The Austrian Fund for the Documentation of Religiously Motivated Political Extremism (Dokumentationsstelle Politischer Islam) recently released a report mapping the Muslim Brotherhood’s presence in Europe. The report, “The Muslim Brotherhood’s Pan-European Structure”, notes that “[a]ll aspects of the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe, including its very existence, have long been debated”, but the reality is that the Brotherhood retains a “position of relative influence” within Muslim populations across the Continent and understanding how this works “is crucially important for European policymakers and civil society”.
Islam and Islamism in Europe
The report begins with a caution about how poorly-informed the discussion around Islamism has been at many points over the last few years, with people “erroneously confusing various outwardly manifestations of the Islamic faith with the actions of Islamists.” Even Islamism itself is an “extremely heterogeneous ideological movement”, with violent jihadists like Al-Qaeda and Islamic State at one end of the spectrum and “participationists” at the other, with a broad array in between, including Salafists and “militant/activist groups” like Hizb-ut-Tahrir.
Participationists are defined as “individuals and groups that adopt a highly conservative and politicised interpretation of their faith that, like the others, sees Islam as an all-encompassing system regulating all aspects of private and public life. But, unlike jihadists and most Salafists, participationists believe that working within the existing political systems, even if that means occasionally and temporarily sacrificing some of their principles, is the best way to further their goals. Whether in the Middle East or in Europe, the Muslim Brotherhood constitutes the archetypal participationist Islamist group.”
This tension between what the Brotherhood wants and its tactics has led to an endless debate over whether the group “truly” believes in democracy, and whether to categorize it as “moderate” or “extremist”. These discussions, often strident in tone, are rarely based on good evidence. This report aims to correct this problem.
The Brotherhood Structure in Europe
The Muslim Brotherhood is the oldest Islamist group, founded in Egypt by Hassan al-Banna in 1928. The major distinction and difficulty when looking at the Brotherhood in Europe is that, unlike in Arab countries, the Brotherhood in Europe operates through political, educational, charitable, and other organizations that often go to “great lengths” to deny that they are Muslim Brotherhood formations. This deceptiveness is part of the explanation for why “[n]o European country … has adopted a cohesive assessment [of what the Brotherhood is within its borders] followed by all branches of its government”.
As the report notes, the exact structure varies from country to country, though there are some common features. The “original embryo” of the Brethren’s presence in all cases was established beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s, usually by a small cadre of senior Brotherhood members driven from their homelands by government crackdowns and Middle Eastern university students. The leadership cadre—men like , notably Said Ramadan, Yusuf Nada, Ghaleb Himmat, Rached Ghannouchi, Nooh al-Kaddo, and Ahmed Jaballah—are, where they are still alive, still in leadership positions, and where they are not their families have taken over.
Far from being a well-considered plot to infiltrate the Continent, neither the Brotherhood leaders nor students initially intended to stay long-term in Europe. As it became clear the situation in the Arab world was not going to change, these early pioneers began to establish themselves in the European states where they had landed, setting up mosques, businesses, charities, and lobby organizations. “Today”, the report explains, “every major European country is home to a small network of individuals and organizations with varying degrees of connectivity to the Muslim Brotherhood.”
The nature of the Brotherhood infrastructure in each European can be defined as fitting into “three separate yet highly connected realities”, the report notes, “which, in decreasing degrees of intensity, are”:
- Pure Brothers: “The first generation of pioneers arriving from the Arab world set up structures that mirrored those of the countries of origin, obviously replicated on a much smaller scale. Pure Brothers are individuals who, having undergone a rigorous recruitment process and having been sworn in, belong to the non-public/secret structure created by Brotherhood members in each European country.”
- Brotherhood Spawns: “Upon arriving in Europe, the first Brothers established a web of organizations devoted to a broad array of activities. None of these entities publicly identifies as having links with any structure of the Muslim Brotherhood. But, in reality, they represent the other side of the coin to the pure Brothers—the public face of the secretive network, the part that advances the group’s agenda in society without giving away the secret structure. … Brotherhood spawns do not identify as being linked to the Brotherhood and reject any accusation of the contrary, often using the argument that they are independent entities—something that is, on a purely formalistic level, correct. Moreover, to increase their engagement potential [with Muslim communities and European societies], Brotherhood Spawns are given names that seek to convey an image of moderation and broad representativeness.”
- Brotherhood-Influenced Organizations: “These are entities that have some historical, organizational, financial and, most importantly, ideological ties to the core Brotherhood milieu but have no clear operational ties to it.”
The Pure Brothers and the leadership of the other two categories are within what the report calls the Brotherhood “milieu”, a term that “is preferable to the term ‘branch’ because the latter gives an impression of dependence. In reality, each European Brotherhood milieu operates in complete autonomy from other European milieus and from the much larger branches in the Middle East/North Africa.” The number of full Brotherhood members in each country is “relatively small”—about one-thousand in big countries like Britain and France—but “each has the capacity to influence and mobilise a much larger number of allies and fellow travellers”, and the various fronts operate as a “cohesive cluster.”
The report documents: “Arguably no other European country has a presence of Muslim Brotherhood networks that is historically, quantitatively and qualitatively more important than the United Kingdom. … In substance, starting in the 1960s, virtually every Middle Eastern and North African branch of the Brotherhood established some presence in the UK.” Senior Brotherhood leaders from the “central” branch in Egypt, as well as Tunisia, Libya, Iraq, and many other countries around the world have often been based in British cities, and that is true at the present time: after the fall of the Brotherhood government in Egypt, the acting Supreme Guide has been based in London.
The Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) and Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) are two of the most prominent local manifestations of the Brotherhood milieu in the United Kingdom. There was some turbulence for a time after 2011 as Brotherhood leaders left Britain to engage in the Arab Spring back home; now that the tide has turned against the Islamists in the region, many are back in Britain. The British government made a decision to engage the radicals in the hope that they would rein-in the violent Islamists; this was predictably subverted by the Islamists, who used their status as interlocuters to dominate their own communities and direct state policy towards their own program. The policy has since been abandoned.
The report has similarly in-depth studies of the situation, past and present, in other European countries.
Despite the autonomy of each Brotherhood milieu, they have ceaselessly tried to create a pan-European coordination network. The first effort, the Islamic Council of Europe, fizzled, but, after an important meeting in Madrid in 1984, they established the Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe (FIOE) in 1989, which changed its name to the Council of European Muslims (CEM) in 2020. It is important here to note that alongside the Brotherhood and often in collaboration with it there is a parallel situation with the Subcontinental spinoff of the Brotherhood, Jamaat-e-Islami, based in Pakistan, which looks to the teachings of Abul Ala Mawdudi, a friend of Al-Banna’s.
FIOE/CEM has then created a series of specialised organizations for specific parts of the overall task of spreading Brotherhood influence and ideology. These groups include the Federation of European Muslim Youth and Student Organizations (FEMYSO); the European Institute for Human Sciences (IESH) to oversee a network of schools; the European Council for Fatwa and Research (ECFR) in Dublin, historically led by Yusuf al-Qaradawi, to provide religious guidance according to Brotherhood lights to Muslims living in Christian societies; and Europe Trust, based in Britain, “controlled by some of the most senior leaders of the European Brotherhood network”, to manage the finances of the Brotherhood in Europe. All of these are controlled by senior Brotherhood members and/or their children.
The Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW) is another organization that is an important part of this project, though it is publicly distanced from the FIO/CEM apparatus and “strongly denies any connection to the Muslim Brotherhood”. It does not take much digging to see that its connections, in personnel and finances, to the Brethren milieus in each country are “extensive”, and each of the Brotherhood structures in each of the countries rather publicly support and fundraise for IRW.
The Union of Islamic Organizations in France (UOIF), known since 2017 as the Muslims of France (MF), provides an interesting case study of one of the FIOE/CEM satellite organizations that denies it is any such thing. The FIOE, which started in the United Kingdom, is base in Belgium, but is not registered as a Belgian group. Rather, it is registered as a French organization and it gives as the address for its headquarters the offices of UOIF/MF. One of France’s oldest Muslim organizations, UOIF tries to obfuscate its Brotherhood links but “there is in fact little doubt about UOIF’s nature as a quintessential Brotherhood spawn”.
Why is the Brotherhood so Influential?
The Brotherhood network’s “circular nature cannot be overstated”, the report notes: this is a relatively small number of individuals who all know each other and share an outlook provides for a “tight-knit Islamist nomenklatura” that exercises “a disproportionate impact on organised Islam in Europe”. The “the massive web of mosques, charities, schools, lobbying and civil rights organizations, and many other kinds of entities that cater to specific needs or sub-groups” gives the Brotherhood a deep influence over Muslim communities on the one side and European establishments on the other.
European politicians, government departments, and the media often treat this “vocal and visible presence” as if it represents Muslim communities because within those communities the Brotherhood, by its nature as a well-organized and determined movement, tends to “outshine competing Muslim trends”. When European elites look around for Muslim interlocuters to engage, those from the Brotherhood milieu often appear to be the only option and, again, they give an impression of being much larger and more representative than is really true.
One reason the Brotherhood is able to prevail in the intra-Muslim struggle for influence in Europe is its access to money. The streams of funding are four: donations from the Muslim community, its own financial activities (business enterprises like halal meat, real estate, and so on), foreign donations (in recent years mostly from Qatar and to a lesser extent Kuwait and Turkey), and grants from European Union and European governments (for integration, anti-racism, and even, astonishingly, anti-radicalism work, sometimes delivered through Brotherhood-run charities).
The Brotherhood’s Aims
While some of the Brotherhood leadership in Europe does harbour a desire to ultimately Islamize the Continent, the timeline for this project is rather hazy and in its day-to-day work the Brethren has “goals that are significantly more realistic”: (1) spreading its religious worldview to foster a Muslim identity among European populations that is resistant to assimilation; (2) becoming the de facto official representative of Muslims in dealing with European governments; and (3) influencing any and all Islam-related policies by European states.
The requirements for achieving (1) are to indoctrinate Muslims in the exclusivist Brotherhood ideology, and the requirements for (2) and (3) are to appear moderate and inclusive—hence the systematic two-facedness of the Brotherhood organizations in Europe, which has to at least formally conceal in interactions with European officials its adherence to views on Jews, homosexuals, and women that it wants transmitted to Muslim audiences.
In this way, the Brotherhood milieu avoids the societal stigma of white far-Right groups that express similar antisemitic, homophobic, and misogynistic views, and, indeed, generally finds its most enthusiastic non-member advocates among progressive forces that ostensibly have the protection of the rights of these marginalized groups as central aims.
The Nature of the Threat
Assessing the threat from the Brotherhood is complicated. As the report documents, “From a security point of view, it should be stated that the European Brotherhood does not pose a direct threat and that the movement is not engaged in any attack on the Continent.”
That said, the network provides overt support, rhetorical and material, to violent Islamists outside Europe like HAMAS, the Brotherhood’s Palestinian department. The report has extensive documentation of the antisemitism promoted by these groups and their enthusiastic support for terrorism against Israel.
Within Europe, the Brotherhood fosters doctrinal atmospherics, notably in its insistence on a narrative of Muslim victimhood in countries that unanimously provide Muslims more freedom than any Muslim-majority state, that produce a “conducive environment for violent radicalization”.
More importantly, the polarization that the Brotherhood stokes between Muslims and non-Muslims—the core of the Brotherhood’s work on the Continent—is a threat of its own, damaging social cohesion and thus the order of the state and society.
What, then, should be done? As the report concludes this is contested and “no blanket policy can or should be adopted”. The Brotherhood has tailored its policies in each country to the cultural, historical, and political dynamics, and authorities in those countries should do the same thing. “Notwithstanding these difficulties, it is still possible to provide three general policy recommendations that are arguably applicable to all European actors”:
- Build knowledge. If European governments have to or choose to engage individuals or groups from the Brotherhood milieu, they should be very clear about the nature and intentions of the people sitting across the desk from them.
- “Engage, but don’t empower”: there are all kinds of reasons why “even … governments that view the network in very negative terms” might find themselves talking to representatives of the Brotherhood milieu, but these interactions should not be conducted in a way that provides any legitimacy or other political capital.
- Cease official funding: European governments should modify the criteria it uses in providing grants and other monies to discard the purely formalistic and instead recipients should be assessed on whether their system of values is compatible with the aims of a liberal democratic state.
In the Middle East, the trendline has turned harshly against Islamism since the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011. A bloc of countries led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have worked to provide an alternative vision of the future to the Islamists and outright banned the Muslim Brotherhood, declaring it a terrorist organization. Many other states have gone less far, but have taken broadly similar approaches, with the notable exceptions of Turkey and Qatar. Europe has been slow to react and in some respects retrograde as the Brotherhood milieu has created strong links with powerful political constituencies in the political and social systems that not only advocate against policies that might curb the spread of the Brotherhood’s destructive ideology, but continue to prevent a serious discussion about how to handle the Brotherhood taking place by miring the public discussion in a dispute about whether the Brotherhood even exists in Europe. This report should at least help Europe get over this first hurdle and begin the difficult discussion about what to do with regard to the Brotherhood presence.