Catalonia the next target of the Muslim Brotherhood
The Muslim Brotherhood is slowly building up its presence in Catalonia, Spain, part of a long-term strategy to plant roots in an Islamic community with Salafi traditions.
Police said they have paid attention to an increase in activities by Islamic groups in the area following an influx of money from mostly foreign sources. The added scrutiny comes in the wake of terrorist attacks in Barcelona and the seaside resort of Cambrils in August that left 16 people dead, with eight attackers also being killed.
A high-ranking police official in Catalonia’s anti-terrorism unit said: “The Muslim community (in Catalonia was) long under the influence of Salafists but lately the Muslim Brothers have started getting the upper hand.”
The official, who insisted on anonymity, said: “We have noted that many international associations and organisations were sending funds to entities belonging to the Brotherhood network. One of these is the Islamic Relief Organisation, which has recently increased its fund-raising activities.”
He also said other parties were providing financial support to the Muslim Brothers in Barcelona but refused to name the parties.
The heightened concern about Muslim Brotherhood came as residents of Catalonia on October 1 overwhelmingly voted “yes” on the question of independence from Spain. Spanish National Police, in support of federal government claims the referendum violated the constitution, tried to stop the vote but 2.2 million people — 42% of those eligible — turned out.
A diplomatic source in Madrid said: “The International Muslim Brotherhood is quietly transferring many of its assets, especially those in France, to Catalonia following the enormous pressure placed by the French government on the Brotherhood leadership and the Qatari government to reduce its financial support of the Brotherhood’s activities in the marginalised quarters of Paris.”
The French government warned the Qatari Embassy in Paris against investing in the poor of the Muslim community for ideological purposes, the source added.
To persuade Catalan youth to join their organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood relies on an ideological approach that sometimes is met with controversy in Spanish society. For example, many senior Brotherhood TV figures have called for “recapturing Andalusia from the Spanish invaders.”
“When the Muslim Brothers speak of liberating Andalusia, we have to pause for a while because this is very bothersome discourse,” said Lourdes Vidal, chief officer for the Arab and Mediterranean world at the European Institute of the Mediterranean. “It is a message intended for people with insufficient background knowledge because, for sane people, it is just plain heresy and madness.
“Our problem with the Muslim Brothers is not their use of violence since they don’t do that in Europe… Their real danger lies in their constant effort to create an ideological and religious environment which would endorse such extremist ideas.”
There are about 500,000 Muslims in Catalonia but many in the community are suspicious of them and the Muslim Brotherhood seems intent on capitalising on the situation. In Catalonia, the Muslim community has been denied a permit to build a mosque. Sometimes, local governing bodies under pressure have given permits for prayer venues in cramped and inconvenient locales. These places are often in marginalised industrial zones in the periphery of Barcelona. In these Muslim ghettos, it can be easy for extremists to thrive.
The senior police official said: “The main base for the Muslim Brothers in Catalonia is the Islamic Cultural Centre in Clot, Barcelona. We know that the centre director, Salem Ben Amara, and the mosque imam are members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“From this centre, the Muslim Brothers are trying to extend their control to other centres and mosques thanks to generous funds from the Islamic Relief Organisation and from Muslim Appeal… We are very aware of the true nature of the Brotherhood and of their obscurantist views.”
Requests for interviews with Ben Amara and with Sheikh Mahmud, the name the mosque imam goes by, were declined.
The Islamic Cultural Centre in Barcelona mounted a public relations campaign to invite researchers, experts and social activists to hear the views of Sheikh Mahmud and other Brotherhood figures and disseminate them. Unlike Salafists, the Muslim Brothers often focus on attracting female activists since Salafis often clash with them.
Ibrahim, a 45-year-old construction worker, said: “The centre hosts many lectures and conferences, some of which are given by famous Islamic scholars,” referring to Egyptian Omar Abdelkafi and Saudi Saleh al-Maghamsi.
The Muslim Brothers have been trying to gain legitimacy in Catalonia by organising forums and discussion circles between Muslim, Christian and Jewish religious figures under the guise of “inter-faith dialogue.”
Police sources cited the case of youth groups raising money from Islamic associations and using the funds to help poor Muslim families pay their children’s school expenses. Our source said: “We know that they belong to the Brotherhood but there is nothing we can do about it.”
Vidal pointed out that the Muslim Brothers usually use the venue of providing social services for their own narrow political gains. She said she was shocked by the Brotherhood’s insistence on setting up Islamic schools by taking advantage of a loophole in the Spanish educational system allowing children from poor families to abandon school at an early age.
Most of the 2.5 million Muslim families in Spain are classified as poor. Many Muslim children, teens and young adults work in construction or as mechanics or delivery boys.
The Muslim Brothers want to have Islamic schools in Spain but Lourdes and other activists said they feared these schools would encourage and lead to the isolation of Muslims in the country and push them towards extremism.
Among the backers of Salafist groups in Catalonia is the Kuwait-based Society for the Revival of Islamic Heritage. It finances the construction of schools and mosques and sets up charities. Another backer is the Muslim World League based in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, which finances Salafist groups in Barcelona and pays for the expenses of extremist speakers such as Maghamsi.
Government reports revealed that years of lenient policies towards the actions of such institutions have turned Catalonia into a transit point for jihadists in and out of Europe.
Ahmed Abou Douh is an Egyptian writer.