Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Europe's Underestimated Islamists

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Europe's Underestimated Islamists

Article excerpt

I nearly 1959, a small West German intelligence operation stumbled over a sensational find: U.S. collusion with the Muslim Brotherhood. According to the West German sources - two ex- Wehrmacht soldiers who were in Washington's pay but still felt loyalty to their old German bosses - Washington was supporting one of the Brotherhood's top men, the Geneva-based Said Ramadan, son-in-law of the movement's founder Hassan al-Banna, in the hope of using him in the global battle against communism. The U.S. double-agents wanted to know if the West Germans would also help support Ramadan.

Bonn's response was an unequivocal "no": not because of ethical qualms about doing business with the Brotherhood but because of practical considerations. "Ramadan doesn't possess the slightest influence in the Orient," read an evaluation by the head of the West German intelligence operation, Gerhard von Mende. "A connection with him would only yield negative consequences."1

Von Mende was neither the first nor the last to have underestimated the Brotherhood or its leaders. In its 83-year history, the movement has time and again been written off as out of date, broken, or otherwise a non-force. Most recently, Western analysts of the Middle East upheavals were quickto portray the Brotherhood as out of touch and, basically, inept. U.S. director of national intelligence James Clapper reduced it to a "largely secular" movement2 while anthropologist Scott Atran argued that its "failure to support the initial uprising in Cairo on Jan. 25 [2011] has made it marginal to the spirit of revolt now spreading across the Arab world."3 News pages had similar coverage with the Brotherhood's absence in some Cairo neighborhoods seen as indicative of its declining importance.4

Of course, as is now known, the Brotherhood played a leading role in the Egyptian uprising and its wake.5 This should have come as no surprise. For all its flaws, mistakes and disastrous decisions, the Brotherhood is one of the most resilient organizations in modern history. Its longevity is due to one of its defining characteristics: an almost intuitive ability to assume new forms while pursuing its ultimate goals and carving out niches of influence. In its eagerness to write off the Brotherhood, the West has shown a distinct lack of attentiveness to the group, leading to decades of blunders.

Nowhere has this phenomenon been more starkly demonstrated than in Europe. For halfa-century - unlike in the Arab world - the Brotherhood has been able to grow without any restrictions, going from a oneman operation centered around Ramadan to being the continent's foremost Islamist force. How this happened illustrates the Islamist movement's potency and hints at ways it can be dealt with today. A decade after the 9/1 1 attacks, why is the West still grappling with Islamism, not so much as a force for terrorism - though that risk remains potent - but as an important political force throughout the Middle East and beyond?


Gamal Abdel Nasser's 1954 ban of the Brotherhood forced the group to reorganize abroad. While many of its senior leaders would spend years in Egyptian jails and its top theoretician, Sayyid Qutb, would be executed, the group was fortunate in having two havens where it was able to regroup. One was Saudi Arabia where it laid down deep roots, eventually melding with indigenous Islamist movements to create a powerful and violent challenge to the ruling royal family.6 The other, less well-known haven was Europe. Ramadan had already been to the continent several times and was studying law at Cologne University. When the Egyptian ban came into effect, he was living in Geneva, which he would make his home until his death forty years later.

This was a period before the great influx of migrant workers was to transform Europe. Muslims were few and far between. Germany, for example, had just two mosques, one in Hamburg and the other in Berlin. …

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