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Europe’s new approach to Islamism

13 Oct 2020

Europe’s new approach to Islamism

13 Oct 2020

On October 2, 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron laid out his government’s strategy to confront what he refers to as “Islamist separatism.” Framing the problem, he warned:

…..This conscious, theorized, politico-religious project, which materializes in repeated deviations from the values of the Republic, which often results in the constitution of a counter-society and whose manifestations are the dropout of children, the development of community-based sports and cultural practices which are the pretext for teaching principles which do not conform to the laws of the Republic. It is indoctrination and through it the negation of our principles, equality between women and men, human dignity. The problem is this ideology, which asserts that its own laws are superior to those of the Republic.[1]

The announcement, which attracted substantial attention worldwide, indicates two important developments. The first is that European authorities – since Macron is arguably the most prominent but hardly the only proponent of this approach – are increasingly concerned about the challenge posed by Islamism. If, until recently, the attention was almost entirely focused on the threat posed by the so-called jihadism, the focus is increasingly expanding to Islamist movements, firstly the Muslim Brotherhood, that are not engaged in terrorist activities on the European soil but that are nonetheless seen as problematic.

The second, related development highlighted by Macron’s speech lays in the main drive for the Europeans’ renewed interest in Islamism. While not completely absent from the debate, security concerns take the backseat to those related to the negative impact of the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups on social cohesion and integration of Muslim communities into European societies. In substance, most European governments do not see the Muslim Brotherhood through security lenses, making the prospects of a terrorism designation fairly unlikely. But, at the same time, it is apparent that throughout the continent, the views on the group are getting grimmer, and actions are being taken to limit its divisive and polarizing influence.

The European difficulties on Islamism

The Muslim Brotherhood and similar Islamist movements have long been debated throughout Europe. The debate is extremely complex, with multiple overlapping layers of analysis. It touches both foreign policy matters and various domestic policy aspects, such as integration, education, security and state-religion relations – each of which brings its own interests and considerations. And each country discusses these matters in their own way, with varying focuses and degrees of intensity.

Despite these complexities, what is common to all European debates on the matter is a lack of unified assessment. Views on the nature of Islamists are not homogeneous among European policymakers, scholars and commentators. Some adopt what could be termed as an optimist approach, arguing that Islamists are a moderate political force that genuinely strives for democracy in the Middle East and, domestically, constitute reliable partners for governments when engaging European Muslim communities.

Others adopt a pessimist point of view, arguing that Islamists simply present a more moderate façade than the so-called jihadists, while in reality sharing their worldview and long-term goals. According to pessimists, these dynamics play out both in the Middle East and in Europe, where Islamists cozy up to European elites while engaging in a long-term social engineering endeavor aimed at driving a wedge between Muslims and the rest of society. Critics also argue that Islamists, even while not directly engaging in violence, promote a narrative that primes alienated individuals to accept the message of jihadist groups.

Most European policymakers tend to adopt a viewpoint that is somewhere in between these two extreme positions. But no European country has adopted a cohesive assessment followed by all branches of its government outlining how to assess and deal with (or, for that matter, even how to identify) Islamists. This situation leads to huge inconsistencies in policies, not only from one country to another but also within each country, where positions diverge from ministry to ministry and even from office to office of the same body. The result is a complex, often chaotic, situation in which institutions swing erratically between actions that reflect at time the optimist and at time the pessimist views on Islamists.

A factor further complicating the matter, and often not fully understood by those not close to the European corridors of power, is the very limited knowledge about Islam and Islamism, let alone the ability to understand its nuances and decipher Islamists’ often ambiguous language, on the part of a substantial portion of European policymakers at all levels. Journalistic reports have shown, for example, how many top Western officials in charge of crucial aspects of security and counter-terrorism focusing on jihadist groups had severe issues in explaining the difference between Sunnism and Shiism and determining among which sect a group like Al-Qaeda recruited – basic facts that should be crystal clear to anybody involved in policymaking on security matters.[2] It is therefore not difficult to imagine that this lack of knowledge is equally, if not arguably, more pervasive among officials who have spent their careers dealing with completely unrelated matters or in some small municipality.

Exceptions, of course, do exist and there are countless public officials, at all levels and operating in all fields, who are quite knowledgeable on the subject. But assuming that a lack of good understanding of Islamism on the part of European policymakers is not an incorrect exercise. Therefore, while somewhat true in some cases, explanations that see behind engagement with Islamists some complex decision-making process that, in a Machiavellian way, takes into account all possible angles, is mostly incorrect. As the saying goes, never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by incompetence.

Each country’s security services could play a potentially crucial role in forming and disseminating knowledge. While many of the matters related to Islamism are not purely a security matter, security services tend to be best positioned to have an understanding of Islamist networks. But various factors make this dynamic less linear than one could assume.

Firstly, not all security services have a mandate to look at Islamism. In many countries, in fact, the security services have a narrow mandate, which allows them to monitor only individuals and organizations that pose a direct security threat. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist actors can be seen as problematic but do not tend to engage in terrorist activities in the West, therefore falling outside the remit of many European security services.

In some European countries, though, security services do have a broader mandate that requires them to monitor a much larger array of potential threats. Because of its history, Germany, for example, has granted its security agencies an extremely broad mandate focusing on all political entities that can disrupt the country’s democratic life. Germany therefore has – something rarely replicated in other European countries – entire sections of its security services specialized only in non-violent Islamism.

It is noteworthy that the assessment of Islamists by German security services is extremely pessimistic. A report by the security services of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, perfectly exemplifies these views, shared by the services of all other German states. “In recent years,” states the report “local Muslim Brotherhood supporters have been able to use the public focus on jihadism and the spectacular rise and fall of ISIS to present themselves as a supposedly unproblematic alternative to violence-oriented Islamists and as a point of contact for government agencies and civil society actors. The Muslim Brotherhood could thus become the representative of Muslim interests in the state and society. Such a development would be unacceptable to society as a whole and our democracy.”

“In the long run,” it further argues, “the threat posed by legalistic Islamism to the liberal democratic system is greater than that of jihadism, which will always outnumber numerically. They aspire to an Islamist order, but are prepared to allow certain democratic elements within that framework. For this reason, their extremism is often barely recognizable at first glance.”[3]

Yet even in Germany, as in all other European countries, over the last few years, as the ISIS-related threat raged throughout the Continent, security services had to allocate most of their focus to the prevention and investigation of terrorist attacks rather than the analysis of more oblique and less immediate challenges like that posed by Islamists.

Finally, even if security services do manage to get a solid understanding of Islamism, the flow of information to policymakers is often convoluted. In many cases, for example, intelligence agencies do not share their knowledge unless prompted, prisoners of an institutional cultural bias that stresses a sometimes excessive degree of secrecy. In other cases, government officials do not bother to contact intelligence agencies to seek their assessment. Bureaucratic sluggishness, jurisdictional obstacles, and intra-governmental rivalries also contribute to enormous problems in information sharing.

Additional factors contribute to this complex picture. For example, it is not uncommon for policymakers, particularly those who participate in elections, to factor in considerations over the possible consequences of their decisions on their political careers. As for other matters, the position taken toward Islamism, both abroad and domestically, can impact a politician’s electoral fortunes. On one hand, for example, some politicians might deem proximity to Islamists an electoral faux pas, costing them the preference of voters concerned by Islamism. On the other, many European political parties and politicians have long entered into not-so-secret “clientelist” pacts with Islamist groups that promise them to sway the “Muslim vote” in their favor.

Moreover, the current political debate in Europe is characterized by a high degree of political correctness. Islamists are well aware of this dynamic and often use the charges of racism and Islamophobia to censor the undeniable episodes of bigotry that exist in Europe and any legitimate and nuanced criticism of Islamism.

A new approach

The debate on non-violent Islamism often takes a back seat to that on the ideology’s violent manifestations. For obvious reasons, terrorist attacks, particularly when as frequent and dramatic as some of those suffered throughout Europe in recent years, get all the attention from policymakers, security services, and the media. The activities of non-violent Islamists, on the other hand, tend to be attention-repellent: they are mostly legal; they rarely flare up in dramatic incidents; and they often bring charges of racism and Islamophobia to those who highlight them.

Yet, over the last few years, the debate on non-violent Islamism seems to have gained more traction in several European countries. And it is noteworthy that concerns about Islamism are no longer expressed almost exclusively by those on the right of the political spectrum but, much more frequently than in the past, by politicians and commentators of all political persuasions. Macron’s views should therefore be seen not as an oddity but simply as the tip of the iceberg.

Yet this increased focus clashes with the practical difficulties European authorities face in choosing what measures to use to tackle Islamist influence. The undeniable reality is that most of the activities of Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist networks in Europe fall within the law. At times, depending also on local circumstances, some of their rhetoric violates laws on discrimination, incitement or anti-Semitism. And the cases in which European Islamist groups provided various forms of support to groups engaged in violent activities outside of Europe, such as Hamas or various militias fighting in the Syrian civil war, are not infrequent.

Yet these are the exceptions, the few cases in which European authorities can intervene against Islamists through criminal tools. While it might be argued that they are problematic, the vast majority of the activities in which European Islamists engage in (preaching, political activities, raising funds, building mosques and schools…) are not illegal per se. Laws in certain countries might punish these behaviors if characterized as part of a larger subversive strategy. But, generally speaking, Islamists operate largely within the boundaries of the law and enjoy a constitutionally sanctioned right to advocate and work for an Islamic order.

To distinguish them from terrorist/violent groups, German authorities use the term “legalistic” for those groups that “attempt to enforce what they interpret as an Islamic order through political and social influence.”[4] The distinction has practical implications: while the former are illegal and joining or providing support to them is illegal, the latter are tolerated but kept under observation. While few other countries have formalized the distinction the way Germany has, there is a growing awareness among European authorities of the problematic nature of Islamist groups. Yet, their legalistic nature makes them almost immune to many of the measures (bans, arrest of members…) that governments generally take to tackle violent groups.

For these reasons, even most of the staunchest critics of the Muslim Brotherhood and related Islamist groups do not advocate for a terrorism designation. Pessimists, and among them the majority of European security services, do warn about the negative impact of the Brotherhood on violent radicalization. For example, Germany’s Bundesverfassungsschutz, the domestic intelligence service of the Federal Republic of Germany, has argued that Islamists “do not carry out recruitment activities for the purpose of the violent “Holy War” (Jihad). They might rather claim to immunize young Muslims against Jihadist indoctrination by presenting to them an alternative offer of identification.”

However, added the agency, there “is the risk that such milieus could also form the breeding ground for further radicalization,” laying the ideological groundwork for violent groups.[5] Alain Chouet, the former head of General Directorate for External Security (DGSE), the now dissolved French external intelligence agency, has stated that “Al-Qaeda is only a brief episode and an expedient instrument in the century-old existence of the Muslim Brotherhood. The true danger is in the expansion of the Brotherhood, an increase in its audience. The wolf knows how to disguise itself as a sheep.”[6]

In substance, many critics throughout the European counter-terrorism community firmly believe that non-violent Islamists create an anti-chamber to violent extremism, a fertile environment for the so-called jihadists, who only have to convince potential recruits about the righteousness of their tactics. Yet even assuming this is the case – something many experts siding with the optimist point of view on Islamism challenge – it does not legally warrant a designation as a terrorist organization.

The terrorism designation route appears therefore to be quite impervious, if not outright impracticable, in arguably all European countries. That was the outcome, for example, of the 2014 Muslim Brotherhood Review ordered by then Prime Minister David Cameron.[7] The Review summary did state that “aspects of Muslim Brotherhood ideology and tactics, in this country and overseas, are contrary to our values and have been contrary to our national interests and our national security.” But it stopped short of advocating a terrorism designation, largely due to the absence of the necessary legal requirements.

But the likely impossibility of resorting to a terrorist designation does not mean Europeans are toothless. The problem should not be seen in black or white terms, where either the Brotherhood is designated as a terrorist organization or is allowed to operate unchallenged. Rather, there are several shades of grey and several levels of action in which European countries seeking to curb Islamist influence are increasingly considering operating.

Several European governments, for example, have been considering measures to stem the flow of funding flowing to Islamists. Most notably, Austria passed a law making it illegal for Islamic organizations to receive funding from abroad. Several countries have been more stringent in monitoring the regularity of the financial operations of Islamist charities. And others have started reconsidering their policies that saw various government agencies fund Islamist NGOs to conduct activities in the field of integration, international aid or radicalization prevention. This was the case, for example, in Sweden, where the Agency for Youth and Civil Society (MUCF) withdrew its funding of a local Brotherhood-linked entity. According to the agency, the group’s extensive Islamist connections and consistent invitations to preachers who espoused extremist ideas made its commitment to democracy, a crucial element to obtain public funding, questionable.[8]

Despite their importance, most European policymakers are aware that these measures constitute only a small part of what can and should be done. A more comprehensive response entails, as Macron’s strategy lays out, a battle of ideas, a long-term strategic effort on areas as broad and complex as education, integration and theology.

Curbing Islamist influence is unquestionably an ambitious endeavor rife of ethical, legal and political challenges. It is unlikely that all European countries will embark on it with the same intensity and consistency and it is likely that some will waiver. However, there are strong indications of a growing consensus on the importance of engaging in a long-overdue effort to contain an important challenge to European societies.

Dr. Lorenzo Vidino is the Director of the Program on Extremism at The George Washington University. His latest book is The Closed Circle: Joining and Leaving the Muslim Brotherhood in the West (Columbia University Press, 2020).   


[1] Text of the speech of French President Emmanuel Macron, October 2, 2020. Available at:

[2] Jeff Stein, “Can You Tell a Sunni from a Shiite?” New York Times, October 18, 2006; Maurice Chittenden and Tom Baird, “MPs Don’t Know their Sunnis from their Shi’ites,” Sunday Times, January 7, 2007.


[4] Bundesverfassungsschutz, annual report, 2014. Page 86.

[5] Bundesverfassungsschutz, annual report, 2005. Page 190.

[6] As quoted in Caroline Fourest, Brother Tariq: The Doublespeak of Tariq Ramadan (New York City: Encounter, 2008). Page 103.

[7] Prime Minister’s Office, “Government Review of the Muslim Brotherhood”, 2014.

[8] Stockholm’s administrative court, Case 1383-19, October 31, 2019.

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