Updated: Apr 8
Dr. Lorenzo Vidino's interest in Islamism started in Milan, when he was playing football in the streets and watched local Muslims heading off for jihad in the Bosnian war.
More than a decade ago, Vidino brought his knowledge to Washington to teach at George Washington University and speak to universities, media outlets and federal institutions, hoping they appreciate and possibly adopt his views on the world’s leading Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood.
Vidino was chosen to head the George Washington University Center for Cyber and Homeland Security's Program on Extremism which launched in June 2015 and still is the director of the program.
In an interview with Ahval at a D.C. cafe, Vidino said Turkey’s ruling Islamists in the Justice and Development Party (AKP) are linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, known as the Ikhwan in Arabic. The Ikhwan is international and its strategies and tactics are different in each country, he said, though the various national chapters often communicate and cooperate with each other.
Erdoğan's ties to the Brotherhood go back to the 1970s, when he was one of the more trusted political pupils of Necmettin Erbakan, the father of Islamism in Turkey. According to Vidino, Muslim Brotherhood branches in the Gulf helped support Erbakan and Turkey’s Islamists in this era when they faced repression from the secular establishment..
“The historical roots are the same, as well as the ideological closeness in political and religious interpretation, and finally, self-interest as political opportunism,” said Vidino.
Since soon after the AKP’s founding in 2001, Muslim Brotherhood groups around the world have handed it a leading position in the movement, due to the success of Erdoğan and his party, which has not lost a national vote since.
Inside the Muslim Brotherhood
“If we were to refer to the Muslim Brotherhood family found throughout the world, the Muslim Brotherhood in Turkey (the Erdoğan administration) is the only group in charge of a country in this big family,” said Vidino.
“They lead a large, prosperous country and help their other relatives. They play the role of the rich uncle who is so powerful, and all the nephews are looking to him, seeking praise.”
When Erbakan died in 2011, world's most of the leading Brotherhood leaders attended his funeral in Istanbul. Around this time, as the Arab spring protests grew, so did Turkey’s support for Islamists.
“The AKP government's support for the Muslim Brotherhood movements abroad changed dramatically in 2010 and 2011,” said Vidino, as Ankara sought to fund Brotherhood-linked groups that were ideologically similar.
Since the July 2013 overthrow of the Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi as president of Egypt, Erdoğan has sought to provide a safe haven for persecuted members of the movement. These efforts have increased since Qatar’s Gulf neighbors imposed a blockade in June 2017, in large part because of Doha’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood.
Today, the dozens of Ikhwan figures living in exile in Turkey are some of the movement’s most powerful and influential figures. These Brotherhood leaders and their relatives live a comfortable life, under the protection of the Erdoğan administration. “Turkey is the place to meet and find a safe harbor,” he said. “It's even safer than Qatar. It's the safe haven.”
In an article for Foreign Policy in early May, Vidino described Erdoğan's efforts to extend the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, particularly in the West. Today, the Muslim Brotherhood’s biggest supporter in Europe is Turkey, which provides even more support than Qatar. Vidino includes aid from the Conservative Turkish Independent Industrialists and Businessmen Association (MUSIAD), Turkish Airlines and other institutions close to the AKP in this category.
Vidino also sees growing ties between the AKP and Brotherhood-linked institutions in the United States, pointing to the presence of AKP officials at events of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which has been linked to the Brotherhood. Vidino also said Turkish names were increasingly appearing on the boards of Brotherhood-linked NGOs and the influence of Turkish Islamists is growing in the United States.
Due to Erdoğan's increasingly poor reputation regarding human rights - consider this week’s report from the European Commission - some segments of American Brotherhood affiliates are dissatisfied with the increasing AKP influence.
Under the AKP, Turkish mosques abroad have become propaganda tools, where imams trained by Turkey, and previously known for their distance from Islamist movements, mix and mingle with the AKP and Turkish Islamist groups like Milli Görüş, which was founded by Erbakan.
Since 2010, says Vidino, Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs, or Diyanet, has taken on an Islamist identity, even an Ikhwan identity in many places. The Diyanet has even been accused of espionage, including in Germany last year.
Vidino likened the AKP’s efforts to extend its Islamic influence in Europe and the United States to Saudi Arabia’s funding of the Salafist mobilization in the Balkans and South Asia years ago.
The best way to fight the Muslim Brotherhood is to understand the movement, be aware of what it wants, and inform the public about the issue.
Regarding the Trump administration’s effort to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation as a positive step, Vidino argued that the various Brotherhood chapters around the world should be examined and appraised individually, as they had so many different structures and agendas.
Some groups linked to the Brotherhood in Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Egypt may be terrorist organisations, while some others are not, he said. “It's no longer 1955, and there is no singular Muslim Brotherhood,” said Vidino. “There are many Muslim Brotherhoods.”