Kamal El-Helbawy, a leading figure behind the spread of Islamism in the West, has died in London, according to a social media post by his son.
Once a leading member of the Ikhwan Al-Muslimeen (better known as the Muslim Brotherhood), Helbawy left the movement in 2012, and later even expressed support for the overthrow of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood President, Mohamed Morsi.
However, despite Helbawy’s pivotal role, and perhaps because of his abandonment of the Brotherhood in the last decade of his life, few Islamists in Europe or North America have now bothered to comment or even acknowledge his passing.
Born in 1939, Helbawy joined the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s. He worked for the Brotherhood’s Central Training Organization, tasked with growing the movement’s membership. Following the death of Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970, Helbawy began to travel widely, working to spread the Brotherhood’s influence. Following successful efforts in Nigeria, Helbawy moved to Saudi Arabia, to help cement an alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wahhabi regime in Riyadh.
This alliance paved the way for the Gulf’s patronage of Islamism to the West. Through Saudi organizations such as the Muslim World League and the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (which Helbawy headed), enormous amounts of money and personnel were dedicated under Helbawy’s directions, the author and academic Lorenzo Vidino writes, to building up Muslim Brotherhood and Muslim Brotherhood-aligned organizations and conferences in Europe and North America.
During this period, and over the next few decades, Helbawy also built alliances with other Islamist movements around the world, including Deobandis in Afghanistan, Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan, leading Salafi-jihadists such as Bin Laden’s mentor, Abdullah Azzam, and Islamist ideologues in the nascent Turkish Islamist movements.
As Vidino notes, it was the West, however, that remained Helbawy’s primary focus. In 1994, he moved to London, establishing several Muslim Brotherhood organizations, including the Muslim Association of Britain, the main public branch of the Brotherhood in the U.K, and assisting with the creation of the Muslim Council of Britain, an umbrella group for Britain’s leading Islamist movements.
In 1977, Helbawy visited North America, meeting with the early pioneers of the U.S. Muslim Brotherhood in Indianapolis, who would later establish the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). The Brotherhood, Helbawy told Vidino, paved the way for the growth of Islamism in America more broadly: “Before Salafis came, and the jihadists came, and violent groups came, it was the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Vidino writes that “[o]ne of Helbawy’s biggest criticisms directed at the Brotherhood’s current leadership is its obsession with a culture of excessive secrecy.” Expressing contempt for Muslim Brotherhood activists and organizations’ habit of denying their Islamist leanings, and engaging in “aggressive legal disputes” with critics who allege their Muslim Brotherhood links, Helbawy boasted that he had always been open about his involvement with the movement.
Helbawy pointed to Islamic Relief as an example. One of the largest Muslim charities in the world, Islamic Relief and its branches regularly deny any connection to the Muslim Brotherhood. And yet, Helbawy noted, “[Islamic Relief’s] leadership are Brotherhood.” They may hire staff “who clearly are not Muslim Brotherhood members” as a means to counter such accusations, but Muslim Brotherhood adherents continue to “maintain sway by controlling the board and using other tactics.”
Helbawy’s interview with Vidino was conducted in 2020, eight years after he left the Muslim Brotherhood. He did so just a year after returning to Egypt, following the revolution in 2011. Upon his arrival, he was welcomed at the airport by senior leaders of the Islamist movement.
However, after the Brotherhood’s decision to field a candidate for the Egyptian presidency, despite promises to the contrary, and the leadership’s decision, Vidino explains, to “ostracize members, including very senior ones, who raised objections to some of their decisions,” Helbawy renounced his membership, telling a reporter: “my conscience is clear that I am not participating in this nonsense.”
Helbawy told another newspaper that the Brotherhood had “turned their back on the revolution.”
A year later, in 2012, Helbawy went further and expressed support for the removal of the President Mohamed Morsi and the end to the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt.
Helbawy did not, however, reject Islamism. Instead, he argued that it was the Brotherhood that had left him, by deviating from the teachings of Hassan Al-Banna, the movement’s founder.
Nor did Helbawy ever renounce his previous rhetoric. The journalist John Ware, for instance, has reported that Helbawy once told a crowd of American Muslims that Israel’s conflict with Palestinian groups is an “absolute clash of civilisations: a satanic programme led by the Jews and those who support them and a divine programme carried by Hamas and the Islamic Movement in particular and the Islamic peoples in general.”
Vidino writes: “Helbawy remains a firm believer in the goodness of the Brotherhood’s message. ‘I can never detach myself completely from the Muslim Brotherhood, even if I wanted to. Even when I criticize [them] publicly, I’m hoping it helps reform them.’”
And in friendly interviews with Helbawy, pro-Sisi newspapers in Egypt report that he remains “committed to the Brotherhood’s ideas for Islamist government.”
Nonetheless, Helbawy was regarded as a useful ally by the new government in Egypt under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The government recruited Helbawy to a “committee assigned to draft the 2014 constitution,” replacing the Muslim Brotherhood’s own 2012 document.
Upon renouncing his membership, Helbawy lost many allies in the West. Senior figures from groups he founded, such as the Muslim Association of Britain, refused to speak with him. That hostility appears still apparent today. There exists no mention, on the website or social media accounts of the Muslim Association of Britain, of its founder’s passing.
Indeed, after searching thousands of social media accounts belonging to British and American Islamists, FWI could find fewer than a dozen mentions of Helbawy among tens of thousands of tweets and Facebook posts, in spite of the vital role he played in the advancement of Islamism in the West.
Ajmal Masroor, for instance, has long been involved with British proxies for Jamaat-e-Islami, a South Asian Islamist movement. Upon learning of Helbawy’s death, Masroor wrote, “With tears in my eyes and grief in my heart I bring to your attention the death of Dr Kamal Al-Helbawi, my mentor and a father figure, teacher and confidant, inspirer of thousands around the globe.”
In an apparent acknowledgement of the Islamist anger at Helbawy, Masroor noted that Helbawy’s
…political analysis and choices around the election of Morsi as the President of Egypt and Muslim Brotherhood’s victory in Egyptian parliamentary election sadly left him in the depth of the cancel culture. … I feel I was also influenced by this popular but toxic culture. In the depth my heart I too harboured anger and resentment at the man who has treated me like his son …
Few others offered comment. And those who did tended to be aligned with Islamist movements other than the Brotherhood.
Taji Mustafa, head of the UK branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a dangerous Salafi movement banned in many countries, praised Helbway as a “tireless worker for Islam.”
Yvonne Ridley, an ideologically incoherent Islamist, who embraced Islam after being kidnapped by the Taliban, recounted “breaking a fast with [Helbawy] in the new Egypt” just after the revolution.
Babar Ahmad, a former Guantanamo Bay inmate and jihadist, merely observed Helbawy’s passing, only adding, “May Allah have mercy on him.”
Some expressions of sorrow came from Islamist figures abroad, such as the leading Malaysian statesman Abdul Hadi Awang, a pro-Muslim Brotherhood politician, who praised Helbawy as a “close friend” and a key contributor to the “da’wah movement.”
Helbawy is survived, Egyptian media writes, by his wife and four children.
Sam Westrop is the director of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.