Monday,27 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1309, (25 - 31 August 2016)
Monday,27 May, 2019
Issue 1309, (25 - 31 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The Muslim Brotherhood in Europe

The Muslim Brotherhood now has branches or associated groups in most of the major European countries, pre-eminently Germany, France and the UK, writes Tarek Dahroug

Al-Ahram Weekly

The political geography of the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe has evolved markedly since the establishment of the Islamic Centre in Geneva in 1961, the first Brotherhood institution in Europe.

In the first phase, the Brotherhood used Europe as a jumping off point for its attack on Arab regimes, focusing on expansion in three main countries, France, Germany, and the UK, because of historical, geographical, and political factors and because they are the largest three European countries in terms of territory and population. They were also centres for Muslim populations coming from Arab and Islamic countries as a result of their cultural and colonial influence.

The Muslim Brotherhood used its institutional presence in these three countries in order to build a network of alliances with entities representing the world’s major Islamic blocs. It opened up to Turkish Islam, heavily represented in Germany, and even more successfully exploited the large North African communities in France as a way into North Africa itself, a major region of the Arab and Islamic world.

This was helped by the fact that several North African Islamist movements loyal or close to the Brotherhood had opened their own offices in France and Belgium, including the Tunisian Ennahda Movement, the Moroccan Adl Wal-Ihsane, and other influential Islamist parties in North Africa. The Brotherhood presence in these three major European countries also let it expand institutionally into smaller countries in their orbit, such as Belgium from France, Ireland from Britain, and Switzerland from Germany.

The 1980s and early 1990s saw the rise of the second generation of Muslim Brotherhood institutions through horizontal expansion in Europe. The international Brotherhood organisation harnessed the new waves of Arab Muslim immigration to Europe as the second generation of European Muslims was itself emerging. An umbrella group, the Federation of Islamic Organisations in Europe, was formed as the façade of the international Muslim Brotherhood and as a way of gathering all the Brotherhood associations and Islamist groups in Europe, including more than 500 organisations inside and outside the EU states and unofficial entities working within this framework.

There is also now an unofficial parallel network of individuals belonging to the Brotherhood but outside this organisational framework. These people run smaller associations that operate outside the Brotherhood’s religious and preaching framework, with the goal of making Europeans more sympathetic to Brotherhood ideas by marketing them in a secular package that defends democracy and human rights. These associations include Brotherhood media entities in the UK working in education, culture, and youth issues and focus on the integration of Muslims in Europe.

The Islamic Cultural Centre in Geneva itself was established with Gulf funding in 1961 by Said Ramadan, son-in-law of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan Al-Banna. It represented the institutional nucleus of the Brotherhood in Europe and embraced Muslim scholars sympathetic to the Brotherhood, including Indians like Mohamed Hamidullah and Abu Al-Hassan Al-Nadawi. To strengthen the Brotherhood’s presence in Europe, Ramadan also established and wrote the charter for the World Islamic University in 1961.

This institution, the first transcontinental Islamic organisation, had branches in many European capitals and operated for a time to support nascent Brotherhood associations and federations in Europe.

The Munich Mosque Committee headed by Ramadan in 1963 was the first major breakthrough for the institutional presence of the Brotherhood in Europe, as the then West Germany became a new centre for Brotherhood activity. In 1973 after the mosque was completed, the committee transformed itself into a major organisation representing German Muslims known as the Islamic German Foundation (IGD).

While Ramadan made efforts to establish a Brotherhood institutional base in West Germany and Switzerland, his comrade Mohamed Hamidullah established the first Brotherhood organisation in France in 1963, the Muslim Students’ Association in Paris. This group brought together Brotherhood youth and fellow travellers, including Hassan Al-Turabi, Abolhasan Bani-Sadr (later first president of the Islamic Republic of Iran), Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Tunisian Ennahda Movement, and Faisal Mawlawi, head of the Lebanese Muslim Brotherhood who took over the running of the group in 1968.

It also included several leaders of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, including Said Al-Bouti and Essam Al-Attar who later broke with the association to form the Bilal Mosque Association in Aachen in West Germany, later a major centre of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in Europe.

The 1970s and 1980s saw new institutional advances for the Brotherhood in Europe, as the second wave of the organisation’s elements headed to Europe in the wake of their clashes with the Arab regimes. There was an exponential increase in the number of European branches of Islamist parties and organisations from the Arab world, first and foremost among them the Muslim Brotherhood.

A group of political exiles and Brotherhood student leaders broke with the Muslim Students’ Association in France in 1979 to establish the Islamic Group in France, which in 1983 became the Federation of Islamic Organisations in France. Ghannouchi laid out the structure of the organisation, its political strategy, and its ideology, making it an institutional pillar of the Brotherhood in France as it has continued to be to the present day. In the early 1990s, the council of the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front, with its Salafi-Brotherhood feeders, was established in France, Germany, and several other European countries. The Algerian Muslim Brotherhood Association was also established in France, adopting an ideology similar to that of the international Brotherhood.

At the same time, the Brotherhood deepened its cooperation with non-Arab Islamist currents, particularly a Turkish group, Milli Gorus, which took Germany as the centre of its operations following the dissolution of the Turkish Welfare Party in the 1970s. The Brotherhood also strengthened its ties with Pakistani Islamists represented by the Pakistani Islamic Group based in the UK since the 1950s. The ideological links between the latter group and the Brotherhood had been formed in the wake of the Second World War by Islamist ideologues Sayed Qotb and Abul-Ela Al-Maududi.

Thanks to these developments, the Muslim Brotherhood sought to draw on its institutional reserves in several European capitals to establish a multinational Islamist movement under its leadership to oppose the Arab regimes. In doing so, the Brotherhood political geography in Europe relied on the group’s hard core as the engine for its political and preaching activities, largely the federations and associations active in the three main European states of France, Germany, and the UK, the latter being the most vigorous in taking on successive Egyptian regimes.

Germany, France and the UK: The Brotherhood spread through Germany from the Munich Mosque, and it relied on three primary tools: the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, the IGD, the voice of German Muslims that controls some 60 Islamic centres across the country and is led by Egyptian Brotherhood figure Ibrahim Al-Zayat, the son-in-law of Sabri Erbakan, the leader of Milli Gorus, and Milli Gorus itself, which controls large segments of the Turkish community in Germany.

Milli Gorus’s Islamist ideology is a Turkish-inflected version of Political Islam, and it has close ties with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. A new association was also recently established, the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD), representing a union between Milli Gorus and the Brotherhood-affiliated IGD.

In France, the Federation of Islamic Organisations in France has been able to bring in more than 250 mosques and Islamic associations under its umbrella using North African Brotherhood cadres, particularly Tunisians, in order to do so. This has allowed it to extend its influence over a considerable segment of French Muslims in many of the country’s cities and surrounding suburbs, giving it the upper hand in the Representative Assembly of French Muslims in successive elections.

Members of the federation enjoy excellent relations with the French authorities thanks to their opposition to the Salafi current. As a result, it plays a role in local and legislative election campaigns because of the influence it wields over a substantial number of Muslim votes in numerous French cities.

Seeking to diversify institutionally, the Federation of Islamic Organisations in France has established schools to turn out an Islamic elite in France, the best known being the Kindi, Razi, and Ibn Rushd schools. According to 2012 data, the Federation owns five of the ten Islamic educational institutions in France.

The Brotherhood in France controls several other educational institutions affiliated ideologically to it, such as the Centre for Research and Studies of Islam, the European Institute for Human Sciences (which trains preachers and imams in Europe), the Institute for Islamic World Studies, the French branch of the UK-based World Institute for Islamic Thought, the Al-Shatbi Centre, and the Ibn Sina Institute, which trains imams for the city of Lille in northern France and was established in 2006 with Qatari funding. In addition, businesses owned by leaders of the Federation of Islamic Organisations in France control the halal meat market in the country and have a monopoly on exports to several Arab Gulf countries.

In the UK, unlike in Germany and France, the Muslim Brotherhood was not the institutional pioneer and was preceded by the Pakistani Islamic Group, which represents Political Islam in South Asia, active in the country since the 1950s. However, in 1997 Arab Muslim Brotherhood affiliates founded the Muslim Association of Britain in the UK headed by Kamal Al-Helbawi as the culmination of their activity in the country in the 1970s and 80s. This aimed to become the official spokesman for British Muslims and to mobilise against Arab and Islamic regimes with which the Brotherhood had clashed by influencing British decision-makers and public opinion.

The association used MP George Galloway as a British voice opposed to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, for example. It also used him to champion Palestinian rights during a packed demonstration in London in 2002 in support of the Palestinian cause. It has also made alliances with prominent British personalities, such as former London mayor Ken Livingstone.

Brotherhood activity in the UK is based on structures and institutions run by cadres from various ethnic backgrounds, but all of them hailing from countries like Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine that were formerly under British influence. In addition to the Muslim Association of Britain, these entities include Muslim Welfare, Interpal (accused by the US Treasury of funding terrorism), the Palestinian Return Centre, the Mashriq Centre for Media Services, and the Centre for International Political Studies in London.

The UK has also been a platform for Egyptian Brotherhood members to attack successive Egyptian regimes. Essam Al-Haddad established Islamic Relief in London, for example, with branches around the world, while Maha Al-Qazzaz, the sister of Khaled Al-Qazzaz, an advisor to ousted former president Mohamed Morsi, was formerly the Brotherhood spokesman in Britain. She was replaced by Abdallah Al-Haddad, the son of Essam, who works at the World Media Service established by Brotherhood member Mohamed Ghanem in 1993 and operating the Website Ikhwan Web.

Egyptian Brotherhood figures in the UK have strong ties with Egyptians for Democracy run by Maha Azzam, head of the pro-Erdogan Egyptian Revolutionary Council, which also includes non-Brotherhood cadres. This group is weak, however, and the activities it organises in the British parliament are not well attended. There is also the law firm led by Lord Ken Macdonald that lobbies against the Egyptian regime among British decision-makers and in some European capitals.

Brotherhood leaders in the UK control 13 organisations in London alone through three Egyptian leaders, Essam Al-Haddad, Ibrahim Mounir, and Ibrahim Al-Zayat, who previously headed the IGD. These organisations have transferred funds from outside of the UK for investment in commercial enterprises, real estate companies, and textile factories in particular. Egyptian Brotherhood leaders own numerous companies based in the British Virgin Islands that finance the group’s activities.

Horizontal expansion: The Islamist ideologue Youssef Al-Qaradawi’s 1990 book The Priorities for the Islamic Movements in the Coming Phase has functioned as a kind of constitution for Brotherhood movements in the West since the early 1990s.     

Al-Qaradawi calls for abandoning violence and the use of preaching, dialogue, and other peaceful means to forge a middle way between extremism and secularism. The most important part of the book is his discussion of Muslims in the West, the expected increase in the Muslim population in the West due to higher immigration to western countries, and the dangers of the Muslim minority’s assimilation in these western societies. In the light of this, Al-Qaradawi has promoted the idea of a separate community of western Muslims, which he has termed the “Muslim ghetto” in the West.

Al-Qaradawi’s Brotherhood constitution in the West has acted as a political project aimed at building on the reserves accumulated by the group through its federations and national bodies in the major European countries of France, Germany, and the UK. In 1989, the Brotherhood established the nucleus for its horizontal expansion on the European continent by establishing the Federation of Islamic Organisations in Europe, which took the UK as its temporary headquarters. The Federation is the forward face of all Brotherhood and Brotherhood-sympathising organisations, entities, and associations across Europe. Functioning as the diplomatic representative of the Brotherhood, it employs a political discourse that focuses on democracy and human rights.

The Federation has created a group of subsidiary organisations similar to specialised UN agencies, such as the European Trust, which collects funds for Brotherhood associations, and the European Institute for Human Sciences, based in France with branches in the UK, which trains about 200 imams and preachers every year who go on to lead Brotherhood-affiliated mosques in Europe.

In 1996, the federation established the European Youth Forum and other student organisations with Gulf funding to be the voice of European Muslim youth. The forum includes 37 officially affiliated associations and has representation in the European Parliament and the European Commission, the latter financing several of these associations’ activities. In 2006, it established the European Forum for Muslim Women in Brussels composed of 14 organisations from Belgium, France, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Italy, the UK, Spain, Ireland, Greece, and Bosnia.

As it increased the number of organisations under its umbrella, the Federation of Islamic Organisations in Europe moved its headquarters to Brussels in 1997 to be close to the EU institutions. This has made it easier to find European funding for the associations’ activities, to lobby on Islamic issues like Palestine, Iraq, and Kashmir, and to lobby against the Arab regimes among the European institutions. The federation is extremely active, and although its headquarters are in Brussels it has branches in Norway, Sweden, Belgium, and the UK that administer youth, educational, and media portfolios.

It has also adopted a strategy of expanding outside the borders of the EU. In addition to associations operating in 18 EU member states, the federation has opened branches in nine other non-EU states: Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Moldova, Russia, Switzerland, Turkey, and Ukraine. It funds its activities through members’ subscriptions, whether from associations, national federations, or Brotherhood-affiliated individuals, as well as through grants and donations from figures like Youssef Nada and pro-Brotherhood Gulf supporters who regularly contribute to its activities.

The most important activity of the federation has been its attempt to take control of fatwas, or religious rulings, in Europe. It established the European Council for Research and Fatwas headed by Youssef Al-Qaradawi in Dublin in 1996 as a primary arm of Brotherhood expansion in Europe. Although the council has denied its ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, it is in fact the official framework for the expression of Sunni Islam for ideological currents within the international Brotherhood and sympathetic movements.

Much like a forum, the council brings together fatwa scholars from around the Islamic world, and it has allowed the Brotherhood and allied movements to tighten their spiritual control over European Muslims.

The writer is a specialist in international relations.

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