Political Islam in Eastern and Central Europe

Field research conducted by the Enlightenment and Extremism Studies Unit at MENA Research ans Studies Center.

Introduction

Trying to find organizations in Eastern and Central Europe that were inspired by or linked to the MB has proved to be a challenge. Not only because of the clandestine nature of the movement, but also because of the activities of actors in Muslim societies in these countries. In addition to the decrease activity of the organizations that were analyzed for this project.

The survey results can be categorized into four types of groups that at some point had some kind of association with the MB.

The first group: student groups and societies

Student activism has a long history within the MB and a long record of accomplishment of successful influence over student activists in Central and Eastern Europe. Because of the great experience enjoyed by the Muslim Brotherhood in this area! The first student organization affected by the movement dates back to the 1940’s in Bosnia and Herzegovina. (1)

The Muslim Youth Group in Bosnia is an organization, founded by Bosnians who have been exploring their Islamic identity (some in Cairo) in parallel with the development of the MB movement. Then the Bosnian Muslim Youth Group invaded other countries, including the Czech Republic (the General Union of Muslim Students) and Poland (the Muslim student community), so Muslim students in those countries were influenced by its Islamic thought and activity.

Then the collapse of the Soviet Union and the communist regimes in its satellite states led to greater freedom in many aspects of identity expression, including the free expression of religion. Certain groups of students in central European seized the moment and set up their own student organizations.

The only difference from the Bosnian case is that these students were not locals, but foreigners. After these associations were created, they quickly registered them in FEMYSO. Shortly thereafter came the North Macedonian non-governmental organization, the “Islamic Youth Forum,” which was founded in 2000. The organization witnessed the height of its activity on political Islam during the Egyptian revolution in 2011 and the years following the Arab Spring.(2)

The fate of these groups and associations varies greatly, especially in terms of their survival over the years. While the Czech group was under the umbrella of a larger organization, the Polish organization is still active albeit “silent”, the North Macedonia group ceased publishing activity during its withdrawal from the Islamic scene, and the members of the Bosnian organization entered the field of politics.

Each organization and association of these formations had a different path over the decades, but no organization can currently be accurately described as an organization affiliated with the MB! Although ideological and semi-organizational existed at the beginning. It is difficult now to talk about these groups as being somehow inspired by the MB.

At a time when the Czech and Polish organizations were unable to maintain the link or contacts with the mother movement of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Bosnian group maintained links with the MB! On the other hand, it must be said that there is no political activity anymore because the efforts that Yugoslavia witnessed must be understood in light of the split against the former secular regime.

The second group: the pragmatic Islamist current?

The second group includes the large organizations that represent a large portion of the Muslim communities in the region, given their size and history. This group also has a richer history of activism, some of which brought it closer to the MB while others went in the opposite direction.

Like this large diversity of activity means that the analysis has to zoom in on each one separately and then put it into the bigger picture. While these organizations were communicating with federal bodies allegedly under the influence of the MB, there was also an apparent effort to reach out to individuals from countries that consider the movement a threat even its overseas affiliates, and this baffles the analyst to the behavior of those movements.  .

Some activities indicated that the organizations were intending to associate with the MB! Among these indications, for example, that some of its leaders participated in forums organized by FIOE or FEMYSO, and that members of the organization wrote letters to Yusuf al-Qaradawi, and invited Faisal Mawlawi and Ahmad al-Rawi (3) to these countries, or that the groups published some works of well-known Islamists, in the same Time.

At the same time, however, these organizations were also communicating with other actors who did not support the Muslim Brotherhood. They went to seek funding from personalities from the United Arab Emirates or using the Council of Ambassadors of Islamic Countries, an informal body of high-level diplomats accredited in Poland who acted as a link between Polish Muslims and donors from the Middle East and North Africa region.

Analyzes of this behavior suggest that these organizations and groups did so driven by the pragmatism necessary to maintain their size and position in these countries! Therefore, the organizations expanded themselves greatly through their attempt to maintain good relations with actors contradictory in their judgment of the MB.

This pragmatic behavior ended with many mistakes that attracted Islamic radicals on the one hand, and resulted in a loss of funding on the other hand. Yet the Muslim League in Poland, the Islamic Foundation in Prague and the Islamic Foundation in Brno remain to this day the largest organizations representing Muslim minorities in their countries.(4)

The Muslim community in Bosnia and Herzegovina has become associated with politics to some extent by supporting the SDA political party in exchange for funding for the rebuilding of mosques and an emphasis on religion at public events.

But this does not mean that the goal was the Islamization of society or the revival of Islam, as the MB does? Where ICBiH’s relationship (5) with the movement was through Mustafa Cerić the former chief scientist, who had MB links! However, he seems to have had his own personal political ambitions; Cerić was accused of personal pragmatism, which was motivated by access to a political and leadership position in the country.

However, once Cerić left his position, he had less interaction with the leaders of the MB; moreover, Cerić showed that he was also open to other actors. One example of this is the influence of the AKP in Turkey through the “Diyanet” Association, which succeeded in isolating the Gulen movement in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and greatly nullified its influence on Bosnian society. Therefore, these groups and associations can be classified in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Czech Republic, and Poland as a gray area groups.

However, there is a different story unfolding in Serbia and North Macedonia? The largest organizations there have no history of “engaging in the movement of political Islam.” The northern Macedonian Muslim religious group felt suspicion of the Islamic Youth Forum and tried to distance itself from the extremist mosques that were not under its control. It even tried to cooperate with the North Macedonian Ministry of the Interior to correct the problem with the extremists in its ranks to settle their situation.

The Muslim community in Serbia was also able to maintain a good relationship with the Serbian government, and there was no evidence of links to the MB. The Muslim community in Serbia is in a slightly different position because it is also a member of the ICBiH, however looking at it individually; both the two organizations are in a similar position in terms of evaluation.

The third group: Small groups supporting the MB

 The third group that we identified in our research is the true supportive groups of the MB! Either they are who have separated from the larger organizations; or, they were not formally organized at all. These mainly political activists became more visible during the Egyptian revolution in 2011 and the subsequent overthrow of the government dominated by the MB two years later.

In the Czech Republic, these were individuals not affiliated with any organization that went to Egypt to support the Muslim Brotherhood after the overthrow of former President Morsi, then the group split between supporters of the current President el-Sisi; and those who adhere to the ideas of political Islam and its right to rule and power.

Around the same time, there were protests in front of the Egyptian embassy in Warsaw, organized by a group of individuals who symbolically stood with Mohamed Morsi and disagreed with the regime change in 2013. In Central Europe at the time, it appeared that there was some support for the MB. Yet these are individuals in a small network, and there is no real organization behind them or a group of influential and well-placed individuals working towards the single goal of Islamization of society.

A slightly different case is the only university organization in Bosnia and Herzegovina which is called, the “Association for Culture, Education and Sports” or AKOS. Despite its lack of political activity, but with many publishing activities still going on, the Association gives an image of an entity that spreads an Islamist political message in many forms such as publications, interviews, lectures, etc. What raises suspicion about AKOS is its association with active membership with FEMYSO and FIOE, in addition to a connection with another now disintegrated organization, the Association for Culture and Education in Kosovo. It is difficult to determine how many of AKOS members are intentionally playing a role in political activities now. However, the general conclusion must be that such wide involvement in the ideology of the MB and the European organizations affected by it cannot be accidental or unintended. In fact, all of the above can be classified as being inspired by the thought of the MB, although not all of them are organizations in the official sense.

Fourth group: Actors and their relationship to the Neo-Ottomanism

Ideology

The last group includes those organizations that collaborate closely with another power growing in influence in the studied countries, specifically in the Balkans, which can be described as a neo-Ottoman ideology, also linked to the idea of political Islam.

The rapprochement between the MB and the Turkish AKP has been already covered in literature and politics; although there is no hint of the new ideology of the MB, the AKP, and the Neo-Ottomanism, it is clear that it has the same concepts. Although many of the MB fled to Turkey after the military coup in Cairo in 2013, and the country’s leadership granted them asylum, their meetings were not officially recorded. (6)

However, in reality, they have different approaches to consolidating power, and they use similar discourses, including on religion, women’s rights, and others. What confirms this matter; That Turkey has become a safe haven for the symbols of political Islam in Egypt and elsewhere! For example, in April 2016 they organized a festival to express their gratitude for the leadership of the country, which Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi also attended.

More importantly, the Religious Affairs Directorate of the ruling party in Turkey (also known as Diyanet) is working to expand its reach in the Western Balkans in the religious field with support of Turkish President Erdogan himself. This was indicated by many of the people interviewed during the preparation of these studying.

Perhaps the best example of an entity influenced by MB political Islam is the Besa political party in North Macedonia. Several interviewees from various fields (non-profit and security) indicated that Besa appears to have supported and promoted Erdogan’s image and policies in the country.

Still the AKP’s focus on the Islamic identity of the Albanian and Turkish minorities, which is new in North Macedonian politics, and AKP continues to speak shyly in its speech in favor of political Islam? In the sense of abolishing the secular democratic system and giving Islam a privileged position in the enactment of laws.

The tendency towards the ideology of political Islam appears more clearly in BESA’s relationship with a publishing house that translates the books of Yusuf Al-Qaradawi and Hassan Al-Banna into Albanian in North Macedonia! Therefore, we say: It is the combination of the two aforementioned inspirational mentors that creates an impression of the tendency and influence of those organizations with the MB movement, or belonging to it intellectually at least.

Summaries

The results of this research not only expose the complex nature of reality in the countries at the center of this project, but also push the research into new areas. This project has researched the organization of the studied groups and the display of certain behavior patterns while determining their association with the MB movement, if any.

Our research in this particular domain shows space for more in-depth research on is there a competition between these ideologies over Islamist groups at the national and international levels? And including the geopolitical component as a necessary context for such an analysis? In addition to consider the transfer of certain individuals, for example, to another group.

A good starting point would be to take a look at the collaborative efforts between North Macedonia-based humanitarian societies and Turkey-supported youth programs that provide scholarships and relief programs that allow Turkey to build long-term relationships with the region and ensure a number of admirers for its new Ottoman Islamist policy.

Erdogan’s new Ottoman ambitions?

On the great ambition of President Erdogan to become the leader of all Muslims, the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) works side by side with the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA), as the two associations coordinate among themselves in the field of their activities in those countries. (7)

In one way or another, the two associations work to polish the image of Turkish President Erdogan and present him as the serious Islamist savior for all European Muslims from the indigenous population! On the other hand, this is done through propaganda to Erdogan by the famous MB figures in the Islamic world. (8)

Erdogan is exploiting nearly 20 thousand members of the MB who fled from Egypt to Turkey after Morsi’s ouster. They move in various fields, especially the media ones, to polish the image of Erdogan and present him as the true savior and leader of political Islam and Sunni Muslims everywhere in the world. This was confirmed by Yassin Aktay, former deputy head of AKP in 2018: The MB represents “the soft power of Turkey.” (9)

Conclusion

The impact of the harmonic cooperation between the government of President Erdogan, and members of the MB, who are living as refugees in Turkey, along with activities related to COVID-19 such as international aid to some NGOs; it is likely to have an impact on the general dynamic of individual actors in Central and Eastern Europe. Under these circumstances, it should not be surprising if, in the future, we begin to see foreign participation more cooperative in the world that would benefit the MB by extension and Erdogan with Islamic leadership.


  1. We mean by these countries surveyed: Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Czech Republic, North Macedonia, Poland, and Serbia. Each of which constitutes a different landscape for Muslim societies and the religious organizations that represent them.
  2. – “Contemporary terrorism in the Balkans: a real threat to security in Europe.” Journal of Slavic Military Studies. Issue: 26 (no date) pp: 203-218
  3. – The aforementioned names are well-known Brotherhood personalities in the Arab world, and they are Egyptian, Lebanese, and Syrian.
  4. See “Salafism in Bosnia and Herzegovina.” IEMed. Mediterranean Yearbook 2017, 2017 Ben Meir Alon.
  5. ICBiH is considered the main religious authority for Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina
  6. Abd al-Rahman Ayyash, “The Turkish Future of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt,” August 17, 2020 https://tcf.org/content/report/turkish-future-egypts-muslim-brotherhood/؟agreed=1.
  7. Stockholm Freedom Center. (2018, February 07). Commentary – Erdogan’s creeping extremist Islamic projects in Macedonia. https://stockholmcf.org/commentary-erdogans-creeping-radical-islamist-projects-in-macedonia/
  8. Abd al-Rahman Ayyash, “The Turkish Future of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt,” August 17, 2020,https://tcf.org/content/report/turkish-future-egypts-muslim-brotherhood/؟agreed=1.
  9. – Lorenzo Vidino, “Erdogan’s long arm in Europe,” May 7, 2019: https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/05/07/erdogans-long-arm-in-europe-germany-netherlands-milli-gorus-muslim-brotherhood-turkey-akp/

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