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Excerpts from the Book: “Muslim Brotherhood, the Closed Circle” By Lorenzo Vidino

28 January 2022 Investigations   33814  

While the cases analyzed in this book clearly demonstrate common patterns of discontent among the former Western Brotherhood members profiled, one should not draw generalizations. It is difficult to determine if they constitute outliers or if their stories are indicative of a larger phenomenon of dissatisfaction inside the movement. Is the Brotherhood in the West in crisis, as some argue?1 Should the movement’s success or failure be judged by the growth and the stability of its membership? Or, since the Brotherhood is a movement seeking to mobilize the masses but willing to open itself only to few selected members, should success be assessed in another way, such as ability to exert influence within Western Muslim communities and Western elite circles? These questions cannot be answered easily. Moreover, irrespective of the metrics employed in assessing the Brotherhood, the answer is likely to differ from country to country. Yet it is clear that the 2010s have been an earth-shattering decade for the global Muslim Brotherhood movement and, consequently, for the Brotherhood in the West as well. The primary driver of change has been the so-called Arab Spring, with all its complex and still unfolding dynamics, which has had a huge impact on Brotherhood organizations in the East and the West.

While the experience and presence in the West of many members had a major impact on various national branches of the Brotherhood during the Arab Spring, the opposite is also true: the Arab Spring significantly affected Western Brotherhood milieus. And while it is difficult and definitely pre- mature to assess what this impact has been, the negative effects seem to outweigh the positive.

During the early days of the Arab Spring, the positive energy emanating from Tunisia, Egypt, and other Arab countries galvanized the Western Brothers. It also led many in the West, from policy makers to Muslim communities, to see the Brotherhood as a positive model to embrace and as the wave of the future. Even though the developments in the Arab world quickly dispelled that optimism, the connections made by the Brothers during those years with a variety of Western interlocutors, from high-ranking government officials to those in the media, from human rights organizations to large foundations, constitute an important asset that can provide leverage in the future.

Yet there appear to be many negative repercussions of the Arab Spring for the Western Brotherhood (even more complex and arguably different from country to country than those for the Brotherhood in the Arab world). First, the departure of so many experienced and charismatic leaders for their countries of origin left many Western Brotherhood milieus depleted of human capital. A document published in 2013 by the Cordoba Foundation, a prominent organization of the British Brotherhood milieu, argues: “Prior to the Arab Spring, there was a political apparatus in the UK regulating and coordinating, albeit quite loosely, the work of the Islamic movements but that is no longer the case although the need of such an apparatus now is more than ever.” While the phenomenon affected various countries differently, a similar analysis can be applied to several.

Arguably even more serious is the effect on younger Western activists of the return to their home countries of so many leaders of the Western Brotherhood’s milieu. While never denying their understandable passion for developments in their countries of origin, since the early 1990s most Western Brotherhood pioneers had expressed a keen interest in Islam in the West, often portraying themselves as the de facto representatives of Western Muslims. Yet at the first opportunity, many of these leaders left the West for good, and those who stayed devoted all their energies to events abroad. Seeing their actions, many younger activists, most of whom are Western-born and seek to prioritize developments in the West, felt some- what betrayed. A good number of them, whether they were directly involved in organizations of the milieu or simply sympathizers, were left disenchanted with both the milieu’s leaders and its ideology. Arguably, these developments have decreased the Brothers’ popularity both among Western Islamists and in the larger Western Muslim population.

In some cases, these often-overlapping dynamics of human capital depletion and “abandonment” involve not first-generation Brotherhood pioneers but individuals who have grown up in the West and were touted as future leaders of Muslim communities in their adoptive countries. A tell- ing case is that of Osama al Saghir, the son of a prominent al Nahda leader. The al Saghirs moved to Italy when Osama was eleven, and his father ran one of Rome’s most influential mosques (al Huda, in the Centocelle neighborhood). In 2006, at age twenty-two, al Saghir was elected president of the Young Muslims of Italy, the youth organization of the Italian Brotherhood milieu that Khalid Chaouki had headed earlier.

In that decade, thanks to his intelligence and charming personality, al Saghir became a fairly well-known public figure, routinely interviewed by Italian media on various issues related to Islam and Muslim integration in the country. He was particularly vocal on the issue of changing the country’s famously restrictive citizenship laws, which prevent most individuals who do not have Italian ancestry from becoming citizens even if they were born or have spent decades in the country. In 2009 al Saghir gave an interview in which he warned about the consequences of such policies, even linking them to jihadist radicalization. “The majority of young Muslims have grown up in Italy,” he said, “but very few have obtained Italian citizenship and for this reason have a distorted view of democracy. I fear the risk of a serious identitarian turn among young Muslims, because if one does not belong to a nation, then he belongs to a religious community, where it is easier to pay attention to some madman who talks about Italians being infidels, or to political groups that reject democracy.”
In 2011 al Saghir received Italian citizenship through naturalization. Yet in that very same year he decided to run for the Tunisian elections as one of al Nahda’s candidates in Italy. He, together with the daughter of another Rome-based Nahda leader, was elected, confirming al Nahda’s dominance among the Tunisian electorate in Italy. Some among both Italian opinion makers and the Muslim community have accused al Saghir of hypocrisy – first decrying the potential lack of attachment to Italy a restrictive citizenship policy might trigger, and then running in Tunisian elections (shortly after receiving Italian citizenship) as soon as the unexpected opportunity arose.

But, more broadly, it can be argued that the deepest impact on Western Brotherhood milieus came from the outcome of the Arab Spring – and particularly the failure of the Brotherhood in Egypt and, to a lesser degree, Tunisia to retain the support of large segments of the population and govern effectively. Many Brothers, in the East as well as in the West, have reacted to the downfall of the Brotherhood (irrespective of how they inter- pret the vicissitudes that led to it) with introspection often bordering on self-doubt. The statement from one of the spiritual leaders of the Western Brotherhood, Rashid Ghannouchi, that after the experience of the Arab Spring, his movement has “left political Islam” to “enter Muslim democracy” – a shift whose contours are uncertain but that clearly indicates doubt in the traditional dogmas of Brotherhood-style Islamism – reveals the massive soul-searching taking place within the milieu.

For many Western Muslim activists close to the Brotherhood, the Arab Spring has been a major blow to their intellectual confidence and has triggered reexamination, “the opportunity to reconsider simplistic ideological perspectives that ‘Islam is the solution.’ ” As Amghar and Khadiyatoulah cogently put it, “The all-encompassing approach of the MB – the idea of an Islamic panacea as a solution to all the problems for Muslims – clashes with the concrete experiences of the MB and is revealed to be ineffective. The European Brotherhood movement therefore suffers from the paradoxes of both its pre – and post – Arab Spring ideology.” Similarly, Dilwar Hussain, a prominent British Muslim activist with years of experience in Islamist milieus and a longtime proponent of liberalizing the movement in the West, argues that “a more open and embracing vision of who we are, and what Islam means to us, will be realised [once] there is a shift towards a post-Islamist paradigm among activists in the West.” “But can this happen?” asks Hussain. “I would argue that it must.”

[…]

The Arab Spring has brought many opportunities and arguably an even greater number of challenges to the Muslim Brotherhood in the West. It is too early to fully assess all the implications of these tumultuous years and see where the Western Brotherhood is headed. But it fair to say that just as is true of the Brotherhood in the Arab world, there is a Western Brotherhood before the Arab Spring and one after it. This distinction is accentuated by another completely coincidental yet extremely important factor: the widespread generational change – occurring somewhat differently in different countries – that the Western Brotherhood is currently undergoing, as mostly Western-born activists are joining, and in some cases replacing, the first generation of pioneers at the helm of the milieu’s organizations.

At this critical juncture, various dynamics appear to be emerging. On one hand, the Western Brotherhood seems to have lost the magnetic appeal it had arguably exercised on many. The failures of the Arab Spring have created ample self-doubt, and the actions of the Western Brothers them- selves have supplied additional reasons for dwindling enthusiasm. Over the past decades, as we have seen, the Western Brotherhood has put a priority on becoming trusted interlocutors of Western governments and elites – in many cases achieving that goal. But in order to do so, it has inevitably been forced to compromise some of its principles and smooth some of its rough edges. As Samir Amghar and Fall Khadiyatoulah put it, “Faced with the reality of Muslim faith management, [Western Brotherhood] activists lost their initial utopian impetus and no longer challenged the state framework or the dominant political system.”1 Essentially, not all Brotherhood activists clearly see an Islamic light at the end of the tunnel of the countless interfaith meetings, fund-raising banquets, media sensitivity seminars, and myriad other activities to which the organization devotes most of its energies. Some are also puzzled by tactics such as alliances with feminist or LGBT organizations that, while internally explained as useful means to an end, nonetheless seem to substantially deviate from what is Islamically acceptable.

As a result, Western Brotherhood organizations suffer in competition with Salafists, whose more uncompromising approach has attracted many conservative Muslims who previously would have gravitated toward the Brothers. In the words of a Belgian Brotherhood activist, “Ever since we decided to be more consensual on certain religious issues and ever since we began discussing issues with public authorities, some of our members could no longer recognize themselves in our choices and we have lost quite a lot of people.”
At the same time, many Western-born Muslims are increasingly find- ing alternative platforms for mobilizing on the basis of their Muslim identity. Many young Muslim activists, whether they started their trajectory in organizations belonging to the Western Brotherhood milieu or not, are no longer constrained by the group’s monopoly on Muslim identity and freely operate in the mainstream. In fact, Western Muslim activists who have points of contact with Brotherhood milieus are often active outside the group’s structure and achieve high positions in Western political par- ties and civil society, particularly on the left. The closeness of the con- tacts between those freelancers and the Brotherhood milieu depends on the specific case, but it is clear that the Brothers increasingly are no longer the only avenue for Muslims seeking to be politically engaged in the West.

Though all these dynamics and the stories of the individuals profiled in this book (irrespective of how representative they are of a broader trend) suggest that the Western Brotherhood is weakening, there are reasons to think that the opposite might also be true. More entrenched in Western society and increasingly run by new members – often scions of prominent Brotherhood families with strong ties to one another – Western Brother- hood organizations can be seen as simply entering a new and even more successful phase of their history in the West. On this account, the new leadership now understands how to smooth some rough edges and better present itself, making it more likely to achieve its short- and long-term goals. New blood and more refined tactics thus may make the group more effective.

One core issue that will determine the future of the Brotherhood in the West is whether the new leadership will retain the movement’s core ideology. Some argue that we are entering in an era of post-Ikhwanism, and that the Western Brothers, on the pattern of European Communists in the 1970s and 1980s, will eventually shed the most radical aspects of their ideology and melt into the system. Others disagree. Ahmed Akkari, for example, believes that “the history of the Brotherhood clearly shows that despite divisions and contradictions, the Brotherhood core always managed to bring in new supporters and keep the conservative ideological line intact; when some parts of the movement become too estranged to the ideological core and even break free, the old guard always manages to restructure the organizational top and middle layer to stay supportive.”

It is impossible at this stage to predict in what direction the Western Brotherhood will go, whether it will melt into the system or continue to work within it but with the idea of eventually changing it. Indeed, there are indicators that point in both directions: perhaps different individuals and organizations belonging to the network will take opposite trajectories over time. Irrespective of these developments, it appears clear that for years to come, the Brotherhood will remain a crucial actor in the future of Islam in the West.