The document, commissioned by the Austrian intelligence establishment, documents exploitation of Austrian government funds and schools, radicalization of local Muslim communities, and the use of Austrian territory as a springboard for Brotherhood activism in Arab countries.
by Joseph Braude
In recent years, several European governments have begun to revise their policies toward the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist organizations. The trend began in 2014 when the British government ordered a review of the movement, its presence in the UK, and the question of how official policy should treat it. The process did not culminate, as some critics of the Brotherhood had hoped, with the designation of the group as a terrorist organization. Nonetheless, it amounted to a stinging indictment of the Brotherhood’s ideology and aims. The report found that the group has “selectively used violence and sometimes terror in pursuit of their institutional goals,” warned against its habit of political double-talk, and advised the British government to be wary of engaging Brotherhood affiliates as partners.
Similar findings have begun to emerge elsewhere on the continent. Last March, the Swedish government’s Civil Contingencies Agency published a controversial report on the Brotherhood which found that the movement was creating a “parallel society” in the country, at odds with Swedish values.
The larger concern which these and other reports have raised is that the Brotherhood has for too long been not just tolerated but also legitimized and empowered in Europe. Organizations founded and run by Brotherhood activists have won a kind of privileged status as representatives of the Muslim community in their respective countries. They have come to dominate some of the largest mosques and Islamic schools, organized the resettling of refugees, and trained young imams to preach in local languages. If foreign funds fueled their activism, the naivety of European governments enabled it.
The latest country where growing concerns about the movement have now found public expression is Austria. The country has long been a scene of Brotherhood ferment — dating back to the arrival of Yussuf Nada, one of the most influential Brotherhood diaspora activists, nearly 50 years ago in the Austrian town of Graz. Since then, influential members of the Egyptian, Syrian and Palestinian branches of the Brotherhood have settled in Austria as well, where they lived unimpeded and enjoyed a comfortable base of operation. The 60-page report was released this week by Austria’s intelligence services, with support from the Austrian Integration Fund and Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz und Terrorismusbekämpfung). It was realized in cooperation with Institute for Near Eastern Studies at the University of Vienna, and authored by Italian-American Brotherhood specialist Dr. Lorenzo Vidino — an advisor to the UK government’s 2014 report, and a periodic contributor to Majalla.
The report supports the view that the empowerment of Brotherhood-affiliated organizations on the continent has not only lent the movement new assets and capacities to pursue its aspirations in Arab lands, but also damaged Europe by impeding the integration of Muslims into the broader society. Among other findings, the report draws a distinction between two types of Brotherhood actors with respect to their use of Austrian soil. For some, Austria has served mainly as a “safe house” and a springboard to their home countries; Witness Ayman Ali, who served for years as chief imam in Graz, only to return to his native Egypt to serve as a senior advisor to President Morsi. For others, transforming religio-political culture in Austria became an end-goal in itself. Some have won posts as official interlocutors between the Austrian government and its Muslim citizens. Brotherhood-affiliated schoolteachers, drawing Austrian government salaries, have littered children’s minds — and now the public discussion — with chauvinist rhetoric.
Vidino’s assessment is in line with a prominent view among Austrian intelligence cadres, summarized in a court document last year which argued for the deportation of Ayman Ali: “[T]he political system aimed for [by the Muslim Brotherhood] is reminiscent of a totalitarian system, which guarantees neither the sovereignty of people nor the principles of freedom and equality … Such a fundamental position is incompatible with the legal and social norms of the Republic of Austria.”
Both security establishments and politicians in Europe have increasingly endorsed such findings. In countries such as the UK where steps against the Brotherhood have been taken, Brotherhood affiliates and their allies have been pushing back fiercely. But this week’s new report in Austria provides a further indication that the tide may be turning against the movement on the continent.