Lorenzo Vidino, The Closed Circle: Joining and Leaving the Muslim Brotherhood in the West (Columbia University Press, March 2020).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Lorenzo Vidino (LV): While often the subject of heated debates, the Muslim Brotherhood in the West remains a mysterious entity. Scholars, security officials, journalists, and policymakers disagree on virtually every aspect of the issue, starting with the most basic questions: what the Brotherhood in the West is; who belongs to it; how one joins it; how it operates; how it finances itself; and, in some cases, whether it even exists.
Optimists argue that the Western Brothers are simply a socially conservative force that, unlike other movements with which they are often mistakenly grouped, encourages the integration of Western Muslim communities and offers a model in which Muslims can live their faith fully and maintain a strong Islamic identity while becoming actively engaged citizens. Pessimists see a much more sinister nature in the Western Brotherhood. Thanks to their resources and the naivety of most Westerners, they argue, the Western Brothers are engaged in a slow but steady social engineering program, aimed at Islamizing Western Muslim populations and ultimately at competing with Western governments for their allegiance.
The issue has major policy implications, considering the large influence that the small yet highly organized cluster of Brotherhood-controlled and influenced organizations in the West yields within Muslim communities and in the general discourse over Islam in the West. Governmental agencies of all kinds—from those dealing with security issues to those involved in education, integration, immigration, and welfare—struggle with the issue. No Western country has adopted a cohesive assessment followed by all branches of its government. There is no centrally issued white paper or set of internal guidelines sent to all government officials detailing how Western Brotherhood organizations should be identified, assessed, and eventually engaged. This leads to huge inconsistencies in policies, not only from one country to another, but also within each country, where positions diverge from ministry to ministry, and even from office to office of the same body. This book seeks to partially fill this void.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
LV: My previous book on the topic, The New Muslim Brotherhood in the West (Columbia University Press, 2010), focused on two aspects. The first was describing what the Muslim Brotherhood in the West is: how the first “pioneers” of the movement came to Europe and North America; how and why they set up organizations; and how their goals and ideology changed (or did not) once the movement was established in the West and over time. The second aspect was Western policymaking on the subject: it identified patterns and provided multiple examples of how various Western governments identify, assess, and engage with Western Brotherhood organizations.
My new book builds on the first one and focuses on two specific aspects. The first is understanding the inner workings of the organization: how people are recruited into the group (generally after a lengthy “observation period”); how they are asked to join; the ceremony and oath of allegiance through which they join; how the usra system works (the nuclear cell of the Brotherhood, a group of five to six members that meet on a weekly basis to study Islam, discuss politics, talk about personal life, and plan Brotherhood-related activities, among other things); how it finances itself, and so on. The limited literature on the inner workings of the Brotherhood focuses on Egypt and there is no book that analyzes these dynamics in the West. Do the dynamics present in Egypt—in terms of recruitment, secrecy, hierarchical structure, internal discipline, and so on—apply also to the Brotherhood in the West? Are there differences from Western country to Western country? No literature covers this topic.
The second aspect the book seeks to analyze is how and why individuals that engage in an organization like the Muslim Brotherhood, which requires an incredibly high level of commitment, decide to leave the organization. Being part of the Muslim Brotherhood is not like belonging to a political party or an ordinary organization; it encompasses all aspects of a person’s life. The rigorous vetting and long cultivation a member undergoes to join the group gives him a sense of pride in belonging to an elite. Once he is a member, most of his personal ties and activities are connected to the Brotherhood, so that his entire life revolves around the group. Leaving the Brotherhood is not easy.
Both aspects—the group’s inner workings and the disengagement of some of its activists—are very difficult for outsiders to analyze, given the Brotherhood’s proverbially secretive nature. It is for this very reason that this book relies upon and weaves together the personal stories of several individuals who either were former member of the Brotherhood in Europe or North America or, in two cases, had extensive and intimate knowledge of Western Brotherhood networks (Swedish and American) from the inside. The various individuals profiled occupied various ranks in their organizations, from top leaders to hangers-on. They operated in different countries and at different times, and they had different reasons for joining and leaving. All, however, left spontaneously. Though some spent some of their years as members of the Brotherhood outside of the West, all lived at least a substantial amount of time there while active in Western Brotherhood networks. And all are identified by name.
I conducted the interviews with these seven individuals over eighteen months (although my dealings with some of them extend back for years, in some cases predating their decision to leave the Brotherhood) and in five countries. Each was interviewed for at least half a day; some interviews stretched over several days. These conversations were supplemented with research and interviews with related subjects in order to both verify and contextualize the information provided by those who disengaged. An additional dozen former members of various Western Brotherhood organizations and individuals, with close connections to that milieu, were interviewed for this book in seven countries. Some agreed to be quoted by name, some only anonymously. All provided important insights into joining and leaving the Brotherhood.
Each chapter is similarly structured, patterned on the three cycles of their militancy: becoming, being, and leaving. The first part focuses on how each individual joined the Brotherhood, with particular attention both to the recruitment methods employed by the organization and the psychological impulses that drove the individual to join. The second section describes his life inside the organization: the role he played; the activities he engaged in; and the organizations and the people he interacted with. The third section covers disengagement: the reasons that led each individual to leave the organization; how he did so; and what the aftermath was.
J: What are the pitfalls and values of the book’s methodology?
LV: There are several pitfalls inherent to a scholarly analysis based predominantly on interviews with former members of an organization. Anyone would find it difficult to recall events and psychological processes that took place years, if not decades earlier, but for individuals who disengage from high-commitment movements there is the additional risk of bias—their recollections and views may be partial, distorted, or indeed deliberately fabricated. And the interviewer may introduce more problems by asking leading questions or by misinterpreting the answers; the ethical and practical concerns associated with interviews are widely recognized. I am well aware of these issues, and I have tried to address to them in several ways. I made substantial efforts to verify several claims that on their face appeared possibly untrue, defamatory, or both, omitting a few that I could not confirm.
Nevertheless, a micro-sociological analysis based on the testimonies of former members of the Brotherhood or its larger milieu offers unique value. Their recollections about how and why they joined, what they did while members, and why and how they left constitute unparalleled sources of information over the inner workings, modus operandi, and ideology of a highly mysterious organization. They also provide useful glimpses into the psychological processes that lead some of its members to join and then disengage from the organization. Moreover, each chapter, taken on its own, tells the story of a fascinating life, the personal trajectory of an individual who went through his own complex evolution and, in some cases, played a key role in important political events.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
LV: Policymakers are my main target audience, but the style, which tells the compelling personal stories of various highly interesting individuals, makes it appealing to a broader audience. The topic is of interest in many countries, and I am very glad that we have received offers for translations in various languages.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
LV: I am currently looking at two specific aspects of Brotherhood-related activism in the West: financing (which entails funds from abroad but also self-generated, through a sophisticated network of businesses and charities) and what I call woke-Islamism, the discourse of mostly Western-born, young post-Ikhwanis that mixes classic Islamist concepts with frames and ideas from various very contemporary Western ideological trends.
Excerpt from the book
The reasons that lead individuals to leave the Muslim Brotherhood are inevitably highly complex. Each former member underwent an evolution that was deeply personal, the product of a unique thought process. Nevertheless, the accounts published here and elsewhere show a number of similarities. As is common among those who disengage from other movements to which followers are intensely committed, all of them spoke of frustration with both organizational and ideological matters, showing a combination of disenchantment with how the group functioned and what ideas it espoused. Though there are important differences among them, they share many criticisms both of the organization and of its ideology. Similarly, while some specifics vary with location, many of the frustrations that have led some members of the Brotherhood in the West to leave the organization are similar to those expressed by members in the Arab world.
Regarding the organization, a common complaint is the Muslim Brotherhood’s lack of internal democracy. From Ahmed to Pierre, from Omero to a senior member like Helbawy, all agree with Mohamed’s assessment that “the big wigs can call the shots with a phone call, ignoring votes, procedures, and statutes.” While obedience to the senior leadership is taught to each aspiring member from the very beginning of his tarbiya, the lack of transparency in the internal decision-making process and the impossibility of challenging the leadership’s positions frustrates many Brothers, whether in the East or in the West. The Brotherhood’s strict application of the principle of al-sam’ wa-l-tâ’a (listening and obeying)—or, as Privot sarcastically calls it, “shut your mouth and obey, as a good soldier in submission to the great leader and to all the small middle-ranking leaders”—is often one of the first steps on the road to disenchantment and disengagement from the organization.
“The problem is about authoritarian management of power and decision-making,” lamented a Belgian Brother to Amghar and Khadiyatoulah. “We often consult with members and there is a debate of ideas, but it serves no purpose because the final decision always falls on the same individuals.” “One of the reasons that forced me to leave is the fact that each of my initiatives or decisions had to obtain the approval of the person in charge,” a French Brother explains. “Everything had to go through this person. For me, it was difficult to endure. We are of the same age and I have a Ph.D. I do have capabilities.” This democratic deficit and the opaque decision-making process have caused tensions and defections throughout the Arab world, but are felt as particularly objectionable in the West, where most of the Brotherhood’s activists have grown up in societies that encourage transparency and the expression of one’s own thoughts. Moreover, because in the West the Brotherhood has never been subjected to the repression it has long faced in the Arab world, the organization’s leadership there cannot cite what is often the main justification for this hierarchical obedience.
Another long-standing cause of friction and disenchantment within the Brotherhood, both in the East and the West, is nepotism. In Europe and North America many of the first-generation Brotherhood pioneers have propelled their wives, children, and in-laws to some of the top positions inside the milieu. While many of these individuals are unquestionably qualified and capable, the dynamic has frustrated many activists who did not belong to any prominent families and saw themselves as being, in their view, unjustly bypassed. The fact that the wives, children, and in-laws of pioneers such as Yussuf Nada and Ghaleb Himmat, Said Ramadan, Rachid Ghannouchi, and Jamal Barzinji are overly represented in various Brotherhood-related activities reinforces the view that the Western Brotherhood is composed of a small nomenklatura of interconnected activists, an “aristocratic elite” that controls everything.
The Executive Committee elected by FEMYSO’s 17th General Assembly in June 2013 illustrates this point well, as the four most senior positions were assigned to scions of top Brotherhood families. The assembly elected as president Intisar Kherigi, the daughter of al Nahda leader Rashid Ghannouchi. One vice president was Hajar al Kaddo, who had experience working with the Islamist charity Human Appeal as deputy manager in Ireland, her country of origin, and then in Turkey and Iraq. Hajar al Kaddo is the daughter of Nooh Edreeb al Kaddo, an Iraqi who is one of the leaders of the Irish Brotherhood milieu. Al Kaddo, in fact, is a trustee of the Europe Trust and the CEO of the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland (ICCI) in the Dublin suburb of Clonskeagh, historically the hub of the Brotherhood in the country and the headquarters of the European Council for Fatwa and Research headed by Qaradawi. The other vice president elected was Youssef Himmat, the son of Ghaleb Himmat, a Switzerland-based Brotherhood financier who is Yussuf Nada’s business partner. The treasurer was Anas Saghrouni, the son of Mohamed-Taïeb Saghrouni, one of the éminences grises of the UOIF and the man who introduced Mohamed to the Brotherhood in France.
The issue of ethnic bias is also regularly brought up by other former Brotherhood members. For many of them, it clearly reflected not just inequalities in the internal democratic process but also a deeper, ethical, and religious problem within the organization. That a group that touted, in its own name, brotherhood and equality among members of the ummah in effect discriminated against certain ethnic groups within the Muslim community was a major red flag for individuals like Pierre, who witnessed racism against both ethnic Swedes and non-Arab Muslims. But it was even more decisive for Abdul Rahman, who had been launched on his own path toward Islam by racial consciousness. The realization that the Brotherhood milieu looked down on African Americans, and had even enshrined those discriminatory positions in a document, was a deal breaker for him.
Lack of internal democracy, nepotism, and ethnic biases are intertwined issues that frustrate many current and former members of the Western Brotherhood, but all those profiled above and those whose stories have appeared elsewhere complain even more vigorously about a fourth, connected problem: excessive secrecy. All, without exception, agree that while the secrecy was understandable in the Middle East for the organization to survive the harsh repression of local regimes, it is absolutely unnecessary in the West, particularly in the extreme form adopted. And while they all bemoan the secrecy that envelops all aspects of the group’s life, the former members are most frustrated by the denial of the very existence of the Brotherhood in the West.
“We are not selling opium or drugs, we are propagating dawa,” asserts Helbawy, who for decades battled to convince the upper echelons of the organization that the decision to deny the Brotherhood’s existence in the West was both immoral and strategically ill-advised. Like the others, he argues that the Brothers would actually enjoy significantly more success in their efforts at engagement if they presented themselves for who they are, as the secrecy is perceived as indicating shame or an attempt to hide dark agendas. An identical case was made by Privot, a significantly more junior Brother, who repeatedly told “several European leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood that the discourse of denying belonging to the Brotherhood was just untenable and was taking all credibility away from the members, because it made them suspected of lying, and this all the more so as every Muslim is suspected right away of taqiyya.” Abdelkrim describes this secrecy as an omerta, Abdel Rahman as a “kind of sneakiness, like you’re ashamed of something.” All agree it is a major strategic weakness and a behavior that put them off, contributing significantly to their process of disenchantment and disengagement.
While perceived flaws in the organization have been cited by all as crucial in their decision to leave, in most cases deep concerns about the ideology of the Brotherhood had even more weight. Indeed, frustrations about the organization’s inner workings often planted the first seed of doubt, which then led individuals to examine fundamental issues with adherence to the Brotherhood’s creed. In some cases, there was trigger moment that either sparked or culminated the process. In other cases, doubts accumulated slowly, without any peak.
The ideological issues that led each individual to disengage are complex and personal, different from case to case. All the interviewees brought up, in one way or another, their frustration at the Western Brotherhood’s prioritization of politics over religion as one major cause. Some pointed to a particular incident—for example, Mohamed’s understanding that the Brotherhood’s leadership had simply played politics with the Danish cartoons but was not genuinely incensed by them—that made them think that the Brotherhood was merely using religion to achieve political goals. Others, like Omero and Pierre, came to question their commitment after experiencing a more gradual realization that the Brothers lacked a true spiritual side and were simply engaged in politics.
The different post-Brotherhood trajectories of the individuals analyzed above also reveal the divergent reasons that led them to leave the group. Some, like Helbawy, do not renounce Islamism altogether but simply reject the version of it adopted by the Brotherhood or, more narrowly, The Brotherhood’s current leadership, who they believe have strayed from the original teachings of al Banna. For others, like Ahmed and Mohamed, the rejection of Islamism is complete, in all its manifestations and aspects, and they have instead embraced secularism and traditional forms of Islam.