In the shadow of the Muslim Brotherhood

The recent police raids in Austria against accused Islamists and supporters of the so-called „legalistic Islam“, movements that do not support terror to reach an Islamic state, but using the institutions to destroy it from within, were hardly criticized by many observers.

Especially the announcement of the Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz adding the support of political Islam to the criminal code of Austria rises some concern in the public: Religion can be part of political life and is important for a society. In many countries in Europe, conservative parties call themselves „Christian Democrats“. So does it mean that the „political Christianity“ is based on pluralism and protecting European values, while the „political Islam“ is per se violating those?

This is why the author is denying the term „political Islam“, at the same time it has to be clear that there are movements and actors in Austria, trying to gain more influence in society, politics and culture in Austria, with only one goal: Neglecting objective law, defined by legislative bodies and calling for an eternal law, defined only by god.

Who are those preachers of extremism and separatism? The vast majority can be found within the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization not famous for being transparent, but famous for infiltrating Muslim communities. This is also the case in Austria.

Therefore, it might be interesting to have a closer look at institutions and individuals, their connections to groups that deny secularism and how a government can act naively by supporting dubious organizations in the fight against jihadists.

Let us begin: At least four former leaders of the „Muslim Youth Austria“ (MJÖ) work for the „Extremism Advisory Center“, financed by the Austrian Ministry of Family Affairs – although the organization has organizational, ideological and personal connections to the Muslim Brotherhood. Who are those figures?

Amani Abuzahra is probably a smart, at least a very eloquent woman. She often appears on television, likes to wear traditional jackets with a headscarf and speaks out on many big questions – Islam, integration, identity. She has not only devoted a book to the subject, she has also talked about herself in numerous newspaper articles and TV programs.

The 32-year-old is Austrian with Palestinian roots, mother of two children, philosopher, lecturer and member of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Religious Community in Austria (IGGÖ).

The fight against extremism is one of the core fields that Abuzahra focuses on. At the beginning of October, for example, she gave a lecture on the subject of radicalism at a conference of the Lower Austria University of Education on the mediation of the advice center of the same name, also known as the “deradicalization hotline”.

Her husband and colleague held a second of a total of six workshops at the „Kirchlich-Pädagogische Hochschule“, the Center had also recommended him.

Amani Abuzahra and Alexander Osman have something in common with three other external employees of the Extremism Advice Center, which was initiated and financed by the Family Ministry: Just like Abuzahra’s brother-in-law, the political scientist Farid Hafez, the diversity trainer Nedzad Mocevic and the cultural scientist Medina Velic, they were founders of the MJÖ, Osman co-founded the group in Linz in 1996, Abuzahra sat on the board until at least 2009.

Amani Abuzahra hardly mentions this anymore, although she is still chairing one of its sub-organizations – the „Young Muslim Women Austria“ (JMÖ) – according to their website.

What is certain, however, is that – with the exception of Osman – the other former MJÖ representatives also did not address their past in the group and, according to a list that has been publicly available since April, they make up almost a quarter of the 17-person “training team” at that institution, which the government wants to put a stop to the “tendencies towards radicalization” in our country.

This strong – but so far nowhere identified – presence of former leading MJÖ representatives in the advice center is a thorn in the side of many who have dealt with religiously motivated radicalization or corresponding countermeasures. This is primarily due to the connections between the Austrian youth group and the oldest and most influential organization of political Islam: the Muslim Brotherhood.

Organization denies any connections to the Muslim Brotherhood

The MJÖ has strong connections to people influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood, says Lorenzo Vidino, author of “The New Muslim Brotherhood in the West”.

Lorenzo Vidino has been researching the Muslim Brotherhood at renowned universities around the world for more than fifteen years.

A former Austrian family minister did not deny the connections, but asked the MJÖ to comment. “The MJÖ never was, is not and will never be close to the Muslim Brotherhood,” said MJÖ managing director Tugba Seker at that time. But not only critics, also numerous experts who work in NGOs, ministries or universities on the subject of integration, prevention of extremism and deradicalization, see things differently.

This raises sensitive questions: Are we dealing with the kind of infiltration that Pegida, right-wing parties like the FPO in Austria, AfD in Germany and others have long warned against? Or are we promoting the prejudices and resentments that Farid Hafez and other “alumni” of the MJÖ like to complain about? In short: Is this about “Islamization” or “Islamophobia”? Or in the end something completely different?

If you try to answer these questions, you will quickly come across nicely prepared but not published material: pages of dossiers, ramified organizational charts, lots of screenshots that illustrate connections between small Austrian and large international players. However, you can only get them if you stick to strict conditions. If possible, no communication by email. Who knows who is reading. No recording devices. No direct quotations.

There are good reasons for caution. Firstly, the MJÖ is doing a lot of good, and not just since tens of thousands of fleeing believers have been dependent on help. Second, even the critics of the MJÖ assume that the great majority of its members are unaware of the connections that its founders have with organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood. And thirdly, it is precisely this former management team that is considered to be excellently networked, experienced in campaigns – and not very squeamish when dealing with their opponents.

One staffer of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Integration gave information about his own experiences with the group, on the condition not to be mentioned: “I saw that the MJÖ deliberately carried out propaganda and tried to drive a wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims,” he says. “And that is very problematic in terms of integration policy.”

With regard to the Muslim Brotherhood, the MJÖ has every reason to reject any connection. In Germany, the organization from which the Palestinian Hamas, but also the Tunisian Ennahda emerged, has been monitored by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution for years.

The Bavarian Constitutional Protection Report for 2013 speaks of a “dual strategy” by the Muslim Brotherhood: “Externally, the MB is open, tolerant and open to dialogue. It strives for cooperation with political institutions and decision-makers in order to gain influence in public life. The goal, however, remains the establishment of a social and political order based on Sharia law, with the MB claiming the leading role for all Muslims.” A large part of the ideological principles of the Muslim Brotherhood are not compatible with the Constitutional Law of Germany.

The Muslim Brotherhood rely on secret structures

The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 by an Egyptian elementary school teacher named Hassan al-Banna. Over the decades he built up a network of welfare and educational institutions in numerous countries in the Middle East, with the help of which he established the movement in many places as a political alternative to the often corrupt, secular rulers of the region. Many years of experience with the post-colonial dictators had a strong impact on the brotherhood: clear commitments to the organization are extremely rare, the brothers prefer to rely on their well-tried, informal to secret structures.

That makes any kind of clear assignment to the Muslim Brotherhood very difficult. Memberships can almost never be proven, says Lorenzo Vidino, who has researched at such renowned institutions as the ETH Zurich and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Organizational, ideological or personal connections can very well be understood.

Those between the small Austrian MJÖ and the large international Muslim Brotherhood run above all on two levels: The first is an organizational one. The MJÖ was a member of the Forum of European Muslim Youth and Student Organizations (FEMYSO) until at least 2005. The first and long-term chairman of FEMYSO was a German-Egyptian named Ibrahim el-Zayat.

The building contractor sits in numerous Muslim organizations and is considered the head of the Muslim Brotherhood in Germany. The former North Rhine-Westphalian constitution protection chief Hartwig Möller once called him a “spider in the web of Islamist organizations”, the former German family minister Kristina Schröder called him a “functionary of the Muslim Brotherhood”. El-Zayat tried to defend himself against this in court, but lost.

“The el-Zayats are top players in the networks that are associated with the brotherhood,” says Vidino, “not just in Germany, but throughout Europe and the Middle East.” Above all, Ibrahim el-Zayat has leadership positions in numerous organizations, including the largest brotherhood charities in the West – and for many years also FEMYSO.

The MJÖ now attaches great importance to distance itself from the Brussels-based youth and student organization. For example, after a critical article in “Profil”, the group demanded a “correction” which, among other things, should make it clear that the MJÖ had “only been an extraordinary member of FEMYSO for a short period (2003-2005).”

The organization must have put a lot of pressure on the editors beforehand, because they agreed to publish, even though the process of cutting the cord, which began ten years ago, does not seem to be completely over: The aforementioned Young Muslim Women Austria (JMÖ) from Amani Abuzahra call their parent organization MJÖ to this day as “Member of the European umbrella organization, Forum of European Muslim Youth and Student Organizations’ (FEMYSO)”.

The second main connection line runs through a house in the 23rd district, belonging to the Anas Schakfeh Foundation, named after a former IGGÖ president. This is where not only the MJÖ resides, but also the “Private Study Course for Teaching in Islamic Religion at Compulsory Schools in Vienna”, or IRPA in short.

MJÖ and IRPA

MJÖ and IRPA not only share the address, but also have a lot in common in terms of personnel. Amani Abuzahra, Farid Hafez and at least two other current or former MJÖ representatives taught here. Abuzahra and Hafez are likely to have a particularly good relationship with IRPA director Amena Shakir: They have each published at least one book with the religious educator.

The Munich public prosecutor’s office started investigating Amena and Ibrahim el-Zayat in 2008, because they suspected the two of having used state funding for the school, although the institution is said not to have been non-profit during the relevant period. However, the investigation was discontinued in May 2010 because the investigation did not reveal sufficient suspicion.

MJÖ and al-Banna

Apart from the connections of leading MJÖ representatives to the el-Zayats, there are also religious and ideological indications that the MJÖ is close to the brotherhood. The Ma’thurat, a prayer collection by Hassan al-Banna, the founding father of the brotherhood, is said to have been used not only at a camp of the Muslim youth in Germany, but also at its Austrian counterpart. In any case, there is an edition of this text collection that was published with the MJÖ logo and a foreword by a former MJÖ president.

If the MJÖ has no connections with the Muslim Brotherhood, why does it publish the prayers of the MB founder?

Several young people around the MJÖ also make great efforts to make central institutions and actors from the orbit of the brotherhood appear in the best possible light in the media. The former MJÖ representative Farid Hafez, for example, praised the Muslim Brotherhood as a democratic force in a guest commentary for „Der Standard“.

Hafez praises the anti-Semite Qaradawi

Hafez did not explain how the absolute claim of political Islam is compatible with democracy. He also failed to mention that Qaradawi, the great ideological leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, by no means only speaks on the subject of democracy. In his book “Permitted and Forbidden in Islam” he justifies the death penalty for adultery and turning away from Islam. He defends Palestinian suicide bombers. And what Adolf Hitler did to the Jews, he described in 2009 as “divine punishment”, which „with God’s will, next time the true believers would execute.“

Hafez also worked with the student organization FEMYSO, with which the MJÖ officially no longer wants to have anything to do with. It was only in May 2015 that he gave a lecture on his favorite subject, “Islamophobia” – a term that many scholars consider unsuitable because it not only targets racism against Muslims, but also criticism of Islam and its representatives.

There are many more pieces that could be added to this intricate puzzle. But the picture that is already emerging is enough for many experts to question cooperation with former leading members of the MJÖ, especially in such a sensitive area as prevention and deradicalization work.

Ednan Aslan, professor for Islamic religious education at the University of Vienna is one of the few who express their criticism relatively openly. “I think it’s a risky undertaking that the MJÖ in particular is talking about radicalism,” he says. “To be able to do that, it would have to distance itself not only technically but also in terms of content from the Muslim Brotherhood. Otherwise I have great doubts that we can win young people for democracy through the center.”

Aslan has already fought many conflicts with the MJÖ and its “alumni”. In the meantime, they are more and more of a legal nature. In December 2015, Aslan criticized in a guest commentary for „Die Presse“, that an – unnamed – “Muslim Brotherhood activist” got excited about the Islam law in an English-speaking AKP newspaper. Farid Hafez felt identified and sued Aslan for defamation with an amount in dispute of 50,000 euros.

We must be warned treating the Muslim Brotherhood and their mostly excellently trained and professionally organized sympathizers as “bouncers of the community”, as they like to portray themselves. Especially as deradicalizers, they are of little use. In most cases, they would not even reach violent extremists, and on the other hand they would prepare the ideological breeding ground for more radical groups.

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