Massimo Campanini is a professor of Islamic Studies at IUSS in Pavia and at San Raffaele in Milan, and he is the co-author, with Karim Mezan, of the book I Fratelli Musulmani nel mondo contemporaneo (“The Muslim Brotherhood in the Modern World,” UTET, 2010). We spoke with Campanini about the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“Khashoggi’s murder is another part of the Saudi policy of repression and preventive marginalization of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement of which he was a member, although not among its leadership,” Campanini said. “In recent years, we have witnessed how the Riyadh authorities have eliminated the most visible representatives of the Brotherhood, with the aim of protecting the Kingdom from dangerous power struggles.”
Qatar also ended up in the crosshair of the Saudis, and much has been written about the embargo against it, particularly due to the fracture it caused within the Gulf Cooperation Council. Less well known is the campaign of assassinations carried out by the Saudis using American mercenaries with many years of experience in the Navy Seals. Among its victims were the leaders of the al-Islah party, the Yemeni offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the UAE claims is as a terrorist organization but which counts among its members the journalist and activist Tawakkol Karman, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. Among many others, the cleric Anssaf Ali Mayo was one of those murdered by the mercenaries of the Spear Operation Group, led by the Israeli-American Abraham Golan.
The ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood is not Wahhabi-inspired, but this does not by itself justify violence. What are the Saudis afraid of?
The Muslim Brotherhood is seen in a negative light right now in Saudi Arabia. Their massive presence in Saudi Arabia dates back to the ‘70s, when many of their leaders, even those at the very top, moved to the Kingdom to escape persecution at the hands of Nasser and then Sadat. They went on to occupy teaching positions in Saudi universities, for example in Jeddah. As “politicized” Islamists (not all Islamists are like that; in fact, many are apolitical), the Muslim Brotherhood represented an educated elite that had the potential to challenge Saudi policy. In the ‘90s, for example, they were implicated in the Sahwa Movement, a movement of protest and opposition to the Saud dynasty from an Islamic point of view that posed a real threat to the throne: the Saud were accused by Sahwa members of not being Muslim enough. The Saudis then began a scorched earth campaign against them, and many had to leave. This explains why in 2013, when el-Sisi brutally repressed the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, he won the support of the Saudi and even cash grants from them.
The Muslim Brotherhood was born as a movement in Egypt in 1928. In these 90 years, they went through many times of adversity, not least the repression by Egyptian President el-Sisi that you mentioned. What is their situation like now?
Since 2013, they have been trying to rebuild themselves in hiding, or in any case taking care not to expose themselves too much for the moment.
Many leaders have made statements condemning the Khashoggi murder, but not even a tweet from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. And President Trump’s words sound rather unconvincing.
Trump’s various claims—yes to sanctions, no to sanctions, but Saudi Arabia is our precious ally—are nothing more than a puppet show to pull the wool over the eyes of international public opinion. The Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is trying to dethrone the gerontocracy that has so far governed the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but at the same time retains privileged ties with the United States and Israel. His relations with the latter are good, although they are kept mostly under wraps, and both Washington and Tel Aviv have always been accusing the Muslim Brotherhood of being one of the “brains” behind international terrorism (a false accusation, put forward in order to find a convenient scapegoat).
Khashoggi’s fiancée’s uncle is one of the founders of Erdogan’s AKP. What links are there between the AKP and the Muslim Brotherhood?
Erdogan’s AKP fits to some extent within the ideological horizon of the Muslim Brotherhood. Besides clashing on matters of regional hegemony, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are very far apart because they promote two different ideas of Islam.
The Saudi authorities are ruling their country with an iron fist: they sentence bloggers like Raif Badawi to 1,000 lashes, they beheaded and crucified Ayatollah Nimr al-Nimr, and now they hacked a well-known journalist to pieces with a bone saw. How much more will they be able to stay in power by sheer terror?
Saudi Arabia is less solid than it appears at first sight. The ruthlessness of the war against the Houthi in Yemen, the potential danger posed by the Shiites, who are about 19 percent of the Saudi population, the need by the Saud to maintain the prestige of self-appointed leaders of global Islam—these are all factors that led the Saudi leadership to enact such a policy. In the long run, however, it will be destabilizing.