Counterterrorism Blog's Jeff Breinholt recently posted the "constitution" of a prison group calling itself the Muslim Brotherhood, submitted as evidence in a 1962 court case. The find suggests that the Muslim Brotherhood may have been active in the United States earlier than previously understood. He reports today that some readers have suggested that the group has no connection to the Egyptian Ikwan, and then offers three other possible explanations:
(1) The document in the court opinion derives from the Ikwan, as Doug Farah and I originally suspected, (2) the document derives from the Nation of Islam, which briefly adopted the name or literature of the Muslim Brotherhood or (3) the document comes from third group that went by the name Muslim Brotherhood.
Not too long ago I suggested that the Ikwan may have been active in the United States since the 1930s after stumbling on early newspaper announcements for a group called Moslem Brotherhood. The persuasive argument I received is almost identical to one of the arguments Breinholt has received: that various groups would use that name without having any real connection to the Egyptian organization.
Breinholt is drawing his assumptions from several historical court documents that mention the activity of a prison group. I was drawing my assumptions from occasional announcements and articles found in regional newspapers from the early period (1930s and 40s). Like this one from 1933:
I went through thousands of mentions of "Mohammedan" and "Moslems," etc. It's interesting to note that there are no mentions of a "Moslem Brotherhood" as an organization before 1931. I would think that I would be able to find examples of the concept of "muslim brotherhood" used as an organizational name that pre-date the Egyptian group's foundation, but I don't. It may be that the data just doesn't exist in digital form, or I'm not looking in the right place. It's hard to tell, and sometimes the data is contradicting. Here's one example where I would suspect a group called the Moslem Brotherhood would show up, a large celebration of the Feast of Sacrifice in Brooklyn, as reported in the New York Times in 1930:
In a 1931 article in the Methodist Review, entitled "Mohammedan Missionary Methods," the author, Samuel Zwemer, gives a historical account of Muslim missionary activities and identifies groups then active all over the world. He mentions attending a Bairam festival in Brooklyn. Could it be the same one mentioned above? Yes, and here he does mention a group called the Moslem Brotherhood. There are interesting passages throughout the article, including mentions of Jamaat Tabligh, active "Indian" masjids in London and, of course, the "Moslem Brotherhood" in the United States:
In New York City there are three or four organizations, not large, but with ambitious programs and names: American Mohammedan Mutual Benefit Society, Moslem Brotherhood, Islamic Social Center, etc.
I attended one of their meetings held in a music hall on Manhattan Avenue, Brooklyn, to celebrate the "Bairam" Feast. There were nearly two hundred present, mostly Turks, Syrians, and Albanians. After the call to prayer they had a Koran recitations and sermons, followed by refreshments. At a small table at the door a woman convert sold literature, The Clarion Call, The Supreme Religion, etc., all in English.
An April 1, 1935 New York Times article on the commemoration of the birth of medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides brought out one G.T. Kheiralla to an inter-religious ceremony:
There is another "occasional" announcement from 1943 with (possibly) the same man leading prayers, G.I. Kheiralla:
There are a few other examples, but then the announcements vanish after 1945, and don't appear again until the 1960s, like this [squib] in the Chicago Tribune, which mentions the same group named in 1943, "Moslem Brotherhood, USA":
It's a small data-set, I know, but it's intriguing. The activity described in the 1930s (prayer, dawah, "societies") combined with Breinholt's research from the 1950s (prison dawah) are not inconsistent with Ihkwan's current activities. Is it the same group? I don't know, but as Breinholt writes, it's "an interesting historical mystery."
Jeff Breinholt's research inspires me to ask questions about our consensus understanding of the Ikwan: are we limiting ourselves when we accept the premise that the Ikwan established itself in the 1960s? Are we missing clues that point to a deeper infiltration of the group into American society?
Isn't it time to rethink our long-held assumptions about the Ikwan in America?