07/08/2016 06:25 pm ET Updated Jul 09, 2017

The Muslim Brotherhood in Sweden

The Muslim Brotherhood in Sweden

This spring's turbulence around former Minister of Housing, Mehmet Kaplan and Yasri Khan (both of the Green Party) has partly lifted the veil and revealed something that has long been known to researchers but has been somewhat of a taboo to discuss - namely, the factual gains of political Islam in Sweden today.

And not just in Sweden. The background to today's Islamist influence in our political parties and institutions can be said to have begun just after the Second World War, when the Muslim Brotherhood established itself in former West Germany (in Sweden, they have been operating since the late 1970s). The Brotherhood's strategy, developed since many years back, was to form, become part of (or in some cases, take over) educational institutions, social networks and so-called centers for dialogue. The goal was to establish itself politically and socially in the various European countries with existing Muslim communities, and thus gain influence over "their own" Muslim group. The basic idea was that "Muslims" form a collective with a certain specific definition of what constitutes Islam. This is still a core idea with Islamists; as Abirisak Waberi, former member of the Swedish Parliament (Moderate Party) and Omar Mustafa's predecessor as president of the Islamic Association in Sweden (IFiS, see below), said: "Islam has only one definition." It is a statement that Waberi shares with Islamists in general and sums up what is a fundamental idea with all Muslims who have not yet reconciled with Islamic history and privatized their religious tradition, i.e. who have not made religious beliefs a private matter.

The Brotherhood was, and still is, built upon a network approach where the supreme leader traditionally was based in Egypt (where the Brotherhood was formed in the 1920s). This person was also the spiritual leader. Around him was a council. All local country organizations also had governing councils, and these were able to make their own local decisions. The leadership of these councils could rotate and be replaced in a more or less democratic fashion. This leadership would then send a representative to the larger regional councils. For example, Europe has one. They, in turn, would send a representative to a global council. The Brotherhood organization can be seen as a kind of loosely formed organization where an oath of loyalty is taken. By this oath, one is inducted into a spiritual world community. This is important, because inside this shared spiritual community, one is able to form any types of organizations, at any time, as long as there is support for the effort in question. This also means that when the question "are you the Muslim Brotherhood?" is posed, one can truthfully say "no" and refer to something else (such as "the Islamic Association" or the like). And it is absolutely correct since the Brotherhood is a widely spread spiritual network that can manifest itself in many different external organizations.

It is no exaggeration to say that the Muslim Brotherhood is the father of the Islamic networks and organizations that currently dominate political Islam in the West, including in Sweden, and which today has grown into a multi-faceted movement spread across the entire European continent. A key reason for this success story is the way in which the Brotherhood has constructed its networks in Europe (and elsewhere; the picture is similar in North America, for example).

By promoting the importance of a unified ideology ("there is only one kind of Islam") while being open to different locally and regionally manifested organizational forms, they were able to effectively spread their message without forcing others into a pre-conceived framework. This allowed the Brotherhood to rapidly grow organically, without new or existing organizations needing to call themselves the Muslim Brotherhood. In this way, an apparently large variety of Muslim associations were able to emerge, all united by a common ideological belief. This integrated well with the European social systems of society as they had developed after the Second World War; a system where freedom of association had become a cornerstone in the countries impacted by the conflict. The emergence of a seemingly diverse range of organizations intended to safeguard the interests of the many newly arrived Muslims (early immigration was mainly labor-based) was of course seen as a positive and blended well into the existing order, where different groups were spearheaded by representatives with whom the authorities could interact.

This is very important because it is de facto the case that Islam is a disparate and decentralized religious tradition with a great many different interpretations. By effectively acquiring the position as representative for Muslim communities, other Muslim groups were marginalized in the sense of who could represent Muslims in relation to political and economic power. In this context, it obviously became extremely important to implement the concept that only one definition of Islam exists. A definition which is also the only "correct" and "true" version. Hence, it becomes crucial who holds the initiative to set the agenda on this issue. Here, the Brotherhood and all its successors have been very successful in winning the battle over whose definition of Islam is the "true" one. There are two important reasons for this success:

Firstly, the fact that Western organizational and administrative systems benefited the most well-organized Muslims, since they were the ones who most rapidly and efficiently understood the benefits of organizing themselves and thus present the authorities with a party with which to conduct negotiations. These groups were originally made up of Islamists in general and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular.

Secondly, the internal Muslim debate about Islam plays a major role. Naturally, those who refuse to believe that Islam really needs to play a part in how society is structured and governed have no reason to organize themselves into various Islamic movements. Those representing a more liberal (i.e. a privatized vision of Islam) and/or a reformist view are thus removed from the agenda already at the outset. The whole point of the Western approach - that various religious movements are endowed with certain representatives - is rendered null and void when individuals show no interest in being defined based on their religious stance and therefore do not consider themselves in need of any religious representatives.

It is necessary to emphasize that Islamism (or political Islam) is a complex concept. It is absolutely correct to say that Islamism arose as a sort of reaction to modernism, and as an alternative to collapsing and corrupt social and state systems in the Middle East (and in the postwar period also as a reaction against the Western capitalist system). At the same time, one must realize that Islam is different from, for example, the Lutheran form of Christianity common in Sweden. There is no actual non-political Islam to contrast with Islamism. The Christian division "unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God" cannot be applied to Islam. In Islam, religion and politics are intimately intertwined, which makes it very difficult for Muslims who are trying to reform and/or liberalize Islam. It also makes it easier for Islamists to argue from a religious perspective.

Consequently, over time the Islamists consolidated the power to define Islam both for their "own" group of Muslims and towards European authorities and politicians. For politicians and authorities tasked with managing large numbers of Muslim immigrants and migrants, it was helpful that someone could provide answers to the questions of "what is Islam" and "what are Muslims like." Since it was critical for the Brotherhood to be able to dominate the Muslim group, the result was an unholy alliance between Islamists and the authorities and politicians, who in the midst of their awkwardness and estrangement walked down a treacherous path, ignoring the fact that democratic and secular countries refrain from defining individuals based on religion and ethnicity.

The interesting or remarkable thing is not that Islamists of all stripes have taken the opportunity to exploit the system. This is logical given how important it is for Islamists to be the ones who decide what Islam is. It is also logical because this implies a sharp division between Muslims and non-Muslims in society. Segregation is promoted for the reason of maintaining control. The many (and more frequent) alarming reports coming out of our more or less ghettoized suburbs detailing how women in particular are oppressed by men attempting to rule over Muslim inhabitants by means of religious dogma are proof of how far this process has gone.

The interesting and remarkable thing is that our politicians and authorities have allowed this to happen. For decades, Islamist organizations have received large sums of money from public funds. This has contributed to increased segregation, problems of integration and an increasing proportion of individuals who decide to resort to acts of violence. The latter development is also logical since the end-goal is the same whether you advocate a non-militant strategy (which the Brotherhood usually does in Europe) or a more militant activist strategy. Namely, a society based on religious law and an eventual Islamization of society as a whole. Even in this regard, developments in Sweden are similar to those in other European countries such as Germany, Belgium and the UK.

But in Sweden and Europe in general, it is about leading the Muslim minority and to ensure that it is "protected" from losing its religious identity and affinity. In this lies the importance of collective rights and a distinct identity separate from mainstream society. For the Islamists in the Brotherhood's networks, it is then also particularly important to safeguard the political influence they have already gained, and if possible extend that influence. The case of Mehmet Kaplan serves as a good illustration. It has been studied in detail by scholars Sameh Egyptson and Aje Carlbom. Egyptson, for example, demonstrated how Imam Mahmoud Khalfi at the Stockholm mosque expressed satisfaction that the Islamists in Sweden had achieved a breakthrough with Kaplan's political career in the Green Party (and thus also in the government). Furthermore, Khalfi praises Swedish politicians for "having normalized the relationship with the Islamic Association which is known for its affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood." It is worth remembering that Kaplan was not forced out because of having invited anti-Semites into Parliament (like the infamous Yvonne Ridley). It was more of a tactical decision; it didn't look good that he shared a meal with Turkish fascists. But if this had not been noticed, Kaplan would probably still be in office. This is of course linked to the fact that political parties in Sweden - like in other European countries, such as the UK - have looked away from patriarchal oppression of women and anti-Semitism in their eagerness to score votes among the many Muslim immigrants. Both phenomena are widespread in the MENA region in general (and with Islamists in particular; not only the Muslim Brotherhood). It should be fairly obvious to anyone that people who have been raised on such values hardly tosses them aside once they cross the Swedish border.

The decentralization discussed above has also meant that there is some uncertainty concerning the Muslim Brotherhood's ambition. But it is possible to gain some insight by studying the network's Swedish policy documents. At the website for the Stockholm mosque, one can see that they, like other Islamists, view Islam as a comprehensive system that covers all aspects of society and individual lives. Islam is not only a religious ideology, but very much also a political project. One can read that Islam at its base is a valid system for all mankind, and that everyone would benefit from the divinely instituted legal system, sharia (whether sharia was handed down by God or written by human beings will not be discussed here). The political project expressed is based on a strategy of identity politics that has proven to fit hand-in-glove with particularly the Social Democrats and the Green Party (but also with the Left Party), which probably provides at least a partial explanation for the support that religious men of conservative persuasion, with a penchant for anti-Semitism and the oppression of women, enjoy among today's so-called progressive Left. As Göran Adamson so accurately wrote in Kvartal vol. 1, 2016 (online 5/31/2016): "The Left's political compass is lying on the floor with its glass shattered." The formulations become even clearer when studying the Islamic Association in Sweden's (IFiS) constitution and the Brotherhood's European umbrella organization Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe (FIOE), where IFiS is a member.

The Muslim Brotherhood emphasizes the need for all Muslims in Sweden to be presented as a homogeneous group with common interests and needs. Hence the importance of the establishment of a parallel "Islamic civil society" with its own schools, kindergartens, hospitals, cultural centers, mosques, and other types of institutions.

A project which Aje Carlbom describes as "a 'soft' apartheid-thinking that Muslims and non-Muslims should live in two different worlds." It should be clear to most people that this approach will eventually damage integration and can definitely lead to decreased trust and social disintegration of society at large. This should have been clear from the beginning. It is all the more remarkable that when the Brotherhood Movement (Broderskapsrörelsen; a Christian interfaith organization connected to the Social Democratic Party, now called Tro och Solidaritet; "Faith and Solidarity") entered into an agreement with the Swedish Muslim Council (Sveriges Muslimska Råd, SMR) in 1999, it was clear that the SMR wanted a parallel society. The fact that the Social Democrats (and naturally, other political parties) in their eagerness to recruit Muslims compromised on basic principles of equal rights and the right of the individual to decide his or her own future, even outside of the group (regardless of which group), is a sin of omission the consequences of which Swedish society will have to grapple with for the foreseeable future.
It is therefore critical that our politicians get themselves together, raise their gaze and broaden their horizons when it comes to Muslims in Sweden. As noted, most Muslims in Sweden are actually not members of any Muslim organization whatsoever. It is also about time to recall that in Sweden, religious identity is a private matter and that in our secular, religiously neutral country, we live in one common society, not several parallel ones.