They seized power in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia following the notorious Arab Spring revolutions. They are determined to do the same in Syria and Jordan. They are the Muslim Brotherhood, the world’s most influential modern Islamist organization. But what do we actually know about them? Is their reach limited to the Middle East, and what threats do they pose to Israel and Europe? Israel Today uncovers.
The MB was founded in Egypt in 1928 by schoolteacher Hassan Al-Banna, who advocated embracing Islam as a panacea for personal development and broader social reform. But what started as a religious and social organization was soon turned into a powerful political tool, promoting the establishment of states based on Sharia Law.
As Arabs strove to define their identities and break the chains of colonialism during the mid-20th century, Al-Banna’s ideas were quickly picked up by the Arab masses and the Muslim Brotherhood established branches in nearly every Arab and Muslim country.
Downward Spiral & Infiltration of Europe
But the early success was short-lived. As the secular nationalist regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser seized power in Egypt in the 1950s, the Brotherhood was viewed more and more as a threat to state security, the group’s members were imprisoned and tortured. Other Muslim states where the Brotherhood had a following implemented similar practices, forcing many “Brothers” to seek refuge in France, Germany, Switzerland, the UK and other European countries.
During those years, Europe also opened its doors to thousands of Arab students. Once there, Muslims started practicing their faith openly, establishing their first religious facilities, publishing magazines, organizing lectures and attracting newcomers to their ranks. Although their numbers grew rapidly, the offshoots operated mainly as isolated clusters all of which remained close to the ideology of the movement in the Middle East.
The situation changed by the late 1970s, when the cells began to interact with one another, creating formal and informal networks (that spanned Europe and North America), whose priorities were adapted for new generations of Muslims born and raised in Europe.
Assessing the Threat
Because the “Brothers” were not used to being open about their allegiance to the once clandestine movement, it has been hard to estimate the organization’s real numbers. “Nobody knows how many members the group actually has,” said Dr. Lorenzo Vidino, a senior researcher at Switzerland’s Center for Security Studies and the author of “The New Muslim Brotherhood in the West”.
“They do attract a lot of sympathy, but despite their activism, they never managed to create a mass movement that would involve a large number of people. Despite the fact that their ideas reached many European Muslims, most of them either resist the organization or simply ignore it,” he added.
But if that’s the case, how did the Brothers become the most powerful Muslim organization? Vidino said it was a combination of several factors. “First of all, they have access to enormous funds, coming predominantly from Gulf states like Qatar, Kuwait and, to a lesser extent, Saudi Arabia. No other Muslim organization (whether religious or secular) can boast having the same level of backing. They use this money to pose as a group that helps people, building schools, mosques or centers and organizing grandiose events where people can mingle and enjoy excellent food.
“Secondly, they are well-organized and are visible in the media. Of course their claims of representation have been largely exaggerated, but they did succeed in monopolizing the Islamic discourse, making their interpretation of Islam if not mainstream then at least the most readily available,” maintained Vidino.
However, a top Muslim Brotherhood official, whose name cannot be disclosed for security reasons, told Israel Today that the secret of the group’s success is rooted in its altruistic work. “We love to help people and we know what their needs are. We can talk to them in public transportation, their work place and even in the comfort of their homes,” he said.
Cracks in the Foundation
Yet, the Muslim Brotherhood’s success has been somewhat overshadowed by division.
In his book “The Muslim Brotherhood in Europe”, Egyptian scholar Samir Amghar identifies three main currents within the movement. The first includes the so-called independents, people who left the global organization but remained loyal to its ideology. The second (the opposition) consists of those who either disagreed with the internal structure of the group or who established competing organizations. And, finally, the third, writes Amghar, comprises members that follow the mother institution in Egypt and swear allegiance to its supreme guide.
Vidino elaborated: “It’s wrong to assume that the center of the Muslim Brotherhood is located in Cairo. Every ‘branch’ operates separately, answering the demands of a specific Muslim society”.
Divided, but With a Common Goal
Despite these divisions, Brotherhood members around the world are united by a set of common goals.
One of those goals is “to be the ultimate leaders of their Muslim societies,” explained Vidino. “Muslim expatriates are usually divided and disoriented by the impact of life in non-Muslim countries. Very often they lack any knowledge about Islam, which makes them an ideally receptive audience for the Muslim Brotherhood’s message.”
Vidino continued by noting that the Muslim Brotherhood would also like to become the “official representative of the Muslim community in the eyes of the European politicians. They want to be able to interfere with decision-making circles on issues ranging from domestic policies to international affairs, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
The Brotherhood’s effort toward achieving those goals have born fruit.
In 2003, for example, France’s Muslim Broterhood-affiliated UFIO was invited to join the Conseil Français du Culte Musulman, a group established by the French authorities to help the government get familiar with the needs and demands of the “Arab street”. A similar initiative was launched in the UK years earlier, when the Muslim Council became one of the government’s chief mediators between the government and the country’s Muslim population.
‘European Leaders Don’t Get It’
The reasons for European leaders engaging groups like the Brotherhood vary, stated Vidino. “Some politicians are motivated by the strong belief that the Muslim Brotherhood is doing the right thing. Others are just too naïve to see the group’s real nature.”
Many European politicians must also worry about keeping the “Muslim vote”, noted Vidino, pointing to the explosive growth rate of the Muslim population there. Moreover, according to the author, many politicians back the “Brothers” fearing accusations of racism and xenophobia.
The Islamization of Europe
While experts try to decipher politicians’ intentions, some are concerned that the Muslim Brotherhood is already leading the Islamization of Europe. In May, the group organized a massive rally in Cairo, with one of the Brotherhood clerics declaring: “The United States of the Arabs will be restored by [Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi] and his supporters…[whereas] the capital of the caliphate… will be Jerusalem, Allah willing.”
Vidino was skeptical. “The success they have right now exceeds their highest expectations. Muslim Brotherhood leaders are very pragmatic; they know [the creation of a Muslim empire] won’t happen overnight, so meanwhile they concentrate on more short-term goals”.
Our Muslim Brotherhood source acceded, stating that the group’s real intention was to “develop the society with the help of the Islamic rules [taking into consideration] the religious preferences of every person.”
The Brotherhood official seemingly lamented that the establishment of a caliphate including Europe “is highly unlikely in the near future, primarily because of the European media’s hateful language against Muslims. European governments engage in anti-Muslim propaganda,” he charged, “depicting us as terrorists when the truth of the matter is Muslims are persecuted everywhere”.
Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire
Earlier this month, Newsnight (BBC) ran a video clip showing a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated school in London encouraging children to hate non-Muslims. In 2010, another BBC investigation revealed that Muslim school textbooks referred to Jews and Christians as “pigs and apes”, and some went as far as to teach kids on “the correct way to chop off the hands and feet of thieves”.
Hatred of Israel
Apart from targeting Jews, the Brotherhood is fundamentally hostile toward Israel, rejecting its right to exist, opposing the peace process, and obstructing all efforts at normalization between Israel and the Arab states (especially Egypt and Jordan). Blaming all Middle East problems on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Brotherhood also helps to raise money for the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, which has the blood of hundreds of Israelis on its hands.
To promote anti-Israel sentiment, the religiously conservative Muslim Brotherhood has even joined forces with extremist liberal left-wing groups that make it their aim to delegitimize Israel through various media stunts.
In fact, London has turned into an important media hub for the Brotherhood, which operates the Arabic publication Risalat Al-Ikhwan and the satellite channel Al-Hiwar TV, boasting more than two million viewers, out of the British capital. Apart from broadcasting programs with Islamic themes and anti-Israeli propaganda and incitement, Al-Hiwar gives stage to various extremists (like Muhammad Sawalha, a Hamas operative) who use the media as a tool to spread their toxic messages.
But the Muslim Brotherhood is not only dangerous to Jews or Israel. “The movement promotes agendas that encourage their followers to think of themselves first and foremost as Muslims, thus hindering their assimilation in Europe. Even though they say the opposite, their messages are clearly incompatible with European values,” said Vidino.
Moreover, constant radical preaching (that’s forced down the throats of European Muslims from an early age) makes it easier for extremists to recruit operatives able to carry out suicide attacks either in the Middle East or on European soil.
“If [the Muslim Brotherhood continues to pursue this path] and if these teachings are absorbed by the Muslim masses in Europe, this could prove dangerous for the European society,” Vidino summed up.