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How Arab autocrats exported repression of Muslim activism to Europe

Using authoritarianism to crush political Islam, Arab dictators are increasingly influencing Europe to treat its Muslim populations as a threat
A girl holds a message reading 'We are Muslims, not terrorists' at a protest in Barcelona, 19 August 2017 (AFP)
A girl holds a message reading 'We are Muslims, not terrorists' at a protest in Barcelona, 19 August 2017 (AFP)

In a recent piece for Foreign Policy, Jon Hoffman showed how authoritarian leaders in the Middle East were using interfaith initiatives and government-sponsored projects of cultivating a so-called moderate Islam to whitewash their repressive and aggressive domestic and foreign policies.

The implications of this could have far-reaching consequences for western European Muslim populations, an often-overlooked topic.

Following the end of the Second World War, the decolonisation of many Muslim countries and the increasing immigration of people of the South from Muslim-majority societies, European governments initially were not particularly engaged with the religion of these immigrants.

According to western European political elites, the so-called "guest workers" from Turkey or the Balkans would either return back home again after they had finished their jobs or else would assimilate into western society. Hence, western European governments effectively outsourced the management of Muslims to the reliable sending states, something the political scientist Jonathan Laurence called "Embassy Islam".

Once these political elites realised that Muslims were coming to Europe to stay and their numbers increased, these states abandoned the outsourcing of the management of Islam and started actively regulating the relationship between them and their Muslim subjects in religious terms directly.

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In the late 1990s, and especially following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, a generalised suspicion and control dominated the perspective of European nation-states vis-a-vis their Muslim populations. In most countries, these new policies were introduced by the respective ministries of the interior, clearly setting the tone for Muslims as securitised objects.

But after the Arab Spring spread across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in the early 201os, a new factor emerged that would shape European Muslims’ future destiny: Arab autocrats, who feared the loss of their power.

Going after political Islam

Following the revolutions, several Gulf monarchies feared that political uprisings would bring democratic structures that would ultimately render power to the well-organised Islamist movements, foremost the Muslim Brotherhood.

It seems as if the UAE leadership had become so paranoid that it saw a potential threat in every organised Muslim organisation not connected to their state efforts

Powerful existing and emerging regional powers, such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, not only cracked down on domestic Islamist movements but also supported other authoritarian regimes such as the Egyptian military in its assault on newly elected Islamists, declaring them to be terrorist organisations.

And these measures did not stop at the borders of the MENA region. To mainstream its policies of declaring the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation domestically, these regimes also lobbied to achieve the same in Brussels, London and Washington.

In the US, for instance, several Republican leaders pushed for a Foreign Terrorist Organisations Act, but ultimately failed in the face of foreign policy considerations. And the increasing warnings coming from high officials and representatives of authoritarian regimes, when they meet their western counterparts, are well documented

And there is something even more severe accompanying this policy. The UAE was not only going after the Brotherhood, but started targeting European Muslim organisations.

As David D Kirkpatrick recently showed in his investigative piece on the dirty secrets of a smear campaign, private investigators were paid to dig up dirt on Muslim civil society organisations across Europe to disseminate rumours about alleged ties to Islamists.

It seems as if the UAE leadership had become so paranoid that it saw a potential threat in every organised Muslim organisation not connected to their state efforts.

This became another important byproduct of the post-Arab Spring era: many authoritarian regimes attempted to export not only their domestic security politics to gain further support and legitimise their domestic aims - they also attempted to export their domestic politics of how to regulate Muslims' religion. 

Absolute obedience

As Hoffman has rightly argued, these regimes support politically quietist readings of Islam that stress absolute obedience to established authority. The state-introduced so-called "moderate Islam" becomes functional in serving the authoritarian regime.

Many of the postcolonial states such as Egypt and monarchies such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia could draw on the legacy of their Awqaf ministries, originally designed to govern religious endowments from the pre-colonial era, but reimagined as state-controlled religious institutions to harness religious power for the nation-state or the regime’s aim.

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This institutional structure of making religious activities subservient to a government in power is the opposite of the idea of secularism that imagines religious authority to be separated from state authority. Arab autocrats rather imagine religion to serve the power, and legitimise the ruler, even if he brings mischief.

These rulers can draw on a long tradition of Sunni Islamic thought that favours order and security over opposition and potential anarchy.

But this image does not really fit the perception of western ideas regarding the separation of church and state, where religious denominations are believed to have autonomy over their religious domain, detached from state interference and vice versa.

In fact, the idea of control of religious institutions by the government in power is more akin to (post-)communist regimes such as the former Soviet Union or today’s China or Russia. The Chinese Communist Party and Russia have domesticated churches and Muslim institutions supporting their policies.

Examples are manifold and can be extreme. The former grand mufti of Egypt, Ali Gomaa, legitimised the killing of demonstrators against the military coup in 2013 that deposed the first freely elected president since Egypt was declared a republic in 1952.

Fertile ground

More generally, the existence of a state-controlled religious structure implies the absence of several important freedoms, from the freedom of assembly to the freedom of religion to the freedom of speech.

And this is the track authoritarian regimes try to persuade western policymakers to follow in regard to Muslims. The UAE’s minister of state for tolerance once told the German news agency DPA: “One cannot simply open a mosque and invite everyone to attend and to preach.”

The authoritarian politics of Arab autocrats merge more and more with European policies that treat Muslims suspiciously as a potential threat

UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan once even blamed many European countries for harbouring “radicals, extremists and terrorists coming from Europe because of (a) lack of decision-making, and trying to be politically correct”.

Institutionally, these ideas met the fertile ground of those governments that had already used their ministries of the interior to take care of European Muslims.

Investigative journalists Yann Philippin and Antton Rouget found that attempts had been made to lobby and pressure the French public to outlaw the Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, President Emmanuel Macron was pushing for a moderate republican French Islam similarly state-controlled, and independent Muslim organisations, including anti-racist ones, that critiqued these policies came under fierce attack.

Macron awarded Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi the highest distinction, ignoring the autocrat's brutal crackdown on domestic opposition and human rights activists.

In Austria, the conservative-right government led by former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz introduced a law to outlaw "political Islam" following a massive raid against alleged members of the Brotherhood that was later ruled to have been unlawful.

Kurz, who left politics following a corruption inquiry, now supports the UAE in its foreign policy while having already deepened cooperation in the field of security and anti-terrorism.

Germany similarly established departments of Islamic theology in state universities following advice to not put religious education in the hands of non-governmental Muslim institutions.

A fatal message

Famous Muslim professors who are hailed as liberal and tolerant voices of Islam have not only established Muslim associations funded by the state or foundations of political parties such as the Christian Democratic Union, but have simultaneously supported anti-Muslim laws and hailed Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE for their projects against so-called "political Islam". They have further fuelled false conspiracy theories to legitimise the crackdown on independent Muslim civil society in Europe on Egyptian state TV.

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Countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE also seem to have supported various other Muslims, who use the label of liberal, but who are calling for more surveillance and control of non-governmental Muslim institutions.

Many governmental as well as non-governmental institutions, from the US State Department to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, are highlighting the increasing discrimination against Muslims in Europe that are justified with claims of countering extremism, especially in the last couple of years, with President Joe Biden even addressing Islamophobia in his last statement on the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr.

The message to Europe’s Muslims is fatal: economic relations trump human rights. And the authoritarian politics of Arab autocrats merge more and more with European policies that treat Muslims suspiciously as a potential threat.

In this process, Muslims are more and more stripped of their human rights as citizens of western democracies. Secularism, while usually depicted as a deficit among Muslims, becomes structurally denied. Rather, Arab states’ authoritarianism becomes the new playbook for changing the destiny of Muslims in Europe.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Farid Hafez is a Distinguished Visiting Professor of International Studies at Williams College and a non-resident Senior Researcher at Georgetown University’s The Bridge Initiative.
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