Muslim Brotherhood's influence in Europe laid bare

Austrian report says taxpayers are unwittingly funding the group, which has close ties to Turkey

The Muslim Brotherhood has established vast influence in Europe and public bodies are unwittingly funding its activities, experts believe.

Despite having only a few hundred senior figures in Europe, Brotherhood activists have sought to portray themselves as representatives for the entire Muslim community, a major report on the group says.

This means governments often turn to them for outreach programmes, resulting in well-intentioned public spending finding its way to the Brotherhood and its affiliates.

Founded in Egypt in the 1920s, the Brotherhood is classed as a terrorist group in several Arab countries, but has close ties to Turkey. Its presence in Europe is thought to date back to the 1960s.

The report, published in Austria, says the group has an ambiguous stance on violence and promotes an “us versus them” narrative that provides a “conducive environment for radicalisation”.

Austria has taken a hard line against what it describes as political Islam, especially since a terrorist attack in Vienna killed four people last November.

The report was written by analysts for Austria's Documentation Centre for Political Islam. It was set up last year by Integration Minister Susanne Raab and it produced a controversial “Islam map” in June.

Ms Raab praised its work in talks with European colleagues on Thursday, in which she said EU countries should work more closely to tackle extremism.

“Islamism and terrorism don’t just begin when they become violent, but much sooner,” Ms Raab said at the summit in Vienna.

“Islamism doesn’t stop at borders ... we have to strengthen our co-operation in order to succeed.”

Lisa Fellhofer, head of the documentation centre, said the Brotherhood’s influence in Europe “goes across borders very much”.

She said the Brotherhood’s claims to have democratic values were not borne out by studying its texts.

“There are dynamics in play that lead to a polarisation of Europe,” she said. “We need to know facts and figures and we need to talk objectively about this.”

Lorenzo Vidino, a co-author of the report, said there were branches of the Brotherhood in every European country.

He said intelligence services did not see them as a direct security threat, but as a danger to social cohesion that wants to establish a permanent extremist presence in Europe.

Mr Vidino said Brotherhood members saw themselves as gatekeepers who "want to be the ones invited to talk shows to give the Muslim opinion".

"A European branch is completely free to operate," he said. "They're very attuned to the language, topics and dynamics of our society.

"Despite their extremely small numbers, they have gained disproportionate visibility and influence."

Many Muslims in Austria have roots in Turkey, which is named in the report as an increasingly important backer of the Brotherhood.

The ruling party of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has formed a “close partnership with European Brotherhood organisations”, the report says.

Ms Raab cried foul at Mr Erdogan’s influence on Thursday. “The Turkish president always has a strong arm in Austria,” she said.

Bart Somers, the integration minister of Flanders in Belgium, raised concerns about countries that try to “abuse religion to have a grip on people in Europe”.

“People who are Muslims and live in our countries are our citizens,” he said.

Analysts say Brotherhood loyalists in Austria try to influence the country’s 700,000 Muslims as well as policymakers and the wider public.

Across Europe, the Brotherhood's members are described as overseeing a web of organisations which, on the surface, appear moderate and broadly representative of Muslims.

Experts believe the Brotherhood seeks control of religious, sporting and social organisations, giving it opportunities to speak on behalf of Muslims.

“Thanks to its vocal and visible presence, the Brothers often manage to outshine competing Muslim trends,” the report says.

This has allowed them to “convince European establishments into seeing them as moderate and legitimate representatives of European Muslims”.

As a result, public money aimed at promoting integration or preventing radicalisation can find its way into the Brotherhood milieu.

“The fact that public bodies would fund organisations linked to the European network of the Muslim Brotherhood might be at first, particularly for lay people, puzzling,” the report authors say.

“The reasons that explain these dynamics are complex and each case should be assessed individually.”

The authors of the report, Islamism expert Mr Vidino and security consultant Sergio Altuna, say these sources of funding need to be cut off.

“European public actors should stop providing funding for Brotherhood organisations, making criteria for funding not purely formal but assessing a potential recipient’s system of values,” they write.

Denmark’s Integration Minister Mattias Tesfaye said authorities must ensure that funding for religious institutions does not fall into the wrong hands.

“We are not in a fight with Islam,” he said. “We are in a fight for democracy, for our values and for enlightenment.”

The report's authors questioned the Brotherhood’s claims of non violence, writing that these are “riddled with ifs and buts” and that its ideology could inspire attacks by others.

“Drawing on some anti-Muslim incidents and attitudes that unquestionably do exist, European Brotherhood organisations have purposely exaggerated them and tried to foster a siege mentality,” they say.

“The problem lies in the widespread dissemination of the Brothers’ narrative and their inability to control its impact on, let’s say, a hot-blooded 16-year-old outraged by world events.”

Gilles Kepel, a French expert on Islam in the West, said the November 2020 attack in Vienna showed the danger posed by lone actors motivated by an extreme ideology.

Brotherhood activists are among potential “entrepreneurs of rage” who disseminate hatred online, he said.

The perpetrator in Vienna was named as Kujtim Fejzulai, 20, who was born in Austria to Macedonian parents. He was shot dead by police.

The attack was followed by raids on suspected Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood members, although they were not directly linked to the shootings.

Austrian politicians have spoken of a “parallel society” springing up in cities such as Vienna.

Gert Vercauteren, who runs a threat co-ordination unit in Belgium, said politicians face a struggle to penetrate tight-knit communities such as the Turkish diaspora in Belgium.

Although these can have positive aspects, for example by keeping people rooted in Belgium, they tend to “keep together in their own structures”, he said.

“The government cannot offer the same social structures that these networks have,” he said. “You need to be sure that you can offer alternatives.”

Magnus Ranstorp, a prominent extremism expert in Sweden, said the Nordic country had a highly active Brotherhood scene.

Echoing the Austrian report, he said the Brothers sought to act as go-betweens between Muslims and the government.

"If they control the financial coffers, it makes it difficult to get the plurality, the mosaic that you need" for a diverse Muslim community, he said.

"We have to have more stringent scrutiny of the activities that involve state funding."

Updated: October 28th 2021, 4:59 PM
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