Non-violent Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood movements in Europe operate within the legal and political framework of their host countries. They have recognized the interaction with European institutions as one of the most important tactics to expand their influence. The Muslim Brotherhood with its sub-institutions made it a priority to become the legal or factual representatives of the Muslim communities and thus to be seen by European institutions as “gatekeepers” for these groups.
These organizations look for any kind of interaction with European institutions – a term that should be interpreted as broadly as possible, from central governments to local authorities, from media organizations to civil society, from faith groups to political parties. These interactions can bring the participationists three extremely valuable and partially overlapping political values: reach or sphere of influence, financial resources and legitimacy.
Reach in terms of the ability to exert greater influence
In all European countries, participatory Islamist organizations strive to exert as much influence as possible on two different groups: the local Muslim community and local institutions. Despite their relentless activism and extensive resources, the Muslim Brotherhood organizations have failed to initiate a mass movement and win the loyalty of the majority of European Muslims. While the concepts, issues and frameworks put forward by them have reached many of them, most European Muslims either actively oppose or simply ignore the influence. Islamists have understood, therefore, that a close relationship with European elites could give them the financial and political capital that could greatly facilitate their expansion of reach and influence within the community.
By building such relationships, Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood seeks to be entrusted by European governments with the management of all aspects of “Muslim life” in a country. Ideally, governments would entrust them with preparing curricula and selecting teachers for teaching Islam in public schools, appointing imams in public institutions such as the military, police or prison, and granting them subsidies for administering social services. This position would also enable them to de facto be the official Muslim voice in public debates and in the media, drowning out other voices. The powers and legitimacy that this would give them would enable them to significantly increase their influence over the Muslim community. Through tactical political calculation, the Muslim Brotherhood tries to transform its claim to leadership into a self-fulfilling prophecy in order to be recognized as the representative of the Muslim community and consequently to actually advance to its sole representatives.
At the same time, Islamists see cooperation with European institutions as a way of influencing them. Proximity could actually enable them to influence decision-makers’ opinions on all relevant issues, from major geopolitical to local issues. Ideally, having the attention of European elites to get in close contact and thereby being seen as reliable interlocutors means that they can influence their way of thinking in a way that benefits their movement. Financial resources are one of the core elements that distinguish the Muslim Brotherhood from other Muslim organizations and enables them to carry out activities on an unimaginable scale for other groups. European Muslim Brotherhood has shown remarkable talent in the past for generating its own financial resources through various business and charitable activities. However, it was particularly foreign funding from a variety of public and private sources, most notably from the oil-rich countries of the Arabian Gulf, that made the difference. Due to the dramatic geopolitical changes that occurred in the region after the Arab Spring, many of these funding sources have now dried up. Even so, the institutions associated with the Muslim Brotherhood can still rely on adequate funding from Qatar and Turkey.
In recent years, however, Islamist actors have also increasingly benefited from funding from European governments. Indeed, organizations that are variously controlled by or connected to Islamist networks have found more and more ways of obtaining public funding. The dynamics and size of this phenomenon differ from country to country. However, across the continent, it has become increasingly common for organizations associated with Islamist networks to receive funding from public institutions (from the European Commission to municipalities) to administer various services to the Muslim community (Islamic education, funerals, provision of halal meat in canteens etc.) or to carry out charitable activities. In recent years, Islamist organizations have found a particularly favorable environment in which to obtain public funding for activities in areas that have been politically prioritized by the European authorities: preventing radicalization, combating Islamophobia and integrating refugees and new migrants.
Islamist actors are therefore increasingly trying to cooperate with European institutions in order to obtain the public funds that enable them to continue to operate on a large scale and thus to expand their reach.
As discussed above, the Muslim Brotherhood representatives in Europe strive to be recognized as trustworthy and moderate interlocutors, reliable “gatekeepers” to whom the authorities delegate important responsibilities – and provide related resources – to administer the Muslim communities and the authorities seek advice when making decisions on relevant issues. This ambition is often undermined by the fact that most Islamist organizations and activists do not enjoy an unadulterated reputation among the European institutions. If the well-founded criticism of them is left aside for a moment, it cannot be denied that Islamist actors are generally viewed with at least a certain amount of skepticism. These dynamics show considerable variation, with some Islamist actors generally being viewed more positively than others and some individuals and organizations within European institutions being more generous in their assessments than others. Overall, however, one can rightly say that most Islamist actors are discussed controversially to a certain extent and therefore any cooperation with them tends to be subject to scrutiny.
The Muslim Brotherhood is well aware of this dynamic, which is severely hampering its collaborative efforts – and thus its ability to increase reach and financial resources. For this reason, it sees cooperation with certain actors as a method to deepen cooperation with others. For example, it is not uncommon for the movement to be criticized and viewed very negatively by a country’s security authorities and a significant part of the media for its controversial relationships and positions. As a result, many politicians and government agencies are unwilling to work with this organization.
The Muslim Brotherhood often tries to break this negative dynamic through a number of tactics. Very often there is an attempt to create a chain of legitimation by looking for actors who are willing to work with it. For example, if government agencies 1, 2, and 3 are unwilling to sit down or work with them, then government agency 4 may very well do so. As soon as authority 4 does this, it will be easier for the Islamist organization to present itself as a moderate and reliable interlocutor to other authorities and other potential cooperation partners in other areas. As soon as a government agency recognizes them as a partner, the position of the Islamist organization could be that the accusations of extremism by critics are unfounded and purely politically motivated.
Organizations have made significant efforts to reach a wide range of civil society organizations dealing with issues such as discrimination, poverty and human rights. To be seen as partners with institutions working on such generally admirable matters gives the Muslim Brotherhood important political legitimacy. Particularly noteworthy in this context is the endeavor of various Islamist actors to work together with organizations that defend the rights of groups that critics accuse Islamists of having particularly problematic attitudes towards them. For example, it is not uncommon for Islamist organizations to organize events and activities with Jewish and LBGTQ+ organizations. Leaving aside the motivations and understanding of these dynamics, the display of a partnership with Jewish or LBGTQ+ organizations for Islamists is a valuable shield against criticism and an important step towards legitimacy.
The media also play a vital role in seeking legitimacy. Frequently mentioned in the media as moderate and representative voices of the local Muslim community contributes to widespread acceptance. Repeated over time, these claims are increasingly tolerated. If the same moderately presenting Islamist actor is regularly interviewed as one of the first or even the only “Muslim voice” for articles ranging from subjects such as the condemnation of terrorism by ordinary Muslims to preparing the local Muslim community for Ramadan, enjoy He is increasing trust among political actors, which at the same time – due to the lack of alternatives, so to speak – makes him the Muslim leader of the first choice who cannot be invited. This dynamic is based both on the proactive approach of the Islamists, who often aggressively seek the proximity of journalists, and on a certain laziness of many reporters who are simply looking for a “Muslim voice” in order to fulfill the duty of apparently differentiated research without but to verify that the claims actually represent the general view of the Muslim community.
All of these elements work together. After government agency 4, city X local government, several civil rights groups, and major media outlets have collaborated with an Islamist organization, it is likely that others will throw some of their reservations overboard and deal with them as well. Every meeting, every partnership and every joint activity, however small and casual it may be in detail, forms a link in the chain of legitimation that Islamists are trying to build. Every meeting forms an implicit endorsement. And everyone becomes part of a self-continuing process, the Islamists, due to a combination of their own unrelenting activism, a lack of consistent stance by European institutions and their indolence, able to regularly take a seat at all negotiating tables.
The vague term cooperation can be understood as a multitude of forms of contact, ranging from insignificant one-off meetings to stable forms of partnership. Public actors who need to involve representatives of the Muslim communities range from prime ministers and other high-level government officials to local bureaucrats. The goals and priorities of the collaborative efforts are different and various factors must be taken into account. Collaboration can range from issues such as security to belief management and from integration to politics. In some cases public actors work with an Islamist institution as one of many interlocutors who represent the entire spectrum of the Muslim community, in other cases it is limited to this one interlocutor.
The reasons that lead European policymakers to or not to deal with Islamist organizations are diverse and sometimes overlap. The subject is extremely complex for a number of reasons. First of all, no European country has agreed on a uniform assessment that is followed by all branches of government. There are no centrally published white papers or internal guidelines to all government officials setting out how Islamist organizations should be identified, assessed and ultimately involved. This situation leads to enormous inconsistencies in politics, not only between different states, but also within a state in which positions vary from ministry to ministry and even from department to department of the same body. Experts inside and outside government with conflicting ideas often influence the opinion of policymakers, creating a complex, often chaotic situation, in which institutions fluctuate indiscriminately between measures reflecting first optimistic and then pessimistic views of Islamist organizations. In essence, given the lack of a unified direction, most authorities have a great deal of leeway in devising their own attitudes and strategies towards Islamist organizations.
In addition, different individuals and institutions may have different and changing priorities in dealing with Islamist organizations. A certain collaborative approach by one government organization, for example in relation to security, can have an impact on the collaborative approach of another government organization on a completely different topic (e.g. education) and vice versa. But it is by no means easy for these two government organizations, each of which has its own leadership, its own priorities, norms and a history of cooperation, to find a coordinated approach.