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Rise and Presence of Muslim Brotherhood in United Kingdom

For years, there have been growing concerns amongst European governments of “non-violent” Islamist organizations, especially, branches of the Muslim Brotherhood working on the European continent. The increasing concerns include the idea that such groups aim to undermine western democratic values and build cleavages within the society. For instance, according to the 2018 annual report of the security services of Nordrhein-Westfalen, “the threat posed by the legalistic Islamism to the liberal democratic system is greater than that of jihadism.”

To discuss its work and influence in Europe, more specifically the United Kingdom, it is necessary to delve a little in its history and how the organization works. The Muslim Brotherhood is by far one of the oldest and the most influential Islamist movement which has inspired many other Islamist movements around the world. The organization aims to implement its vision through peaceful means but there have been factions that have deviated from the Brotherhood’s approach and adopted violent acts as their mode of action. Muslim Brotherhood has its roots in the organization created by Hassan al Banna in 1928 in Egypt and is considered the mother branch from which all others originated. But even the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has evolved over time; faced many crackdowns at the hands of various Egyptian regimes and even enjoyed a brief stint at the top of the Egyptian state after the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

However, since the 1940s, the message and methods of the brotherhood have spread in many countries where its followers have created networks and adapted as per the local dynamics of the countries and the political situation.

Like other countries, the Brotherhood’s spread of message and influence in the United Kingdom has evolved over time with having little to no authoritative presence in its formative years to being a dominant body amongst the British Muslims today. This has been accomplished by highlighting issues which are exclusive to the Muslim community of the society and were ignored by the government. Remarking on the Brotherhood’s evolution, Kamal El-Helbway, the original head of the Muslim Brotherhood in the UK in 1996, agreed that while the MB might not have many members at the time, the Muslim community at large did support the aims of the organization “intellectually.” 

During its infancy, the primary objectives of the MB in the United Kingdom were to spread knowledge about Islam and to rebut the false narratives spread by “various powers against Islam.” In order to achieve this objective, the MB set-up a “global information system” in London in September 1999. According to subsequent press release in Muslim News, it was announced that this information system would be a gateway to spreading the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood and act as a communication bridge between other Islamic Movements and the global mass media. 

Opposition to the second Gulf War and the Islamist lobbying campaign for Palestine helped the brotherhood to find its foot in the British society. The activism of some Muslim Brotherhood leaders in the United Kingdom completely transformed the role of political Islam in the British society by making it more anti-Israel, anti-western and anti-Semitic standpoint. These very activists set-up the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) in 1997, which is the MB branch of the United Kingdom. MAB was able to generate public interest and support in April 2002 when it organized one of the biggest rallies in London in support of Palestine. However, what stood out in the rally were protestors approving the use of terrorist activities to meet their objectives. 

Some of the protestors dressed up as suicide bombers in the rally and others held placards that were downloaded from the MAB website, associating Israel with Nazi Germany. Kemal El Helbawy, the founding leader of the MAB, was a speaker at the protest rally. Other MAB pioneers such as Mohammed Sawalha, a previous Hamas Military General, and Azzam Tamimi, a former representative for the Jordanian MB and Head of the Islamic Action Front’s parliamentary office in Amman. Resistance to the second Gulf War gave MAB the space to exert its influence and bring its work to the fore. It had already made its presence felt within the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), a representative Muslim body in the United Kingdom. However, it was the Stop the War Coalition, spearheaded by the Socialist Workers Part (SWP) and the Communist Party of Britain, that yielded its true power. 

This anti-war alliance led to the massive protest in 2003. The MAB used its influence to come up with the slogan “Don’t assault Iraq/Free Palestine,” whereby conjoining two separate issues, but seen as a joint concern by Islamists. This protest too raised eyebrows as there were anti-Semitic placards with the Star of David equating with the Nazi swastika on the first rally. The placards were discontinued in the subsequent rallies after unanimous complaints from the participants of the protest. After its successful alliance with the Left, MAB proceeded to developed another strategic coalition with George Galloway and his RESPECT Party, lobbying against the foreign policy of the Labor Party and for the withdrawal of British forces from Iraq. Staffed mostly by the SWP and other extreme left gatherings, yet drawing in votes from various (Asian) Muslim populace, it won a parliamentary seat in Bethnal Green for Galloway, who unseated the Jewish MP Oona King, and furthermore settled itself as a real powerhouse in other seats. 

MAB’s associations and alliances show how well-versed it had become at adapting to the political situations for its own interests and objectives. This is evident from its close involvement with the Labor Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. Despite being open critics of the Labor Party, MAB were able to influence Mayor Livingstone for furthering its own agenda. This strategic alliance resulted in Livingstone facilitating the yearly gathering of the European Council for Fatwa and Research, and Qaradawi, its chief, in July 2004, in City Hall. Despite the complaints and criticisms from various interest groups such as numerous Greater London Assembly individuals, the Jewish people group, Hindu and Sikh associations, Livingstone proceeded to hold and advance other MAB interests.

Among these was a public interview where he was the lone speaker to make reference to the French hijab (headscarf) boycott, which was the subject of the meeting. Neither Al Tikriti nor Qaradawi referenced the boycott; both focused rather on advancing the influential position that the Fatwa Council and its individuals play in relations among Muslims and the remainder of the society. It is obvious from the record of the gathering that its meaningful design was to advance Qaradawi and the Fatwa Council, and that the headscarf boycott banter and the utilization of the Mayor was only a way to this end. 

Other ways to solidify their presence in the UK has been by taking over administrative control over mosques. For instance, the MAB assumed control over the administration of the North London Central Mosque in Fins bury Park in February 2005. The Mosque is well known for being taken over and utilized for lecturing on jihad by Abu Hamza al-Masri, a famous Egyptian cleric who was sentenced to life in prison on terrorism charges. Interestingly, MB has built relationships within the tertiary education sector, with associations with the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Wales, Lampeter. 

What separates the business model of the MB and the MAB from other Islamist associations is their foundation of corporate structures supporting their finances, and broadening their reach to other public structures. Their working is exemplified by the motto “Thinking Globally, Acting Locally,” which is utilized on MAB leaflets and distributions. The MB currently works through a progression of interlocking organizations overseen by those recorded above, and others, of Palestinian, Syrian, Libyan, Somali, Iraqi and Egyptian origins. These substances include: the MAB itself, the Muslim Welfare Trust, Interpol (recorded by the US Treasury as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist Entity), the Palestine Return Center, the Institute of Islamic Political Thought (of which Tamimi is Director), Mashreq Media Services (which distribute the Hamas paper Palestinian Al Muslima), Palestine Times (the English language favorable to Hamas paper), the Center for International Policy Studies, and others. 

It is obvious that the Muslim Brotherhood has been successful in establishing itself as the representatives of the British Muslim community. What sets apart MB from other Muslim organizations in the UK is the fact that MB has actively taken up and propelled political issues of the Muslims to the public sphere. On the contrary, other faith-based organizations within the Muslim community have restricted themselves to faith related issues only. Thus, MB philosophy in the today presents a wide range going from the limits of Salafi jihadists focused on the vicious expulsion of Western values and presence in Muslim countries to the modernizing thoughts of the likes of Tariq Ramadan. With Britain charting a new course in its post-Brexit political reality, British policymakers will have to find a way to counter MB’s extremist work without disenfranchising the British Muslim community at large – a fine line will have to be drawn. 

Umar Khan
The writer is a Research Associate in Islamabad Policy Research Institute

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