The Muslim Brotherhood and Jama’at-i Islami are separate movements that tend to draw the bulk of their members from different ethnic groups (Arabs and South Asians, respectively). Nevertheless, both groups are rooted in a political ideology, frequently described as “Islamist,” that calls for the establishment of a distinctly Islamic system of government.

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Hassan al-Banna, the schoolteacher who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

The Muslim Brotherhood is without question the world’s most influential modern Islamist organization. Founded in Egypt in 1928 by schoolteacher Hassan al-Banna, the group advocates the embrace of Islam as a way to promote both personal development and broader social reform. Initially a religious and social organization, the Muslim Brotherhood quickly became politicized. Its ideology, which calls for establishing Islamic states based on shari’a (or Islamic) law, became the basis for virtually all Islamist movements. The group’s standard slogan, “Islam is the solution,” expresses the movement’s emphasis on the systematic application of Islam to all facets of life.

Soon after it was founded, the Muslim Brotherhood spread beyond the confines of Egypt, eventually establishing branches in nearly every country in the Arab world. In addition, it also provided the ideological basis for a number of other prominent Islamist movements outside the Arab world, including the Pakistan-based group Jama’at-i Islami, broadly translated as “Islamic society.”

By the 1950s, the secular nationalist regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt came to view the politicized Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood as a major threat to the security of the Egyptian state, and suspected members of the group were imprisoned and in some cases tortured. In the decades that followed, governments in other countries where the movement had a following, including Syria, Iraq and Tunisia, began similar crackdowns on the Muslim Brotherhood, prompting many members of the group to seek refuge in France, Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and other places in Europe.

Expansion in Europe

By the 1980s, many of the emigrants who had taken the Muslim Brotherhood to Europe realized that they would not be returning to their countries of origin, at least in the near future, and they began to work in various European states to create more permanent organizations inspired by the movement. The Muslim Brotherhood’s earliest adherents in Europe had remained close to the original ideological goals and organizational structure of the movement in the Middle East, but later European groups sought to adapt the movement’s agenda and priorities for new generations of Muslims born and raised in Europe.

Snapshot: Muslim Brotherhood and Jama’at-i Islami

The Muslim Brotherhood was founded by schoolteacher Hassan al-Banna in 1928 in Egypt. Jama’at-i Islami was established in 1941 in what was then British India by journalist Abu Ala Mawdudi, who was inspired by al-Banna’s ideas.

Stated Purpose/Goals
Both groups originally sought to establish legal and political systems based on Islamic law. Today, European offshoots of the groups promote Islam as a comprehensive way of life and encourage Muslims to participate in the broader society in order
to advance Islamic causes.

National affiliates of both movements engage in a range of activities, including organizing events focused on social and political issues of interest to Muslims.

Representative Organizations/Key Figures

  • The Muslim Association of Britain, Union des Organisations Islamiques de France, Islamische Gemeinschaft in Deutschland (Germany) and Ligue Islamique Interculturelle de Belgique (Belgium) are large, national affiliates of the Brotherhood in Europe.
  • The Brussels-based Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe is the umbrella organization for the large, national Brotherhood-affiliated groups.
  • Organizations with roots in the Jama’at-i Islami include the UK Islamic Mission, the Islamic Foundation and the Islamic Forum Europe, all based in Britain.

This effort resulted in the establishment of some of the largest and best-known Muslim organizations on the continent, including the Union des Organisations Islamiques de France (Union of French Islamic Organizations, est. 1983), the Islamische Gemeinschaft in Deutschland (Islamic Community in Germany, est. 1982), the Muslim Association of Britain (est. 1997) and the Ligue Islamique Interculturelle de Belgique (Intercultural Islamic League of Belgium, est. 1997). Among the founding members of these groups are Kemal el-Helbawy of the Muslim Association of Britain, a former member of the Central Guidance Bureau of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and Said Ramadan of Islamische Gemeinschaft in Deutschland, a close personal aide and son-in-law to Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna and father of the well-known contemporary Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan. Another notable figure linked to the Muslim Brotherhood is Rachid Ghannouchi, the exiled leader of Tunisia’s Islamist party and a major intellectual figure in global Brotherhood circles, who now lives in London.

Today, national entities such as the Union des Organisations Islamiques de France are best understood as loose affiliates rather than as formal branches of the Muslim Brotherhood. The national organizations act as representative bodies for Muslims and advocate for Muslim causes. They also provide coordination, strategic leadership and some funding for a number of small, local Muslims organizations – some of which, particularly in France and the United Kingdom, are led by people with no direct ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. These local organizations engage in a wide range of activities designed to serve the day-to-day religious needs of Muslims, such as ensuring access to halal meat, operating prayer halls, sponsoring after-school classes on the Quran, distributing copies of the Quran or providing burial services.

The large, national Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated organizations fall under the loose jurisdiction of the Brussels-based Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe, an umbrella group founded in 1989 that represents Muslim organizations in more than two dozen European countries. The Federation has at times suffered from leadership disputes and rivalries between its major national bodies. But all of the Federation’s constituent organizations have similar goals and objectives: promoting Islam as a comprehensive way of life, strengthening the Muslim community in Europe and encouraging Muslims to participate in European society in order to promote Islamic causes.

The Federation was responsible for the creation in 1992 of the European Institute of Human Sciences, a facility for promoting the study of classical Islamic scholarship among European Muslims. It is based in Château-Chinon in central France (near Dijon), with branches in Paris as well as in Lampeter, Wales (U.K.). The Federation also founded the European Council for Fatwa and Research in Dublin, which conducts research on Islamic jurisprudence and dispenses religious opinions on practical issues specific to Muslims in Europe, such as the observance of prayers and the permissibility – given Islamic proscriptions against interest and usury – of using Western financial systems.

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A Muslim woman at a rally in London on July 17, 2005, organized by the Stop the War Coalition and the Muslim Association of Britain. Credit: Sion Touhig/Corbis

Other organizations inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood have established Islamic centers across the continent to help meet the religious needs of local Muslim communities, including providing spaces for religious classes, libraries, and shops with Islamic books and other religious items. In addition, about 400 mosques and prayer spaces in Europe were said to be at least indirectly associated with the Muslim Brotherhood as of 2008.18 The Millî Görüş organization in Germany, while not directly tied to the Muslim Brotherhood or its European coordinating structures, represents a similar ideological orientation within that country’s Turkish community.

Jama’at-i Islami

The Pakistan-based Jama’at-i Islami is one of the most influential Islamic political movements in South Asia – with branches in India and Bangladesh – and among South Asian Muslims around the world. In Europe, the group is particularly strong in the United Kingdom, where more than two-thirds of the Muslim population of about 2.9 million comes from South Asia.

Groups affiliated with the Jama’at-i Islami share much in common with groups that have ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, and both movements have followed a similar trajectory in terms of their evolution in Europe. The first formal manifestations of the Jama’at-i Islami in Europe date from the 1960s, with the establishment of the UK Islamic Mission and its affiliate, Dawatul Islam. These groups, which still exist today, promote Islamic education with a particular emphasis on Jama’at-i Islami thinkers and perspectives.

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Abu Ala Mawdudi, who founded Jama’at-i Islami in 1941. Credit: Abu Ala Mawdudi: Associated Press

Older generations of Jama’at-i Islami adherents in Europe have hewed closely to the original ideological underpinnings of the group, which emphasized the need to establish a separate and distinctly Islamic political system. But younger generations, particularly those raised in the U.K., have tried to move away from the group’s more doctrinaire positions, such as those found in the writings of Jama’at-i Islami’s founder, Abu Ala Mawdudi, who together with Hassan al-Banna articulated the ideological basis of modern Islamism.19

In the U.K., for instance, two groups that were originally inspired by the Jama’at-i Islami – the Islamic Society of Britain and its youth wing, Young Muslims UK – are now, at least to some extent, its rivals. These newer organizations strive to promote a distinctly “British Islam” that combines mainstream civic engagement with, as they see it, a robust and confident Muslim public identity. While their active membership and intellectual appeal are largely confined to well-educated, professional Muslims, the two groups also organize well-attended mass retreats and run neighborhood mentoring programs in less-affluent Muslim areas of the U.K.

Becoming More Visible

In recent years, European organizations with roots in the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jama’at-i Islami have begun working more closely with European governments. This has been particularly true since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., as European officials have sought to reach out to their Muslim communities.

In part because of their professional staffs and middle-class leadership, groups linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and Jama’at i-Islami are sometimes seen by government officials and other influential members of society as being proxies for the Muslim community as a whole. For instance, the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Union des Organisations Islamiques de France was one of the first organizations invited to join the Conseil Français du Culte Musulman, a group established by the French government in 2003 to represent the interests of the country’s Muslims in dealings with the government. And in the U.K., the Muslim Council of Britain (many of whose leaders have roots in groups linked to the Jama’at-i Islami) became one of the government’s chief points of engagement with the country’s Muslims soon after its founding in 1997.

This relationship became somewhat more fractious after 9/11 and the July 2005 terrorist attacks on the London transit system, however, in part because some of the Council’s member organizations were thought to be encouraging intolerance toward non-Muslims.

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Protesters at an anti-war demonstration in London on March 22, 2003, organized by the Muslim Association of Britain and the Stop the War Coalition. Credit: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

While some Islamist organizations are establishing closer ties with European governments, others are joining forces with non-Muslim activists in opposition to certain government policies. For instance, one U.K. affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Muslim Association of Britain, played a key role in organizing several large protests against the war in Iraq. At the same time, however, the Muslim Association of Britain also was working with police and government security services in England to displace radical Muslim leaders from key mosques in the country, such as the North London Central (“Finsbury Park”) Mosque that was widely regarded as a bastion of radical preaching.20

Changing Agenda?

The Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates often succeed in setting the public agenda for European Muslims more broadly. But this agenda may be changing. While many of the original Brotherhood-inspired organizations are still headed by the first generation of leaders – many of whom were born outside of Europe – the second and, in some cases, the third generation of leaders – mostly born in Europe – are coming to the fore. Many of the younger leaders are pressing for an agenda that focuses on the interests and needs of Muslims in particular European countries rather than on global Islamic causes, such as the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Although its agenda might be changing, the Muslim Brotherhood remains controversial in many parts of Western Europe. Many Europeans believe that some Brotherhood-affiliated organizations are promoting agendas that encourage their followers to think of themselves first and foremost as Muslims, thus hindering the assimilation of Muslims in Europe.21 There also has been some scrutiny of Brotherhood-linked figures in Europe who have made anti-Semitic remarks, made comments in support of suicide bombings in Israel or been involved in fundraising for groups linked to Hamas, the militant Palestinian Islamic group.22 Others have raised questions about the possible links between some Brotherhood-affiliated groups in the Middle East and global terrorists.23 For these reasons, the leaders of Brotherhood-affiliated groups in Europe may continue to face questions about the movement’s complicated history, even as they struggle to make their agenda relevant to new generations of Muslims.