- Founder of the Muslim Brotherhood
- Sought to restore worldwide Islamic Caliphate
- Was assassinated in 1949
Born into a poor family in southern Egypt on October 14, 1906, Hasan al-Banna was a schoolteacher who in 1928 founded the Muslim Brotherhood, considered to be the first of the modern Islamic fundamentalist movements.
As a child, al-Banna was attracted to the extremist and xenophobic aspects of Islam which were hostile to Western secularism and to its system of rights, particularly women’s rights. While still in his teens, the young al-Banna and friends (they referred to each other as "brethren") met frequently to discuss the situation in the Middle East, to argue about the ills of Arab society, and to lament the decline of Islam. Their angst was in large part a reaction to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the end of the Muslim Caliphate, the British occupation of Egypt, and the resulting exposure of Arab society to Western values.
For al-Banna, as for many other Muslims worldwide, the end of the Caliphate, although brought about by secular Muslim Turks, was a sacrilege against Islam for which they blamed the non-Muslim West. It was to strike back against these evils that al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood, which began as a kind of youth club where the members preached, to anyone who would listen, about the need for moral reform in the Arab world.
But al-Banna’s antipathy towards Western modernity soon moved him to shape the Brotherhood into an organization seeking to check the secularist tendencies in Muslim society by asserting a return to ancient and traditional Islamic values. Al-Banna recruited followers from a vast cross-section of Egyptian society by addressing issues such as colonialism, public health, educational policy, natural resources management, social inequalities, Arab nationalism, the weakness of the Islamic world and the growing conflict in Palestine. Among the perspectives he drew on to address these issues were the anti-capitalist doctrines of European Marxism and especially fascism.
As the Brotherhood expanded during the 1930s and extended its activities well beyond its original religious revivalism, al-Banna began dreaming a greater Muslim dream: the restoration of the Caliphate. And it was this dream, which he believed could only become a reality by means of the sword, that won the hearts and minds of a growing legion of followers. Al-Banna would describe, in inflammatory speeches, the horrors of hell expected for heretics, and consequently, the need for Muslims to return to their purest religious roots, re-establish the Caliphate, and resume the great and final holy war, or jihad, against the non-Muslim world. Al-Banna spelled out his ideas in a major document titled “The Way of Jihad.”
The first big step on the path to the international jihad that al-Banna envisioned came in the form of trans-national terrorism during “The Great Arab Revolt” of 1936-1939, when one of the most famous of the Muslim Brotherhood’s leaders, the Hajj Amin al-Husseini, Grand Mufti (Supreme Muslim religious leader) of Jerusalem, incited his followers to a three-year war against the Jews in Palestine and against the British who administered the Mandate.
In 1936 the Brotherhood had about 800 members, but by 1938, just two years into the “Revolt,” its membership had grown to almost 200,000, with fifty branches in Egypt alone. The organization established mosques, schools, sport clubs, factories and a welfare service network. By the end of the 1930s there were more than a half million active members registered, in more than two thousand branches across the Arab world.
Under al-Banna’s stewardship, the Brotherhood developed a network of underground cells, stole weapons, trained fighters, formed secret assassination squads, founded sleeper cells of subversive supporters in the ranks of the army and police, and waited for the order to go public with terrorism, assassinations, and suicide missions.
It was during this time that the Brotherhood found a soulmate in Nazi Germany. The Reich offered great power connections to the movement, but the relationship brokered by the Brotherhood was more than a marriage of convenience. Long before the war, al-Banna had developed an Islamic religious ideology that foreshadowed Hitler’s Nazism. Both movements sought world conquest and domination. Both were triumphalist and supremacist: in Nazism the Aryan must rule, while in al-Banna’s Islam, the Muslim religion must hold dominion. Both advocated subordination of the individual to a folkish central power. Both were explicitly anti-nationalist in the sense that they believed in the liquidation of the nation-state in favor of a trans-national unifying community: in Islam the umma (community of all believers); and in Nazism the herrenvolk (master race). Both worshipped the unifying totalitarian figure of the Caliph or Führer. And both rabidly hated the Jews and sought their destruction.
As the Brotherhood’s political and military alliance with Nazi Germany developed, these parallels facilitated practical interactions that created a full-blown alliance, with all the pomp and panoply of formal state visits, de facto ambassadors, and overt as well as sub rosa joint ventures. Al-Banna’s followers easily transplanted into the Arab world a newly Nazified form of traditional Muslim Jew-hatred, with Arab translations of Mein Kampf (translated into Arabic as “My Jihad”) and other Nazi anti-Semitic works, including Der Sturmer hate-cartoons, adapted to portray the Jew as the demonic enemy of Allah.
When World War II broke out, al-Banna worked to firm up a formal alliance with Hitler and Mussolini. He sent them letters and emissaries, and urged them to assist him in his struggle against the British and the westernized regime of Egypt's King Farouk. The Intelligence Service of the Muslim Brotherhood vigorously collected information on the heads of the regime in Cairo and on the movements of the British army, offering this and more to the Germans in return for closer relations.
When the question of Palestine came before the United Nations, al-Banna and Amin al-Husseini jointly urged the Arab world to unite in opposition to the creation of Israel. The two men saw in the UN resolution for the partition of Palestine an example of the “Jewish world conspiracy,” even though the plan provided for an Arab state in Palestine alongside the Jewish one. But in al-Banna's estimation, the creation of a state for the Arabs of Palestine was less vital than the eradication of Zionism and the annihilation of the region's Jews.
Troubled by the Brotherhood's rising influence and popularity, as well as by rumors that that the organization was plotting a coup against the Egyptian government, Prime Minister Mahmoud an-Nukrashi Pasha disbanded the group in December 1948 -- seizing its assets and incarcerating many of its members. Less than three weeks later, Pasha was assassinated by a member of the Brotherhood.
Then on February 12, 1949, al-Banna was shot dead by an assassin -- most likely an Egyptian government agent -- in a crowded Cairo market.
Portions of this profile are adapted from “The Nazi Roots of Palestinian Nationalism and Islamic Jihad,” written by David Meir-Levi and published by the David Horowitz Freedom Center in 2007.