche Gemeinschaft moved to Cologne, he saw to it that the Egyptian brother Ibrahim al-Zayat would served as administrator and that the close ties to the World Assembly of Muslim Youth and to Muslim youth organizations throughout Europe would continue. (Ian Johnson, “The Beachhead,” The Wall Street Journal, 12 July 2005.)
The more radical German mosques, e.g., Aachen, Munich, Cologne, Hamburg, etc., would later serve as safe havens for Islamist fundamentalists and mujahideen active in the war in Afghanistan. Cardinal Ratzinger — now Pope Benedict XVI — served as Archbishop for Cologne and Munich from 1977-1981 and was certainly aware that Muslim centers were used to support radical groups involving Kurds, Turks, Pakistanis and Arabs. Mosques were used to collect alms (zakat) for jihadist causes, and the Turkish Party of Prosperity (Refah), an organization with ties to the international Muslim Brotherhood collected the annual zakat tithe from Germany’s Turkish residents. As Cardinal Ratzinger continued his progression within the Catholic Church he was almost assuredly aware of the activity of Muhammad Mahdi Othman Akef, who would continue his move up the Ikhwan ladder after being named the Ikhwan’s Controller General.
Beginning in the late nineteen eighties Akef was particularly concerned with Ikhwan activity in the United States. Thus, when Akef arrived in America in 1992 the Ikhwan leader was on an important mission. Steve A. Johnson would later write an informative article on the Ikhwan in America just as the future role of the organization was about to be decided. (See Johnson, “Political Activity of Muslims in America,” The Muslims of America, Oxford, 1991.) It was a time when the movement’s progressives wanted the organization to expand and take a more direct part in the political system. The more traditional Muslims, and those in the majority, opposed opening the Ikhwan to secular influences that surrounded Muslims in America. In particular, it involved those who sought to open the powerful Islamic Society of North America to a variety of political and social influences — a decidedly secular point of view — or limit both its membership and its aims. In the first case the Muslims of South Asia took the lead; in the latter, the Ikhwan “isolationists” were determined to limit membership, both to the progressives and to the emerging body of radical Salafists. The isolationists were determined to employ the secrecy practiced by the Brotherhood in North America, Europe and the Middle East.
Johnson concluded his essay thusly: “It remains to be seen how Muslims and Islamic organizations will deal with the serious problems of increasing fragmentation, growing indigenous immigrant rifts, financial problems [etc.,].”
Unknown to Johnson, Mahdi Akef would play the dominant role the organization would take. He did so because his Ikhwan credentials were impeccable. After his years in jail, and his work in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Germany, he had been made a member of the Guidance Council of the Brotherhood in 1987. That same year he was named to the People’s Assembly that comprised 35 leaders of the Ikhwan al-Muslimun community. It was also rumored that at the time Akef arrived in America he was serving as head of the Ikhwan’s very secret International Department — an entity that Soviet intelligence claimed had been created in 1982 and lasted until Akef was named General Guide (murshid) of the Ikhwan in 2004.
Akef’s successful activity in North America was made possible with the resolution of the dangerous rift within the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). ISNA was a spinoff of the Ikhwan-sponsored Muslim Student Association, the first Ikhwan-dominated organization in North America founded in 1963. When the ISNA split could not be resolved, the Muslim American Society (MAS) was created. The MSA was created only after “a contentious debate among Brotherhood members,” apparently over whether the Ikhwan should enlarge its membership to include Muslims who were not Ikhwan. A second problem was whether to operate openly or operate semi-clandestinely. The latter problem was particularly problematical because of the revolutionary role played by the HAMAS organization, an Ikhwan chapter, newly created in Gaza; the arrest of terrorist Nasser Hidmi in Israel had just surfaced activity of a secret knot of HAMAS activists operating in the United States.
Akef — often called a man who preferred vacillation to confrontation — apparently acted true to form and sought to square the circle, urging both more openness and substantial secrecy. However, the MAS would only achieve that contradictory goal after Mohammed Elkadi was forced from a leadership position in the Ikhwan. Elkadi had directed the ISNA operation since 1984, and had instituted an energetic outreach (dawaa) program. In addition, as president of the North American Islamic Trust, he had established a series of mosques whose financial underpinning was provided by Saudi Arabia.
Unfortunately for Elkadi, in 1979 he borrowed $2.4 million from an Ikhwan-dominated Luxembourg bank managed his father-in-law, the famed Ikhwan economist Abu Saud. He had used the money to build a Florida complex in which was found his medical clinic, a mosque, and a school. When his business failed, the Luxembourg bank had to take over the property. In turn, Elkadi himself was investigated by the Florida Board of Medicine and found guilty of malpractice, and in 1992 his licence was revoked.
The Ikhwan wanted Elkadi to step down, but the Brother balked. And this was yet another reason for the arrival of Mahdi Akef in the United States. (Elkadi died in Florida on April 11, 2009. A favorable obituary appeared in Islam Online, a website overseen by Qatar based and Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, then and now the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood).
Under Akef’s quiet leadership the debate about the Muslim Brotherhood presence in the United States was resolved with the creation of the Muslim American Society. While working with American Muslims, at no time did Akef attempt to disguise his Ikhwan relationship; indeed, he openly admitted to his American cohorts and “other Ikhwanis” his longstanding ties to the Egypt
center. His presence in the United States and the founding of MAS went unnoticed by the media. Years later, in a 2007 federal court brief submitted in a trial involving terrorist Sabri Benkahla, it was placed on the record that, “MAS was founded as the overt arm of the Muslim Brotherhood in America.”
The MAS itself was incorporated and registered in Illinois in June 1993. Its first Board of Directors included Ikhwan from Michigan, Florida, California, Illinois and Nova Scotia. The MAS subsumed the American Muslim Alliance (AMA) and other of “Ikhwan’s Islamist Institutions,” including the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences (GSISS) of Leesburg, Virginia, and its sister body the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), headquartered in Herndon, Virginia. The IIIT, created by the Ikhwan a decade earlier, was notorious for its published books calling for destruction of Israel. While there is little doubt that from its inception the MAS has served as an arm of the Ikhwan al-Muslimun, and in general its operation remains as much a mystery as the day it was founded.
AKEF RETURNS TO EGYPT
Following the creation of the MAS in America, Akef returned to Egypt where there had been a recent thaw in the Ikhwan’s relationship with Hosni Mubarak’s government. That interlude, however, lasted but for a short time, and in 1996 Akef was charged with administering the Ikhwan’s outlawed International Organization and was sentenced to three years imprisonment.
Released in 1999, Akef was living in Egypt when Dr. Mohammad Hodeibi (1920-2004), the sixth General Guide of what the Times of London called the “vast, secretive conglomerate of mosques, charities, shops, factories, professional guilds and parliamentary factions that make up the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood,” died in office. (“Mohammad Mamoun al-Hodeibi,” The
Times, London, 11 February 2004.)
Hodeibi himself had served from 1996 through 2002 as Ikhwan spokesman for the enfeebled leader Mustapaha Mashur before taking charge himself. The son of an Ikhwan leader, Hodeibi (like Mahdi Akef) began his career as a member of the Ikhwan’s “Secret Army,” and had spent seven years in jail in Egypt. And while he had condemned the 9/11 attacks as “un-Islamic”, he went on to label the US overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan as “a war on Islam.”
Akef would follow Hodeibi, and he was named Murshid of the Ikhwan al-Muslimun in March 2004. Akef, the General Guide, would reside in Egypt while Ikhwan leaders in other parts of the world would use the title “General Observer.” (It is thought that in North America the director of the Muslim American Society carries that title but never uses it publicly.)
Called by one observer as a “short, friendly man with an elfish smile and big glasses,” Akef was by then perfectly familiar with Ikhwan activity in Europe and America. He was quite the politician and had learned to change his opinions on a moment’s notice depending on the audience and the language employed. Akef was, above all, a political animal determined to bring the Ikhwan into the mainstream of Egyptian politics after a half-century in the wilderness. Aware that the people were tired of Mubarak, and sensing the time for change was at hand, he still moved cautiously.
THE IKHWAN MOVES FORWARD
In November 2004, a meeting of Islamist intellectuals — most of whom were Ikhwan or likeminded individuals — was held in Beirut. That meeting resulted in the distribution of a fourteen point plan that called for the support of jihadists in Iraq, opposition to the United States presence in the Middle East, and a demand for the continued struggle against Israel. And it urged the use of the sharia as “an inspiring element” in the reformation of Muslim political, social and economic systems. It was clear that the Ikhwan was determined to stimulate the growth of Islam in Europe, a region the Brotherhood labeled the Dar al-Islam where the Sharia would eventually
The Beirut conclave coincided with an important gathering of Ikhwan leaders held in the United Arab Emirates. In a surprise move, the Egyptian government (without explanation) allowed Akef to travel there. The Ikhwan conclave of its senior members was called for a number of reasons. There was the reorganization of the Ikhwan’s International Council to consider; in
addition, it was essential that the Ikhwan seek new methods to finance the organization in the wake of its European bank (Al Taqwa) scandal that had badly damaged operations.
At the meeting Akef and Mahmud Izzat, the Ikhwan Secretary, along with the Ikhwan ideologue Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi and Saudi clerics, a number of resolutions were agreed upon, including the condemnation of the United States and its war in Iraq. A war to be fought against the United States was called a “jihad of self-defense”, and it was a “general duty” of all Muslims to participate, and one that did not require the approval of the “universal leadership” of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The meeting also led to the founding of the World Council of Muslim Clerics (also called the International Association of Muslim Scholars) whose decisions (fatwa) would carry great weight, especially in the Sunni-dominated Muslim world. Despite the presence of Akef, the gathering was Qaradawi’s show, and like it or not Qaradawi was still the most powerful individual in the international movement. For the moment, it would not be Geneva, or Munich or Milan, that would serve as the home of the Muslim Brotherhood’s new International Council. Owing to Qaradawi’s insistence it was placed in Dublin.
In the Western media substantial confusion resulted because of the paucity of information that surfaced following the 2004 meetings. That the center of Islamist intellectual ferment was moved (at least for the time being) to Dublin, Ireland, was quite surprising. Yet, with regard to claims that radicals had taken charge of the Ikhwan, and despite a Newsweek article that headlined, “The End of the Muslim Brotherhood,” the patient’s heartbeat was still strong.(See, M. Isikoff and M. Hosenball, “The End of the Muslim Brotherhood,” Newsweek, 24 November 2004; also see, “Qaradhawi and the World Association of Muslim Clerics: The New Platform for the Muslim Brotherhood.” Global Research in International Affairs Center, PRISM, Occasional Papers Vol. 2, No. 4, November 2004.)
AKEF AT THE HELM
In a 2005 interview with Le Monde reporter Cecile Hennion, Akef was asked if the Ikhwan was “on the same page as the United States.” He responded, “Rumors which suggest that I have been in negotiations with the Americans are lies. When I’m told that the US Ambassador wants to meet with me, I always reply that I am happy to do so on the condition that they respect protocol. That is, that a member of the Egyptian Foreign Ministry is present during any conversation.” (English translation from Le Monde, 27 April 2005.)
In fact, then or later, he was hardly disposed to meet with American diplomats as the Ikhwan’s foreign policy made no allowance for American sensibilities. In 2005, he accused the United States of attacking those who raised questions about the Holocaust.
As for the organization of the Muslim Brotherhood itself, Akef explained in 2005:
“The Muslim Brotherhood is a global movement whose members cooperate with each other throughout the world, based on the same religious worldview – the spread of Islam, until it rules the world. [It is] an all-encompassing Islamic organization, calling to the adoption of the great religion that Allah gave in his mercy to humanity… all the members of the Muslim Brotherhood in the international arena operate according to the written charter that states that Jihad is the only way to achieve these goals…. Ours is the largest organization in the World.” (Interview, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, London, 2005)
In anticipation of Fall 2005 elections, the first in which a myriad of candidates from a number of parties would participate, the Ikhwan under Akef joined with socialists and the liberal Wafd and Ghad parties to create the National Alliance for Reform and Change, which pressed for political freedoms. The Ikhwan, considered the most powerful of the movements, announced in advance of elections that the organization would not indulge in violence: Akef stated publicly, “No matter how much we are hit, how many of us are thrown in prison, will not be hostile to anybody.” (“Egypt’s Brotherhood rejects violence,” Gulf Times, Doha, Qatar, 30 March 2005.) Instead the Ikhwan led the charge to reform the Egyptian judiciary.
The Ikhwan continued to champion the creation of an Islamic republic based on the sharia, while openly proclaiming its support for democracy, political pluralism and economic development. Their opponents who know the organization quite well argue that the Ikhwan in allying itself with the secular movements was practicing taqiya, the denial of doctrine, a
dissimulation permitted in the name of Islam.
In 2009 Egyptian newspapers reported incorrectly that after a dispute involving various Ikhwan leaders Akef had resigned as the general guide of the Muslim Brotherhood. That claim was almost immediately quashed and the Muslim Brotherhood website stated that Akef would continue to serve as the group’s general guide until elections in January 2010. He would not seek a second term, and thus would be the first Supreme Guide to leave office while still living. His decision created internal wrangling until the Ikhwan finally decided on Mohamed Badei as his successor. Ironically, just as the Egyptian newspapers were reporting that the organization was riven by internal disputes, the eruption of the “Arab Spring” in January 2011 united the organization as it had not been in years.
Akef continues to serve the Ikhwan as a member of the movement’s Shura Council and in recent press reports he has been customarily critical of American foreign policy. It has been said that Akef has not mellowed; rather he is as determined a Brother as he ever has been. From time to time he issues press reports, including some as critical as ever of the United States.
In North America the MAS is now recognized for its willingness to work in conjunction with other Muslim organizations and Muslim leaders in pursuing Islamist goals.
As for the Ikhwan al-Muslimun, it continues to disguise its numerical strength. By 2000 it was reported that MAS had some 10,000 members. Of that number, 1,500 had finished five years of community service while completing a program that included the study of the works of Ikhwan polemicists Banna and Qutb. The MAS sponsors the Islamic American University of Detroit, which has graduated a significant number of teachers and community leaders. Today, the MAS numbers more than fifty chapters across North America. Annually, it holds both national and regional conferences with Muslim Brotherhood notorious international leaders such as Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was killed during an Israeli air-raid in March 2004 as speakers. These meetings attract tens of thousands of members of North America’s Muslim organizations.