In the 2010s, much of the attention of the authorities and the public was focused on jihadist-inspired terrorism. The rapid rise of the Islamic State in the Middle East, the mobilization of thousands of civilians and residents of European countries to join these groups, and the wave of terrorist attacks organized or inspired by it that overwhelmed Europe have engulfed the discourse of political decision-makers across Europe.
By the end of the 2010s and the beginning of the new decade, the threat posed by jihadism did not disappear, but it has decreased significantly. As a consequence of this decline, the concerns of political decision-makers and opinion-formers have expanded in part in recent years to non-violent manifestations of Islamism. The European population is increasingly debating the impact that Islamist groups have on their society. Although they act within the framework of the law, they spread highly controversial views that are incompatible with Western values and also take actions that may have a negative impact on cohesion in European societies.
In a widely acclaimed speech in April 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron addressed the phenomenon as one of the greatest challenges his country has to face: “We are talking about a communitarianism that is spreading in certain quarters of the republic. We are talking about the secession, which is being carried out in secret, as the republic either abandons its promises or cannot keep them. We are talking about people who are pursuing a political agenda in the name of religion, namely that of political Islam, the renunciation of our republic. And so I appeal to the government to be persistent. “
Europe’s political observers are not surprised that Macron, a staunch opponent of populism but also an expert on his country’s sore spots, is highlighting the negative effects of Islamization on French society. The French President has merely voiced the concerns that are increasingly being voiced by decision-makers in European politics.
However, these concerns are by no means new in Europe. In 1988, for example, various Islamist organizations among Britain’s Muslim communities campaigned against Salman Rushdie’s book “The Satanic Verses”. The agitation culminated in a public book burning in Bradford. By then, at the latest, it was clear to both the Islamist agitators and the British establishment that Islamism had become a force that would keep the country in suspense for many years. Something similar happened in France in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Islamist groups mobilized against the hijab ban in schools and public places. The French state and the French public had to admit that Islamist currents had gained a foothold in the republic and were about to question the social norms of the country.
Since those first key events, most European countries have been debating how to deal with Islamism. The wide range of Islamist movements that Europe is confronted with is complex and may seem confusing to many people. Islamism is essentially a very diverse movement. All Islamist movements have certain core ideas in common, but they also differ significantly from one another in many ways, from their theological and political orientation to their tactics and strategies. A possible – albeit inevitably simplistic – differentiation can be made on the basis of their respective modus operandi. This results in three subcategories: violent rejecters (rejectionists), non-violent rejecters (rejectionists) and participationists.
Views on the nature of Islamists are not homogeneous among European policymakers, scholars and opinion leaders. Some take a more optimistic approach, arguing that Islamist groups simply hold conservative views that may conflict with those of most Europeans, but are nonetheless legitimate and harmless. Others also argue that participationists, such as European networks associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, would promote the integration of Western Muslim communities. In this way, they would offer a model that allows Muslims to live their faith holistically and to preserve their Islamic identity and at the same time to be actively involved as citizens. Furthermore, an optimistic interpretation suggests that participatory Islamists would be a positive affirmation for young Muslims and urge them to invest their energy and frustration in the political process rather than violence or extremism. Governments should use their grassroots activities and work with them on common issues such as unemployment, crime, drugs and radicalization.
Others, like most European intelligence agencies, are more pessimistic about the impact of Islamist networks. Critics argue that non-violent Islamist groups propagate an interpretation of Islam that drives a wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims, thus contributing to polarization and impairing integration. Pessimistic voices are concerned about the growing influence of Islamist groups trying to induce members of local Muslim communities (mostly through preaching but not infrequently through various forms of social pressure, intimidation and occasionally violence) to break away from majority society use alternative legislation, education and welfare systems. They would essentially be concerned with a slow but ongoing social engineering program aimed at Islamizing the European Muslim population and ultimately competing with European governments for their sense of belonging.
This criticism is often voiced not only against non-violent rejectionists but also against fraternal Islamists, despite the latter’s claim to advocate integration and political participation. If the pessimistic voices are to be believed, representatives of fraternal organizations have understood that infiltrating the system is the best way to get what they want rather than attacking it directly. After all, the tough confrontations between jihadist groups in the West are leading nowhere – at least for the time being. By becoming the privileged partner of the European establishment, they are capitalizing on the desperate desire of the European elites to enter into dialogue with representatives of the Muslim community, presenting themselves as the voice of European Muslims as a whole, and then harnessing the power and legitimacy that they exert such interactions result. That in turn would strengthen their position within the community. Pessimistic observers also point to a constant discrepancy in the discourse of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West: while it is moderate on the outside and expresses its loyalty to democracy, it is radical internally and stirs up hatred against the West.
In addition, critics warn of the possible effects of nonviolent Islamists on violent radicalization processes. Critics argue that Salafists and Muslim Brotherhoods promote ideas that, by their logical conclusion, justify violence and urge angry young men to be more open to the views of jihadist groups. In the British debate, proponents of this thesis have always said that non-violent Islamists “provide the mood music that suicide bombers dance to”. However, many view this position critically and the question of whether non-violent Islamists are now a “fire accelerator” for violent radicalization or, on the contrary, a protective “firewall” against it, has shaped the Western counter-terrorism debate over the past twenty years.
Another major challenge related to Islamists arises from the fact that most of the activities of Islamist groups are lawful. Sometimes, depending on local conditions, some of their rhetoric violates laws relating to discrimination, hate speech, or anti-Semitism. In addition, there are quite a few cases where European Islamist groups have supported Hamas or various militias that fought in the Syrian civil war and carried out attacks outside of Europe in various ways.
While they can be justified to be problematic, the vast majority of activities that European Islamists are involved in (sermons, political activism, fundraising, building mosques and schools, etc.) are not illegal per se. Laws in certain countries punish these behaviors when seen as part of a larger subversive strategy. In general, however, Islamists operate largely within the limits of the law and enjoy a constitutionally sanctioned right to work for and stand up for an Islamic order.
In order to distinguish them from terrorist/violent groups, the German authorities use the term “legalistic” for those groups that “try to enforce an order that they interpret through political and social influence”. The distinction has practical consequences: while the former are illegal and membership or support is also illegal, the latter are tolerated by the state but placed under surveillance. While few other countries have formalized the distinction as formalized as Germany, the European authorities are becoming increasingly aware of the problems posed by Islamist groups. However, because of their legalistic nature, they are nearly immune to many of the measures (bans, arrests of members, etc.) that governments generally take to combat violent groups.
Another challenge facing Islamist groups is their disproportionate influence. A look at the numbers shows Islamist activists as a small minority. But thanks to their commitment to their cause, their skills as activists and the plentiful financial resources that they have drawn upon for decades, they can appear disproportionately strong. This dynamic is evident in two different but related contexts: within European Muslim communities and in interactions with European institutions.
While the dynamic for the former varies somewhat from country to country, Islamists across Europe have been able to build an elaborate network of mosques, charities, schools, lobby and civil rights organizations and many other forms of organization for the local Muslim community. From childcare facilities to funeral homes, from halāl certification bodies to media companies, Islamists try to meet all sorts of needs of European Muslims. These efforts have not necessarily led the majority of European Muslims to adopt their worldview, which is generally their greatest goal. There is no question, however, that most non-Islamist organizations do not have the resources (and in many cases do not have the disposition) to compete with Islamists in efforts to influence European Muslim communities.
For the same reason, Islamists have often gained a disproportionate influence in European institutions: politicians at all levels, government agencies, local administrations, media, etc. This is especially true for organizations associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, given their heated political nature and tendencies to present yourself as a moderate and reliable interlocutor. Although circumstances vary from country to country, it is very likely that when European institutions reach out to the Muslim community, many, if not all, of the committed organizations or individuals of varying degrees will belong to networks of the Brotherhood. Exceptions to this situation are not uncommon, and changes have occurred in various countries in recent years; overall, however, it is evident that no other Islamic movement has the visibility, political influence and access to European elites that the Muslim Brotherhood has achieved in recent decades.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Austria showed that the network of the Austrian Muslim Brotherhood, following a pattern similar in all Western countries, has achieved a level of visibility and power that is not in proportion to the small number of its members. Thanks to their ample financial resources and organizational skills, their leaders and organizations have largely managed to become the legal and factual representatives of the Austrian Muslim community as well as the contact persons for Austrian politicians, media and civil society organizations for all Islam-related issues and beyond. It is just one example that shows how, in the competition to represent Western Muslims, a well-organized minority has achieved relative victory over less well-organized minorities when it comes to giving the silent majority a voice.
In view of the violent manifestations of the ideology, the debate about non-violent Islamism often fades into the background. For obvious reasons, terrorist attacks, especially when they are as frequent and dramatic as some of the ones that have struck Europe in recent years, get the full attention of policymakers, security agencies and the media. Little attention is paid to the activities of nonviolent Islamists: they are mostly legal; they rarely culminate in dramatic events like the Bradford book burning, and they often respond (sometimes justified, sometimes not) with accusations of racism and Islamophobia on those who draw attention to them. In recent years, however, the debate on nonviolent Islamism seems to have gained prominence in several European countries. It is also worth noting that concerns about Islamism are no longer being voiced almost exclusively by right-wing sections of the political spectrum, but increasingly by politicians and political observers from all political directions.
This debate has very practical implications for a wide range of policy areas: from integration to security, from education to politics. Should Islamists, including Salafists, be allowed to run private schools, for example? Should European governments work with fraternity organizations, which often have a larger and more organized pool of teachers, to teach Islam in public schools? Should they be partners with European governments in training and selecting pastoral workers for the prison system, the military, the police and other similar institutions? Should they receive public funding to conduct social, educational and integration activities with Muslim communities and the large numbers of refugees from Muslim majority countries? Should they partner in a domestic counter-terrorism and radicalization strategy?