A few weeks ago, the Central Council of Muslims (ZMD) in Germany announced that it had formally separated from one of its founding members, the German Muslim Community (DMG, formerly the Islamic Community in Germany or IGD). The ZMD is the best-known contact point for politicians, the media, and other religious communities in Germany when it comes to concerns of Germany’s Muslim population. ZMD is ever-present in the German media and has made many contacts in politics over the years of its existence.
The DMG had come under public criticism for its association with the Muslim Brotherhood. The press release from the ZMD announcing its schism with the DMG, sent out on 31 January 2022, brought a temporary end to this public controversy. In the period since the DMG’s membership was suspended in 2019, the ZMD has become more publicly visible and entrenched itself further in the media, civil society, and politics. Now that DMG has been expelled, are we really to really believe there are no more Brothers in the ZMD?
Largest Organization in which Muslim Brothers Organize Themselves in Germany: The DMG
The DMG is considered the largest organization in Germany where the Muslim Brotherhood came together. It is also the best-known, although it has been renamed several times over the course of its existence in an attempt to get rid of the taint of surveillance by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV). However, these maneuvers and lawsuits mostly failed. As a member of the ZMD, DMG had a channel to politics—which it would hardly have had without it.
When the then ZMD chairman Köhler brought the then-IGD chairman Ibrahim El-Zayat to the “German Islam Conference” in 2007, a round of talks between the German Ministry of the Interior and Muslim organizations, it was a scandal. No one in the Interior Ministry had invited El-Zayat. He was able to stay that day, but the ministry kept its distance from the IGD/DMG. But not from the ZMD.
Especially in recent years, the ZMD has been extremely successful in getting politicians to appear with it at the state and federal level, and it has infiltrated into the highest circles. ZMD projects were supported with public funds, as if the ZMD was not tied to the DMG or did not itself have a problematic composition. When public criticism about the membership was voiced, attention was brought to links with the Turkish ultranationalist Gray Wolves and organizations influenced by Iran’s clerical regime.
Criticism of the DMG as a ZMD member only became louder later. The DMG tried to lie low, not naming its member mosques openly and to letting them appear as independent organizations. Despite clear attribution, there were even lawsuits against those who drew attention to the connection. Years ago, the BfV warned against these camouflage tactics. Other organizations of the Muslim Brotherhood in the ZMD acted more conspiratorially and are still represented in the ZMD; it is not for nothing that the press release is kept very brief.
Who is Still Inside?
The last board list for the ZMD was published in 2016. The last membership list was published at the same time.
The less prominent members of the ZMD have faced less public criticism in recent years. The ZMD has fulfilled some of its objectives, such as the promotion of religious youth work at mosques, and received funds it requested for some of its projects. Politicians have treated the ZMD as if it was not a factional interest, but the representative of a large number of Muslims. The misjudgment by politicians is—in addition to the name—also due to the history of the ZMD. The ZMD is the smallest of the Islamic umbrella organizations in Germany. Nonetheless, since its foundation it has claimed to be able to speak for almost all believing and—above all—practicing Muslims in Germany.
In order to present this claim, in the early phase of the ZMD, in the 1990s, Muslims from various religious strands of Islam and countries of origin who had founded organizations in Germany were represented. The forerunner, the “Islamic Working Group in Germany”, had been the contact point for the common interests of Muslim organizations since 1987. Since it was founded, the ZMD has been dominated by the Islamic Center Aachen (IZA), which also provides the chair. Like the DMG, it has a network of associated mosques.
Years ago, the Hessian Office for the BfV saw the DMG and the IZA network as ideologically similar and also comparable in terms of the number of sympathizers. The DMG is considered to have been founded by the Muslim Brotherhood of Egyptian origin, while the IZA is influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood of Syrian origin.
The Diyanet İşleri Türk İslam Birliği (DITIB), the Turkish state’s religious ministry, as the outfit with most mosque associations in Germany, was never a formal member. The proximity to Turkey and the sheer size of the country probably allowed DITIB-linked groups to feel that they could speak to German politicians on their own authority. As such, the ZMD primarily included those organizations of Turkish origin that were smaller, less connected to the Turkish state, and/or for whom Turkish state Islam in the 1990s was not pious enough. With the exception of the Avrupa Türk-İslam Birliği (ATIB), which is on the Gray Wolves spectrum, these associations are no longer represented in the ZMD.
The idea of even uniting Shiites and Sunnis in the diaspora was also initially present. However, it was undermined with the founding of a Shiite umbrella organization, the Islamic Community of Shiite Communities in Germany (IGS). The ZMD member Islamisches Zentrum Hamburg (IZH) is unofficially the most influential member of this umbrella organization. The IGS, founded in 2009, includes over 100 member associations. This overlap is not overtly recognized, though it does mean that, on paper, at least this one Shiite mosque is a member of the ZMD and a representative of the IZH is still listed as a board member of the ZMD.
Despite the ZMD’s large media profile, the recent announcement remained curiously neglected in the coverage. Only a few media outlets, such as the “Welt” from the Springer Group, took up the message and reported it. Other social actors, such as the churches, which have built up the ZMD into a dialogue partner for politics over the years, do not seem to notice the structural changes in the ZMD at all. How to explain this?
One answer is that the ZMD is needed—or felt to be needed. The press can always rely on ZMD as the quick-response “Islamic voice” when Muslims are affected by an incident. The ZMD chairman appears to have no other job than that of lobbyist—and managing director of the subsidiaries of the ZMD. This is in contrast to other board members of the ZMD, who are gynecologists or businessmen. His only self-declared position is the ambiguous label “political consultant”. He always makes time for the press, and in return they avoid taking a closer look at what it is he actually does.
The ZMD was inflated by the churches to become a partner in politics because they can then pass off their own interests as the interests of believers in general. And the ZMD is used by politicians because many believe that the ZMD opens up access to Muslim voters. However, a study by the Federal Ministry of the Interior showed in 2020 that only 16 percent of German Muslims know the ZMD and only seven percent feel represented by it. This leads to a core problem in dealing with politics in the ZMD.
It is not just that the ZMD is unrepresentative of German Islam. The politicians and churchmen who deal with it do so under the expectation that if only the ZMD was financed in a church-like manner, it will behave in a church-like manner. The problem is that the ZMD does not think this way. Although it wants to be a religious community, it is not church-like—either in composition, structure, or in the way it teaches its members. But the self-interest of politicians—especially those close to the church—overrules these facts; they want a Muslim association that appears to be influenceable and presentable, so they choose to see one, and it does not matter how often this leap of faith ends up with the ZMD repaying their trust by involving long-standing Muslim Brothers in publicly-funded projects.
The conspiratorial nature of the Muslim Brotherhood is one of the aspects that has led to its decline in the Middle East. The ZMD, however, tries to justify this behavior by claiming its lack of transparency—about its membership and internal structure—is necessary because of security concerns. There is no reason to believe this is true. More likely, they understand that their public image would suffer if their membership was disclosed. The last available membership list revealed a number of members with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, for example. It is known that a number of members are or have been under surveillance by the BfV. The ATIB association, which is large in the ZMD, has been mentioned in the BfV Report for two consecutive years. The IZH has been under the surveillance of the Hamburg Office for the BfV for many years. And a number of individual factions are also under scrutiny from the security authorities. The fact is that all the same problems as applied with the DMG apply with the ZMD.
The IZA was mentioned in reports by the BfV for many years. The fact that it has not been included in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia’s report in recent years does not mean that it is not observed; it is simply a reflection of the measures IZA has taken to hide its activities. IZA has not changed in structure or ideology. IZA continues to be involved in the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood’s action network, as was only recently made clear, yet again, in the September 2021 final report by the Diyanet and the European Council for Fatwa and Research (ECFR), a body once led by Yusuf al-Qaradawi and dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, in September last year.
In order to distance itself from this milieu, the ZMD started, a number of years ago, to create a more decentralized structure that maps onto Germany’s federal structures and to set-up deniable fronts. The future will show whether this camouflage succeeds.
The fact that the DMG has now been excluded does not free the ZMD from its Muslim Brotherhood ties. The separation answers only part of the criticism of the ZMD, which has been getting louder and louder since 2019. But the other criticism—of the IZH, the ATIB, and other members—remains. The activities of IZA, in particular, as a highly influential component of the ZMD, have come under increasing public scrutiny. In my estimation, this will mean that IZA will have to exclude more and more members—shrinking the ZMD even further, and making it even more unrepresentative of Germany’s Muslims. Assessing this will remain difficult, however, for as long as the membership list remains secret—and for as long as the IZA continues to be protected from realistic public assessment by the churches, the media, politicians, and parts of civil society. What might break through this obfuscation is if the IZA itself is once again mentioned in the BfV reports. That is possible—and it would also be appropriate.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.