A MOSQUE IN MUNICH: NAZIS, THE CIA, AND THE RISE OF THE MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD IN THE WEST
Chapter 14: BEYOND MUNICH
RUST FLAKING OFF window grilles, paint peeling off the walls -- in every way the apartment block is typical of middle-class Cairo, except for the two police cars parked outside. Inside them, officers note the people entering and leaving one particular apartment: the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Banned in 1954, the Muslim Brotherhood is still illegal in Egypt, but it is tolerated. Authorities launch sporadic crackdowns, but members are allowed to meet and issue position papers. The group has also been permitted to put up candidates for parliament; in one recent election it won 19 percent of the vote. Foreign governments reckon that in a country like Egypt, where half a century of dictatorships has systematically destroyed organized opposition, the Brotherhood is the last remaining truly independent group of any stature. Its message of religious revival is one that Egyptian governments once shunned but over time have slowly embraced, seeing their support of Islam as a way to legitimize their rule. The Brotherhood is simply too influential to be done away with completely.
Inside the apartment, the group's militancy is apparent. Pictures of martyred brothers hang on the wall, such as Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the head of Hamas killed by Israel in 2004. Young men come and go, bringing reports and sending out policy papers to the group's thousands of cells around the country. The man in charge is the Muslim Brotherhood's "supreme guide," Mahdi Akef. He is a short, elfin figure, born in 1928 and a member of the Brotherhood since he heard Hasan al-Banna speak in 1939. His office is the apartment's master bedroom. In it are crammed a desk, two sofas, and the ubiquitous Islamic map of the world, with each country colored to indicate the extent of its Muslim population, and the whole map ringed by famous mosques -- similar to the one I saw in the London bookstore. "From this small place we run Islam in the world," Akef says, an exaggeration, but understandable coming from a man who heads such an influential group.
Like Himmat and Nada, Akef represents a strand of the Brotherhood that has tried to make peace with authorities. Unlike Ramadan or more radical theorists, Akef is keen to be accepted by governments and wants the Brotherhood to participate in the political system. He still wants to impose Islamic law, or sharia, in Egypt, but says he would do so slowly, building up support at the grassroots level rather than imposing it from above, as was done in Iran. Like many veterans of the movement, Akef spent years in jail, in his case, a staggering twenty-three years. The first twenty stretched from 1954, after the initial crackdown on the Brotherhood, until 1974, when President Anwar Sadat announced an amnesty for all members of the group. The second stint ran from 1996 to 1999, when Sadat's successor, Hosni Mubarak, acted to suppress the Brotherhood, as he did periodically.
After his release in 1974, Akef quickly linked up with other pragmatists from the movement, such as Youssef Qaradawi, now famous around the Muslim world for his television broadcasts and books. Akef identified with a journal that Sadat allowed to be published, known as Al-Da'wa. It commented on news events, hewing to four basic principles: anti-Semitism, anti-"Crusaders" (that is, anti- Christianity), anticommunism, and antisecularism. But it didn't challenge the government, and many of its backers were fabulously wealthy, having escaped Nasser's and Sadat's prisons and settled in Saudi Arabia. This journal signaled the start of a new, more pragmatic Muslim Brotherhood, one that made itself more acceptable to authorities by toning down violent rhetoric against the state. Also close to this group were Himmat and Nada. The Islamic studies scholar Gilles Kepel calls this group the "neo-Muslim Brotherhood."
One of Akef's goals was to reconstruct the Brotherhood's organization, which had been damaged by the crackdowns and the exile of its key members. That involved careful grassroots work, which brought about the Brotherhood's phenomenal ascent; it is now the most influential political movement in Egypt. But Akef also wanted a carefully wrought international network of organizations that would be impervious to any single tyrant, such as Nasser. That took him to Himmat and Nada in Munich.
From 1984 to 1987 Akef lived in Munich as head imam of the mosque. The timing wasn't accidental. The years following Sadat's assassination in 1981 were particularly harsh for the Brotherhood. The Islamic Center of Munich was Akef's refuge. He was its spiritual head while Himmat ran the legal organization from his home in Campione d'Italia. "The Muslim Brotherhood has a large Islamic Center in Munich," he says, gazing at the map of the world.
It was a happy time for Akef. He had studied physical education and now went swimming almost every day. He emphasizes the fact that he swam with Germans. He has nothing against the local people, he says, although he faults them for placing the mosque next to a garbage dump and sewage treatment plant. He ascribes the fact to prejudice rather than the students' lack of money: "This was the only place the government would approve." The dump was eventually beautified through a costly government program and now features jogging and biking paths. To him it's another triumph for the Brotherhood. "We made this dump beautiful and now it's full of trees," Akef says, his voice trailing off. "It's one of the most beautiful parts of Germany." Whatever his role in urban renewal, Akef helped drive an unprecedented surge in the organizing of Islam throughout Europe.
Just a few months before the Munich mosque opened in 1973, the Islamic Cultural Centres and Bodies in Europe met in London's theater district, with the purpose of establishing a network of likeminded groups. Several dozen activists attended, including Himmat, the newly minted head of the Islamic Community of Southern Germany. Reflecting Saudi Arabia's efforts to dominate organized Islam, the chairman was Saudi. Himmat was elected to the governing council, along with Khurshid Ahmad, an influential Pakistani activist. The London meeting didn't immediately succeed in setting up a European network. But it was a first step.
Four years later, the Brotherhood scored a success. The 1977 meeting was held at the Swisslakeside resort of Lugano, just up the street from the homes of Himmat and Nada. Nada welcomed the participants, many of whom he knew personally or would later become his business partners, to Switzerland. One of the most impressive was Qaradawi, who at around this time was with the magazine Al Da'wa. Now widely known as the Brotherhood's spiritual leader, he had been an important figure as early as the 1950s. In 1955, for example, Nada recalls that when he was in prison along with the other members of the Brotherhood, their jailers allowed them to pray. When the call to prayer went out, he said, "I couldn't believe it. [It was] the first time I'd heard it in prison. Qaradawi led the prayers."
Far away now from such travails, the group meeting at Lake Lugano began the arduous process of rebuilding the Brotherhood's organization. Here in Europe, protected by laws and democratic institutions, they were free to set up lasting structures. Their first was the International Institute of Islamic Thought. Despite IIIT's name, its function was not theological. Its goal was to provide the theoretical underpinnings for the spread of Islamism in the West. It would hold conferences and allow leaders of the Brotherhood and similar groups to meet and exchange ideas. It would also publish papers and books, helping to nurture the global rise of Islamist philosophy. A year later, the group met in Saudi Arabia and decided to locate IIIT in the United States. Ismail Faruqi, a leading Islamist thinker who had also been at the Lugano meeting, was instructed to open the center in Pennsylvania, near Temple University, where he held a teaching post.
The Lugano meeting was also attended by two Muslims important to the spread of the Brotherhood in the United States: Jamal Barzinji and Ahmad Totonji. When Faruqi opened IIIT in 1980, Barzinji signed the papers of registration. The two had close links with Nada. Barzinji was an officer in one of Nada's companies starting in 1978; he worked for him for five years. Nada also nurtured another stalwart of political Islam in the United States, Hisham Al-talib. He worked for Nada's companies, and Nada sponsored him for membership in the Islamic Community of Southern Germany. At a meeting in 1978 at the Islamic Center of Munich, Nada put Altalib forward as a candidate to be a voting member in the mosque, even though he didn't even live in Europe, let alone Munich.
Totonji, Barzinji, and Altalib all came from Iraq, studied in Britain, and then went to the United States in the early 1960s. Totonji and others helped found the Muslim Student Association in 1962, widely regarded as the first Brotherhood organization in the United States. So their participation in the Lake Lugano meeting is a sign that parallel to events in Europe, the Brotherhood was gaining a foothold in the United States. Their work for Nada and participation in the mosque show that transatlantic ties were strengthening, as did the fact that Nada lived in the United States for a while; in fact, three of his children were born there, between 1978 and 1982. Nada lived in Indianapolis, where Barzinji, Totonji, and the others were turning their student group into a national movement. In many ways they repeated the process that Nada and Himmat had pioneered in Germany: form a student group, go national, and then build an organization with Saudi money and Muslim Brotherhood ideology. Just as he had done in Munich, Nada apparently helped organize financing of the Indianapolis headquarters. The forty-two-acre site soon boasted a mosque, classrooms, residences, a gymnasium, and an eighty-thousand-volume library. By the 1980s it formed the headquarters of the North American Islamic Trust, the Muslim Student Association, and the newly created national group, the Islamic Society of North America.
Meanwhile, the Islamic Center of Munich continued to grow in importance. In 1982 its name was changed to the Islamic Community of Germany, reflecting its growth across the country. The Islamic Center of Munich was now headquarters to a national group that oversaw a chain of mosques and cultural centers. The exact number in the early 1980s is not clear from the historical record, but it had branches in all major West German cities.
Reflecting its international importance, the group continued to add members from abroad, turning membership in the mosque into a mark of honor. Just a few years after having kicked out a Pakistani and rejected Turks as full members, the organization accepted a group of non-Arabs -- the difference being that these were famous Islamist activists, not run-of-the-mill believers. Khurshid Ahmad, for example, joined. He had attended the London meeting in 1973 and was the most important representative in Europe of Jamaat-e-Islamiya, the Pakistani version of the Muslim Brotherhood. Another key new member was Issam al-Attar, the charismatic head of the Muslim Brotherhood's Syrian branch, who had moved to Belgium in the early 1960s and settled in the West German city of Aachen in 1968.These two men symbolized the Islamist movement's ability to internationalize and overcome the ethnic divisions that split the Muslim world. Although men like Himmat, Attar, and Ahmad had their ideological and personal differences, in Europe they had far more in common than they did with non- Muslims. From their point of view, they were the vanguard of a new wave of Islamist activity in the West, minorities in Christian lands. But of course they did not live in Munich or have anything to do with the mosque there; it was just a vehicle for their struggle. Himmat highlighted the group's lack of connection with West Germany when he sent in the minutes of the 1982 meeting by registered mail from his villa overlooking Lake Lugano, 250 miles away from Munich.
Like Akef's office in Cairo, the center of this painstaking effort to build a network of institutions appears a bit anticlimactic. The Brotherhood's European base is now located in the Markfield Conference Centre, a former training ground for ambulance crews on the outskirts of Markfield, a tiny bedroom community with one church and three pubs situated outside Leicester, itself a faded textile mill city, two hours north of London. Far from Europe's great centers of Muslim population, it looks like a small campus: rolling lawns dotted with dormitories, an auditorium, and a bookstore. One of the buildings houses the Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe and its chief, Ahmed al-Rawi.
Rawi was born in 1947 in a small Iraqi town of the same name. The Brotherhood was an important part of community life there; its members were among the most progressive residents. In an interview, Rawi said he used to consider himself a member of the Brotherhood, although he emphasizes that he has never formally joined. The rise of a military dictatorship in the late 1960s made Iraq increasingly inhospitable and in 1975, Rawi went to Britain to study structural engineering. He got his doctorate in Dundee and later settled in Loughborough, a town near Markfield. As a driving force behind the Brotherhood in Britain and Europe for thirty years, he was able to choose the federation's home, although he takes pains to emphasize the logic of the choice. "This is the Midlands." he says, "and so we are in the middle of things. We have an airport. It is not so remote."
There is another reason too. The Markfield Conference Centre is owned by the Islamic Foundation, whose founders and organizers are close to Jamaat-e-Islamiya. The foundation promotes interreligious dialogue, and even Prince Charles has visited. But that was before it became widely known that the foundation's lecturers have backed the terrorist group Hamas and that its bookstore is stocked with the classic authors of Islamist literature: Sayyid Qutb, Harun Yahya, and of course the Brotherhood's ubiquitous spiritual leader, Youssef Qaradawi. Rawi fits into this intellectual universe. Like Qaradawi, he believes that suicide bombing is justified as long as it is aimed at Israeli Jews -- even if children become victims. The argument, as explicitly set forth by Qaradawi, is that Israeli children grow up to be Israeli adults and thus are fair game. Rawi has signed petitions condoning suicide bombings in Israel and has stated that Western soldiers are appropriate targets for suicide bombers in his homeland.
Rawi's office is a small room dominated by the regulation Islamist map of the world, with predominantly Muslim countries colored green and others in varying shades. Rawi is a short, trim man with a silver beard and clear, friendly eyes. Still struggling with English, he shrugs his shoulders to emphasize the rationality of his position: "It is not suicide. Anyone can agree in general that they have the right to resistance. We can't deny them the right to resistance. Like Iraq is occupied by the U.S. We prefer peaceful resistance and civil disobedience but they have the right to defend themselves. It is like the French resistance."
Rawi represents what some call "engineer Islam" -- the control of the Islamist movement by men with professional training but no deep education, religious or otherwise, who exert control over the Islamist movement. Indeed, from Hasan al-Banna to the present, the people who built the Brotherhood have had little or no formal religious education. Rawi is a narrowly focused functionary, able to organize interreligious dialogues but with little real understanding of his own religion or others.
His views have been honed by decades of organizational work. In 1977, two years after he arrived in Britain, he headed the Muslim Student Association. In 1984, the same year Akef came to Germany to head the center, Rawi served as a delegate from Britain to the "big circle," a meeting with representatives of eight countries. The German representative was the Islamic Community of Germany, headquartered at the Munich mosque. Five years later, the federation was founded with the eight original countries plus seven others. "We realized we weren't students anymore. We are living here and we need to deal with society as locals and shouldn't treat it as foreigners."
The federation has become an umbrella group for more than two dozen national Muslim groups, all with intellectual or organizational ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Rawi himself confirmed the ties. "We are part of nobody outside of Europe, but we have good relations with the Brotherhood. We have our own ideas and mission and they know it. We are interlinked with them with a common point of view," he says, meshing the fingers of each hand together like teeth on a gear. "We have a good, close relationship."
A rash of organization building followed the federation's founding. The next year, 1990, the federation set up the Institute for the Study of Human Sciences, which was designed to train imams and Muslim elites. In 1997, it set up the European Council for Fatwa and Research, aimed at spreading the Brotherhood's religious views across the continent. It also established the European Trust to raise money for the movement's activities. Besides serving as a holding company for these groups, the federation also has a public role as the only transcontinental lobbying group for Europe's Muslims. It has held meetings with the Vatican and the European Union. The chief financier is the Maktoum Charity Foundation, a group based in Qatar, with ties to the Brotherhood.
This frenzy of organizing highlights an important point about the Brotherhood: it is not a religious society with theological goals. It has had one or two important thinkers, but their main point has been simple: the Koran should be interpreted in a relatively literal fashion in order to shape every aspect of temporal society. The Brotherhood's primary goal is to implement this vision, and for that it needs institutions. Back in Egypt, before it was banned, the Brotherhood operated political parties, newspapers, youth associations, women's groups, and a quasi-military wing that imitated the style of fascist parties of the 1930s. In Europe, much of this structure (minus the military wing) has been duplicated. The main difference is that the Brotherhood is operating as a minority religion, so it uses its structures not to Islamicize mainstream society -- which is too ambitious a task at this point -- but to dominate the West's Muslim communities. It aims to shield them from the West's secular society, provide an alternative reality for its members, and convert other Muslims into "better" Muslims, who follow the Brotherhood's narrow vision of Islam.
As modern-day Islam has no formal religious structure, a group that sets up an organization and claims to speak for Muslims is hard to challenge; creating a rival group seems the only way to do so. The Brotherhood, with its organizational prowess, has been faster on the draw than other Muslim groups -- from Ramadan's pan-European Muslim conference, sponsored by the CIA in the 1960s, to Rawi's federation today. It's no coincidence that in both cases -- and everything in between -- outsiders have financed the Brotherhood's activities. That is because at its heart, the Brotherhood outside of Egypt is not a mass organization. It is a group of elite organizers who have set up the structures to define Islam in the West. The Islamic Center of Munich and all its successor organizations have never had more than a few dozen official members. These people did not serve Munich's Muslims -- indeed, the Turkish population that made up 90 percent of the Muslims in Munich by the 1970s was explicitly denied membership. Instead, the leadership was obsessed with organizing. In the Cold War, these groups had relatively little influence on the world stage except as pawns in the fight against communism. But as they developed, something unexpected happened: Europe, once outside the Muslim world, became central to its future. And the Brotherhood, after years of laborious organizational work, was suddenly poised to lead it.