The Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East has been experiencing the worst international crisis since its founding in Egypt in 1928. The movement is reeling from the death of its most prominent ideologue Yusuf al-Qaradawi in September and the November death of London-based Ibrahim Munir — who served as the organization’s operational leader. It is also experiencing a loss of support in the Middle East and suffering the lingering effects of a power struggle between its leaders in Egypt and Turkey. Put it all together and it appears the movement is on the verge of disintegrating in the region of its birth.
This disintegration might look like a huge setback for the cause of global Islamism but it might set the stage for an ascendance of Muslim Brotherhood-led Islamism in Europe where activists have pursued a makeover of Islamism’s public image — without truly abandoning the supremacist goals of the movement.
Just before his death in London, Ibrahim Munir was locked in a power struggle with the organization’s former Secretary-General Mahmud Hussein. Munir had announced the suspension of Hussein’s membership in the Brotherhood and referred him for internal investigation for ostensible financial and administrative irregularities. The Muslim Brotherhood in Istanbul, however, refused to recognize Munir’s authority. Before his death, Qaradawi, the late Brotherhood cleric based in Qatar, made attempts to reunite the two factions, but these efforts failed, despite the involvement of the prestigious clerical body, the Doha-based International Union of Muslim Scholars.
That the power struggle came to the public’s attention illustrates the severity of the rift; public displays of internal disagreement are unusual for the Brotherhood, which has presented itself as a cohesive and monolithic movement.
The power struggle between Munir and Hussein followed a tumultuous decade that witnessed the organization’s collapse in Egypt in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, controversy surrounding allegations of financial corruption in Tunisia, and the humiliations endured at the ballot box by the MB-affiliated Justice and Development Party in Morocco’s 2021 Parliamentary elections.
To make matters worse, in November, Jordan initiated a harsh crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood as security forces arrested two high-ranking members of the Islamic Action Front (IAF) – the political wing of the Brotherhood and Jordan’s main opposition party – following their calls for protests in Madaba. Decline can be spotted elsewhere: Brotherhood activism has been notably absent in high-profile recent popular protests in Algeria and Sudan.
The pure Brotherhood as we used to know it is declining. It appears to be increasingly marginalized and plagued by persistent factionalism. The internal disputes within the Brotherhood were not solely the product of personal enmity between Munir and his rivals, but also the result of a wave of deep disagreement within the entire organization on its overall strategies and vision, in the face of significant changes across the Middle East. Consequently, Munir’s death is unlikely to lead to unity.
Moreover, Munir was not just the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood; he was also, by virtue of his London residence, a bridge between the organization in the Middle East and its offshoots in Western Europe. With his death, European activists are more distant than ever from their Middle Eastern brethren, and now have the autonomy necessary a to carve a different and more effective path for their movement.
While the Muslim Brotherhood is having a hard time overcoming the crises afflicting them in the Middle East and North Africa, a cadre of highly educated, glamorous Brotherhood-inspired activists are working to increase their visibility and influence over Muslim communities in Europe. These activists, well-versed in Western political discourse, have successfully styled themselves as politically relevant opponents of racism and discrimination. They have secured partnerships with activists from “LGBTQ” movements and other progressivist causes, despite having little in common with such progressivist-minded allies.
For example, the Brussels-based Forum of European Muslim Youth and Student Organizations (FEMYSO) founded by top leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West and connecting Brotherhood-linked student groups throughout Europe, received significant funding from the European Union to conduct anti-Islamophobia and pro-hijab campaigns.
FEMYSO invoked typical “woke” themes and keywords in its messaging. For instance, the organization has campaigned against “gendered Islamophobia,” which it describes as the “intersectional discrimination that Muslim women and girls suffer based mainly on grounds of ethnicity, religion and gender.” Predictably, FEMYSO defines its mission as striving for a diverse, cohesive and vibrant Europe.
Muslim Brotherhood activists in Europe undermined this messaging by offering public condolences after the death of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a man who said terrible things about the Jews and spoke of Muslims conquering Europe through immigration. But overall, his death has freed Islamists in Europe from an embarrassing and anachronistic presence. With Qaradawi dead, European Islamists can better push their agenda under the guise of progressivism and human rights without hindrance or apparent contradiction.
There are still some obstacles. Muslim Brotherhood activists in Europe face increased scrutiny from governments finally recognizing the threat of lawful Islamism. Earlier this year, German Intelligence expressed concerns about the Brotherhood’s influence on local Muslim organizations, prompting the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (Zentralrat der Muslime in Deutschland or ZMD) to expel the German Muslim Community (DMG)) from its ranks.
In Austria, where politicians are speaking openly about the threat of political Islam, officials are closing financial loopholes used by Islamists for money laundering and other revenue-generating activities. Meanwhile, France has closed a number of mosques that supported the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology, and has enacted policies to vet imams. Even Sweden, which has struggled to take a more nuanced approach to Islamism, has recently taken steps to limit the Brotherhood’s space to operate.
But none of these challenges is alone enough to defeat Islamist activism in Europe. Just as European Islamists learned how to promote their agenda under the guise of secular progressivism, they can learn how to deal with increased government scrutiny.
The fate of the movement appears to be running on a double track. On the one side, the Brotherhood’s base in the Middle East is disintegrating, irreparably weakened by internal disagreements, poor governance and inability to keep pace with evolving socio-cultural contexts in the region of its birth.
On the other side, movements and organizations born within Brotherhood-founded Western networks are now increasingly committed to adapting their public personas as necessary to remain – or become – the chief representatives of Muslim communities in the West and the favorite interlocutors of institutions and decision makers.
If this process continues unchallenged, the Muslim Brotherhood could, ironically enough, end up becoming a Western-centric movement with its activists promoting an ideology and pursuing goals in Europe rooted in the agenda established by the organization in the Middle East, just presented in a very different guise.
Sara Brzuszkiewicz is an advisor to European Eye on Radicalization and post-doctorate researcher at Alma Mater Studiorum University in Bologna, Italy. She holds a Ph.D. in Institutions and Politics from the University of Sacred Heart in Milan.