By Joseph Mayton
Recently, Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann accused Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s aid Huma Abedin, as well as fellow Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to the US Congress, of having ties with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and attempting to “infiltrate” the White House to push the Islamic group’s agenda.
Many political leaders, including Republican Senator John McCain, have condemned her attacks. Bachmann has done little to show any evidence of these connections, making her accusations unfounded, dangerous, and certainly not in line with the American concept that people are innocent until proven guilty.
The implications of these unfounded claims could also hinder the ability of American government officials to engage with a country they so desperately need to have positive relations with.
Relations between the United States and Egypt have been tense over the last year. Many Americans are concerned about what policies the newly elected leader President Mohamed Morsi, who is a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic political party, will implement. And Egyptians are concerned that the United States, which has long provided military aid to Egypt, is more concerned with stability than democracy.
Instead, for regular citizens and the media, this moment provides an opportunity to look more deeply at the relationship the United States has with Egypt – and how the two countries can move forward with understanding and honesty.
Both in public speeches and in the media, honest and unbiased approaches to understanding the changes currently taking place in Egypt are essential. In Egypt, the Brotherhood, although conservative, continues to push for an open economic model that will help spur investment and has been open to criticism from the media. Morsi has so far appointed only two women to his cabinet (one of whom is the only Christian appointed). This has led many Americans, as well as some Egyptians, to fear that ultra-conservatives in his party could direct its policies.
Still, when an Egyptian man was attacked and murdered by “bearded men” recently for walking with his fiancé it was the Brotherhood who spoke out first in condemnation. They made it clear that this was not part of an Islam they adhere to.
The media has been reporting extensively on Bachmann’s statements, but thus far has done an insufficient job at explaining both the diversity among mainstream Muslims and the nuances of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Those of us in the media, the primary means of transmitting information, must do a better job of educating and explaining the policies and actions of the Muslim Brotherhood, which are not as homogenous as they are often made out to be. With a nuanced understanding of the Brotherhood, it becomes easier for the average American to see why Bachmann’s attacks are wrong.
Examples of the Brotherhood speaking out against intolerance, along with Morsi’s openness to criticism should make the headlines in America. A recent Pew study showed that positive attitudes toward the Obama administration are dropping among Egyptians, from 42 per cent in 2009 to 29 per cent this year. Fear mongering will do little to change the negative perceptions Egyptians and Arabs have of America.
We need to change the discourse and engage in constructive discussion over the role of the United States in the region and common US-Egyptian interests. Egypt is a leading ally for the United States and vital to its strategic interests in the Middle East. Without positive relations between the two countries, Washington could lose the ability to broach other important issues in the region with Egypt, such as Egypt’s relationship with Israel and Palestine.
Constructive engagement and fact-based analysis of the situation, instead of attacking Muslim Americans in the US government, would allow a dialogue to be had with Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood and Egyptians on the future of their country that would benefit both Americans and Egyptians. And this constructive engagement must start at home.
Joseph Mayton is Editor-in-Chief of the Egypt-based news website Bikyamasr.com.