As the major Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood could be considered to be the ‘mother of all movements that comprise political Islam’ in the Middle East (with the exception of Iran). Over the past eight decades, its branches have been established in almost every Arab country, and beyond, blending religion and politics to the greatest degree. The Palestinian branch was set up in Jerusalem in 1946, two years before the establishment of the state of Israel.
Although the Muslim Brotherhood was initially mainstream and relatively moderate, many radical small groups have sprouted from it over decades. The influence of its main thinkers, mainly Sayyed Qutob, has had an enormous impact on various strands of political Islam the world over. The main objective of the individual Muslim Brotherhood movements is to establish Islamic states in each of their countries, with the ultimate utopia of uniting individual Islamic states into one single state representing the Ummah, or Muslim nation.
The Muslim Brotherhood movements, and movements that share the same intellectual background and understanding, are presently the most powerful and active political movements in the Middle East. Robustly represented on the political scene, its members enjoy parliamentary legitimacy or government posts in countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Kuwait, Morocco, Sudan, Algeria, Iraq and Bahrain. They are also strongly represented in the outlawed opposition in places such as Libya, Tunisia, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Although they share the same background and sources of teaching, these movements are greatly coloured by their own nationalist concerns and agenda. There is no obligatory hierarchical organizational structure that combines all of them into one single transnational organization.
Islamist movements, historically and currently, differ greatly in their understanding and interpretation of Islam. In any discussion of the Hamas movement, the two major issues that need to be distinguished are the differing perceptions of various Islamist movements concerning the ‘ends’ versus the ‘means’. The ‘ends’ issue denotes the extent to which politics is ingrained in Islam, whereas the ‘means’ issue reflects the controversy on the use of violence to achieve the ‘ends’. The spectrum of such interpretations tends to vacillate between two extremes. At one end there is an understanding of Islam that politicizes religion and renders it the ultimate judge in all aspects of life, including politics. At the other end, there is a different interpretation and an apolitical understanding of Islam, where it is argued that efforts should be focused on morals and religious teachings, away from politics and statemaking, and where the sole accepted ways of conveying the word of Islam are peaceful ones.