Dr. Lorenzo Vidino is the Director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. An expert on Islamism in Europe and North America, his research focuses on the mobilization dynamics of jihadist networks in the West, governmental CVE policies, and the activities of Muslim Brotherhood-inspired organizations in the West.
In 2010, he published The New Muslim Brotherhood in the West, and his most recent book, The Closed Circle: Joining and Leaving the Muslim Brotherhood in the West, offers unique inside views into the Brotherhood’s ideology and strategies, and the hows and whys of some individuals’ decision to leave the Movement.
Sara Brzuszkiewicz: When talking about the complex world of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West, you are the top expert. In your latest book The Closed Circle. Joining and Leaving the Muslim Brotherhood in the West, you recall how you first become interested in the movement. Can you tell us something about it?
Lorenzo Vidino: First of all, I am not sure I would call myself the top expert—but thank you. If I am, it is arguably by default. In 2014 I was retained by the British government to work on the Muslim Brotherhood official review and, when I asked the late Charles Farr, then director of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism at the Home Office, why they had chosen me, he said: “If we want an expert on the Brotherhood in Egypt, there are at least forty; Brotherhood in Jordan a dozen; Syria a dozen. But the Brotherhood in the West? It’s basically just you.” It’s a puzzling dynamic, since the topic is enormously consequential from a policy perspective.
I got interested in the subject in the late 1990s. At the time, a mosque in my hometown of Milan had been in the news for being a hub for jihadists going to Bosnia. What fascinated me was the fact that the people who paid for the mosque and sponsored the visas of many of its leaders were not hardcore jihadists, but a few high-profile Middle Eastern businessmen who also presided over a web of companies in various continents, controlled a bank incorporated in the Bahamas, and had spent decades rubbing elbows with the elites of both the East and the West.
They were remarkably astute members of the Muslim Brotherhood in their countries of origin who had settled in the West in the previous decades to escape persecution and had played a crucial role in establishing the network of the Brotherhood in Europe and North America. The Milan cluster and those connected to it provided me with a glimpse into the sophistication and transnationality of the Brotherhood: shell companies in Liechtenstein, a poultry factory and a software company in America, real estate investments in Africa and the Middle East, high-profile contacts all over the world. At the same time, they had views that were abhorrent and connections with some of the world’s most violent terrorists. It fascinated me.
Another aspect gripped me with even greater intensity. While the Brotherhood was founded in Egypt and its original ideology focused on reshaping the Muslim-majority societies of the Middle East, it was clear that it had long established a presence in the West. It soon also became evident that it had created organizations that, while not calling themselves “Muslim Brotherhood” and, actually, refuting charges of being linked to the movement, were closely linked to the movement and played a crucial role in the dynamics of Western Muslim communities. They controlled a large number of mosques and had become the de facto representatives (some would say gatekeepers) of said communities in the eyes of Western establishments. What were the implications of these developments which, albeit with some differences, had taken place in most Western countries? For the last twenty years I have been trying to study these phenomena.
S.B.: How did you come up with the idea of writing a book about individuals who leave the Brotherhood?
L.V.: Over the years, I repeatedly “stumbled” upon individuals who had left Muslim Brotherhood networks in various Western countries. A few of these individuals I met personally, others had written about their experiences in books or blogs. Their insider’s perspective struck me as a unique way to deepen my knowledge on a proverbially secretive organization. I was also fascinated by the psychological processes that had led them to join and, even more, leave the Brotherhood.
I therefore decided to base my new book on interviews with them. The individuals I profiled occupied various ranks in the group, from top leaders to hangers-on. They operated in different countries and at different times, and obviously they had different reasons for joining and leaving.
Each chapter is similarly structured, patterned on the three cycles of their militancy: becoming, being, and leaving. The first part focuses on how each individual joined the Brotherhood, with particular attention both to the recruitment methods employed by the organization and the psychological impulses that drove the individual to join. The second section describes his life inside the organization: the role he played, the activities he engaged in, the organizations and the people he interacted with. The third section covers disengagement: the reasons that led each individual to leave the organization, how he did so, and what the aftermath was.
S.B.: It seems that only recently those who have left the Movement began to open up about their own journey. Have you experienced difficulties in convincing them to talk to you?
L.V.: For the dozen or so former members, I interviewed them at length, identified them by name, and there was no problem. A few other formers I contacted refused to speak to me. A few agreed to do so only anonymously.
S.B.: In your book, you interview former Brothers with diverse backgrounds, origins, and personal stories. Nevertheless, you spot a few crucial similarities among their paths. What are the recurring reasons that led them to leave the Movement? Would you say it is a form of disengagement?
L.V.: Each story, as it is natural, has its peculiarities, but there are indeed common patterns. All of them spoke of frustration with both organizational and ideological matters, showing a combination of disenchantment with how the group functioned and what ideas it espoused.
Regarding the organization, a common complaint is the Brotherhood’s lack of internal democracy. Its strict application of the principle of al-sam wal-ta’a (listening and obeying)—or, as a former member of the Brotherhood in Belgium sarcastically calls it, “shut your mouth and obey, as a good soldier in submission to the great leader and to all the small middle-ranking leaders”—is often one of the first steps on the road to disenchantment and disengagement from the organization. As Mohamed Louizi, a vocal former member in France, puts it, “the big wigs can call the shots with a phone call, ignoring votes, procedures, and statutes.” Internal corruption, nepotism, and lack meritocracy are related issues frequently mentioned.
Another common source of frustration is excessive secrecy. All formers I interviewed agree that while the secrecy was understandable in the Middle East for the organization to survive the harsh repression of local regimes, it is absolutely unnecessary in the West, particularly in the extreme form adopted. And while they all bemoan the secrecy that envelops all aspects of the group’s life, the former members are most frustrated by the denial of the very existence of the Brotherhood in the West. Many argue that the Brothers would actually enjoy significantly more success in their efforts at engagement if they presented themselves for who they are, as the secrecy is perceived as indicating shame or an attempt to hide dark agendas. All agree it is a major strategic weakness and a behavior that put them off, contributing significantly to their process of disenchantment and disengagement.
While perceived flaws in the organization have been cited by all as crucial in their decision to leave, in most cases deep concerns about the ideology of the Brotherhood had even more weight. Indeed, frustrations about the organization’s inner workings often planted the first seed of doubt, which then led individuals to examine fundamental issues with adherence to the Brotherhood’s creed. The ideological issues that led each individual to disengage are complex and personal, different from case to case. All the interviewees brought up, in one way or another, their frustration at the Western Brotherhood’s prioritization of politics over religion as one major cause.
The different post-Brotherhood trajectories of the individuals analyzed above also reveal the divergent reasons that led them to leave the group. Some, like Kamal Helbawy, do not renounce Islamism altogether but simply reject the version of it adopted by the Brotherhood or, more narrowly, the Brotherhood’s current leadership, whom they believe have strayed from the original teachings of the founder, Hassan al-Banna. For others, like Ahmed Akkari, Mohamed Louizi, and Pierre Durrani, the rejection of Islamism is complete, in all its manifestations and aspects, and they have instead embraced secularism and traditional forms of Islam.
S.B.: When complaining about the lack of internal democracy and the high levels of nepotism, some former members get to the point of talking about “Brotherhood cartels.” What are they?
L.V.: It is one of the aspects of the lack of internal democracy I was discussing earlier. In Europe and North America many of the first-generation Brotherhood pioneers have propelled their wives, children, and in-laws to some of the top positions inside the milieu, creating a small nomenklatura of interconnected activists, an “aristocratic elite” that controls everything. I’m thinking of families like the Nadas, the Himmats, the El-Zayats, the Saghrounis, the Kaddos, the El Haddads. While many of their scions are unquestionably qualified and capable, the dynamic has frustrated many activists who did not belong to any prominent families and saw themselves as being, in their view, unjustly bypassed.
It leads also to related accusations of ethnic bias. In several countries—Spain and Italy, for example—the leadership of most Brotherhood networks (and consequently, of the various Brotherhood-linked public organizations claiming to represent the country’s Muslim population) has long been held by the initial founders, who are almost all from the Levant, and their children. This is to the chagrin of the many activists of activists of North African background and converts, who feel discriminated against. It made quite a few realize that the narrative of Brotherhood [about a universalist creed] is empty talk.
S.B.: At this point in history, how do the goals of the Brotherhood differ in the MENA region and the West?
L.V.: On certain matters, the Brotherhood in the West is very similar to the Brotherhood in the MENA region. Actually, for me that was one of the most surprising findings in the interviews with former members, how certain aspects—how people get recruited into it, the tarbiya curriculum, the functioning of the usra, the hierarchical structure—are virtually identical between Frankfurt, Birmingham, or Chicago and Amman or Cairo.
But a group as pragmatic as the Brotherhood always tailors its goals to the environment in which it operates. While Western Brotherhood networks endorse and support (in words and deeds) the efforts of Islamizing society and obtaining power of their peers in the MENA, they also understand that in the non-Muslim-majority countries of the West the goals have to realistically be different. I would argue their goals are three.
The first is bringing Western Muslims to their political and religious worldview. As Yusuf al-Qaradawi put it, the West is an Islamic tabula rasa (clean slate) in which the Brothers can “play the role of the missing leadership of the Muslim nation with all its trends and groups”.
The second, very much related to the first, is being designated as official or de facto representatives of the Muslim community of their country. Despite their unrelenting activism and ample resources, the Brothers have not been able to create a mass movement and attract the allegiance of large numbers of Western Muslims. While concepts, issues, and frames introduced by the Brothers have reached many of them, most Western Muslims either actively resist the Brothers’ influence or simply ignore it. The Brothers understand that a preferential relationship with Western elites could provide them with the financial and political capital that would allow them to significantly expand their reach and influence inside the community. By leveraging such a relationship, in fact, the Brothers aim at being entrusted by Western governments with administering all aspects of Muslim life in each country. They would ideally become those whom governments task with preparing the curricula and selecting the teachers for Islamic education in public schools, appointing imams in public institutions such as the military, the police or in prison, and receiving subsidies to administer various social services. This position would also allow them to be the de facto official Muslim voice in public debates and in the media, overshadowing competing forces. The powers and legitimacy bestowed upon them by Western governments would allow them to exert significantly increased influence over the Muslim community. Making a clever political calculation, the Western Brothers are attempting to turn their leadership bid into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Finally, the position of representatives of Western Muslims would allow the Brothers to influence Western policymaking on all Islamic-related issues, both domestic and foreign policy related.
S.B.: Pierre Durrani, a Swedish former member of the Brotherhood and one of your interlocutors, uses a term, “blue-eyed naïveté”. What does he mean with that?
L.V.: Pierre is a very interesting individual. Born to a Pakistani father and Swedish mother in the early 1990s, he was recruited by the pioneers of the Swedish Brotherhood milieu because his mother-tongue Swedish and he was blond and blue-eyed, a reassuring face to show to Swedish society, as he puts it. After years in the network, Pierre came to see that what Brotherhood leaders had in mind for Sweden was very different from what they publicly said and what he wanted. Despite all their talk about integration and finding a way of making Islam compatible with Sweden—something Pierre still today believes is fully possible—the Brothers privately held a deep contempt toward Swedish society and people. Pierre describes these attitudes as sheer racism, providing many examples of Brotherhood leaders deriding Swedish people for their perceived naivete, loose morality, and poor personal hygiene. Pierre was equally disturbed by forms of racism within the Muslim community. He argues that the Brotherhood leadership, largely composed of Arabs, also spoke disparagingly of Eritrean, Somali, and other African Muslims, shattering the ideal of color-blind brotherhood that should characterize not just the organization but the entire global community of believers in Islam.
But the idea of naivete is, according to Pierre, not incorrect when applied to how Sweden—and all other Western countries—have dealt with the Brotherhood. In Pierre’s view, “Swedish society was not able to cope with all of the complexities and differences coming here.” When it comes to Islam, he argues that the Swedish establishment accepted at face value the false claim made by a small milieu of organized and savvy activists that they represented the entire Muslim community. Not possessing tools to understand the complex dynamics within global Islam and within the country’s new yet fast-growing Muslim community, the Swedish establishment fully embraced an active minority, ignoring the many other voices that make up the mosaic of Swedish Islam. “The Brothers are the ones who explained to the Swedish state what Islam is.”
According to Pierre this ignorance goes hand in hand with two other elements of Swedish society: its emphasis on trust and its embrace of political correctness.
“Swedish culture, going back to the Vikings,” he argues, “values trust enormously; people do not expect duplicity and find it difficult to conceive that somebody would try to deceive them.” This “blue-eyed naivete,” as Pierre terms it, has played into the hands of the Brothers, who have “not been honest about who they are and what they want” yet have rarely found their true motives questioned.
Equally propitious for the Brothers is the high level of political correctness that characterizes Swedish society. “Everybody is too scared of calling a spade a spade,” sighs Pierre, bemoaning the inability of many of his countryfolk to see or, better say, to publicly express any negative views about minorities, even when doing so would not be tantamount to displaying prejudice but would simply be treating them the same way they would ethnic Swedes. Moreover, he argues, the Brothers have learned how to employ the language of human rights, democracy, and multiculturalism to their own advantage without themselves truly valuing those concepts. Their ability to use the language of the contemporary Swedish Left has enabled them to be seen as a victim group and deflect any criticism as bigoted.
S.B.: In The Closed Circle, you clearly state that it is difficult to assess the impact of the so-called Arab Spring on the Brotherhood in the West but that the negative effects seem to outweigh the positive. Can you tell us more about this?
L.V.: Let me start with a caveat, which stems from the way I see the Muslim Brotherhood globally and in the West. Since the 1940s, the Brotherhood’s message has spread to virtually all Arab- and Muslim-majority countries. In each country, individuals embracing the group’s worldview have established networks that mirror its structure and have adapted its tactics to local dynamics and political conditions. It is common to refer to these networks in each country as Muslim Brotherhood branches, even though the term should not imply an authority of the Egyptian mother group over them. All these actors work according to a common vision but with operational independence, free to pursue their goals as they deem appropriate. The same applies to the West, where local Brotherhood networks in each country are a mini-version of those in the East. There is therefore a French Brotherhood, a Swedish Brotherhood, a British Brotherhood, exactly as there is an Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian Brotherhood and all equally independent (with, of course, much smaller numbers in the West).
That is to say that what happened during the Arab Spring unquestionably had an impact on Western Brotherhood networks, but it should not be exaggerated. Western Brothers were intimately engaged in what happened in the MENA during the early days of the Arab Spring. Many Western-based Brotherhood members, who for decades had challenged and even sued for defamation anybody who accused them of being tied to the group, traveled back to their countries of origin to take important positions in government (in the case of Egypt and Tunisia) or fight (in the case of Libya and Syria). And Brotherhood networks in the West invested enormous resources to try to support fellow Islamists in the MENA by lobbying Western governments and providing them with financial support.
Yet, having said that, I go back to the point that Brotherhood entities in the West are independent from the East, have their own tactics, goals and vicissitudes. What happened in the MENA during the Arab Spring first galvanized and then depressed them. But, at the end of the day, did not substantially alter what they do, as their center of gravity is firmly placed in the West.
Arguably the biggest impact of the Arab Spring on Western Brotherhood networks has been financial. The geopolitical upheavals of the last decade led many of the group’s historical backers to end their support, which has been one of the main reasons for the Brothers’ disproportionate influence in the West. Today the financial support, at least when it comes to states, is mostly limited to Qatar and Turkey.
S.B.: You explain that the Western Brotherhood is undergoing a widespread generational change. How is this likely to affect the evolution of the Movement and, more broadly, what are your outlooks on the future of the Brotherhood in the West?
L.V.: Difficult to say and there are various trends that are worth observing in the years to come. On some level, the Brotherhood seems to have lost that magnetic appeal which it had arguably exercised on many. Moreover, over the past decades the Western Brotherhood has put a priority on becoming trusted interlocutors of Western governments and elites—in many cases achieving that goal. But in order to do so, it has inevitably been forced to compromise some of its principles and smooth some of its rough edges. Essentially, not all Brotherhood activists clearly see an Islamic light at the end of the tunnel of the countless interfaith meetings, fund-raising banquets, media sensitivity seminars, and myriad other activities to which the organization devotes most of its energies. And some are also puzzled by tactics such as alliances with feminist or LGBT organizations that, while internally explained as useful means to an end, nonetheless seem to substantially deviate from what is Islamically acceptable. As a result, Western Brotherhood organizations suffer in competition with Salafists, whose more uncompromising approach has attracted many conservative Muslims who previously would have gravitated toward the Brothers.
At the same time, many Western-born Muslims are increasingly finding alternative platforms for mobilizing on the basis of their Muslim identity. Many young Muslim activists, whether they started their trajectory in organizations belonging to the Western Brotherhood milieu or not, are no longer constrained by the group’s monopoly on Muslim identity and freely operate in the mainstream. In fact, Western Muslim activists who have points of contact with Brotherhood milieus are often active outside the group’s structure and achieve high positions in Western political parties and civil society, particularly on the left. It is possible to speak, in this regard, of “woke Islamism,” a hybrid approach that mixes themes dear to contemporary identity politics and classic Islamism, with a twist of post-colonial theory. The closeness of the contacts between those freelancers and the Brotherhood milieu depends on the specific case, but it is clear that the Brothers increasingly are no longer the only avenue for Muslims seeking to be politically engaged in the West. At the same time the Brothers are great free loaders, forging tactical alliances with independent players as long as they help them achieve their goals.
It is impossible at this stage to predict in what direction the Western Brotherhood will go. A key factor in all this is indeed the generational shift and it will be interesting to see if the helm of the organizations started by Brotherhood pioneers will be held by their scions or if other individuals will take them. It is not unlikely that perhaps different individuals and organizations belonging to the network will take opposite trajectories over time. Irrespective of these developments, it appears clear that, for years to come, the Brotherhood will remain a crucial actor in the future of Islam in the West.