At the end of May, the Austrian government published addresses more than 620 mosques and Muslim associations in Austria. According to the integration ministry, its aim was “to fight against political ideologies, not religion”.
It was the latest in a series of moves the Austrian government has made to fight “political Islam”, which it has identified as one of the main threats facing the country. In the process, the Austrian authorities began to target the real and imagined Muslim Brotherhood.
Despite various expert analyzes saying that the organization does not pose a threat of terror, its long non-militant history, and conclusions from other Western governments that it does not deserve a designation of terror, the Austrian government perceives it as it is a threat to national security.
But confronting or criminalizing the Confraternity would not make the country safer. This became especially evident when the secret service was unable to prevent the assassination attack on November 2, 2020 due to its urgency for an investigation into the alleged members of the Confraternity.
An Islamic revivalist organization
The Muslim Brotherhood was created in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna, a schoolteacher in Egypt, as a religious renewal movement, emphasizing education and social services. Al-Banna advocated for the establishment of a more Islamic-oriented government and society and challenged the colonial government.
By the 1940s, the Brotherhood had more than a million members in Egypt. In the 1950s and 1960s the movement influenced the creation 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, namely Sayyid Qutb, had begun preaching armed resistance against the brutal repression of dissent launched by the president. Egyptian Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Muslim Brotherhood have officially renounced violence. In the following decades, he engaged in the political process in Egypt, fielding candidates in parliamentary elections. In the Gulf, members of the Brotherhood have been welcomed and camped freely, and in states such as Bahrain and Kuwait they have also established branches.
In European countries, the exiled members of the Confraternity began to engage locally and even at the pan-European level, but they never created an organization formally controlled by the leadership of the Confraternity in Egypt. Therefore, some institutions are influenced by founding members, but they do not become official affiliates.
The Arab Spring of 2011 opened up the political scene in many Arab countries, allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to compete in free elections. In Tunisia, the Ennahdha Party is affiliated to the Brotherhood, and in Egypt, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) has become a governing force.
The overthrow of authoritarian regimes and calls for greater political freedom, in which the Muslim Brotherhood was involved, have alarmed some Gulf monarchies, who have begun to perceive it as a threat and have taken action to stop the wave. pro-democracy working the region.
The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have banned the Brotherhood on their territory and supported counterrevolutionary forces in Egypt and elsewhere, leading to the coup against democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi. FJP. While conducting an anti-Brotherhood campaign in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabia, united by Egypt under General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, have also begun pressuring Western countries to ban the organization, which until then had not been considered a threat in the West.
They insist that the Brotherhood is a terrorist organization, despite the fact that terrorist groups such as ISIS have publicly called the organization and its apostate leaders.
No designation of terror in the West
A year after the coup against the Brotherhood in Egypt, British Prime Minister David Cameron asked Sir John Jenkins, the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, to lead a government review of the organization to assess their beliefs, in particularly his position towards extremism and violence. This report was intended to inform the British government’s policy towards the Confraternity.
Published in 2015, the report concluded that, while the Brotherhood has pursued incremental nonviolent political change, it may also be willing to use violence in pursuit of its goals. Jenkins ’conclusions have been harshly criticized by Britain’s Selected Committee on Foreign Affairs, particularly his failure to consider the coup against Morsi and the organization’s violent crackdown. Despite significant pressure from the Saudi and Emirate governments, the report did not lead to any banning or designation of terror by the Brotherhood in the United Kingdom.
Lobbying efforts against the organization were also made in Washington, where in 2015 Senator Ted Cruz and Representative Mario Diaz-Balart presented a bill to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Legislation was not passed in Congress, but the issue came up again during Trump’s presidency.
According to Daniel Benjamin, former coordinator of the fight against terrorism at the State Department, the administration studied in 2017 and 2018 but concluded that there was no basis for such a designation. CIA experts have also been against it, arguing that such a designation “may fuel extremism,” while civil rights organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, have feared that such a move “could cause government attacks on American Muslim civil society.”
Austria’s crusade against “political Islam”
After the Muslim Brotherhood magazines were launched in the United States and the United Kingdom in the mid-2010s, Austria also followed suit, with the Fund for Austrian Integration and Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and the Fight against Terrorism which commissioned a report to Lorenzo Vidino. , Director of the George Washington University Extremist Program, who is known for his conspiratorial views of Islamist organizations. He concluded that “Brotherhood promotes a story that, through its use of victimhood and justification of violence, creates a fertile environment for radicalization.”
A coalition between the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and the Austrian Far Right Freedom Party (FPÖ) came to power in December 2017, four months after the report’s publication. Within months of taking office, they decided to extend a law of extremist symbols to include foreign militant and non-militant organizations, including the Muslim Brotherhood. This has effectively put the Brotherhood at the same level of threat as groups that have been designated as terrorists, such as al-Qaeda, ISIS and the Kurdistan Workers ’Party.
In November 2020, after a senior ISIS sympathizes killed four people and injured 23 in Vienna, Austrian police launched an operation codenamed “Luxor” against an alleged network of Muslim Brotherhood, attacking houses, businesses and associations and arresting dozens of people.
The operation, which was unrelated to the militants ’attack since it was the conclusion of a massive intelligence-gathering effort that lasted more than a year, did not result in any conviction, perhaps because of the accusation. he also found no concrete evidence that the crimes were committed by the target people in the raids. However, Austrian Interior Minister Karl Nehammer described it as a success.
Following the attack and the operation, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced a package of measures to fight terrorism, including stripping suspects of their citizenship, closing mosques and criminalizing “political Islam”. But an independent committee set up by the government found that the Austrian secret service’s concern about “Operation Luxor” prevented it from focusing on the attacker and called “superfluous” plans to ban “political Islam”. Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International have also criticized the move.
While ÖVP’s conservative ideology feeds much of its anti-Muslim impulse, this intelligence operation may be linked to foreign lobbying. Investigative journalists reported that even though “Operation Luxor” was to counter terrorist threats in Austria, police were ordered to search for money rather than weapons and explosives.
And in the indictment documents authorizing the incursions, there is a reference to acts that could “cause serious or prolonged disruption of public life or serious damage to economic life … in Egypt, the Strip of Gaza is in Israel, ”not in Austria. This leads to the question of why the Austrian security agencies made the offer to their Egyptian and Israeli counterparts when they were able to work to counter current 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 disturbing as they can have devastating consequences for Muslim civil society and human rights groups. which currently challenge Islamophobia in Europe.
If the Austrian secret service continues to lead to prominent Muslim organizations, such as the legally recognized Muslim religious community in Austria, as defenders of “political Islam,” this will inevitably lead to a growing division between the state. Austrian and Muslim population. If activist and scholarly work on Islamophobia continues to be perceived as threatening or in some way conspiratorial – as Vidino suggested it should be – this would marginalize more Muslim and anti-racist activists and academics.
The de facto designation or treatment of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization in a European country would set a precedent that would encourage similar official designations of terror in the rest of the continent. Such a development would legitimize the brutal repression of political opposition in many Muslim-majority countries, including the killing and imprisonment of individuals in favor of democracy.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial position.