The well-known presence of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Europe dates back to the 1960s when political refugees from Syria and Egypt like Said Ramadan came to Europe and made their first initiatives. These refugees and migrants did not come to Europe to settle and establish a web of Islamic organisations, but their main ideal was to organise their Muslim fellows in Egypt and Syria in their struggle against the regimes in their homeland. Later on, these first figures of the Muslim Brotherhood created structures such as Islamic higher education, fatwa council, national and European level federations, student organisations, and charity foundations. These organisations recruited their members from those exiled and political refugees coming from the Middle East and North African countries. This strategy was dominant till the ascending presence and visibility of young Muslims, university students, and Muslim females within MB’s structures in Europe in the 90s.
The participation of young and female members within its ranks transformed the MB networks and their methodologies. They became more interested in local issues emerging on daily basis where they lived, than the political debates of their homeland countries where their fathers and mothers came from. The main concern of the MB in Europe could not be singled out as the future of the homelands anymore, but more generally the attention was focused on the future of Muslims in Europe.
These years were also the period where the debates on Islam, Muslims’ integration, headscarf, extremism, and Islamist terrorism in Europe became heated. The integration of Islam in Europe, and the creation of representative bodies representing either Islam or the Muslims provide an opportunity for MB networks to be part of discussions and political debates with their national federations and local networks. Their participation in these debates not only makes them visible but at the same time, they become the interlocutors between European governments and Muslims. It should be noted, the institutionalization of Islam in Europe occupies one of the main issues of the European government’s policies on the Muslim population. One of the consequences of these policies, although unintentionally, has been that political Islamist groups like MB has earned more visibility and dominance.
Between 1990 and 2010, European national interior ministries established local and national representative bodies of “Muslim Councils”. Among others, the aims were to regulate and have better relations with Muslim citizens, to minimize the meddling of the third countries into their interior affairs, and to resolve practical issues such as religious freedom, imam training, and chaplaincy. These Muslim councils, in fact, were organised around Muslim federations and Islamic organisations that were closely tied to Muslim countries and Islamist movements like MB. In these representative bodies, MB represented and defended its interests like any other federation and organisation. Each of them had its unique political and religious agenda as MB capitalizes on these instances as an opportunity to become voice of Muslims and Islam in Europe. This self-assigned mission of “becoming the voice of Muslims” can be said to have been largely internalized by MB members and activists. From this point of view, the defence of Muslim interests and becoming the interlocutor is not contradictory with the political mission and deployment of its clientelist logic at different levels.
In these Muslim Councils, the MB developed various methodologies that can be labelled at best as “pragmatic.” In countries where they were weak, they created alliances and supported other Muslim groups. In some other countries where they had enough power in the councils, they wanted to be a key player.
These Muslim Councils became dysfunctional in part due to their funding mechanism, namely lack of funding, and lack of consistency between founding members. As a result of non-effectiveness of these representative bodies, these members including MB have been seen a hindrance for the future of ‘European Islam’. The governments emphasize importance of creating new Islamic representative bodies eliminating or isolating other Salafi, radical tendencies including MB. The main aim is to overcome the monopoly of other Muslim groups, especially to neutralize the influence of embassies, and Islamists over mosques, imams, theological debates, and Islamic seminaries. Those affiliated with MB, on the other hand, react to these governmental initiatives by establishing their own Islamic seminaries, schools, and imam trainings.
Why is there such doubt and fear about MB and why governments do not prefer to work with MB?
MB organisations and people are criticized for not being transparent and constantly hiding their affiliation. Even some of the most well-known figures and organisations refuse to acknowledge affiliation with MB. Although this criticism is very relevant and reasonable as many MB members today deny their links, it is equally important to note that MB’s organizational structure has become loose and diffused in the last decades. The hierarchy within MB is limited to the space within core organisations. The organizational structure of the MB is not hierarchic, but concentric. The first circle consists of those who take the central position, and functions like a central committee of the movement. This first circle does not necessarily get involved in day-to-day decisions and activities. The second circle is national and regional leaders who are crucial in the functioning of MB in the general orientation and management of the national branches. The national decision-makers do not get involved in local projects and programs either. The third circle in which the roles and responsibilities get looser and fuzzier includes the people who use the services offered by MB such as mosques activities, travel, etc. They support the activities of MB. Some of them do not know exactly the MB. The pragmatic members participate to get services without becoming active participants in the MB projects. These networks are also critical not only to family life but also to finding a job, promotion, doing business, and developing new networks and connections. These circles are bounded to each other with a myriad of networks of ideas, practices, instruments, and personal connections. The personal networks play an enormous role in binding and bounding within the MB to create the social and religious climate that would allow the realization of their Islamic way of life. The shared goals as to build a good life with Islamic principles affect the bounds and the structure of the MB. As a result of this non-hierarchical structure, a variety of informal networks based on interpersonal and friendship relationships has been developed, but the MB organisation remained small. For example, many young Muslims and imams follow the teaching of MB leaders, but they do not work within specific MB organisation in France.
The second reason that explains the secrecy of MB is the authoritarian nature of the countries where MB members come from. The limited religious and political freedoms, the strong state, and the control of religion by state authorities discourage religious groups and communities to become transparent and pronounce their well-defined objectives, financial sources, organisation structure, and identity. The senior members prefer ambiguity about their organisation when they are working within authoritarian states. In Europe, they continue their ambiguous way of working to be secure vis-a-vis monitoring. The politics of ambiguity enable work within different segments of society without being targeted by public authorities. For example, they define their Islamic identity and ambitions in a very loose way that produces multiple discourses and frames uttered by various MB-affiliated persons, imams, and thinkers. These multiple voices create a vagueness of MB’s interpretation of Islam.
There are still doubts about MB’s ideology and aims. The lack of clear boundaries for religious, political, and social activities is a source of suspicion about MB-affiliated organisations. Much of the disputes and negative image of MB are rooted in this vague definition and aims of the MB. Most of the MB networks are not very clear about democracy and secular state. The Brotherhood in Europe leverages its organisations and events to diffuse its ideology. But what are the contours of this ideology? What does it say and how does it differentiate itself from the others of the same kind?
MB sees Europe as „dawah territory“, a fertile ground to expand its network. The way it functions, as discussed during discussion regarding ambiguity on affiliation, creates a phenomenon named by some scholars as „post-ikhwanism.“ Many Muslims in the MB organisations accept Ikhwan ideology and Hasan al-Banna’s arguments on various issues, but at the same time, they do not want to be part of MB’s structural organisation. These Muslims want their autonomy without disconnecting totally from MB. This autonomy and loose network between MB organisations, events, and people facilitate the rapid diffusion of MB messages and ideology. Rather than adapting shari’a and seizing power, which is a mission impossible in Europe, the MB employs a sophisticated tactic to advocate for patience and diligence in a long-term effort to increase the Muslim influence in European public and political life through its networks. The aim is not to Islamising Europe but to use their network in Europe to influence Muslim-majority countries. As they increase their weight in domestic politics in Europe, they may have an impact on the countries where they may have a dominant position in politics. MB’s aims and goals are embedded within a conservative understanding of Islam, however, non-religious organisations are not transparent about their aim. Within this understanding, there is no separation between religion and politics that led MB to deny the secular order. In this sense, the MB and their purpose of putting religion in every dimension of life including politics are not in line with the idea of neutrality of religion and politics as accepted as a norm in Europe. The fears about MB’s aim of Islamisation of Europe have no solid ground and such arguments as defended by many far-right groups are not credible. Yet, MB’s dual-language and strategy increase fears around the MB’s nature of secrecy and hidden agenda. As most of the members and organisations deny their affiliation with MB, many researchers and political analysts describe MB as a secret religious-political community that wants the gradual Islamisation of secular society.
The last reason for suspicion towards MB is the latter’s ambiguous and very clientelist alliance with third countries. MB is supported specifically by two countries, Qatar and Türkiye. These two countries endorse the MB’s actions in Europe. They exercise soft power by influencing Muslim populations in Europe via promoting its leading, moderate, socially developing, knowledge led country position among other Muslim countries and they do pretend to be protectors of Muslims in the West. To better illustrate over French experience, Qatar helps financially MB network to open new mosques and Islamic centres in France, and Türkiye creates alliances with MB through Diyanet and Milli Görüş. Both countries have so far provided a safe refuge for MB after the coup in Egypt. These two countries, specifically Türkiye, wants to implement a ‘diaspora’ policy in Europe activating not only Turkish citizens but extending its mobilisation among Muslim populations with descent of other countries. Thus, MB becomes a very relevant partner to develop such a policy which is in contradiction with the idea of ‘European Islam’.
Is there a possible change in MB in Europe?
The active presence of home-grown young Muslims in MB networks and decision-making may change and transform the structure, discourse, and strategies of MB. The discursive change was already observed by the end 90s. The young MB’s focus was given to social and civic integration, personal fulfilment, and better education. This turn from ‘community’ and ‘identity’ politics to ‘material success’ change also enormously the MB ideology. This transformation opens a new interpretation of Islam in tune with globalisation, consumerism, and individualism. However, these young people have their weaknesses as they do not have key positions to determine the strategic direction of MB in Europe. For this reason, many young MB fellows quit the network and began to criticize because of the hopeless change expectation.
Both within and outside Europe, there exists an intense debate over the ultimate aims of the MB. Critics of MB insist that the goal is to establish sharia-based state and control the whole society according to Islamic principles. The MB is accused of laying the groundwork for dominating Muslim populations in Europe and shaping their worldviews by spreading its ideology that mixes religion and politics. Like other Islamist movements, MB faces tension between the old goal of establishing Islamic state and being participant in democracy.
MB constitutes a vector of politicization of Islam in Europe through defending Muslim interests and also becoming one of the critical interlocutors of the Muslim community with European governments despite the criticism rising against itself. It is normal for a social movement to have political clout and activities. Yet, mixing religious ideology with political ones goes against European values and norms. The MB affiliated organisations in Europe has to decide on their strategic orientation and future.
The MB in Europe together with its affiliated constellation of organizations and networks should engage more in pluralistic societies and democracy. Their main target should evolved from Islamic state to rather a concept of civic engagement and democracy. To that end, MB should emphasize and invest resources on empowering associational life, building bridges between diverse faiths in Europe, and sustaining Islamic moral values that are necessary for European Muslims. For most followers, the MB is expected to gradually disconnect itself from the political developments in their homeland countries and seeking ways to be part of intervention efforts. A new look, refreshing its Islamic roots and understanding social-religious dynamics in Europe, embracing the gender equality, human rights and Islam, avoiding any kind of hateful discourse in their narratives will strengthen its ideals. The MB has a social-religious capital for this target, but its lack of transparency and the weakness of its internal democracy and capacity for self-criticism, renovating Islam are unsettling although this does not necessarily render it an extremist phenomenon in Europe.
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