America's clumsy, misguided attempts to reach out to European Muslims.
- By Ian JohnsonIan Johnson is a Pulitzer-winning Wall Street Journal reporter and the author of Wild Grass: Three Portraits of Change in Modern China. This piece is excerpted from A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA, and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
In late 2005, the U.S. State Department decided that European Muslims needed America’s help. Too many were living in parallel societies, cut off from the mainstream. Extremism and violence were rampant; it was no coincidence that three of the four 9/11 hijacker pilots had been radicalized in Europe or that Islamist terrorists had killed hundreds in London and Madrid. What Europe needed, the State Department figured, was help to set up an international network "to discuss alienation and extremism."
The idea was intriguing. The United States was the target of Islamic radicals, but its own communities seemed to have not produced the violence found in Europe. Experts had long debated the reasons for this. Some cited the fact that often the Muslims who immigrated to the United States either had jobs or planned to study. In Europe, by contrast, Muslims had come to work in industrial jobs that didn’t exist anymore. They had working-class levels of education and lacked the skills to find new employment, leaving many frustrated, with too much time on their hands. Social services were thought to be related to the problem. In the United States, unemployed Muslims had few welfare benefits to help them out. If they wanted to survive, they had to work long hours. In Europe those who lacked employment could claim relatively generous welfare benefits and have time to indulge in extremist politics. Other explanations were batted around too: that Islamic violence was largely an Arab and Pakistani phenomenon; whereas a high percentage of Muslims in Europe had immigrated from these regions, those in the United States represented a broader array of homelands.
But no one made the single argument that informed the State Department’s plan: that the United States had better Muslim leadership. A State Department-sponsored conference in November 2005 brought together 65 Belgian Muslims and U.S. tutors from the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). The U.S. diplomats thought so highly of ISNA that it seems to have been appointed as a co-organizer of the conference.
From a historical perspective, this was almost comical — a case of taking coal to Newcastle. ISNA was founded by people with extremely close ties to the European leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, a transnational Sunni alliance with an influential and complex presence on the continent. The State Department was importing Muslim Brotherhood Islamists with roots in Europe to tell European Muslims how to organize and integrate. Even more interesting, some of those European Muslims invited to the conference were themselves part of the current Muslim Brotherhood network.
One participant was a Belgian convert named Michael Privot, who at the time was vice president of a Saudi-Muslim Brotherhood organization called the Forum of European Muslim Youth and Student Organizations. This body was founded with direct support from the Muslim Brotherhood’s umbrella organization in Europe, the Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe. Privot was also vice secretary of the Complex Educatif et Culturel Islamique de Verviers, a center of Muslim Brotherhood activity in Brussels. It was also the home of one of Hamas’s fund-raising groups, the Al-Aqsa Foundation (a group banned in several European countries, including Germany and Holland, for supporting terrorism). The meeting offered a chance for Muslim Brotherhood activists like Privot to meet their U.S. counterparts. In addition, the State Department helped bring Belgian Muslims to the United States — to be trained as imams by ISNA and to participate in an ISNA summer program in Chicago. In short, it was a networking session for the Muslim Brotherhood — paid for by U.S. taxpayers.
State Department officials acknowledged that they had invited people accused of extremism but said they did not care about track records. Instead, all that mattered were the groups’ or individuals’ current statements. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the U.S. ambassador to Belgium, Tom Korologos, said, "Some of the organizations whose members participated in the Conference have been accused of being extremist. It is possible that some individual members of those organizations have made statements that have been termed extremist. Our view, however, was to base our selection on the stated policies and specific actions of organizations and individuals today with regard to harmonious Muslim integration into American and European society." And then, with a rhetorical flourish, he concluded that "four or five more conferences like this can lead to a network of moderate Muslims."
In internal communication, however, Korologos’s staff revealed a less altruistic goal. In one cable sent at the end of 2006, the U.S. embassy in Brussels conceded that "the embassy’s engagement with Belgian Muslims is seen by some members of the majority community, and some Muslims also, as interference in Belgium’s internal affairs." This was justified, the cable concluded, not to build a network of moderates, but rather to "increase our credibility with both Muslims and mainstream Belgians with the ultimate goal of creating a more positive image of the U.S., its policies, society, and values."
In 2007, a similar project took place in Germany. The U.S. consulate in Munich actively backed the creation of an Islamic academy in the town of Penzberg. The group behind the academy had close ties to Milli Gorus — essentially a Turkish version of the Muslim Brotherhood, which regularly appears on lists of extremist organizations in Germany. That is why the Bavarian state government, led by the conservative Christian Social Union, was opposed to the academy. The situation was complex — members of the group in Penzberg seemed to make a good-faith effort to distance themselves from extremism — but many German officials were not convinced and wanted to wait a while before accepting the group’s newfound moderation. Thus the State Department’s quick embrace of the group created a bizarre political constellation: The Bush administration, which had lambasted "old Europe" for being weak on fighting extremism, was actively undermining a conservative European government for being too tough on Islamists.
The embassy’s actions formed part of a broader change in strategy — but one debated largely in secret. The strategy was, as a 2006 cable from the U.S. embassy in Berlin put it, a "policy of using American Muslims to reach out to other Muslims." Though it did smack of manipulating Islam, in many ways this activity is not controversial: Why not send U.S. citizens to tell the story of the United States? The problem lay in who got chosen for this role. Just as in the 1950s and ’60s, the United States opted for the Brotherhood.
The most public advocate of this new strategy was the prominent political scientist Robert S. Leiken of the Nixon Center think tank. In a widely read piece in Foreign Affairs, he and his colleague Steven Brooke made numerous sensible points. For example, they pointed out that the Brotherhood has often been treated as a monolith and that Western officials have ignored moderates in the movement.
They also noted that terrorists have often held the Brotherhood in contempt for not embracing global jihad — thus, in the context of Middle Eastern politics, the Brotherhood is not the most extreme group. They also rightly said the United States should not be afraid of engaging the Brotherhood, or any group, if it furthers U.S. interests.
These are all valid observations, but the article misses a few key points. While it is correct, for example, that the Brotherhood does not embrace global jihad against the West, its support of jihad in Israel and Iraq means it explicitly endorses terrorism. The authors also do not seriously address the sheer volume of the group’s anti-Semitic utterances over the years, up to the present. They acknowledge the existence of this problem, but more as a historical fact than a present and ongoing reality. To exemplify the Brotherhood’s thinking today, the two political scientists cite one moderate sermon that they heard in London. It’s worth considering that the authors were present in the mosque as the guest of the man giving the sermon; perhaps his words were tailored to please them?
Maybe most important, the article conflates the Brotherhood in the Middle East and the West. One can argue that Western countries should reach out to oppressed Brotherhood members in authoritarian Egypt. But this doesn’t mean that one also has to endorse the Brotherhood’s role among Western Muslims. What seems moderate in Egypt can be radical in Paris or Munich.
This endorsement of the Brotherhood began to spread beyond the State Department. The Department of Homeland Security continued to oppose the Brotherhood and made any sort of affiliation with the organization grounds for refusing a person entry into the United States. Thus Tariq Ramadan, Said Ramadan’s son and a popular lecturer among young European Muslims, was refused admittance.
Besides his familial affiliations, the younger Ramadan wrote a foreword for the first collection of fatwas issued by Qaradawi’s fatwa council. The merits of the department’s actions can be debated — Ramadan was hardly a terrorist, and if his views are objectionable, they should be debated, not silenced — but in any case it was largely a rearguard action. By the second half of the decade, even the CIA was backing the Brotherhood. In 2006 and 2008, the CIA issued reports on the organization. The former was more detailed, laying out a blueprint for dealing with the group. Called "Muslim Brotherhood: Pivotal Actor in European Political Islam," the report stated that "MB groups are likely to be pivotal to the future of political Islam in Europe…. They also show impressive internal dynamism, organization, and media savvy." The report conceded that "European intelligence services consider the Brotherhood a security threat and critics — including more pluralistic Muslims — accuse it of hindering Muslim social integration." But the report nevertheless concluded that "MB-related groups offer an alternative to more violent Islamic movements."
The new Barack Obama administration evinced similar support. During the presidential campaign, the Obama team appointed Mazen Asbahi as its Muslim outreach coordinator, although Asbahi had extensive contacts with Brotherhood organizations and was even head of the Muslim Student Association, which was founded by people with ties to the Munich mosque that played host to radicals including planners of the 9/11 attacks. This information was either disregarded or missed when Asbahi was vetted during the campaign. He resigned in 2008 only when the facts, dug up by an online newsletter focused on the Muslim Brotherhood, were published in a national newspaper.
In power, the Obama administration has continued its predecessor’s endorsement of Islamists. In January 2009, for example, the State Department sponsored a visit of German Muslim leaders to one of the bastions of the Muslim Brotherhood in the United States, the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT). The German visitors were key government officials in charge of integration or recruitment of minorities into the police. One of the briefers was Jamal Barzinji, one of the triumvirate who set up a number of key Brotherhood-inspired structures in the United States.
Like many Brotherhood-related groups, IIIT faded from public view after the 9/11 attacks but has experienced a renaissance recently. IIIT had been closely associated with a raft of Islamist organizations in northern Virginia that were raided by federal agents because of their suspected ties to extremist Islam. As elsewhere, this action followed a familiar pattern. The groups in question, including IIIT, were primarily problematic for ideological reasons — for trying to push the Brotherhood’s vision of an Islamicized society, which clearly cannot work in a pluralistic culture.
But instead of being challenged on the field of ideas, where they could easily be shown to hold beliefs antithetical to democratic ideals, they were accused of supporting criminal activities and were raided. This had a double effect: It created the strange spectacle of the legal arm of the government trying desperately to prosecute these groups while, at the same time, the diplomatic arm held them up as models of integration. The failure to convict the Muslims was seen as an exoneration, almost a seal of approval.