In late May, the Austrian government published the addresses of more than 620 mosques and Muslim associations in Austria. According to the integration ministry, its purpose was to “fight political ideologies, not religion.”
This was the latest in a series of measures the Austrian government has taken to combat “political Islam”, which it has identified as one of the main threats facing the country. In the process, the Austrian authorities have begun to address the real and imagined Muslim brothers.
Despite several expert analyzes claiming that the organization does not pose a terrorist threat, its long non-militant history and the conclusions of other Western governments that it does not deserve a terrorist designation, the Austrian government perceives it as a threat to national security.
But if the brotherhood is narrowed or criminalized, the country will not be made safer. This became especially evident when the secret service was unable to prevent the killer attack on November 2, 2020 due to its concern about the investigation of alleged members of the brotherhood.
An Islamic revivalist organization
The Muslim Brotherhood was created in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna, a schoolteacher in Egypt, as a religious revivalist movement, with an emphasis on education and social services. Al-Banna advocated establishing a more Islamic-oriented government and society and challenging colonial rule.
In the 1940s, the brotherhood had more than a million members in Egypt. In the fifties and sixties the movement influenced the establishment of other Islamic movements and eventually political parties in Muslim-majority countries such as Sudan, Egypt, Morocco, Syria and others.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, after some members, specifically Sayyid Qutb, began preaching armed resistance to the brutal repression of dissent initiated by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Muslim Brotherhood officially renounced violence. . In the following decades, he participated in the political process in Egypt, running in parliamentary elections. In the Gulf, members of the Brotherhood were welcome and lived freely, and even in states like Bahrain and Kuwait they established branches.
In European countries, exiled Brotherhood members began to participate at both the local and pan-European level, but never created an organization formally controlled by the Brotherhood’s leadership in Egypt. Therefore, some institutions are influenced by founding members, but have not become official subsidiaries.
The Arab Spring of 2011 opened the political scene in several Arab countries, allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to compete in free elections. In Tunisia, the Ennahdha party, affiliated with the Brotherhood, and in Egypt, the Party for Freedom and Justice (FJP) became governing forces.
The overthrow of authoritarian regimes and calls for greater political freedom, in which the Muslim Brotherhood participated, alarmed some Gulf monarchies, which began to perceive it as a threat, and took steps to stop the wave. democratic that crossed the region.
The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia banned the Brotherhood on its territory and supported counterrevolutionary forces in Egypt and elsewhere, leading to the coup against democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi of FJP. While campaigning anti-Germanism in the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, along with Egypt under the leadership of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, also began to pressure Western countries to ban the organization, which until then it had not been considered a threat to the West.
They insisted that the Brotherhood is a terrorist organization, even though terrorist groups such as ISIS have publicly called on the organization and its apostate leaders.
There is no designation of terror in the West
A year after the coup against the Brotherhood in Egypt, British Prime Minister David Cameron called on Sir John Jenkins, the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, to lead a review of the organization’s government to assess the their beliefs, especially their stance toward extremism and violence. This report was intended to inform the British government’s policy towards the Brotherhood.
Published in 2015, the report concluded that while the Brotherhood has pursued incremental nonviolent policy change, it may still be willing to use violence to achieve its goals. Jenkins’ conclusions were harshly criticized by Britain’s Foreign Affairs Selection Committee, especially his failure to consider the coup against Morsi and the violent crackdown on the organization. Despite significant pressure from the Saudi and Emirati governments, the report did not lead to the designation of any Brotherhood ban or terrorism in the UK.
Pressure efforts were also made against the organization in Washington, where in 2015 Senator Ted Cruz and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart introduced a bill to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. The legislation was not passed in Congress, but the issue was raised again during the Trump presidency.
According to Daniel Benjamin, a former State Department counter-terrorism coordinator, the administration examined it in 2017 and 2018, but concluded that there was no basis for that designation. CIA experts were also against it, arguing that the designation “may fuel extremism,” while civil rights organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, feared that the measure “could lead to government attacks on the country.” American Muslim Civil Society “.
The Austrian Crusade against Political Islam
After the reviews of the Muslim Brotherhood in the United States and the United Kingdom began in the mid-2010s, Austria also followed suit, with the Austrian Integration Fund and the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and the Fight against Terrorism by commissioning a report from Lorenzo Vidino. , Director of the George Washington University Extremism Program, known for his conspiratorial views on Islamist organizations. He concluded that “Brotherhood promotes a narrative that, through its use of victimism and justification of violence, creates a fertile environment for radicalization.”
In December 2017, a coalition between the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) came to power, four months after the report was published. Within months of taking office, they decided to extend an extremist symbol law to include foreign and non-militant organizations, including the Muslim Brotherhood. This effectively placed the Brotherhood on the same level of threat as groups designated as terrorists, such as Al Qaeda, ISIS and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.
In November 2020, after an old one ISIS sympathizes killed four people and injured 23 in Vienna, Austrian police launched an operation codenamed “Luxor” against an alleged Muslim Brotherhood network, assaulting homes, businesses and associations and arresting dozens of people.
The operation, which had nothing to do with the militant attack, as it was the conclusion of a massive intelligence-gathering effort that lasted more than a year, did not result in any conviction, possibly because the prosecution has not yet found concrete evidence that the crimes committed by the people subject to the beatings. However, Austrian Interior Minister Karl Nehammer characterized it as a success.
After the attack and the operation, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced a package of measures to combat terrorism, including the removal of suspects from their citizenship, the closure of mosques and the criminalization of “political Islam”. But an independent committee set up by the government found that the Austrian secret service’s concern about “Operation Luxor” prevented them from concentrating on the attacker and called plans to ban “political Islam” “superfluous”. Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International also criticized the measure.
Although the conservative ideology of the ÖVP feeds much of its anti-Muslim impulse, this intelligence operation may be related to the foreign lobby. Investigative journalists have pointed out that although allegedly “Operation Luxor” was to combat terrorist threats in Austria, police were ordered to search for money instead of weapons and explosives.
And in the processing documents authorizing the raids, there is a reference to acts that could “cause serious or prolonged disturbances to public life or serious damage to economic life … in Egypt, the Gaza Strip and Israel.” not in Austria. This brings us to the question of why Austrian security agencies placed an order with their Egyptian and Israeli counterparts when they could have worked to counter real terrorist threats on Austrian soil.
Marginalization of Muslim civil society
The government’s anti-Muslim policies and, in particular, the push against “political Islam” and the “Muslim Brotherhood” in Austria are worrying, as they can have devastating consequences for Muslim civil society and the human rights groups that currently exist. they challenge Islamophobia in Europe.
If the Austrian secret service continues to target major Muslim organizations, such as the legally recognized Muslim religious community in Austria, as defenders of “political Islam,” this will inevitably lead to a growing divide between the Austrian state and the population. Muslim. If activist and academic work on Islamophobia continues to be perceived as threatening or in some way conspiratorial – as Vidino has suggested it should be – this would marginalize more Muslim and anti-racist activists and academics.
Designating or de facto treating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization in a European country would set a precedent that would favor similar official terrorist designations to the rest of the continent. Such a development would legitimize the brutal repression of the political opposition in many Muslim-majority countries, including the assassination and imprisonment of democratically-minded individuals.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Al Jazeera.