Reading Time: 6 minutes

Book reviewed by Dr. Daud Abdullah*
for Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations.

The red minaret belongs to a small mosque south of Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. It is so-called because it was built with red stones. There are many stories surrounding it.

One states that when Prophet Jesus returns, he will descend from heaven on this minaret. A second notes that it was here that a deaf Palestinian stood to fight off the British when they occupied Jerusalem in 1918. He was eventually killed despite his brave resistance.

This particular story may have inspired Ibrahim Ghusheh, the former spokesman of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas). He has dedicated his entire life to the Palestinian cause and distinguished himself with similar bravery and tenaciousness. For Ghusheh the red minaret holds special meanings and memories, for he was born in Jerusalem in 1936; his family home faced the mosque with the red minaret. Hence he has called his enthralling memoir The Red Minaret.

The book charts his upbringing in Jerusalem on the eve of the Palestinian Catastrophe (al-Nakbah) of 1948; his studies in Egypt during the turbulent second half of the 1950s; his stay in Kuwait; and finally his time as an engineer in Jordan where he became one of the foremost practitioners in his field. It ends with his brief period of exile to Qatar in 1999.

Without exerting much effort, the reader cannot fail to be struck by the author’s exhaustive citation of dates and persons. This applies not only to his involvement with the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine in the 1950s and later with Hamas after its founding in 1987; it relates also to his childhood memories of Jerusalem.

Not much has been written in English about the Muslim Brotherhood generally, or its development in Palestine in particular. Herein lies one of the salient attributes of Ghusheh’s book. It fills that critical void, importantly not by an academic who researched the topic but by someone at the heart of the movement’s activities for over five decades.

During the pre-1948 period the Brotherhood in Palestine was essentially a religious, athletic and social movement. Looking back at that formative period, Ghusheh says, “The most important value that I remember characterized the Muslim Brotherhood is that of brotherhood. It was entrenched in those who used to come to us from Egypt.” (p.41). The late Said Ramadan founded the branch in the Shaykh Jarah district in 1946 on the instruction of Imam Hasan Al-Banna.

Another highlight of this period was the Popular Islamic Conference held in Jerusalem in 1953 attended by both Sayyid Qutb and Said Ramadan, among others from Egypt. At a lecture delivered in Jerusalem, Qutb told the audience that they were not asking the Arab armies to liberate Palestine; all they wanted was to allow the freedom fighters to carry light weapons because they were the people who would liberate Palestine. (p.42)

That the Muslim Brotherhood had a special interest in Palestine was further demonstrated by the visit to Jerusalem of the movement’s Supreme Guide, Sheikh Hassan Al Hudaybi, in 1954.

By then Palestine had truly become a global cause. The Popular Islamic Conference had prepared the ground for scholars from across the Muslim world to become involved. In 1954, Nawwab Safawi, the Iranian leader of the Fedayan-e-Islam organization, visited Jerusalem. Ghusheh opines about this particular visit, “The relationship between the two Islamic sects, the Sunnis and Shi’ites, was not always as tense as it is today.”

The Red Minaret offers a revealing insight into how certain pivotal events in Egypt with the Brotherhood impacted on their cadres in Palestine and Jordan. One such was the Manshiyyah incident of late 1954 when it was alleged that the Brotherhood carried out an assassination attempt on the life of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Many members of the Brotherhood were arrested and some were executed in Egypt. In Jordan, meanwhile, a hostile campaign was launched purporting that the Brotherhood was a terrorist organization.

In October 1955, Ghusheh travelled to Egypt to pursue an engineering degree at Cairo University. The climate, he says, was that of a “classic police state.”(p.53). He gives a vivid account of Palestinian student activities in Cairo in the mid-fifties. They functioned in strict secrecy, never using Islamic greetings like Asalamu Alaykum, or keeping beards; they were always clean shaven.

The League of Palestinian Students was then dominated by three political trends: the Communists, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Ba’athists. It was during this period that the author came into contact with Yasser Arafat and other future Palestinian leaders. Contrary to many reports, Ghusheh asserts that Arafat was not a member of the Brotherhood but was “close”. On the other hand, he affirms that Salah Khalaf

[Abu Jihad] was, at the time, a member of the movement.

The author describes Arafat as selfless in his service of fellow students; he wasn’t concerned whether he graduated in five years or not. When the tripartite aggression on Egypt took place in 1956 the Palestinian students volunteered to serve in the resistance.

Significantly, he said that the Brotherhood made a distinction between its dissatisfaction with the regime in Egypt and rallying to the country’s defence. “I still hold the view that the Islamists should differentiate between any political disagreements with the regime and the essential contradiction with the outside enemy and with imperialism.” (p.63)

Ghusheh’s affinity to the Brotherhood did not prevent him from acknowledging Abdel Nasser’s national achievements. He cites the arming of the Egyptian military and the building of the Aswan Dam as major achievements worthy of praise.

For the record, Ghusheh notes that many of the engineers who participated in the building of the dam were actually members of the Muslim Brotherhood. This answers the ridiculous claims which question the patriotism of the Brotherhood, he says.

Many years later, in 1992, Ghusheh was part of a Hamas delegation which visited Arafat at his headquarters in Tunis. A photo of Fatah martyrs was hanging on the wall. When some of those present began to criticize the Muslim Brotherhood Ghusheh said, “Brother Arafat! You know the Brothers’ role in founding the Fatah Movement.” Then, in front of everyone present, Arafat admitted that the majority of the martyrs in the photo were from the Brotherhood. They included Abdul Fattah al Hammoud, Khalil al Wazir, Rafiq al Natsheh and Muhammad Yusuf al Najjar.

When most of the newly-graduated Palestinians moved to Kuwait in the early sixties they had to decide whether they worked with Fatah or the Brotherhood. Tensions between the two movements were not far beneath the surface. Ghusheh had also moved to Kuwait during this period; he recalled that Fatah was actively recruiting cadres from the ranks of the Brotherhood.

From Kuwait, Ghusheh moved to Jordan where he participated in the building of the Khalid ibn al Walid Dam and later the King Talal Dam. He was present in the country when the famous Battle of al Karameh took place against the Israelis in 1968 and during the events of September 1970 with the Jordanian authorities.

Given the manner in which Hamas’s current relationship with the incumbent AKP Turkish government has developed, the author’s reading of the situation in Turkey is particularly intriguing. He was critical of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, accusing him of leniency towards the army and secularist thought in order to please Europe. (p.135) This is, perhaps, one view that he would, in hindsight, admit was wrong.

On another level the book refutes persuasively the widely-held myth that Hamas was founded in 1987 under the aegis of the Israelis. The truth, he argues, is that licences given to the Islamic Compound and the Islamic University under the presidency of Sheikh Ahmad Yasin were not an exception because the Red Crescent Society and the Shabiba youth movement founded by Fatah also benefitted. Accordingly, Ghusheh dismisses the claim that Hamas was the brain-child of the Israeli military ruler as “sheer nonsense”. (p.137)

The Red Minaret is a treasure trove of information concerning the Arab and Islamic initiatives undertaken to prevent the first Gulf War, the so-called “Desert Storm”. Having participated in many of the meetings at which the proposed invasion was discussed, Ghusheh reveals with distinct frankness the names and positions of the various interlocutors with Saddam Hussein.

When the Intifada reached its climax in 1991 Hamas came under intense pressure to join the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). The author saw it as an attempt to disguise the PLO’s ulterior motive of joining the Madrid process and giving it a semblance of popular endorsement. Arafat intensified the pressure in 1993. Efforts by the Sudanese Islamist leader Dr Hassan Turabi and the new authorities in Khartoum failed to bridge the gap between Hamas and Fatah. Back in 1991 Fatah had demanded that Hamas should join the Palestine National Council (PNC), but the Hamas interlocutors, including Ghusheh, said that there should be either elections to the PNC or they should be given 40 of the seats. When Hamas refused Arafat’s demand at the beginning of 1993 he sent a delegation to the Islamic movement with an ultimatum threatening that they could either join the PNC and recognise the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people or be dealt with decisively in battle.

Here the author recalls facts often overlooked; for example that the Muslim Brotherhood, from which Hamas evolved, fought in the 1948 war, long before Fatah was founded.

Just as it is rich in detail about Hamas’ relations with Fatah, Ghusheh’s memoir is equally enlightening about its complex relationship with the Jordanian authorities. Many of the leaders had taken refuge there after 300,000 Palestinians were forced to leave Kuwait in the aftermath of Iraq’s invasion of the Gulf state in 1990.

The Red Minaret is more than the personal memoir of a Palestinian nationalist leader. It is also an authoritative reference on the Muslim Brotherhood and its offspring Hamas. As such, it is an indispensable read for students, journalists and decision-makers who have, regrettably, misunderstood both movements far too much. Al Zaytouna Centre for Studies must be congratulated for rendering this important work into English.

* Dr. Daud Abdullah is the director of the Middle East Monitor (MEMO) in London.

Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies & Consultations, 11/12/2013