Europe's response to Islamist extremism is encouraging but not enough

Tackling the menace is now a part of many a member-state's domestic agenda but it needs to be factored into the EU's foreign policy as well

epa08197687 Conservative Party Chairman James Cleverly leaves after a cabinet meeting in Whitehall in London, Britain, 06 February 2020. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to reshuffle his cabinet next week.  EPA-EFE/WILL OLIVER

Europe has awakened to the challenges posed by networks of political Islamist movements within its social and political institutions. Country after country is moving to address the particular challenges of groups operating within the law but working steadily to challenge the common values underpinning the system.

In doing so, the policy makers are focusing beyond the threat of terrorism that has dominated global security responses for two decades. Instead, there is a wider issue at play. How does the state gain insight about, and ultimately sanction, groups that exert ideological control over segments of the population?

Since many of the people targeted by European groups are immigrants, or from migrant backgrounds, there is a longer-term calculation to make about how society is evolving. No nation wants to deal with a situation in which different communities live largely separate existences.

The most pressing concerns on the continent surround the Muslim Brotherhood, the Turkish state’s "consular" reach into its diaspora and Iran’s intelligence network there.

Last week the French government relaunched its state of the nation agenda around tackling Islamism. It has promised legislation to target activity directed against the republican traditions of the state. The Austrian government separately launched an observatory that has been tasked with monitoring Islamist activities within the public sphere. This month a committee of Dutch parliamentarians submitted an urgent report calling for an urgent official response to underground Brotherhood networks in the country.

There has been fierce pressure on the Swedish government to intervene to prevent exploitation of public schools and even kindergartens. Known Islamist extremists have been receiving state money to work as head teachers but are not providing recognised and standard Swedish education. Denmark's intelligence and security services have reported their concerns over ideological hostility to the kingdom within certain community organisations.

Last week a report from the Slovakia-based think tank Globsec Policy Institute noted that the Brotherhood's pan-European Federation of Islamic Organisations (FIOE) in Europe has set up a central and eastern Europe division. It echoed the concerns of Britain's Middle East minister James Cleverly, who said that the Brotherhood would capitalise on the hardships brought on by Covid-19 to broaden its influence.

The Brotherhood tops the list of groups that exert this kind of influence. Its mindset is a threat to social integration and cohesion in Europe.

Within Europe, the Doha-based chief ideologue Yusuf Al Qaradawi has directly instructed the chapters not to directly engage in terrorism – but only for the practical reason that he does not think it would prevail. In the eyes of many Europe intelligence agencies, however, the Brotherhood creates a fertile environment for other groups to build on for radicalisation purposes.

ROME, ITALY - JANUARY 5: Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni (not seen), Interior Minister Marco Minniti (not seen) and coordinator of the commission study on radicalization and extremism Lorenzo Vidino (C), hold a joint press conference following their meeting on radicalization and extremism at Chigi Palace in Rome, Italy on January 5, 2017. (Photo by Riccardo De Luca/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

According to the leading researcher in the field, Lorenzo Vidino, author of the book The Closed Circle Joining and Leaving the Muslim Brotherhood in the West, European governments are increasingly going on the offensive to defend their constitutional systems from Islamist influence.

When the British-based Anas Al Tikriti appeared before the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee in 2016, he claimed that the UK did not have a Muslim Brotherhood organisation. But Mr Al Tikriti, who runs an advisory group that supposedly aims to "bridge the gap of understanding between the Muslim world and the West”, conceded that the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) did espouse its basic tenets.

Mr Vidino’s book states that there is an extensive European Muslim Brotherhood that makes membership arduous to gain and even more traumatic to leave.

In a 2018 report, the influential French think tank Institut Montaigne profiled the spread of the Brotherhood. It said the programme of expansion was built on a militant logic and its definition of Muslim citizenship to which its adherents belonged. This has allowed activists to focus on issues of identity, education, inclusiveness and their own broadly drawn concepts of Islamophobia.

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - DECEMBER 04: Anas Altikriti the CEO and Founder of The Cordoba Foundation speaks during a special event where President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan (not seen) attends a meeting with representatives of Turkish community at Old Billingsgate building in London, United Kingdom on December 04, 2019.
 (Photo by Mehmet Ali Ozcan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

This has also allowed Brotherhood-controlled groups to have both a subversive agenda and to interpose as an interlocutor between the state and community groups. For this purpose, organisations such as the MAB, FIOE and others have become power brokers that influence politicians and the media. In France there is Union of Islamic Organisations of France and in Italy there is the Union of Islamic Communities and Organisations.

A common trait is the exploitation of charitable status by the organisations to advance their outreach. It was notable, for instance, that Qatar had made substantial contributions to the Italian branch of the Brotherhood as Rome struggled to contain its Covid-19 outbreak.

While it is encouraging that European governments have mobilised themselves to tackle the problem at home, that is only half the story. The Institut Montaigne makes the concluding point that it is also necessary for the European Commission and its member-states to set this policy at the heart of the continent's diplomatic agenda. Without broad recognition that Islamist extremism is a common threat, European foreign policy fails to distinguish between friend and foe in an appropriate way. That is the ultimate dividing line.

Damien McElroy is the London bureau chief of The National

Damien McElroy

Damien McElroy

Damien is a  foreign correspondent who has covered politics and conflict across Europe, the Middle East, the US, Africa and Asia. Before joining The National in 2017, he worked for The Sunday Times and Telegraph titles as an editor and roving reporter. He started his career in China and has a degree in finance.