A new report by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, “Muslim Networks and Movements in Western Europe,” profiles several of the oldest, largest and most influential Muslim groups operating in Western Europe today. The report focuses on transnational networks and movements whose origins lie in the Muslim world but that now have an established presence in Western Europe, and examines how such movements seek to influence the views and daily lives of Muslims living there. The selected groups represent the diverse histories, missions and organizational structures found among Muslim organizations in Western Europe. These include: the Gülen Movement; the Muslim Brotherhood and Jama?at-i Islami; the Muslim World League and World Assembly of Muslim Youth; Jihadi Networks and Hizb ut-Tahrir; Sufi Orders; and Tablighi Jama?at. The report explores the groups’ origins, purposes and activities, offering a detailed look at their differing religious and political agendas, as well as their views on religious law, religious education and the assimilation of Muslims into European society.
“Muslim Networks and Movements in Western Europe” also examines how European governments are interacting with these groups, the relationships between the groups themselves, and future challenges these networks and movements face, particularly in regard to generational shifts in the leadership and membership ranks.
Some of the report’s findings include:
- Although many Muslims in Western Europe participate in the activities of these movements and networks, the groups’ formal membership rolls appear to be relatively small. Despite the low levels of formal membership, these groups often exert significant influence by setting agendas and shaping debates within Muslim communities in Western Europe.
- The growing connections between Islamic groups and European governments, as well as the integration of some of these groups into the continent’s political mainstream, have not led to a decrease in activism on the part of these groups. If anything, Muslim groups and movements have become more visible on the European political stage.
- Partly in reaction to the growth and visibility of Muslim movements in Western Europe, Christian and Jewish organizations in the region also have attracted more public attention in recent years and taken on renewed relevance in the eyes of some Europeans. In that sense, Muslim groups, collectively, may be helping to create more space for religion in general in the European public square.
- Most, if not all, of the Muslim movements and networks with a significant presence in Western Europe can also be found in North America.
It appears that the report tries to beyond the focus on radicalization and/or anti-integration tendencies (several of the groups in the report are often linked to that) and to provide a better understanding of how these transnational networks and movements try to influence views and daily lives of Muslims in Western Europe. The report does provide us with a some insight into whether or not each group tends to shy away from extremism and stimulate integration, but it does not give any clue if one of these groups is directly tied to terrorism which, according to Peter Mandaville (the author of the report), is impossible to tell. I agree with him on that since, as he argues as well, a movement’s goals and activities may not be directed at supporting or promoting terrorism (and can even be anti-extremism) but this says nothing about individuals. Moreover since many Muslims do not exactly know what the political outlook is of many of these networks (and be driven to it for other reasons such as their ethnic and regional identities), their participation in it does not necessarily mean that they endorse such views. Also many people often participate, simultaneously, in activities of different groups.
There is no reference to the Netherlands in this report with the exception of a chart that show the distribution of Muslims in Western Europe and a table with the number of Muslims in Western Europe. And with the exception of the Gülen Movement:
The Gülen movement refers to a cluster of religious, educational and social organizations founded and inspired by Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Islamic scholar, author and speaker now in his late 60s. The movement strives to give faithful Muslims the secular education they need to thrive in the modern world. At the same time, it also emphasizes the importance of traditional religious teachings. To this end, the movement has inspired the creation of a worldwide network of schools and other centers of learning that focus on secular subjects in the classroom but also offer extracurricular programs that emphasize religious themes. […]The Gülen movement generally shies away from building ties with other Muslim organizations in the European countries where it has a presence. At one level, this self-segregation reflects the distinctively Turkish character of the movement. Indeed, outside of Turkey the movement appeals primarily to ethnic Turks. It is therefore not surprising that the movement’s influence and impact in Western Europe are highest in countries with sizeable Turkish communities, such as Germany and the Netherlands. To some extent, the Gülen movement also keeps its distance from other Turkish groups in Europe. In Germany, for example, the movement pursues a middle ground between two other major Turkish Islamic groups – the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (known by the Turkish acronym DITIB), an organization closely tied to the secular Turkish government, and the Islamist-leaning Millî Görü? organization.
The Gülen movement’s reluctance to join forces with other Muslim groups is not solely a case of self-segregation, however. It also reflects the movement’s commitment to the assimilation of Muslims into European society. While some Muslim groups encourage members and followers to emphasize their Islamic identity, the Gülen movement teaches that Muslims should work with and within the majority society.
Nevertheless also the report’s findings on other movements are important for the Dutch situation. I will quote the findings on the most relevant ones, focusing on the controversies surrounding the movements:
Muslim Brotherhood and Jama’ at-i Islami
The Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates often succeed in setting the public agenda for European Muslims more broadly. But this agenda may be changing. While many of the original Brotherhood-inspired organizations are still headed by the first generation of leaders – many of whom were born outside of Europe – the second and, in some cases, the third generation of leaders – mostly born in Europe – are coming to the fore. Many of the younger leaders are pressing for an agenda that focuses on the interests and needs of Muslims in particular European countries rather than on global Islamic causes, such as the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
Although its agenda might be changing, the Muslim Brotherhood remains controversial in many parts of Western Europe. Many Europeans believe that some Brotherhood-affiliated organizations are promoting agendas that encourage their followers to think of themselves first and foremost as Muslims, thus hindering the assimilation of Muslims in Europe.21 There also has been some scrutiny of Brotherhood-linked figures in Europe who have made anti-Semitic remarks, made comments in support of suicide bombings in Israel or been involved in fundraising for groups linked to Hamas, the militant Palestinian Islamic group.22 Others have raised questions about the possible links between some Brotherhood-affiliated groups in the Middle East and global terrorists.23 For these reasons, the leaders of Brotherhood-affiliated groups in Europe may continue to face questions about the movement’s complicated history, even as they struggle to make their agenda relevant to new generations of Muslims.
The influence of radical Islamist groups and movements has been felt throughout the broader Muslim community of Western Europe. The general climate of fear and insecurity prompted by recent terrorist attacks has resulted in considerable public scrutiny of European Muslims, including anti-terrorism initiatives that have raised civil rights concerns among many Muslims. Some radical groups, including Hizb ut-Tahrir, claim that these anti-terrorism policies represent evidence that Muslims will never be fully welcome in the West.
In the face of what is often experienced as an onslaught of competing and sometimes contradictory views on religion available through the Web and other new media channels, some Muslims have found that affiliation with a Sufi order offers an appealing alternative: a single, reliable source of information on Islam that comes with a personal spiritual guide.40 The new wave of enthusiasm for Islamic mysticism suggests that this tradition will continue to have a pervasive influence across Europe’s Muslim communities.
Al-Qaradawi’s pragmatic approach to Islamic jurisprudence and his willingness to use various media outlets to spread his views have made him a popular figure with younger Muslims, particularly those living in Europe and North America. At the same time, some of his statements have made him a controversial figure in the West and led to him being banned from traveling to the U.K. since 2008. In a BBC interview, for example, he expressed his support for Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel, saying, “It’s not suicide, it is martyrdom in the name of God.”47
Prior to being banned from Britain, al-Qaradawi had used London as a platform to convene some of his global projects, such as the International Union of Muslim Scholars – an effort to combat the fragmentation of traditional religious authority by fostering a unified body of classically trained scholars speaking with a single voice on major religious and world issues.
A New Kind of Islamic Movement?
For the most part, figures like Khaled and Naik do not have ties to established Islamic social or political movements. Indeed, some think their popularity speaks to a desire among Muslims in Europe – particularly young Muslims – to move away from what some people perceive as the rigid organizational hierarchies and highly politicized agendas of groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb ut-Tahrir in favor of more pragmatic solutions to everyday problems.
There are also signs that younger generations of European Muslims are looking for a return to the doctrinal purity of “authentic” Islamic teachings based on classical scholarship. Indeed, this may help explain the recent upsurge of interest among young Muslims in Salafism – a highly conservative but generally apolitical school of Islamic thought that is frequently associated with religious influences emanating from Saudi Arabia.53 The theological influence of Salafism can be found in a number of Muslim groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood and the Tablighi Jama’at. But some scholars have argued that Salafism is influential enough in its own right that it should be regarded as Islam’s “new religious movement.”54
Notably absent from the networks of religious scholars are Tariq Ramadan, Mustafa Ceric (Grand Mufti of Bosnia) and Abdal Hakim Murad, a Cambridge University scholar because they did not create a network of institutions and media outlets to disseminate their ideas. One of the most important organisations in the Netherlands in the past was the Muslim World League (Rabita Al-Alam al-Islami, chaired in the past by Mohammed Cheppih) that has a strong Saudi connection.
The influence of more established da’wa groups such as the League and the Assembly has also waned as new technologies have made it easier for other groups to reach wide audiences. Discussions about issues relevant to Muslims are increasingly taking place on the Web – in blogs and in social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter. In many cases, those leading the discussions no longer seek or need the legitimacy that affiliation with a transnational organization such as the League or the Assembly once conferred. Even when European Muslims are seeking information on Saudi-style Islam, they can go to the websites of such high-profile scholars as Saudi cleric Salman al-Audah, the force behind the popular website islamtoday.com, and the late Nasiruddin al-Albani, rather than trying to obtain information from the League or the Assembly.
Although the Muslim World League and the World Assembly of Muslim Youth are less familiar to young Muslims in Europe today than they were a generation ago, these well-funded groups continue to exert substantial influence through their extensive outreach efforts and publishing networks. And while the two groups are no longer the sole purveyors of Saudi-style Islam to European audiences, they still represent an important infrastructure for propagating conservative religious views from the Middle East throughout Europe.
The Tablighi Jama’at (“Society for Spreading Faith”) is a global educational and missionary movement whose primary purpose is to encourage Muslims everywhere to be more religiously observant. It currently operates in roughly 150 countries around the world, including in Western Europe.
According to the teachings of the Tablighi Jama’at, the reformation of society is achieved through personal spiritual renewal. To this end, the group encourages its followers to undertake short-term preaching missions, known as khuruj, in order to reinforce the religious norms and practices that, in its view, underpin a moral society. These missions typically last from a few days to a few months.
The movement does not have a large formal membership. Instead, it is largely comprised of small groups of itinerant male preachers – usually no more than 10 per group – who travel, eat, sleep, wash and pray together and often observe strict regimens relating to dress and personal grooming. When these groups of lay preachers arrive in a new area, they reach out to Muslims of all social strata in an effort to remind them of the core teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and encourage them to attend mosque prayers and listen to sermons.
The Tablighi Jama’at is thought to be one of the world’s largest religious movements.[…]While most followers of the Tablighi Jama’at are primarily interested in matters of personal piety and spiritual self-renewal, some have been accused of having ties to radical networks. This concern has been raised from time to time since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. by journalists, law enforcement personnel and national security policymakers in the West who say the group’s missionary activities and loose organizational structure can be exploited by radical elements.44 “Shoe bomber” Richard Reid, who in 2001 tried to set off a bomb on a commercial aircraft, and John Walker Lindh, the American citizen captured by U.S. forces with Taliban soldiers in Afghanistan in 2001, both spent time in Tablighi circles. And because the group has strong ties to Deobandi Islam, the same school of thought that informs the religious worldview of the Taliban, certain Tablighi Jama’at leaders from South Asia have been linked to some of the same networks as Taliban scholars.
For researchers the report probably does not provide much new information and understandings. For journalist and policy makers however it provides a balanced approach and should be regarded as compulsory reading.