Guest Author: Roel Meijer
The following is excerpted from the Introduction of the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe. Editors Roel Meijer and Erwin Bakker. New York / London: Columbia University Press / Hurst Publishers. 2012
The Muslim Brotherhood is perhaps one of the most contested Islamic organisations in the world. Founded in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna in Egypt, it established a counterweight to the growing Westernisation of the country under British rule. It is, furthermore, regarded as the oldest Islamic organisation that turned Islam into a political activist ideology. In Egypt itself, the Brotherhood rapidly became more popular as it supported Islamic issues, such as the Palestinian revolt in 1936, and more so as the Egyptian monarchy collapsed and politics became radicalised. With its paramilitary youth organisations, it followed a militant trend that the political parties had already pioneered. It distinguished itself, however, by establishing a secret organisation, which developed into a terrorist cell that plotted the assassination of public figures and carried out bomb attacks on Jewish warehouses and institutions. Banned in 1948, its leader Hasan al-Banna was assassinated in 1949.
Since then, the Brotherhood has experienced a bumpy history. Legalised in 1950, it supported the military takeover of the Free Officers two years later, only to become involved in an unequal power struggle ending, in 1954, in its renewed banishment. The subsequent period of trial (mihna) would last until the early 1970s when President Sadat released the Brothers from prison. The agreement was made that they were allowed to operate and exercise da‘wa, as long as they did not become involved in politics. Aside from a brief clamp-down on their movements just before the assassination of Sadat, the honeymoon with the regime would last until the end of the 1980s, when, once again, the regime started to distrust the movement and its intentions. Despite the Brotherhood’s participation in elections in coalition with political parties or as independents, even winning 88 seats (of 454 seats) in 2005, over the last twenty years, its leaders have been constantly harassed, arrested and released in a cat and mouse game with the Mubarak regime.
The muslim brotherhood in Europe
The presence of the Brotherhood in Europe dates from the 1960s, when leaders such as Said Ramadan and other refugees from Egypt and Syria settled there to escape persecution of the military regimes. As the different chapters of this volume make clear, these migrants never intended to stay and mainly saw Europe as a base to recuperate and eventually reclaim the homeland from the regimes that had banished them. To what extent the rapidly expanding student organisations were part of the Brotherhood remains unclear. In Spain and Germany, the local organisations set up by Egyptians, Syrians and others were extensions of the Middle Eastern organisations of which they were members. In France and the UK, relations were looser and more informal. What is clear is that these organisations gradually became more involved in European society, by helping to build mosques and Muslim societies with and for migrant workers from Turkey, Morocco, Algeria, Pakistan and India. It was only in the 1980s and 1990s, when many of the students and migrants decided to stay in Europe, that these communities started to build the network of Muslim organisations that today cover the continent.
Research and Politics
It would be naive to think that research into the Muslim Brotherhood could be carried out in a political vacuum. The movement’s political ambitions, totalizing ideology and violent history have dogged the movement itself. Moreover, it has put a heavy burden on its current leaders and affiliated organisations, which are always pursued by its past and held in suspicion. At a time when Islam is regarded as a threat to the West and the Brotherhood is considered to be one of its most important political movements, the Brotherhood has come to embody this threat. Thus, researchers are immediately confronted with its negative image. Any volume on the Brotherhood should, therefore, address this negative image and try to separate the valid arguments from the spurious ones.
A cursory glance on the Internet and in newspapers shows that the differences of opinion run deep and emotions evoked by the Brotherhood regularly reach new heights. A dividing line in Europe runs between those politicians, journalists and researchers who believe, on the one hand, that organisations associated with the Brotherhood promote the integration of Muslims into European society and those, on the other side, who regard them as an obstacle to integration.
Accusing the Muslim Brotherhood
The most commonly heard accusation is that Brotherhood-affiliated organisations speak with a forked tongue. While they present themselves as democrats towards the European authorities, with the purpose to acquire good standing and influence, its leaders are suspected to actually be intolerant militants when speaking to their own following.
Another means of discrediting the Brotherhood is to point out the persistent popularity and influence of its historic leaders, specifically those who condoned or promoted violence, such as the Egyptians Hasan al-Banna (1906-49) and Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), and the Pakistani Abu A’la alMawdudi (d. 1973). The Brotherhood’s slogan, ‘Allah is our goal, the messenger is our model, the Quran is our constitution, jihad is our means, and martyrdom in the way of Allah is our aspiration’ is cited ad nauseam. In France, some talk of the ‘secret ambitions’ of the UOIF and its ‘discours de façade’,or ‘le double langage’.
The Muslim Brotherhood is frequently associated with terrorism. Some
critics regard it as the source of all Islamic terrorism, of which Al-Qaeda is
the latest manifestation. However, the most common way to discredit the Brotherhood and its affiliated organisations is to link them to Hamas, regarded by the United States as a terrorist organisation. By far the most fundamental accusation is that the Muslim Brotherhood is taking advantage of the freedom of organisation and expression in Europe in order to take over the continent and Islamise it. Once inside the halls of power, critics discern that the Brotherhood tries to put its plan of infiltration into practice, even becoming the ally of the state in its struggle against terrorism. In the UK, for instance, members of the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) and the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) were appointed by the government to the Mosques’ and Imams’ National Advisory Board (MINAB) to fight extremism. But many believe that, ‘far from being an ally in the fight against extremism, the MCB is part of the problem.’
The complexities of the Brotherhoods
This volume is meant to contribute to the discussion on Brotherhood-affiliated organisations. It aims to show that the role of these organisations is a far more complex story than that which is typically portrayed in the press or the political arena. Moreover, it investigates the extent to which the various arguments against the Muslim Brotherhood can be considered valid, one-sided or unfounded.
As with all conspiracy theories that try to portray the enemy as a solid front, the critics often forget that the Brotherhood has been wracked with internal disputes. For instance, the Brotherhood in Egypt supported the Khomeini revolution in 1979, while those branches in Saudi Arabia (organised in the Sahwa) did not. Likewise, the Brotherhood in Egypt supported the invasion of Kuwait in 1990-1, in opposition to the Kuwaiti branch, which was opposed. During the first years of the American invasion of Iraq, the Islamic Party of Iraq was one of the closest allies of the Americans, while other Brotherhood organisations called for resistance against American occupation.
However, not only between branches, but also within national branches, the front has been far from united. Many internal disputes started in the lands of origin and were transported to Europe. For instance, disputes within the Syrian community contributed to the decline of the Brotherhood’s presence in Spain (Chapter 9). In France, the followers of the Syrian Isam al-Attar, organised in l’Association des étudiants islamiques de France (AEIF), clashed with the UOIF, which followed the Egyptian Brotherhood.
As far as we know, the Syrian disputes also spilled over into Germany; and in the UK, the divisions between Egyptian, Iraqi and Syrian branches often complicate internal cooperation. In the past, the fabled organiser Said Ramadan seems to have clashed with Mustafa Mashhur, who is supposedly the founder of Brotherhood International. However, growing preoccupation with the local situation may decrease the impact of disputes in the country of origin on their affiliated organisations in Europe.
As all the authors in this volume point out, the Brotherhood in Europe was founded by students who had fled the Middle East. And it remains, basically, an elitist organisation. Nowhere have the Brotherhood-affiliated organisations succeeded in becoming mass organisations. Neither has its position as an interlocutor with the state always been that advantageous. In France, many Muslims complain about the meekness of the UOIF. In fact, this seems to be the universal flaw of the Brotherhood: becoming interlocked with the state in a pas de deux that revolves around the issue of power, rather than mobilising its followers. The Collectif des musulmans de France criticised the UOIF of spawning the ‘new Muslim notables of the Republic’. Another flaw in the criticism is that critics do not make a distinction between the branches in the Middle East and those in Europe. They neglect these groups’ tremendous differences, which are growing, as several chapters in this volume make clear. Local circumstances induce Brotherhood-affiliated organisations to revise their concepts and create a European version of the Brotherhood’s heritage.
Challenges of Brotherhood heritage.
It seems that, in the European context, it is more useful to look at ideological and practical changes that are made on a daily basis in relation to mixité, headscarves, and citizenship, rather than to keep on pointing at the continued reference to Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb. Despite this call for a more conscientious analysis of Brotherhood-affiliated organisations in Europe, there are reasons for being critical thereof.
One of the pressing issues is their secrecy, both on the level of the organisations as well as the flow of their money. Some movements seem to be aware of the need to create greater transparency. The suspicions are fed by the categorical denial of all the organisations’ leaders that they are affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Stefan Meining (Chapter 10) shows how the suspicions between the Verfassungsschutz and the IGD feed on each other. Thus, both sides have become locked into an endless game of accusations and denials, which derives from the misconception that the Muslim Brotherhood is an antidemocratic, totalitarian movement opposed to the German Constitution.
Finally, the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood itself still poses problems. Although one should look at the daily influence of, for instance, the European Council for Fatwa and Research (ECFR), the major ideological lines are still not exclusively positive. Even if many of the authors in this volume are able to explain it, the most perplexing aspect of the Brotherhood is the peaceful coexistence of the most contradictory currents of thought. This is evident in Egypt (see Chapters 11 and 12), but is also apparent in Europe.
This book deals primarily with the establishment and expansion of the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe since the 1960s, when its European affiliated branches began to acquire their own dynamics. But clearly developments concerning the Muslim Brotherhood across the Mediterranean cannot be ignored. Due to constant personal, intellectual and financial transnational contacts, the Middle East and Europe have influenced each other. For this reason, we have divided the book into three sections. The first section focuses on more general European and transnational trends within the Brotherhood and Brotherhood-affiliated organisations. It also poses general questions, such as: what are the transnational relations?; are they centrally organised, or should we regard them as networks? In addition, the nature of these organisations will be discussed along with the long-term trends, such as the secularisation of the movement. In the second section, more attention is given to developments in specific countries. Despite a number of prominent works, the history of many of these national organisations is still to be written.
Roel Meijer teaches modern Middle Eastern history at Radboud University in Nijmegen and is senior researcher at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations. He has published widely on Islamist movements, most recently the book Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement.
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