The Muslim Brotherhood always saw Europe as a launching pad for overthrowing Arab regimes, but attempts to Islamicise Europe-based Muslims have failed, writes Tarek Dahroug.
The Muslim Brotherhood organisation spread in Europe after Brotherhood members began leaving Arab countries for the continent in the mid-1950s against the backdrop of conflicts with political regimes, specifically in Egypt, Syria and Iraq.
Prominent Brotherhood members who ended up in Europe include Said Ramadan (the son-in-law of Hassan Al-Banna and the father of Brotherhood ideologue in Europe Tarek Ramadan, one of the group’s main ideological tools in Europe in the present day). Said Ramadan settled in Geneva and branched out to Germany (West Germany at the time) in the late 1950s, establishing the Munich mosque and its associated Islamic centre in 1961.
This became the nucleus of the Brotherhood organisation and the institutional networks that still exist today. (Mohamed Mahdi Akef, the former general guide, was the imam of the mosque in the second half of the 1980s.) The Munich phase was the product of close cooperation between Egyptian and Syrian Brotherhood currents led by Issam Al-Attar and Ghaleb Himmat. The Syrian Brotherhood used its presence in Aachen in West Germany and its proximity to France and Belgium to expand the institutional Brotherhood base in Europe.
Thanks to the efforts of the Egyptian Brotherhood, the Islamic Committee of Germany was established in 1982. Functioning as the umbrella organisation of Arab mosques in Germany, it took the Munich mosque as its seat. The association controlled mosques spread across several German cities, including Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Cologne and Nuremberg. This is in addition to the Muslim Students Associations, established by Egyptian Brotherhood members in Germany in 1964 as a feeder of the Munich mosque.
The 1970s saw the Brotherhood make qualitative advances in Europe as the political regime in Egypt opened up to the Islamist current and in the shadow of the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Brotherhood cadres were able to use the rise of political Islam in the Middle East to expand its target groups among immigrant communities in Europe, especially among students studying in European universities, most of whom came from the middle classes. Traditional Brotherhood activity had been centred on the first waves of immigrants in the 1960s, most of whom were workers of low social and educational levels.
The 1980s saw a breakthrough for the Brotherhood in Europe in light of two important factors. First, compared to the 1970s, more middle-class Arabs began studying in Europe. Second, second-generation immigrants began to make their presence felt on the European scene after graduating from European educational institutions. The international Brotherhood organisation exploited this by creating new organisational structures to respond to new developments, especially the rise of European Muslims who did not speak Arabic and had little facility with Islamic rites of worship.
The Brotherhood redoubled its vertical efforts by expanding its institutional network in European cities with a strong Muslim presence, particularly in France, Britain, Belgium and of course Germany, the earliest nucleus of the Brotherhood in Europe. In tandem with this, the group began establishing associations working with youth, women and students, and offering social assistance.
It also began acting on a more regional level. The Muslim Youth Association in France, for example, after its establishment in the 1980s in France and Belgium, began organising a series of periodic lectures and panels to spread religious awareness among second-generation Muslim immigrants who did not speak Arabic.
At the same time, the international Brotherhood organisation set up local and regional organisations using North African Brotherhood members, who acquired increasing importance, and these spawned smaller Brotherhood associations and institutions. In 1983, the Federation of Islamic Organisations was created in France employing North African Brotherhood personnel.
The Federation of Islamic Organisations in Europe was established in 1989 in Britain (its headquarters was later moved to Brussels). Considered the umbrella organisation for all Brotherhood associations and institutions in European territory, it was estimated to comprise 500 associations in 29 European countries, controlling hundreds of European mosques, about half of them in France.
It should be noted that France represents the ideological centre of Brotherhood activity given the group’s control of an estimated 250 associations and 100 mosques and religious centres in several cities; most importantly, Marseille, Lille, Bordeaux and Dijon. But the group is concentrated largely in the east and south of the country (in addition to attempts to increase its presence in the capital). The Brotherhood largely monopolises Islamic outreach in these areas at the expense of other groups such as Al-Tabligh wa Al-Dawa.During the 1990s, the international Brotherhood organisation began to diversify its engagement with Europe by establishing new, issue-based institutions outside the traditional outreach framework, such as the Committee for Charity and Solidarity with Palestine in France, the Aqsa Association in Belgium, and Interpal in Britain.
This era also saw an expansion of Brotherhood youth organisations, as new associations were formed, such as the Federation of Muslim Youth in Lyon, France, the Muslim Students Association in France, and the Islamic Society Association and Muslim Youth in Britain. These groups were formed in coordination with a number of international Islamic associations, including the Gulf-financed Global Association for Muslim Youth.
More important in this context, however, is that Brotherhood leaders began expanding specialised religious institutions as religious arms of the organisation in Europe through the establishment of the European Institute of Human Sciences in France (the writings of leading Brotherhood figures are the primary material for study), which trains preachers in Europe and has graduated several hundred students. In addition, the Dublin-based European Council for Fatwa and Research, headed by Youssef Al-Qaradawi, provides fatwas for European Muslim youth as a tool for Brotherhood control and infiltration.
The attacks of 11 September 2001 marked the beginning of a new phase for the Brotherhood in Europe. The group exploited European countries’ need to contain Islamism by establishing representative councils for Muslims, using its institutional weight and historical presence to present itself as an intermediary between Muslims and various European authorities. This was clearly demonstrated by the influential presence of Brotherhood members, both from North Africa and the Levant, in the Islamic Council in Britain, the Executive Council of Belgian Muslims, and the French Council of the Islamic Religion in France.
In 2006, the Brotherhood organisation in Germany was a major player in the conference on German Islam, organised by the German Interior Ministry with the goal of setting guidelines for interactions between Muslims and non-Muslims in the country. Through the Central Council for Muslims in Germany, the Brotherhood became one of five groups in the conference acting as an intermediary between German Muslims and their government — tantamount to official recognition of Brotherhood’s pull in Germany.
Brotherhood associations also acquired a firm lobbying presence in European institutions, especially the European Parliament, which allows affiliation by European associations and organisations working in economic and social affairs and human rights.
THE BROTHERHOOD’S IDEOLOGICAL STRATEGY IN EUROPE:
The ideological strategy of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s and 1990s was to use Europe politically as a platform for activities opposed to Arab regimes hostile to the Brotherhood, as well as to exploit relations with European organisations and political circles to bring down Arab regimes.
The central idea among the Brotherhood was that Europe, as the seat of the multinational Islamist opposition, with Brotherhood members from Egypt and the Levantine and North African branches, could act as the cornerstone for future Islamic regimes in the Arab world. In pursuit of this, the Brotherhood chose to prioritise re-Islamising the social practices of immigrants and second-generation Muslims, given that conditions in European Muslim communities had distanced them from Arabic and the sound practice of Islamic teachings.
The goal was to politicise religion by establishing a network of Brotherhood associations and organisations capable of offering services and resolving immigrants’ socioeconomic problems, which would link them ideologically with the Brotherhood in the short and medium term.
The Brotherhood’s ideological strategy in Europe sought to promote a comprehensive understanding of Islam and social behaviour based on reconciling the demands of Islamic teachings with the demands of European life and culture. To this end, the Brotherhood adopted a discourse promoting the need to integrate in European political and social life by encouraging its adherents and sympathetic youth to participate politically, whether through local and parliamentary elections or through involvement in European political parties.
At the same time, the international Brotherhood organisation played the “Islamic citizenship” card, positing itself as the conduit between European Muslims and their governments in issues of concern to Muslims, such as racism, the marginalisation of the suburbs, the construction of houses of worship, and other religious matters.
Through the idea of Islamic citizenship, the Brotherhood was able to use events in Europe to make additional gains. An example is the crisis of the headscarf in France in 1989. The Federation of Islamic Organisations in France (a Brotherhood arm) inflamed the crisis to acquire more legitimacy among European Muslims. In Britain, through the Council of British Muslims, the group mobilised demonstrations in British cities against the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The evolution of the status of Muslims in Europe and the emergence of new generations prompted the rise of a class of religious intermediaries who attempted to speak an educated, tolerant discourse in contrast to the traditional religious discourse of preachers and imams. The Brotherhood in Europe supported Tarek Ramadan and his brother Hani Ramadan (grandsons of Hassan Al-Banna) as the main prop of Brotherhood ideology in Europe.
Ramadan played an important role in the attempt to Islamise new generations of European Muslims by encouraging social assimilation and promoting an understanding of European Islam among youth circles, which initially was viewed with great credibility at the expense of traditional imams.
Ramadan presented himself as a reformist in 1994 after the publication of Les musulmans dans la laïcité, in which he argues that Muslims in European societies must engage as European citizens who respect the Quran and Sunna in a way appropriate to the demands of European societies, requiring a full reconciliation between the Muslim and his status as a European citizen and the need to break with the culture of his ancestral country.
This superficially open yet isolationist discourse managed to attract the marginalised classes who were striving to reconcile their European identity with their Islamic one. It also resonated in European communities who found in it a way out of the repeated crises with Islam.
Nevertheless, Ramadan later came under attack by some Muslims and Europeans who argued that European laws allow full freedom of worship, which requires no break or isolation from the native culture. Moreover, Muslims’ problems in European societies were largely socioeconomic at root.
The Brotherhood’s strategy failed at numerous junctures. The crisis of the group in Europe lies with its ambition to posit religion as the solution to the problems of European Muslims — “Islam is the solution,” as its slogan goes. This failed in European societies that uphold separation of religion and state and limit religion to the purely private, individual sphere.
In the wider context, the strategy had only modest success. This was a result of several factors, including the weak number of adherents to Islam in Europe and the persistence of European Muslims’ same socioeconomic conditions, particularly with regards to the marginalisation of the suburbs and discrimination against European Muslims, despite the Brotherhood’s promise that Islam was the solution.
In addition, the Brotherhood in Europe failed to put forth an Islamic jurisprudence that considered European Muslims’ circumstances, which naturally differed from those of Muslims in the Arab world, whether in connection to the jurisprudence of minorities or the theory of Islamic citizenship. These issues did not receive a broad response due to the insistence of Brotherhood leaders in Europe in imposing the thought of the group’s leaders, such as Hassan Al-Banna, Sayed Qotb and Youssef Al-Qaradawi, even as no educated current emerged within its structures in Europe, despite the numerous university graduates joining the organisation’s European branches.
Another factor is the political pragmatism of the Brotherhood in Europe, which elevates cutting political deals with European powers over rigorous ideological purity. This was demonstrated in two cases in France: first, the Brotherhood’s utter silence on the law prohibiting religious symbols in French official institutions, part of a deal made with then-French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, and second, the 2005 uprising in the French suburbs, which turned European Muslim youth away from the Brotherhood.
At the time, the Federation of Islamic Organisations in France issued a fatwa criminalising the rioting youths, though the events were largely socioeconomic in nature. As a result, the federation failed to play a role in calming the situation and resolving the crisis by acting as a mediator between the French government and the suburban youth.
The Brotherhood in Europe thus lost much of the ideological momentum that characterised the first generations of the Brotherhood. The European reality dictated that Brotherhood cadres, many of whom were second-generation immigrants, ignore traditional outreach activity and enter European politics, especially with the emergence of representative Muslim councils as an institutional actor on the European scene following the events of 11 September 2001.
In turn, Brotherhood cadres used these councils to make deals with European authorities and exploit their function as a conduit with Muslims in order to instigate against regimes that were hostile to the Brotherhood in the Arab world. This led the Brotherhood to attempt to replace, on the surface, its radical political discourse with a more conciliatory discourse that suggested that the Brotherhood had assimilated into European culture.
The last decade has seen a struggle within the Brotherhood’s institutional structures in Europe on two major levels. The first is between the rigid bloc that fled due to its conflict with Arab regimes — this bloc controls the leadership positions — and the new generations that were born and raised in Europe. The old guard insists on maintaining the status quo, which has had negative consequences for the Brotherhood’s ability to produce a discourse suitable to the reality of the new European generations.
A second struggle is being waged between reformists and conservatives, with the former seeking to induce some sort of break with traditional Brotherhood culture and to fundamentally alter the inherited operating methods of Brotherhood associations and organisations, which has reduced support for the Brotherhood among European Muslims.
The last decade demonstrates the limits of the Brotherhood model in Europe, both in its ability to mobilise youth and in advancing the project to Islamise youth in Europe, which has always been the cornerstone of the Brotherhood enterprise in European territory.
A disparity is now observable between the Brotherhood’s media presence in Europe and its actual influence on the ground, particularly in light of fierce competition from other Islamist entities, such as the European branches of the Moroccan Al-Adl wa Al-Ihssane, the Justice and Development Party and the Lebanese Ahbash, all of which have succeeded in attracting many segments of European youth thanks to their practical political discourse.