During the last few years, European authorities have invested significant resources in understanding the radicalization patterns that have led scores of European Muslims to engage in terrorist activities. One particularly thorny issue has been the role of non-violent Islamists in the process. Offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood, Jamaat-i-Islami, Milli Görüs, so-called non-jihadist/political Salafists, and other Islamist movements have in fact established an extensive presence in most European countries. Although there are important differences in the strain of Islamism embraced by these groups, it is fair to say that while they support acts of violence in regions where they believe Muslims are under attack, they all oppose attacks in Europe of the kind plotted by al-Qa`ida and affiliated networks. The two questions debated by European scholars and policymakers have been: what is the role of non-violent Islamists in the radicalization process? Could they become government partners in the fight against violent radicalization?

The Debate Over Non-Violent Islamists
As for the first question, one strand of thinking considers non-violent Islamist groups as “conveyor belts” for further radicalization. This is the view of former British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, who has stated that non-violent Islamists “may not explicitly promote violence, but they can create a climate of fear and distrust where violence becomes more likely.”[1] Critics challenge this attitude by arguing that there is “no empirical evidence of a causal link between extremism and violent extremism.”[2] The image of a “slippery slope from political mobilisation to anger and, finally, to violent extremism and terrorism” is, according to some, flawed and not supported by facts.[3] Many of those who hold this view also argue that any government would be foolish in not harnessing the enormous potential that a partnership with non-violent Islamists holds. While some of their views might be offensive, they possess a unique legitimacy and street credibility more amenable to young Muslims close to jihadist views. In fact, they “have a much deeper and nuanced understanding of the ‘ecology’ in which radical and violent movements operate” than Muslim organizations generally considered more “moderate.”[4]  According to this argument, governments should empower the work of these groups, which constitute the ultimate bulwarks against violent radicalization.

One of the most vocal proponents of this view is Robert Lambert, the former head of the Muslim Contact Unit (MCU), the section of the London Metropolitan Police devoted to engaging the city’s Muslim community. Lambert argues that the “ideal yes-saying” Muslim leaders lack legitimacy in their communities and have no knowledge of radicalization. He advocates “police negotiation leading to partnership with Muslim groups conventionally deemed to be subversive to democracy.”[5] Lambert uses as example of this potential STREET (Strategy to Re-Empower and Educate Teenagers), a counter-radicalization program run by strict Salafists in the Brixton area of London. According to Lambert, STREET, thanks to its combination of “street skills and religious integrity,” has been particularly successful in contrasting the recruitment efforts of al-Qa`ida-linked preachers in the area.[6]

Danish security services share this analysis, arguing that in some cases “it is precisely these individuals who have the best chance of influencing the attitudes of the young people who are in a process of radicalisation, in a non-violent direction.”[7] Lambert and the Danish security services embrace the view that, rather than conveyor belts, non-violent Islamists act as “firewalls.” An individual who embraces their views might be considered a “radical,” in some cases espousing opinions that are repugnant to the majority, but the firewall represented by non-violent Islamists prevents that person from becoming a violent radical.

Critics argue that while it might be true that most non-violent Islamists do not become violent radicals, it is unquestionable that some do. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to detonate a bomb on an airplane over the United States on Christmas Day in 2009, and Cüneyt Ciftci, Germany’s first suicide bomber, are just the latest examples of militants whose radicalization path started with non-violent Islamist groups before progressing further. The firewall effect of these groups is, according to critics, only occasional and there is no empirical evidence to support the view that it is a constant. To the contrary, according to the Quilliam Foundation, non-violent Islamist groups “advocate separatist, confrontational ideas that, followed to their logical conclusion, lead to violence. At the very least, the rhetoric of radicals provides the mood music to which suicide bombers dance.”[8]

Furthermore, argue some, even assuming non-violent Islamists can indeed sway some individuals from becoming violent radicals, the long-term implications on social cohesion and integration of any partnership the government might enter with them would greatly offset the yet-to-be-proven, short-term benefits in the security field. This position has been repeatedly championed, among others, by the German security services. In its annual report, the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV) has stated that “‘legalistic’ Islamist groups represent an especial threat to the internal cohesion of our society.”[9] The BfV admits that non-violent Islamist groups “do not carry out recruitment activities for the purpose of the violent ‘Holy War’ (Jihad),” and that, to the contrary, “they might rather claim to immunise young Muslims against jihadist indoctrination by presenting to them an alternative offer of identification…However, one has to critically ask whether their activities that are strongly directed at preserving an ‘Islamic identity’ intensify disintegration and contribute to the development of Islamist parallel societies.”[10]

Moreover, they argue, embracing the conveyor belt theory, there “is the risk that such milieus could also form the breeding ground for further radicalization.”[11]

Many security officials in various European countries similarly accept the view that identifying the enemy only in violent groups is a self-deceiving act. Alain Grignard, the deputy head of the Belgian police’s counterterrorism unit and a professor of Islamic studies at Brussels Free University, calls al-Qa`ida an “epiphenomenon,” the most visible aspect of a much larger threat that is political Islam.[12] Alain Chouet, the former head of France’s counterintelligence service, the DGSE, agrees with Grignard and believes that “Al-Qaeda is only a brief episode and an expedient instrument in the century-old existence of the Muslim Brotherhood. The true danger is in the expansion of the Brotherhood, an increase in its audience. The wolf knows how to disguise itself as a sheep.”[13]

Chouet’s comparison of the Muslim Brotherhood to a wolf in sheep’s clothing is echoed by many security experts who fear that non-violent Islamists are attempting to benefit from what in social movement theory is known as positive radical flank effect.[14] According to the theory, more moderate wings of a political movement improve their bargaining position when a more radical fringe emerges. Applied to non-violent Islamist groups, the positive radical flank effect would explain why the emergence of al-Qa`ida and other jihadist groups has led European governments to see non-violent Islamists more benignly and even to flirt with the idea of establishing forms of partnership. The emergence of a severe and prolonged terrorist threat, argue people such as Chouet, has led European governments to lower the bar of what is acceptable and endorse organizations holding highly controversial and anti-democratic views as long as they oppose violence in the Old Continent.

The French Example
Chouet’s warning is echoed by unlikely supporters of this view: social workers from France, the country that first experimented with informal partnerships with non-violent Islamist groups and where their long-term impact is easier to detect. In the early 1990s, in fact, French authorities became concerned by the surge of criminal activities, unemployment and a more general sense of disenfranchisement that pervaded the banlieues, the housing projects that surround most French cities. In response, French authorities began empowering local Muslim Brotherhood-linked organizations that already engaged in grassroots initiatives to sway young Muslims from crime and drugs.[15] The perception that non-violent Islamist groups could succeed where the state had failed led many French policymakers, particularly at the local level, to provide financial support to them.[16] This security-based partnership was widely implemented, albeit never as a formal policy and not across the board, and received a boost after the September 11 attacks on the United States.[17] If during the 1990s some French policymakers envisioned non-violent Islamists as “social pacificators” keeping order inside the banlieues, the emergence of terrorism and radicalization as state priorities added a new responsibility, as non-violent Islamists were seen as a possible antidote to the jihadists.[18]

Yet 15 years later the results have left many skeptical. They point to the fact that crime and the sense of disenfranchisement that plagued the banlieues have not been reduced by the activities of non-violent Islamist groups. Most importantly, others point at the negative social developments that their influence has brought. One particularly loud voice has been that of the women’s association Ni Putes Ni Soumises, a feminist group traditionally linked to the French Left. “In the 1980s [in the banlieues], there were mixed marriages and sexuality was treated in far less intolerant terms,” recounted a Ni Putes Ni Soumises militant. As Brotherhood organizations began their government-subsidized activities, she argued, the social climate changed significantly: “Today, there is nothing left in these neighborhoods: no sense of life, no love, nothing but prohibition.”[19]

A similar view is held by Father Christian Delorme, the liaison to the Muslim community for the diocese of Lyon. Since the 1980s, Father Delorme had been active in organizing protests and popular marches against the discrimination North Africans faced in France and was among the most vocal backers of government support for the activities of Islamic organizations in the banlieues, arguing that more piety would have a beneficial effect.[20] By the end of the 1990s, however, Father Delorme became convinced that not all Muslim organizations were the same. “There is an Islam of the families, which is for the most part an Islam of hospitality and piety,” argued the clergyman in a 2001 interview with Le Monde, stating that the majority of French Islam is as such, “neither static nor dominating.”[21]

“What I criticize,” continued Father Delorme, who has worked for decades in Lyon’s most troubled neighborhoods,

“is the work of hardening of the religious identity operated by some organizations that have an interest in discrediting such popular Islam; I am thinking in particular at the current of the Muslim Brothers…I came to understand that they were dangerous when I saw that they cut the ties between the young and their families, explaining that their parents did not practice the true Islam, that they were not on the right path. I also understood that they wormed their way into institutions, taking advantage of secularism, using the rhetoric of secularism, but using it only as a means; for basically they were against integration, and the identity they sought was that of a community of Muslims, living autonomously in the Republic, like a potent countervailing power.”[22]

No Conclusive Evidence
Any decision on the opportunity to partner with non-violent Islamists would ideally be based on an empirical assessment of their role in both the radicalization and counter-radicalization process. Yet, in reality, there is little evidence to conclusively back either the conveyor belt or the firewall argument. There is substantial anecdotal evidence supporting both positions simultaneously, but no systematic, comprehensive studies that can definitively prove either. This deficiency is due to a variety of factors, from an only recently reversed lack of interest from the research community to problems in obtaining access to substantial bodies of information that would provide a comprehensive glimpse into a person’s path to radicalization. Moreover, while it might be relatively easy to determine cases in which non-violent Islamists acted as firewalls, assessing their role as conveyor belts is significantly more challenging. While it might be true that they provide the “mood music to which suicide bombers dance” and that they have made mainstream a narrative over which violent groups build their recruiting efforts, empirically proving such an intangible role is almost impossible.

Given this lack of empirical evidence, intuitively it can be argued that in some cases non-violent Islamist groups act as firewalls while in others as conveyor belts. Radicalization is a highly individualized and unpredictable journey. Many who join non-violent Islamist networks will never make the leap to jihadist networks and, to the contrary, will actively challenge their influence. Yet many cases have shown that others will make the leap. In substance, the dearth of evidence on the radicalization process and its lack of linearity makes conclusive assessments on the role of non-violent Islamists almost impossible. Furthermore, some of the potentially negative implications of partnering with non-violent Islamists are not strictly security-related, but rather involve broader issues of integration and social cohesion with which most European governments are still grappling. As a consequence, positions and policies on the issue swing almost erratically.

Dr. Lorenzo Vidino is a Fritz Thyssen Stiftung visiting fellow at the RAND Corporation. His latest book, The New Muslim Brotherhood in the West, was published by Columbia University Press in September 2010.

[1] Alan Travis, “Time to Tackle the Non-Violent Extremists, Says Smith,” Guardian, December 11, 2008.

[2] Rachel Briggs, “Community Engagement for CounterTerrorism: Lessons from the United Kingdom,” International Affairs 86:4 (2010).

[3] Rachel Briggs, Catherine Fieschi, and Hannah Lownsbrough, “Bringing It Home: Community-Based Approaches to Counter-Terrorism,” Demos, 2006.

[4] Peter Mandaville, “Engaging Islamists in the West,” CTC Sentinel 1:7 (2008).

[5] Personal interview, Robert Lambert, London, December 2008; Robert Lambert, “Empowering Salafis and Islamists Against Al-Qaeda: A London Counterterrorism Case Study,” Political Science & Politics 41:1 (2008).

[6] Jonathan Githens-Mazer and Robert Lambert, “Why Conventional Wisdom on Radicalisation Fails: The Persistence of a Failed Discourse,” International Affairs 86:4 (2010).

[7] “A Common and Safe Future: Proposal for an Action Plan to Prevent Extremist Views and Radicalisation among Young People,” Danish Ministry of Refugee, Immigration and Integration Affairs, June 2008.

[8] This quote is drawn from the Quilliam Foundation’s launch publication in April 2008.

[9] Annual report of the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, 2005, p. 190.

[10] “Integration as a Means to Prevent Extremism and Terrorism: Typology of Islamist Radicalisation and Recruitment,” German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, January 2007, p. 5.

[11] Annual report of the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, 2005, p. 190.

[12] Sylvain Besson, La Conquête de l’Occident (Paris: Seuil, 2005), p. 40.

[13] Caroline Fourest, Brother Tariq: The Doublespeak of Tariq Ramadan (New York: Encounter, 2008), p. 103.

[14] See, for example, Herbert H. Haines, “Black Radicalization and the Funding of Civil Rights: 1957-1970,” in Doug McAdam and David A. Snow, Social Movements (Los Angeles: Roxbury Publishing Company, 1997), pp. 440-441.

[15] Frank Peter, “Leading the Community of the Middle Way: A Study of the Muslim Field in France,” The Muslim World 96:4 (2006).

[16] Dounia Bouzar, L’Islam des Banlieues: Les Prédicateurs Musulmans: Nouveaux Travailleurs Sociaux? (Paris: Syros la Découverte, 2001); Marie-France Etchegoin and Serge Raffy, “La Vérité sur l’Islam en France,” Le Nouvel Observateur, February 2, 2006; Personal interview, French government official, Paris, February 2007; Personal interview, French government official, Lyon, June 2006.

[17] Gilles Kepel, The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), pp. 273-274.

[18] Vincent Geisser and Aziz Zemouri, Marianne et Allah: Les Politiques Français face à la “Question Musulmane” (Paris: La Découverte, 2007), p. 117; Nicolas Sarkozy, La République, les Religions, l’Espérance (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 2004), p. 100.

[19] Fourest, p. 191.

[20] “Il Faut Reconnaître la Sur-Délinquance des Jeunes Issus de l’Immigration,” Le Monde, December 4, 2001.

[21] Philippe Bernard and Xavier Ternisien, “Il Faut Reconnaître la Sur-Délinquance des Jeunes Issus de l’Immigration,” Le Monde, December 4, 2001.

[22] Fourest, p. 191.

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