The Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe (FIOE) presents itself as “an independent, inclusive European Islamic institution […] working to help Muslims practice the rituals of faith, preserve their religious identity and address their social and cultural concerns.”1 But beyond its own definition, FIOE—also known as the Council of European Muslims since 20202—serves as an umbrella institution under which the different European organizations that, in one way or another, have ties to the Muslim Brotherhood are confederated.3 This affiliation with the global Islamist organization is not unknown and has been studied in depth over the last few years.4 In fact, the organization’s current president, Abdallah bin Mansour, stated in a recent interview that the majority of individuals who participated in the founding of the FIOE were members of the Brotherhood and that the organization’s prevailing school of thought continues to be “the Brotherhood’s school.”5
FIOE currently federates a dense network of organizations and national initiatives in more than 25 countries that include more than 500 Islamic associations and centers.6 Its configuration over the years has not only grown by incorporating new members in numerous countries. FIOE has also succeeded in developing other pan-European structures, such as the European Council for Fatwa and Research (ECFR), the European Institute of Human Sciences,7 the European Forum of Muslim Women, and the European Council of Imams, in order to develop as a comprehensive umbrella organization that aspires to monopolize European Islam.8
This article aims to shed light on two issues: on the one hand, it seeks to provide new information regarding the stages that led to the creation of FIOE and, on the other, it intends to accurately frame the underappreciated role that Spain and members of the Brotherhood based in Spain played during that process. To this end, the essay is based on information obtained mainly from primary sources in Arabic and on testimonies given by prominent FIOE members in different media over the years.
But before exploring these dynamics further, it is worth noting the paradoxical fact that while in other European countries such as France or the United Kingdom the historical evolution of Islamism has been widely studied and its position in society has been the subject of debate, Spain has remained on the sidelines in this regard. Much attention has been paid to jihadism in Spain given the country’s history of violent attacks, but there has been virtually no discussion of non-violent manifestations of Islamism in the country. However, not only has the Muslim Brotherhood in Spain developed in a similar manner to Brotherhood networks in other European countries, but it has also played—as we shall see—a critical role in laying the foundations of associative Islamism in Europe.
The Early Development of the Muslim Brotherhood in Spain
While mapping and analyzing the most important milestones of the development of the Brotherhood in Spain is a task that exceeds the limits of this contribution, it is necessary to make some clarifications before addressing the main subject of this study. In order to sketch a simple timeline of events, we must understand the 1950s and 1960s as a starting point for Islamism in Spain. During those decades, Francoist Spain began to launch cultural exchange initiatives and sign different treaties and agreements that marked the beginning of an emergent trend: the arrival of students from the Middle East and North Africa to Spain.9 Such initiatives sought to break Spain’s international isolation and insignificance after the Second World War by earning the support and recognition of those Arab countries.10 Most of the students who benefited from these cultural exchange programs came from Syria, Jordan, and Egypt.11 Some of these students began to organize themselves in groups and later started founding associations with the aim of building a more familiar sociocultural environment in which they could reproduce common social patterns and express their collective identities.12
Reproducing a pattern already observed in other European scenarios, this was the beginning of Islamist associationism in Spain.13 The arrival of the first members of the Muslim Brotherhood to Spain did not take place in an organized way—quite the contrary. It is therefore necessary at this point to dismiss the first initiatives carried out by the then small and emerging Islamist community in Spain as part of a concerted and sinister plot by the Muslim Brotherhood to Islamize the West.14
There is consensus among academics and representatives of the Muslim community in pointing to the Syrian national Nizar Ahmad al-Sabbagh as the first recognizable leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Spain.15 Among many other milestones, al-Sabbagh would end up founding the Muslim Association of Spain,16 the initial cornerstone from which different Brotherhood-related entities would later emerge.17 Al-Sabbagh was assassinated in Barcelona in 1981 under strange circumstances and his position at the head of the fledgling organization was taken over by Bahige Mulla Huech,18 a doctor also of Syrian origin.
A largely unknown figure, the late Dr. Mulla Huech was part of the most select nucleus of the Brotherhood in Europe: Highly qualified individuals committed to the cause whose affiliations were often kept secret, this was a small but essential group for the functioning of a much larger and complex machinery. Dr. Mulla Huech was one of the founders of the Islamic Center in Spain, an entity that he would preside over for several years and one of the key organizations of the Muslim Brotherhood in Spain.19 He also contributed actively to the establishment and expansion of the first Islamic student associative movement at a national level in Spain,20 known as the Union of Muslim Students in Spain,21 which mirrored similar initiatives for Muslim students in other European countries such as the United Kingdom, France, and Germany that existed around that time. During this embryonic stage, Muslim student associations in Europe—the Spanish ones not being an exception—prioritized articulating their religious practice in an organized and collective manner while trying to protect their identity.22
However, it is not Dr. Mulla Huech’s indisputably important role at the national level, but his affiliations and responsibilities in different European structures that allows us to contextualize the role played by the Spanish Brotherhood at the European level. Thus, according to the information provided by the foundation that bears his name, Dr. Mulla Huech ended up holding the posts of Secretary General of the Spanish branch of the Continental European Council of Mosques, an initiative promoted by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Furthermore, he was also member of the World Islamic Council of Mosques, a member of the Muslim World League, a member of the International Islamic Relief Organization, and WAMY’s (World Assembly of Muslim Youth)23 representative for Europe.24
Madrid 1984: From Brothers to European Brothers
By the late 1970s, the different isolated groups of the Brotherhood that operated across the continent had begun to interact more with each other, establishing formal and informal networks that stretched across Europe.25 Spain was no exception. Thanks to the tireless work of the small community of individuals from the Middle East—mainly Syrians—in the early 1980s, Madrid and Granada had already been established as two significant enclaves of Islamism in Europe. It was at that moment when the idea of establishing the broader Brotherhood movement in Europe began to take shape.
Most of these early Islamist activists in Europe were Arab exiles from their native countries, which were governed by authoritarian regimes hostile to Islamists. Convinced that the political landscapes in the Arab world were not going to change any time soon, the different pioneers of the Brotherhood in Europe came to the conclusion that the time had come to accept that reality and reformulate their strategy by establishing the bases of Islam and da’wah26 (proselytization) in Europe.27-28 FIOE’s foundation in 1989, which the organization describes as “the culmination of decades of Islamic activism,” is often taken as the starting point of the associative Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe. However, it was an earlier event that marked the beginning of it all.
Ahmed al-Rawi,29 one of the most important members of the Brotherhood in Europe, places the beginning of the institutionalization of the activities of the Brotherhood on the continent as follows: “A conference for heads and leaders of Islamic institutions took place in August 1984 in Madrid, the capital of Spain. Islamic charities from more than 10 European countries participated in the event, which ended up becoming the basis on which European institutional work was established from then on.”30
The academic Alexandre Caeiro, citing an interview with al-Rawi himself, explained the Madrid conference in the following terms: “The Muslim Student Association of Europe was established in Madrid in 1984, laying the ground for the establishment, five years later, of the Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe (FIOE)—a constellation of local bodies in Western and Eastern Europe inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood.”31
Before that, several summer meetings and conferences in different European countries had been organized between the different Islamic organizations, initiatives, and centers that ended up taking part in the Madrid conference. Several members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Spain participated in the debates and coordination meetings that ended up crystallizing into the Madrid conference of 1984 and the subsequent creation of the Association of Muslim Students of Europe.32 According to different panegyrics and biographies published after his death, Dr. Mulla Huech was one of the godfathers of this new approach increasingly adopted by Islamists in Europe: To take advantage of the framework of political and religious freedoms offered in Europe to work for the preservation of Islamic identity, values, and customs without compromising them.33
Al-Rawi later explained that the Madrid conference had been organized “because we could not prevent students from relating to and disagreeing with European societies, mainly because they were convinced that they were Europeans and that Europe is their homeland and their future, and that they are an integral part of the countries in which they reside.”34 Al-Rawi continued that it was the need to organize and free themselves from the constraints imposed by their direct ascription to the Brotherhood in their countries of origin that led to the organization of the Madrid conference: “We seek to lay the main foundations of Islamic institutional work in Europe, especially since Islamic work in Muslim countries has its own men and personalities, and although we can communicate with them or break said communication channels, our relationship is one of communication and cooperation, not dependency and association. We are focused on our new generations.”35
The 1984 Madrid conference was not a minor event. It was the moment in which the Brotherhood began to develop a strategy aimed at expanding its area of influence in Europe. A text from FIOE itself which has since been removed from its website leaves little room for doubt: “Madrid was the starting point for the creation of a European Islamic work that started from the idea of sedimenting the Islamic presence.”36 Thus, FIOE, the institution that today brings together all the European organizations that have ties to the Brotherhood in one way or another, not only took its first steps in Madrid; Spanish citizens also played a crucial role in its conception.
The Madrid conference constitutes the turning point through which, without leaving aside the respective causes of each Brother or group of Brothers in their countries of origin, their objectives were recalibrated and their efforts were reorganized to put Europe at the center of their efforts. The Madrid conference therefore marks the birth of the organized presence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe.
However, like almost everything related to the Muslim Brotherhood, there are few reliable sources that provide relevant data regarding the event. Ikhwanwiki, an online portal operated by the Egyptian Brotherhood and developed to become an encyclopedia about the movement, stresses the importance of the event. In a text that breaks down the different stages of the Brotherhood’s associationism in Europe, Ikhwanwiki places Madrid as:
The moment in which the internal discourse began to change in order to adapt to European peculiarities… in which it was decided to unify the work in Europe under the umbrella of a Federation (FIOE)… From this date on, there was a noticeable change in the internal discourse, and talk about resettlement and declared institutional work started, and internal discussions related to these issues began at all levels of the organization.37
In an interview given to a Brotherhood media outlet during FIOE’s 2012 general assembly in Istanbul, two leaders of the Islamic League for Dialogue and Coexistence in Spain (known by the Spanish acronym LIDCOE),38 FIOE’s Spanish member organization, took pride in the historical role that Spain had played in establishing the Brotherhood in Europe: “I cannot hide from you that for us it is an honor that FIOE’s origins were in Spain, in 1985,39 when the event that lighted the spark that would illuminate Islamic work in Europe took place in Madrid.”
Some comments made throughout the interview shed more light on the significance of the event: “Among those present were the late sheikh Faisal al-Mawlawi,” notes one of the interviewees in reference to the late Brotherhood cleric of significant renown.40 They continue: “The fact that FIOE’s first meeting took place in Spain shows that there was work being made in Spain, that there were already Brothers among whom I would like to mention the group of Syrian and Palestinian students who came in the late 1950s.”41
In addition to the organization of the Madrid conference, the growing importance of Madrid and Granada as key enclaves of Islamism in Europe during the 1970s and 1980s is underscored by some of the high-profile Islamists who visited the cities in that time. Abdullah Azzam, known as “the Imam of Jihad,”42 a key militant Islamist ideologue famous for his work with the Arab mujahideen who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan and a member of the Brotherhood throughout his life,43 visited Spain on several occasions. During his first visit to Córdoba and Granada, the cleric already documented the presence of Islamists in both cities,44 and he would later visit Madrid at some point in the 1980s.45 The Algerian Abdullah Anas, who was an associate of Azzam’s and later in the leadership of the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), also visited Spain during the mid-1980s. In Madrid, Anas held meetings with different groups of Islamists, mostly Syrians who had arrived in Spain after the Hama massacre of 1982. Among those recent arrivals, one small group of five Islamists caught his attention: it included Abu Musab al-Suri, later the leading jihadist theorist of the 21st century and a key influence on today's jihadist generation,46 who at the time was interested in travelling to Afghanistan and joining the Arab resistance there.47
Starting in 1986, and probably thanks to the contacts that Abdullah Azzam and Abdullah Anas had made on their different visits to Spain, Al Jihad magazine began to be distributed in Spain. This monthly Arabic-language magazine was published by Azzam’s MAK (Maktab Khadamat al-Mujahidiin al-‘Arab, the coordination center for the “Afghan Arab” volunteers) and aimed to publicize the Afghan jihad to a global audience. It was distributed in Spain through the headquarters of the Islamic Center in Spain,
The Spanish Contribution: Ideological Bases, Foreign Diplomacy, and Financing Channels for the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe
Although the foregoing leaves little room for doubt about the role of Madrid—and in particular of Dr. Bahige Mulla Huech—in the institutionalization of the Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe, the testimony of Salah Eddine El Gafrawi allows us to fully clarify the issue.50 In addition to being FIOE's first secretary general, Salah Eddine El Gafrawi held numerous positions of responsibility in different organizations close to the Muslim Brotherhood in Germany and elsewhere from the early 1980s until 2009, when he settled again in his native Egypt. According to El Gafrawi:
Bahige Mulla Huech was an extraordinary person. I learned everything I know from him; he was a member of the Syrian Brotherhood… [When we met in 1981] he had a more important position than mine; he was basically my role model, the mirror to look myself in, just like Nizar al-Sabbagh… He was a different person, he was certainly a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but he advocated openness, he had a very good relationship with the Spanish authorities and with the representatives of the Muslim community, both those who belonged to the Brotherhood and those who didn’t.51
Delving into the events that led to his appointment as FIOE’s first secretary general, El Gafrawi explained himself in the following terms:
Bahige Mulla Huech was supposed to be elected FIOE’s first secretary general. Along with Ahmed al-Rawi and [Faisal] al-Mawlawi, he was one of the most committed individuals to the project… [Dr. Mulla Huech] was the one who organized everything, the one who developed the ideas. Even ahead of Ahmed al-Rawi, he was the person entirely responsible for the creation of FIOE.52
Taking advantage of Mulla Huech’s vision, experience, and contacts, El Gafrawi would end up becoming a key figure in the development of the structures used to channel funds from the Arabian Peninsula to finance Islamic projects in Europe, something that, as we will see, also served to increase FIOE’s scope and influence. The Muslim Brotherhood networks in Europe get funding through different means, including collecting community alms and running private businesses. However, it is unquestionable that, historically, their biggest source of income—and what has enabled them to operate on a significantly larger scale than most other Muslim organizations—has been the funding received from public and private donors from the Gulf.
As per El Gafrawi’s account, Dr. Mulla Huech was an unusually talented individual when it came to soft skills and diplomacy: “He was respected by European institutions […] and was also well known in the Gulf, which was very important.” In fact, through the words of El Gafrawi it can be inferred that it was Mulla Huech’s contacts that allowed the development of financial channels from the Gulf through which FIOE has been nurtured to this day: “He had an unusually good relationship with Saudi Arabia, and in particular with Abdallah al-Turki.55 With the Kuwaiti authorities his relationship was also excellent… Bahige Mulla Huech brokered and developed relations with all the embassies of the Gulf countries. […] I learned from him and I followed his footsteps,” al El Gafrawi proudly stated.56
El Gafrawi claimed that his own legacy as FIOE’s first secretary general was to transform the financing channels initially opened through the diplomatic efforts of Bahige Mulla Huech into a financing system based on the issuance of letters of recommendation:
The countries that finance Islamic projects want it to be carried out in an orderly manner. […] Some countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait or the Emirates had envoys among FIOE board members… I, for example, served as an envoy for the Ministry of the Awqaf57 of Kuwait, and there were many of us who held similar positions, such as Ahmad al-Rawi.58
El Gafrawi also described his role as indispensable for the proper functioning of the financial system:
Since 1984 till when I left Germany [in 2009], anybody travelling to these countries in seek of help to build a mosque had to take a recommendation letter from me. […] If an unknown organization appears, it must make different trips to Gulf countries to seek financing; however, if it belongs to an institution like FIOE and FIOE endorses it, that confers the necessary trust.59
This also served to expand the network of centers under the influence of the Brotherhood. “When FIOE was created,” continued El Gafrawi, “things became simpler since the recommendations to finance projects were centralized… performing as a bridge to accredit the honorability of other institutions in order to receive funds to develop projects and initiatives.”60 Thus, Islamic centers and organizations in search of funds from different Gulf countries for their projects were pushed to establish relations with the FIOE:
When I was secretary general, there were federations and organizations that came, considering our size, because we had funds and the possibility of making letters of recommendation to request funds in other places. For this reason, some small initiatives sought to belong to FIOE. When they came to request financial support, we told them that we could help them, but that there should be a certain level of collaboration between the parties and that they should become part of FIOE.61
The Spanish Brotherhood from the 1990s to Present
Although the Muslim Brotherhood in Spain has not continued to have the relevance at the European level that the events described in this essay during the 1980s might lead one to believe, some aspects of its nature and evolution are worth highlighting. Today, the Muslim Brotherhood in Spain is far from being a homogeneous movement; in fact, its different strains serve to exemplify the heterogeneity of approaches currently employed by those in its ideological orbit in Europe.
During the first years of the 1980s, the mostly Levantine members of the Islamic Center in Spain succeeded in opening branches in Barcelona, Granada, Córdoba, Seville, Málaga, and Valencia.62 Their influence in these cities declined from the 1990s onward, however, as they limited their activities primarily to the Valencian community, where for years they cooperated with the large nucleus of exiled Maghrebi Islamist militants that had settled in the city.63 Nevertheless, the profiles of the two groups were clearly distinct from the very beginning: the members of the Islamic Center in Spain had the contacts and the infrastructure, while the mostly Tunisian Maghrebi militants were younger and more dynamic, widely engaging in grassroots community activities. After an internal battle for total control of the Great Mosque of Valencia, both groups parted ways in 2005 in a controversial rift widely documented by the press.64
Although members of the Islamic Center in Spain have continued to hold positions of responsibility in different Brotherhood structures in Europe,65 their influence at a national level has largely dissipated over time. For their part, their former fellow travelers, the Maghrebi militants, are now organized around the Islamic League for Dialogue and Coexistence in Spain (LIDCOE) and have established themselves as FIOE’s local representative and since become a prototypical example of implantation at the local community level supported by ideological and financial connections at an international level. Since its inception, LIDCOE has focused on two complementary efforts: on the one hand, it has sought to gradually expand its structure in order to gain influence within the Islamic Commission of Spain, the official Islamic representative body that interfaces with the Spanish government. On the other hand, LIDCOE has also sought to extend its influence throughout the country at a local level through the establishment of regional federations and the construction of mosques and Islamic cultural centers, actively seeking the addition of other groups to their project.66
To conclude the mapping of the main structures ideologically aligned to the Muslim Brotherhood in Spain, it is necessary to return to Madrid and analyze its particularities. In April 1992, the Islamic Commission of Spain was created to act as the sole interlocutor with the state and monitor the official cooperation agreement that would soon be signed to facilitate the practice of Islam in Spain.67 Explaining the institutionalization of Islam in Spain and the active role that the different branches of the Brotherhood played in this process exceeds the scope of this contribution. However, to put it succinctly, a largely Syrian group of Islamists led by Riay Tatary68 with ties to the prominent Germany-based Brotherhood figure Issam al-‘Attar69 developed a wide structure of centers organized around the Union of Islamic Communities of Spain (UCIDE) in the 1990s.70 UCIDE has since become the federation with the largest number of affiliated mosques in the country, thus becoming the largest constituent organization within the Islamic Commission of Spain and a major voice for the Muslim community before the Spanish government.71
Two peculiarities of this branch, which is managed mainly by individuals of Syrian origin based in the Central Mosque of Madrid, deserve special attention. First, there is a total absence of information regarding the ideology and affiliation of these official representatives of the Muslim community in Spain. The Muslim community’s representative bodies are quite monolithic and the Spanish state lacks interest in facilitating the transition towards a more democratic, transparent, and representative institution to represent Muslims. However, the most troubling peculiarity of the most institutionalized branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in Spain is the involvement in terrorist activities by a non-negligible number of individuals—sometimes key members of its structure—which is exceptional in the European context.72 The group known as the Abu Dahdah network formed in the 1990s, the core of which was made up of members of the Syrian Brotherhood and would end up becoming one of the most sophisticated al-Qaeda networks in Europe, is undoubtedly the best-known example of this dynamic.73
But this is not the only instance in which members of the highest institutional representatives of Spanish Islam have been involved in a terrorism-related investigation. Since 2019, key members of the Islamic Commission of Spain, including its president, have been accused of belonging to a criminal organization, collaborating with a terrorist organization, terrorist financing, money laundering, tax fraud, and document forgery.74 “Operation WAMOR” conducted by the National Police in June 2019 led to the dismantling of what was described as the largest financing structure for jihadist terrorism ever discovered in Spain.75 According to information from the investigation leaked to the press, a network of Spanish citizens—mostly of Syrian origin—with close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and with an operational headquarters in the offices of the Islamic Commission of Spain have allegedly abused their influence in official institutions to develop structures and channels for the financing of terrorism.76
In view of the foregoing, several things are clear. The institution that integrates the different European organizations that, in one way or another, have ties with the Muslim Brotherhood was born in Madrid. In the mid-1980s, the position of the Brotherhood in Spain and the high-level connections of some its most prominent members were such that Madrid was chosen as the most appropriate place for the founding event of the first pan-European Brotherhood organization. In fact, the 1984 Madrid conference constitutes the turning point from which the different groups of Muslim Brothers that had been established in Europe since the 1950s decided to recalibrate their priorities and their agenda to become European Brothers—rather than Arab Brothers in exile—and start acting accordingly. Thus, it can be asserted that the Madrid conference marked the birth of the organized presence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe.
Not only that, as evidenced throughout this essay, Bahige Mulla Huech, one of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood in Spain, was in charge of designing the entire FIOE institutionalization process and was therefore a key figure in the institutionalization of Muslim Brotherhood activities in Europe. Even though his influence soon diminished due to infighting within the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, the testimonies compiled for the purpose of this investigation demonstrate that Dr. Mulla Huech was also behind the forging of diplomatic relations and the opening of financing channels with different countries of the Arabian Peninsula. This enabled the Brotherhood and its affiliates in Europe to operate on a significantly larger scale than any other Muslim organization and facilitated the prominent status that the movement enjoys in Europe today.