Dr. Lorenzo Vidino, the top Western expert when it comes to the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe and the United States, became interested in the movement shortly after September 11, 2001 through the links between the attacks and Milan.
In the 1990s, the Islamic Cultural Centre of Milan — the author’s city of origin — was a major hub for hundreds of Islamist militants who fought in Bosnia. The head of the foreign fighters was also the imam of the mosque in Milan, Anwar Shabaan.
The trigger point for his interest was, as the author says, noticing that stereotypical wannabe jihadists could be found in mosques, but people financing those mosques were very different: a few high-profile businessmen with a network of companies, money in offshore paradises, and well-established relationships with both Eastern and Western elites.
Therefore, one of the first research questions regarded how those two elements interacted with each other.
This and many related subjects informed the author’s first book, The New Muslim Brotherhood in the West (2010) and now, a decade later, he has revisited the subject in, The Closed Circle. Joining and leaving the Muslim Brotherhood in the West.
The crucial point that Dr. Vidino and very few other experts worldwide have been highlighting in the last decades is that, in spite of its complexities and ramifications, jihadism is fairly linear thanks to its Manichean worldview and the absence of shades typical of jihadi mindset. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Brotherhood-like groups, on the contrary, are never black or white and never prone to simplistic explanations. Ten years ago, The New Muslim Brotherhood in the West, described how the movement arrived in the West and how it operates and pursues its goals. Today, The Closed Circle does exactly what the title says, completing the story, adding a dramatic amount of knowledge acquired through the personal stories of individuals who left the Brotherhood.
Clear, well-structured and highly original, the book is built throughout a series of in-depth interviews in which the respect of the author for his interlocutors is constantly apparent, along with the awareness of the complexity of the journey of people who “have to admit to themselves first, and then to others, that years or an entire life have been devoted to an organization or a cause in which they do not longer believe”. They then have to face the consequences of that realization.
Throughout ten chapters, the book develops with stunning balance between historical precision and personal accounts of the former members of the movement.
The introductory sections tell us about the core characteristics of the pure Brotherhood movement, Brotherhood spawns, and organizations influenced by the Brotherhood. There is engaging detail from the interviewees about the complex links to other members, institutions, and organizations — both in the West and in the Arab countries. The Closed Circle then introduces seven different sections, each of them based on an in-depth interview with either a former member of the Brotherhood in Europe or North America or, in two cases, someone who has intimate knowledge of Western Brotherhood networks from the inside.
In an organic and consistent journey that both experts of political Islam and the general public can follow easily, the meticulously researched book introduces the process of leaving the movement within the broader framework of the entire path of the individuals who have been interviewed, and each section tells us about three different phases: joining the group, living inside it, and eventually abandoning it.
The reasons for leaving are as complicated and various as the reasons that initially drew recruits in. There is the 81-year-old Egyptian Kamel Helbawy, who contributed to shape the Muslim Brotherhood took in the West, and after leaving it remained a defender of the group’s ideology. There is Ahmed Akkari, who abandoned political Islam completely. Pierre Durrani, a Swedish convert, tired of the Brotherhood’s narrative of victimhood and grievance and of the Brothers playing with what he terms “blue-eyed naïveté”. Pernilla Ouis abandoned her role within the Brotherhood universe in Sweden for multiple reasons, including the manipulative tactics used in the group and the internal racism against Swedish people.
Undoubtedly, the obsession for secrecy is one of the factors that drives out some people. “We were not selling drugs, we were propagating dawa”, complains Kamel Helbawi. The defense for the lack transparency is usually that secrecy is necessary to avoid surveillance and infiltration by the regimes, which is not really a valid explanation in the West. Interestingly, for many of them the secrecy, intrigue, and conspiracy was part of the attraction that made them join the Brotherhood initially; it was thrilling and exciting. But later it became a reason to leave.
The all-encompassing culture of obedience that seems to exclude any sort of independent thinking and the related lack of internal democracy are two further common reasons that led people to abandon the Brotherhood, particularly among the younger members.
A number of activists, both Muslim-born and converts, could not stand the systematic use of manipulative tactics within the groups and in the dialogue with the outside world. As the above-mentioned Ms. Ouis explains it: “We were highly educated and knew how to convince Swedish interlocutors. We would use postmodern tools to question the bases of society, relativize everything in order to fit our agenda. We knew the culture and we always had elegant ways to deflect criticism, to turn tables”.
The ethnic biases against non-Arab members of the group were also intolerable for many of those who decided to disengage, in particular racism against the Europeans from the countries where they live and Eritrean, Somali, and other African Muslims, whereas the leadership has always been almost exclusively Arab.
The evidence contained in the book, which provides a qualitative analysis and therefore does not aim to provide statistically relevant data, suggests that, even if the processes of leaving are extremely diverse, the accounts contain remarkable consistencies. This is one of the characteristics that make The Closed Circle a uniquely insightful book: the author had an intuition, and it proved to be right.
When leaving the Brotherhood, the process can take two distinct forms: disillusionment with the kind of Islamism adopted by the movement, or disillusionment with Islamism tout court.
In the first case, activists might be in search of a less gradualist approach and, as Vidino explains, it is not by chance that over the past few years the Brotherhood has suffered significantly from the competition of various strains of Salafism. If disenfranchised from the movement but not from Islamism, some might also embrace the most radical of the many Salafist sub-currents, jihadism, whereas other former members get into more liberal forms of thought that are sometimes described with the umbrella term post-Islamism.
In the second case, when individuals leave not only the organization but Islamism altogether, they break with any form of the faith.
As far as the relationship between the Brotherhood and jihadism is concerned — one of the first issues that informed Dr. Vidino’s research interests — the author warns that the truth lies on a complex spectrum and this relationship varies over time and contexts and deserves in-depth analyses. Nevertheless, it should be highlighted that the two do have common roots, for example in Sayyd Qutb’s thought, and the end-goal: the establishment of an Islamic state, albeit via different methodologies and envisioning different societal models.
In this vein, Vidino cautions that while one frequently hears that the Brothers “chose ballots over bullets”, this requires scrutiny since it would be a mistake to think that the Brothers have fully abandoned jihad as a strategy to achieve their goals, and examples of involvement in violent actions, even in recent years, abound.
The Brotherhood-jihadi relationship is one of both competition and cooperation, in varying degrees across various times, places, and circumstances.
In the last chapter, Dr. Vidino looks at the future of the Brotherhood and provides some insights on a number of possible trends, though he notes it is extremely difficult to predict.
Once again, the author neither overstates the threat represented by the movement nor accepts its claims to be just a peaceful and ecumenical union of pious Muslims.
The stories contained in his book are probably indicative of a broader dissatisfaction inside the movement. We cannot state that the Brotherhood in the West is experiencing an existential crisis, but the 2010s have been a crucial decade for the Brotherhood worldwide and in the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring the impacts have been more negative than positive.
Back in 2011-12, the energy coming from Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and elsewhere galvanized many Brothers in the West and many, from policy makers to Muslim communities, saw the Brotherhood as a positive model to embrace. Soon, however, it became clear to many that the movement was not the best representation of the wind of change blowing from in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
Damage had already been done by many experienced Brotherhood leaders in the West heading back to their countries of origin, leaving Western Brotherhood milieus depleted of human capital and also leaving many younger members, often born and raised in the West, feeling somehow betrayed by these sudden departures: the old guard was prioritizing the political dynamics in the Arab world instead of the potential developments of the organization in the West.
Then, more significantly, the tide turned in the region. The Brotherhood’s political projects failed in Egypt and less dramatically in Tunisia, and this led the movement to lose the support of large numbers of Muslims both in the MENA region and abroad. In the aftermath of those failures, the movement seems to have largely missed the opportunity to take a step forward and move beyond the “Islam is the solution” (al-Islam howa al-Hal) mantra, a principle that proved to be simplistic and clashed with the complexity of the evolving reality.
The Western Brotherhood is undergoing a widespread generational change, as mostly Western-born activists are joining, and increasingly replacing, the first generation. At the same time, Western-born Muslims are finding alternative platforms for their activism and many of them do not aim to be acknowledged and represented only through the religious component of their identity, which is increasingly seen as a multi-faceted prism and no longer as a unidimensional profile.
Some argue that we are entering in an era of post-Ikhwanism and that the Western Brothers will eventually shed the most radical aspects of their ideology and melt into the system. Others disagree and do not think this is possible. Vidino adopts a balanced approach and warns that there are indicators that point in both directions: perhaps different individuals and organizations belonging to the network will take opposite trajectories over time.
Scholars have studied the process of joining the Muslim Brotherhood, but only few have investigated departures from the group. The book is a necessity for researchers of political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood, but it is also a fundamental tool for experts and students of social movement theory, sociology of movements, and policy makers who, as the author reminds, are often far from having sufficient knowledge of the Brotherhood and the Brotherhood-like groups. This micro-sociological analysis based on the testimonies of the former members offers unprecedented understanding on a “ferociously private organization”, as the author terms it.