Since it was founded, the Islamic umbrella organization, the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, has been predominantly dominated by actors who belong to, or have been assigned to, the Islamic Center Aachen. While Iran’s influence on the Council, which has been weak for some time, continues to decline, organizations associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, and one organization from the Gray Wolves spectrum, continue to be strongly represented. This is despite the formal exclusion of the largest organization in Germany, which is influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood, Deutsche Muslimische Gemeinschaft (DMG). The current filling of positions on the board after elections gives reason to analyze the people and organizations behind that board and also examine their connections and contacts abroad.
According to its own charter — which has remained almost unchanged for years — the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD) sees itself as representing Muslims from a wide variety of countries in the diaspora. The Council emerged from the Islamic Working Group Germany in 1994 and sees itself as a religious community under German law — a status that it has not achieved to this day. The reason for the non-recognition could be the non-binding nature of the religious doctrines of all members and sub-organizations, which is legally required in Germany. ZMD members have also been repeatedly under observation by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution and were explicitly named in reports that call into question anti-constitutional actions.
The Central Council acts as a kind of non-denominational Islamic alliance which, for years, has also involved officials from organizations loyal to the Iranian regime such as the Islamic Center Hamburg (IZH), i.e. Shiites Muslims of Turkish origin form the largest Muslim group in Germany. The largest Turkish umbrella organization DITIB, which is traditionally and organizationally close to the Turkish government, was never a member of the ZMD. The Ahmadiyya community, which has a strong presence in Germany with around 40,000 Muslims, has never joined either, which is not unusual. However, people of Turkish origin are not only founding members of the ZMD, along with the ATIB — an umbrella organization close to the Gray Wolves with around 130 mosques nationwide — but have also repeatedly fielded board members. Apart from the ATIB, predominantly non-Turkish Muslims are organized in the ZMD. In addition to the other umbrella organizations, which are mostly organizations of Turkish origin, the ZMD is a relatively small association. In relation to the Muslims it represents, however, it is much more present in the media than the larger associations through its chairman, Aiman Mazyek.
While the organizations of origin of board members are sometimes still recognizable, which can be used to infer membership, other members are not so easily recognizable. The last publicly available directory dates to the end of 2016. Various governments at federal and state bodies know little of the internal structure of the ZMD since the group does not have a directory of members. Nevertheless, public funds are given to ZMD projects or for foundations belonging to ZMD functionaries, such as the Soziale Dienste und Jugendhilfe gGmbH.
In addition to the umbrella organizations that form the backbone of the ZMD, a number of individual associations and institutions are also members of the ZMD or have been listed as “associated members” in the last available directory from 2016. Among them is the Rat der Imame und Gelehrten in Deutschland (RIGD) — an alliance of imams that the Hessian Office for the Protection of the Constitution claims has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.
All sorts of misunderstandings about the assembly are currently circulating internationally. The Egyptian media, for example, has claimed that organizations in which Ibrahim El-Zayat — the former chairman of the Islamic Community in Germany (IGD, now German Muslim Community, DMG) — plays a role, were excluded from the recent election. He would also have lost his post as “Secretary General”. However, El-Zayat was never Secretary General of the ZMD, but he was Secretary General of the predecessor association.
According to its statutes named “Satzung” — an internal set of rules on meaning, task and organizational processes prescribed by German association law — the board of the ZMD is to be elected every three years. Prior to the now-publicized election, the last board was announced publicly in 2016 and was made up of representatives of organizations that have since been dissolved or expelled.
In addition to the DMG, the Islamic Center Hamburg (IZH) and the Avrupa Türk-Islam Birligi (ATIB) are also included in current reports from the Office for the Protection of the Constitution. The ATIB is an umbrella organization and the IZH dominates an umbrella organization of Shiite organizations called the “Islamische Gemeinschaft der schiitischen Gemeinden Deutschlands e.V.” (IGS). The board of directors, which held office until recently, was made up mainly of people who came from organizations monitored by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution.
The board consists of nine members, the chairman, Aiman Mazyek, the secretary general, Abdassamad El-Yazidi, the deputies Özlem Başöz and Daniel Abdin, the treasurer, Mohamed Abu El-Qomsan and other board members including Samir Bouaissa, Abdelkarim Ahroba, Nurhan Soykan and Mohammed Khallouk. This means that five people have been brought onto the Executive Board and there have been, as is often the case, changes of function in other positions. Houaida Taraji, Hamza Wördemann, Mehmet Alparslan Celebi, Burhanettin Dag and Sadiqu Al-Mousllie are no longer board members.
With Dag, the IZH will no longer be represented — the board is now purely Sunni. It seems possible that the IZH no longer feels sufficiently represented and protected by the ZMD, since the latter has hardly reacted to public criticism of the IZH in recent years. The Yemen conflict — where a proxy dispute between Saudi Arabia and Iran is unfolding — may also play a role. This conflict can be seen as a fundamental clash between Sunni and Shiite influences.
The chairman of the council has, so far, mostly been assigned to the Islamic Center Aachen (IZA), which goes back to a founding of Syrian Muslim brothers. Years ago, IZA was classified by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, together with the mosques assigned to it, as the second largest structure close to the Muslim Brotherhood after the German Muslim Community (Deutsche Muslimische Gemeinschaft (DMG), formerly IGD, Islamische Gemeinschaft in Deutschland). Wördemann is still managing director togehther with Mazyek of the “Soziale Dienste und Jugendhilfe gGmbH” (as of the end of September). Wördemanns association “Freier Verband der Muslime e.V.” (Free Association of Muslims) was criticized for organizing an education fair where Muslim Brotherhood activities were present.
Taraji was assigned to the IGD, since she was the deputy of Ibrahim El-Zayat when he was still in charge of the IGD. According to the latest information, Taraji is married to former senior Islamic Relief official Almoutaz Tayara, who had to resign in 2020 for his public expressions of sympathy for Hamas. Tayara was also responsible for an educational institution associated with the movement. According to the latest information, Wördemann is no longer treasurer of the ZMD.
Celebi is the son of ATIB founder Musa Serdar Celebi and also held positions within ATIB. Since the ATIB was named in the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the group has faced renewed criticism.
El-Yazidi, Khallouk and Ahroba were board members of an association that no longer exists— the umbrella organization “Deutsch-islamischer Vereinsverband Rhein-Main e.V.” (DIV). This group came under public criticism in 2016 when it became known that the association and some board members were personally under surveillance by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution. The organization dissolved in 2018. The DIV was a ZMD member, and the three DIV members were on the DIV board in 2016.
In response to criticism, the ZMD promised, at the time, that it would examine the allegations. The allegations included the involvement of Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist institutions in the umbrella organization. Apparently, this scrutiny is now over. Khallouk is also said to be part of the ZMD’s Scholarly Council, which was announced in 2016. Only two to three members were made public. Khallouk briefly held a teaching position at the College of Sharia and Islamic Studies at Qatar University in Doha between 2014-2015. Meanwhile, Ahroba is professionally anchored in finance.
The new deputies Aiman Mazyek, Özlem Basöz and Daniel Abdin come from different organizations. Basöz is Secretary General of ATIB. Daniel Abdin is chairman of the board of directors of the sponsoring association of the Hamburg Al Nour Mosque. This mosque was rebuilt a few years ago. According to the media, the funds came from Kuwait — probably from the Zakat House. Meanwhile, Nurhan Soykan, Aiman Mazyek’s deputy in the last parliamentary term, came into the public eye when Germany’s Foreign Office (AA) wanted to hire her as a consultant.
The DMG is often still seen as Egyptian-dominated which, in terms of organizational history, goes back to the strong pioneering role played by the Islamic Center Munich (IZM). The IZM was founded in the early 1960s by Said Ramadan, the son-in-law of the Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna. IZM is considered to be the precursor of today’s DMG.
Meanwhile, the growing community had also been joined by Muslims of other origins but similar ideology. Although the IZM formally withdrew from the DMG in 1982, Syrian migrants continued to play an important role and held leading positions in the DMG or in organizations close to it. The formal separation of DMG and IZM, therefore, does not appear as a strong boundary or clear separation, but more as a subtle emphasis or strategic action. Taraji, for example, is of Syrian descent and was the deputy of El-Zayat, who was of Egyptian descent.
Access to Public Funds
However, after the exclusion of the DMG from the ZMD in January of this year, this mixing and networking is kept under tight wraps. The reason could be the desire to obtain public funds in Germany despite the group’s long-term goals and the observation of members by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution. While public funding of organizations being monitored by the state is difficult, it is not impossible in Germany. In fact, some ZMD projects are publicly funded.
While the Egyptian-born Muslim Brotherhood in Germany is now taken seriously as an extremist organization to a limited extent, Muslim Brotherhood members of other origins are courted by politicians and are involved in state-financed projects. In particular, the Muslim Brotherhood of Syrian origin has been very successful politically, and in the media, through its foundations.
Muslim Brotherhood Forms ZMD Core
The connections of the Central Council of Muslims to the national and international network of the Muslim Brotherhood have been documented for many years. However, these connections do not only exist through the former institutional membership of the DMG. Rather, they exist through other members, individual associations and institutions. The formal exclusion of the DMG is, therefore, little more than window dressing. Associations and individuals close to the Muslim Brotherhood are at the core of the ZMD, even if they are not directly involved in the DMG. Needless to say, the DMG does not officially announce any of its members and ZMD press releases lack transparency.
In addition to the long-standing involvement of at least one IZA official in the European Council for Fatwa And Research (ECFR), (Muhammed Al-Hawari in 2015), there are also more recent references such as a 2018 ECFR conference, which is said to have taken place in IZA. Mazyek and his secretary general are also welcome guests at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Muslim World League (MWL). One can guess that such meetings are less about better integration and more about defending and prioritizing an imagined Muslim identity.
Ever since the Muslim Brotherhood was founded, Muslim Brotherhood officials have shied away from openly admitting to being involved in the movement. In their countries of origin, where structures have existed for a long time, the Muslim Brotherhood is increasingly seen as a threat to the existing order because of its quest for political power. Since violent groups repeatedly emerge from the Muslim Brotherhood and there is still no official renunciation of violence, the Muslim Brotherhood is now classified as a terrorist organization — even in its country of origin, Egypt.
Muslim Brotherhood Tactics in the West
In the West, the Muslim Brotherhood positions itself as a political movement that supposedly relies on dialogue and adaptation to the society in which it operates. At the same time, however, covert moves are being made that point to a long-term strategy of spreading, infiltrating and gaining political influence. In addition to the implementation of state structures, their toolbox also includes the establishment of new clubs and organizations. In Germany, the Muslim Brotherhood not only infiltrates state organizations, but also educational associations, welfare associations and environmental initiatives.
Muslim Brotherhood members or supporters have always made Islam to be more than a religion but a way of life. All activities should have religious connotations and all actions and attitudes of these organizations are subject to Islamic rules.
Especially at the municipal level, it has been a common strategy of structures close to the Muslim Brotherhood for years to win over Jewish organizations and actors as collaborators in projects, to demonstrate the group’s tolerance. Since the attitude towards Israel has not changed, but the open and direct articulation of this attitude is not politically desirable, an attempt is made to distinguish between Western Jewish commitment and advocacy for Israel. The ZMD would like to be perceived as a civil society actor, but it is not. In this respect, it needs recognition from other social groups and courts them accordingly in order to counter concerns over their true beliefs. This is a strategy that has also been recommended by the MWL for a number of years.
The most recent example is the ZMD dialog project “Schulter an Schulter”. In addition to ZMD officials, the project involves board members of the Central Council of Jews in Germany (Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland, ZdJ). Regrettably, the “key witness” is the former Secretary General of the Central Council of Jews, Stephan J. Kramer, who was involved in the project. Kramer — who in his current position as Thuringia’s head of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution — has legitimized the ZMD with his personal support and has made Islamists presentable. With his previous statements on a working paper of the CDU, the largest conservative party in Germany, he even stabbed other constitutional protection officers in the back.
It even went so far that this common project has now received an award in Doha. The awarding institution is the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue (DICID) in Qatar. The center has existed since 2011 and aims to promote “interreligious dialogue”. Since interreligious dialogue is not an end in itself, but a vehicle in which to pursue specific goals, it is important to question whose interests are being represented. As early as 2011, very shortly after it was founded, a delegation of functionaries from the German Muslim Brotherhood visited this facility. DICID and a personal encounter with its director were on the agenda of the small, fairly exclusive travel group, as well as a small audience with the recently deceased Yusuf Al-Qaradawi. Ibrahim El-Zayat`s brother Bilal and ECFR official Khaled Hanafy are also on the board. In May 2022, the Secretary General of the ZMD, El-Yazidi, accepted an award from DICID for “Schulter an Schulter”.
While it was hurtful, the exclusion of DMG, was not a fatal blow. With actors from organizations close to the Muslim Brotherhood and representatives of other questionable groups such as the Gray Wolves, the ZMD remains a problematic actor whose true motives cannot be concealed by the cover of an umbrella organization. Politicians and the media are well advised to not confuse personnel changes with real change. Extremist influences and questionable foreign financing to the ZMD remain a challenge.
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.