Islamist Movements in Europe 3 – Cooperation of Extremist Islamist Movements in Europe

The patterns of cooperation are extremely complex. A first possible dynamic emerges when a public actor engages an Islamist actor with little or no information. This might surprise those with limited knowledge of how the public sector works, as many outsiders tend to overestimate its competencies. The reality, however, is that across the European bureaucracy, general knowledge about Islam and Islamism is very limited, let alone the ability to understand its nuances and decipher its often ambiguous language.

Journalistic reports, for example, have shown how senior US and British officials responsible for critical security and counter-terrorism issues, with a focus on jihadist groups, have had serious difficulties explaining the difference between Sunnism and Shiism and determining which one like al-Qaeda recruited their members – basic facts that should be crystal clear to anyone involved in security policymaking. It is therefore not difficult to imagine that this knowledge gap will be the same or probably even greater for civil servants who have dealt with completely different responsibilities in their previous careers, for example in a small community.

Of course there are exceptions and there are numerous officials at all levels and in all areas who are extremely knowledgeable on this matter; be it because they trained themselves or because they took part in a government-organized course on the subject. However, it is not a mistake to assume that ignorance of who you are dealing with is the main factor in many collaborative efforts by European public actors. Explanations that see the involvement of Islamists as a complex, calculating decision-making process that takes all perspectives into account may be correct in some cases, but are mostly wrong. To modify the well-known proverb somewhat: “Do not attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by incompetence.”

Indeed, a more realistic portrayal of “cooperation” is the act of a well-meaning but overworked and poorly instructed ordinary official who wants or needs to work with Muslim organizations, but at the same time has limited analytical tools to dissect the intricacies of these processes. Even if this can also happen at the highest government level, cooperation with Islamists due to a lack of knowledge is all the more likely the further down the hierarchy the person responsible is.

This applies, for example, to the council of a small community that decides to grant an Islamist organization the right to use the local public gym for common prayers during Ramadan. Or for a state aid organization that works with a local Islamist network due to past connections to a war-torn region. Or for a politician who decides to write a letter of support or the opening speech for a banquet organized by a mosque connected to the local Islamist network. In all of these cases the cooperation partner will be an institution with no obvious Islamist connection. On the contrary, the name will try to give the impression of representing a broad section of the Muslim community that is considered mainstream and moderate. While some will undoubtedly not fail to investigate the collaborator, many officials will make their decision without that foundation for reasons ranging from difficulty in obtaining reliable information to laziness.

This ignorance can be of different types, which is due to an incorrect assessment of two main factors:

Wrong assessment of the representativeness of an Islamist organization/person

Islamist actors tend to present themselves as representatives of a large group, if not all, of the Muslim community, both locally and nationally. They often name their organizations in such a way that it is suggested (Islamic Society of X, Muslims of Y, Federation of Muslim Communities of Z, etc.) and argue that various elements (the large number of participants in their events or the percentage of Mosques that they control etc.) prove their claim to representativeness. It is therefore not uncommon for public actors to take this claim at face value and get involved with an Islamist institution, believing that this is how they are dealing with the entire Muslim community.

Although the circumstances vary considerably from case to case, it can be stated that most Islamist representativeness claims are deliberately exaggerated. It cannot be denied that Islamist groups have a following made up of both committed members and a large number of unattached people who merely share many of the same views. What is shown in surveys of the broader local Muslim society, however, can be observed as a pattern across Europe: Only a minority of Muslims see Islamist (or any) organizations as their representatives.

There is probably no better example than that of the United Kingdom: For a long time, the authorities saw the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), an umbrella organization whose members are institutions with different orientations but which have a largely Islamist-oriented leadership, as the only legitimate representative British Muslims and limited cooperation to the MCB, so that all other Muslim organizations were excluded. Following the terrorist attacks in London in July 2005, members of the MCB reacted in a way that was largely disappointing to UK authorities. They denied that radicalism was present in parts of the British Muslim communities. Instead, they blamed British foreign policy for the attacks (a few MCB-related people even formulated conspiracy theories). The UK government then began to investigate the representativeness of the MCB, which it had long considered an immovable fact, and found that it failed even the most superficial inquiries. A 2006 survey of 1,000 British Muslims conducted by TV broadcaster Channel 4 found that only 4% of them felt they were represented by the MCB. A similar poll by the think tank Policy Exchange increased that number to just 6%. Women, young people and organizations representing various Islamic trends, such as the Sufis, declared particularly loudly that the MCB does not represent their views.

Inability to determine the Islamist affiliations/positions of a group/individual

In other cases, the authorities do not (or not only) misjudge the representativeness, but rather the very nature of Islamist actors. In some cases, politicians simply fail to scrutinize the background of any organization they work with and then hastily retreat after receiving more information. A particularly telling example of this dynamic was provided by a Wall Street Journal reporter, who recounted how a British Member of the European Parliament told him in an interview that he enjoyed talking to representatives of the FIOE, the Brussels-based pan-European umbrella organization of the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe. The MP said that she viewed FIOE as a very moderate organization, unlike the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), whose extremism worried her. When the journalist pointed out that MAB was a founding member of FIOE, the MP was astonished and embarrassed to admit that she had failed to make such a fundamental connection.

Cases like this are not uncommon and testify to the difficulty with which the authorities at all levels are confronted in orienting themselves in the constantly changing jungle of umbrella organizations, new organizational units and interlocking bodies. Islamist actors actually tend to create many organizations. This is especially true of the Muslim Brotherhood network. It is not uncommon in all European countries for around a dozen local Muslim Brotherhood activists to register hundreds of organizations, from NGOs to religious units to corporations. And it is common for these people to constantly switch from one board of directors to another, in a constant and very difficult to understand chair dance.

The tactic undoubtedly serves the purpose of having many units specializing in different tasks (charity, education, political lobbying, etc.). But this “army” of registered companies may enable them to achieve two other goals related to their collaborative efforts. First, it reinforces their ambitions to create the impression that they represent the entire Muslim community. So it could happen that a public actor, who does not do extensive research, invites ten organizations to an event, believing that he is dealing with a broad cross-section of the Muslim community in this way, when in fact he is dealing with individuals from the same milieu , apparently under the auspices of various organizations.

Sometimes the limited investigative skills of the public actors also play a role. In some countries, authorities have significant difficulty in obtaining detailed information about membership in an organization with which they interact. Laws protecting freedom of association and religion make it difficult for government agencies to know which units are members of an umbrella organization, who sits on the boards of the units that make up said organization, who controls the budget of said organizations, and so on. As became known in the case of Germany, this could mean that a public decision-maker cannot legally determine that an organization with which he works (or which he finances) is part of an umbrella organization which the security authority classifies as extremist. With these limited powers, it is difficult for a public actor to make an informed decision.

A different dynamic comes into play when authorities take a formalistic approach to determining whether a potential interlocutor is an Islamist and essentially judge the situation according to whether a formal affiliation is known or whether the claim of the individual or the organization to do so not doing is accepted. A vivid example of this dynamic dates back to 2007, when the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf claimed that a local Muslim activist was connected to various units of the global network of the Muslim Brotherhood and had money from the Europe Trust, one in the United Kingdom local recognized financial arm of the pan-European fraternity network. The story was particularly catchy because the person was a partner in the Dutch Ministry of Integration’s efforts to promote integration and fight radicalization within the local Muslim community. The article prompted some members of the Dutch parliament to ask the then Dutch Minister for Integration to explain her decision to work with the person in public.

The minister’s answer given during a parliamentary session sufficiently illustrates the inability of many Western policymakers to understand the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe. First, the minister replied that there was no information that the person was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, only that he was associated with a large number of Muslim organizations sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood. With such an answer, the minister showed that she did not understand how membership in the Muslim Brotherhood can be determined. Whether the person is a Muslim brother – and however exactly that is defined – or not is irrelevant here. The minister’s statement, however, clearly identifies membership of the Muslim Brotherhood as a kind of formal membership, without understanding that this is constituted more through personal, ideological and financial connections.

The continuation of the answer shows a second problem that many European decision-makers have when assessing their potential interlocutors. She assured that she had received information from the Dutch Security Authorities (AIVD) that the organizations with which the supported was associated did not pose a “threat to national security” and that she had therefore continued to work with him. She thus seemed to divide the candidates for their potential cooperation into two categories: People who are involved in terrorist activities and therefore pose a threat to national security should not be considered as cooperation partners, while all others should be used as partners can be. She seemed to ignore the fact that there could be a third category, made up of individuals and organizations who, while not involved in terrorist activities and pose no direct threat, could pursue an agenda and an ideology aimed at Dutch government promoting integration are incompatible.

Interestingly, this is actually the position of the Dutch security agency, which published a public report on the Muslim Brotherhood in the Netherlands a few months after the minister’s parliamentary speech. Although the report did not refer directly to it, it did address the two shortcomings in her assessment: “Not all Muslim brothers or their sympathizers can be identified as such. They do not always reveal their religious loyalty and ultra-Orthodox agenda to outsiders. ”In essence, the AIVD made it clear that the minister’s use of a formalist approach is misleading when trying to determine whether an individual or organization is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood or actually any in the West active Islamist movement. The fact that an individual does not identify himself as an Islamist or strongly denies his affiliation or even his sympathy hardly makes it a criterion for assessing whether that individual is in fact an Islamist.

The second part of the Dutch minister’s argument, in which it was said that their cooperation was not wrong because their interlocutor did not pose a national security threat, was also indirectly addressed by the AIVD. The authority’s report states:

“Seemingly cooperative and moderate in their attitude towards Western society, they [Muslim brothers] certainly have no violent intent. However, they are trying to pave the way for ultra-orthodox Islam to give it a bigger role in the western world by exerting religious influence over Muslim immigrant communities and forging good relationships with relevant opinion leaders: politicians, officials, mainstream social organizations, Non-Islamic clergy, academics, journalists and so on. This policy of cooperation has become more noticeable in recent years and could possibly herald a certain liberalization of the movement’s ideas. They present themselves as advocates with widespread support and legitimate representatives of the Islamic community. But the ultimate goal – though never frankly – is to create, then implant and expand an ultra-Orthodox Muslim bloc in Western Europe […].”

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