You might not be aware of it, but the EU elections are less than a month away. But even if you knew, judging by the steadily declining voter turnout, it is statistically likely that you don’t care. For the last 20 years, less than half of all European citizens bothered to vote. As the majority did not participate, the real electoral champion has steadily been apathy, with a solid, 2-decade-long winning streak that any normal political party would surely covet.
Nevertheless, as much as most of us don’t care about the EU, it is undeniable that the EU cares about us. Its influence on our national affairs, the economy and our daily lives is evident. For some, this influence is perceived as positive and constructive, for others it is seen as wasteful, over-assertive meddling with member state affairs. Whether the EU, in its current form, is a benign or malign force in the bloc is a long and nuanced debate, on which countless books, analyses and opinion pieces have been written, enough to fill the library of Alexandria. Whichever side one might be inclined to agree with, the only sure thing is that, in these times of social division and political polarisation, an honest and open dialogue is more necessary than ever. An unbiased, uncensored and free conversation must be had, where both sides present their case and whoever manages to convince more people wins. That’s kind of the whole point of an election, yet, as we established, most people really don’t care about the upcoming one. So whichever idea prevails would only be supported by a majority of a minority, rendering its perceived authority wobbly to say the least. One way to fix that, would be to have a far-reaching, pan-European campaign to increase the democratic turnout in the upcoming elections.
“This time I’m voting”
That is exactly what the European Parliament set out to do, when it launched its “This time I’m voting” campaign last summer. As it is described on its own website, it is “the European Parliament's institutional, non-partisan communication action, independent from any political party and ideology.”, while its “objective is to promote democratic engagement in the European elections.” Also, according to the campaign’s code of conduct, people are encouraged to participate and help spread the message, as long as they do not distribute content or organise events that “discriminate on the grounds of and/or are offensive in respect of appearance, race, ethnic origin, religion or belief, sex, culture or origin, disability, age or sexual orientation”.
What’s not to like about that? Well, in theory, nothing. In practice, however, it doesn’t quite pan out as advertised. For one thing, the campaign’s messaging is more focused on convincing people that the EU is amazing, rather than simply getting them to vote. Packed with testimonials by grateful citizens, a special section on “what the EU does for you”, and strong messaging on how European cohesion is under threat by Eurosceptics and those who seek to divide us, it really looks a lot more like a typical political campaign with the EU itself as the candidate, than a public information effort aimed at simply getting people to show up at the polls. What’s more, it rather decisively alienates and excludes critics and those discontent with the current direction of the EU, who might not necessarily want to see it dismantled, but simply reformed. Instead of acknowledging this considerable part of the population, the communications strategy chooses to ignore, dismiss and marginalise it; as though Brexit, Trump, the Italian elections, or the fact the France is burning for the last 4 months have offered no meaningful signals and no cause for introspection.
The arguably misguided communications angle is not, however, the most troubling thing about the “this time I’m voting” project. A quick look at the campaign’s official “partners” page will suffice to illuminate this point. By now, knowing the messaging line, one wouldn’t be surprised to find that reformist voices and conservative viewpoints would be conspicuously absent from the list.
What one might not expect, however, is to find organisations with views and ideologies that are not just contradictory to the campaign’s own code of conduct, but also on the fringes of the average European’s political spectrum. Still, that quickly looks like a pedantic peeve, when compared to other “partner” groups, whose track record and affiliations even cross over to outright despicable territories, including blatant antisemitism, misogyny, defence of domestic violence, homophobia, and support of terrorist groups, responsible for the massacre of countless innocents.
An impartial thumb on the scale
To start with the least worrying partners, we have groups like the Young European Federalists (JEF) and its adult counterpart, Union of European Federalists (UEF). Both have received EU funding and have an agenda that is geared towards further EU integration and centralisation, working off of the idea that the EU needs more sovereignty and autonomy from the member-states.
Policy ideas include the establishment of a European Army, answerable to the EU, able to act without relying exclusively on NATO and financed by a European Fund for Defence, which could include an own defence tax. The idea of a European Economic Government is also promoted, with the power to directly levy own “European taxes” and a European Finance Minister, responsible for coordinating national budgetary and economic policies. Their stance on the EU budget is particularly eye-catching, as among other principles, it should be based on solidarity, which according to JEF means: “citizens should contribute according to their capability, and subsidies should be spent in a way that ensures that all citizens get equal opportunities and access in Europe…instead of subsidies being linked to taxation pay (sic) in. ” Or put simply, in Marx’s popular catchphrase: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”.
Another partner organisation of the campaign is “Solidar”, a European network of 47 NGOs and labour movement organisations. It has received generous EU funding, and it’s dedicated to solidarity and social justice, on a socialist ideological basis. Apologies to Solidar for risking oversimplification for brevity’s sake, but it’s fair summarise its views as being basically pro-EU, anti-inequality, pro-unions, anti-free market and pro-wealth redistribution.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with supporting and promoting different ideas, controversial as they might be, as long as it is done in a peaceful and respectful manner, and the above groups seem to be to perfectly compliant with the rules of engagement in a civilised society. The problem is that these views, democratically legitimate and debate-worthy as they might be, are still blatantly representative of a political ideology. That’s a bit awkward, since as we saw earlier, the campaign is supposed to be independent of that.
Finally, among the partners, there is also the European Women’s Lobby, a feminist umbrella network of over 2000 women’s associations, that has also received sizeable amounts in funding from the European Commission. The EWL, proudly and fiercely advocates for women’s rights, female empowerment, gender equality and, crucially, fights the good fight to end violence against women. It’s really only mentioned here, because it makes what follows next, especially ironic.
Beyond the pale
Right on the top of the partners’ list, we find FEMYSO, the Forum for European Muslim Youth and Student Organisations. A network of various Muslim Youth- and Student organisations, FEMYSO, according to its website, “has become the de facto voice of Muslim Youth in Europe and is regularly consulted on issues pertaining to Muslim Youth”. Registered as an NGO in Brussels and having received funding from EU institutions, its stated mission is to bring together Muslim youth to network, exchange ideas and to work “closely with its member organisations to build a better Europe”.
While the “building a better Europe” part of the mission sure sounds like an idea likely shared by many, it is the “working closely with its member organisations” part that we’ll focus on here, by having a closer look at the members, partners and associations, as declared and listed on FEMYSO’s own website.
Let us begin with the Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe (FIOE), a large umbrella organisation with hundreds of member groups across the EU. It has a well-documented and longstanding relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) since its foundation, according to the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, Pew Research and to Lorenzo Vidino, of Tufts University, while it has also originated the European Council for Fatwa and Research. The former president of the latter, was Youssef al-Qaradawi, who held the position until the near-end of last year and thus while the EU election campaign was fully up and running. According to a report compiled by the Anti-Defamation League, he has called for the killing of all Jews, “down to the very last one”, he has openly endorsed Palestinian suicide bombings against Israeli civilians and encouraged the abduction and killing of American civilians in Iraq. He also supported the death penalty for those who leave the religion, while, according to the scholar, the same fate should befall homosexuals too.
However, it doesn’t end there. According to official reports commissioned by the respective parliaments or national authorities of member states, multiple other FEMYSO members have a dark track record too. From well-established links to the Muslim Brotherhood, allegations in which FEMYSO itself is implicated, to extremist and deplorable views that contradict our principles of democracy and respect for human rights.
The Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) is listed as a member, the founding of which in 1997 included figures like Mohammed Sawalha. As a senior Hamas member, “in charge of Hamas terrorist operations within the West Bank”, according to the US Department of Justice, he has been named as a co-conspirator in an indictment for a racketeering conspiracy to finance terror. Concerns over this group have also been voiced in the UK House of Commons, for instance, by Dame Louise Ellman, Labour Co-operative MP, who has also been a vocal critic against antisemitism in the Labour Party. Another member, FOSIS (Federation of Student Islamic Societies), has invited al-Qaeda heavyweight Anwar al-Awlaki to address its annual conference, describing him as a “distinguished guest”. His views ("assassinations, bombings, and acts of arson are all legitimate forms of revenge“) were clear long before he became the first US citizen to become the target of a drone strike, a precedent created during the Obama Presidency.
Moving on to Germany, among the FEMYSO members are the Muslimische Jugend in Deutschland (MJD) and the Islamische Gemeinschaft Millî Görüş (IGMG). While it categorically rejects violence, IGMG has its roots in Turkey, founded in the 60s under the leadership of Necmettin Erbakan, a radical islamist, with sexist and strongly antisemitic views. Although the German IGMG has since publicly distanced itself from radical ideas, as Deutsche Welle reported, it has been embraced and supported by Erdogan’s AK party. According to the 2017 report of the Verfassungschutz in Baden-Württemberg, the group’s educational events and activities are conducted under gender segregation. The report concludes that there are still discrepancies between the external image of the IGMG and its internally propagated views, especially in its educational work, which is not subject to any state supervision and conducted predominantly in Turkish. Both groups have repeatedly appeared in official reports of the Verfassungschutz in Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria and Hessen, citing concerns over the rejection of secular values and anti-constitutional tendencies.
Last, but most assuredly not least, is the case of the Young Muslims of Sweden, (Sveriges Unga Muslimer, “SUM”), a key, founding member of FEMYSO. According to a report commissioned by the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency, organised under the Ministry of Defence, the group is fully controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood and clearly influenced by Salafism. The report also stated that “the organization is a good example of how MB organizations on the one hand can receive millions of SEK to counter for example “Islamophobia” to simultaneously run member associations (like SUM) with a Jihadist rhetoric and whose members in many cases have traveled to fight as Jihadists in Syria.”
Another report, this time commissioned by the Swedish Agency for Youth and Civil Society, that decided to cut its funding to SUM due to “the organisation failing to respect the ideals of democracy.”, documented and complied specific instances and events to support this decision. The findings, some of which follow below, are beyond disturbing.
Both the SUM central organization and its partners have regularly invited lecturers whose positions are an affront to democracy and basic human decency, while it has also had affiliates and guests with openly expressed sympathies for terrorist organisations.
Guest lecturers with antisemitic views have been repeatedly invited to SUM conferences, such as Yvonne Ridley, a Hamas supporter, who has praised suicide bombers as “martyrs”, propagated conspiracy theories about “Zionist tentacles” everywhere, and has expressed admiration for the aforementioned jihadist Anwar al-Awlaki, saying “he is a great imam and I have huge respect for him.” One of SUM’s local organisations also had an interview in its magazine with Lasse Wilhelmson, a staunch Holocaust denier who is known to express vile views, arguing that the Jews in Germany were rightly regarded as traitors and that their persecution over centuries can be seen as a natural reaction to their manipulative nature.
Speakers with homophobic views have also been featured, like the British Abdurraheem Green, who apart from rejecting democracy and western liberal values, has also described gay people as “vile” and “evil”. Kamal El Mekki was invited too, who has made degrading comments about LBGT people and argued that “it’s just a desire, it’s not a lifestyle, it’s not a right”. He has also defended death as a punishment for apostasy and he has been banned from entry by the Danish government in 2017 for spreading hatred.
As for misogynistic views, the SUM has invited speakers who have supported the subjugation of women, mandated obedience to the husband, and defended the use of the occasional “corrective” violence. Among the guest lecturers was an imam who has advised a woman beaten by her husband not to call the police. However, the true highlight was the invitation that was extended to TV preacher Sheikh Jasem Al-Mutawa from Kuwait. He has appeared in a sensational instructional video on “how to beat your wife”. For those interested in the specifics, by the way, it is acceptable only for the persistently “rebellious” wives, while “one must not hit the face, and one must not administer beatings that cause fractures or wounds.” Other than that, it’s fine, apparently.
“They that sow the wind, shall reap the whirlwind”
In the search for a reasonable explanation for the choice of partners that the EU has made, we must now to cross over from facts to speculation, and only two scenarios come to mind. It might be that this bureaucratic leviathan, stuffed to the gills with assistants for the administrators for the aides of the deputies of the secretaries (and with the budget to pay them all), doesn’t actually have the capacity to do a background check. Or, for that matter, perform a google search, that in many of these cases would suffice to raise a red flag. Perhaps this machine of 55 thousand cogs just can’t do what any mom and pop shop routinely does before hiring a new employee: ask around. And as infuriating as this inefficiency and incompetence sounds, one must still hope this is the case, for the alternative is far too unpalatable.
The other explanation is that the decision makers knew, but didn’t care. After all, since a few of these groups have made some gestures to signify reform, those responsible for vetting them perhaps chose to discount their track record as irrelevant, in view of the audience and reach they could bring to the table to support the EU’s campaign efforts and spread the message. There are, of course, numerous other organizations, doing great work with Muslim youth, supporting and engaging them in civic participation; some even do it without any taxpayer or foreign power funding support. But they are much smaller and they don’t have the resources to spend on a top-tier social media team, so they wouldn’t be much help in getting the message to where it needs to go. Such a scenario, would not only be morally repugnant, but also strategically short sighted, as deal-making with Mephistopheles usually is.
At a time of swelling social tensions, deep political divisions and economic uncertainty waiting down the road as the Eurozone slows down, the spread of radical views is like striking a match on an oil rig. Especially when those toxic ideas target groups that have already suffered through a long history of persecution and oppression. And especially when those very same nauseating ideas are by far not representative of the vast majority of the Muslim population in Europe, but can be used anyway to justify indiscriminate hostility and hatred against them.
Emphatically denouncing such misanthropic views and those who harbour them is the very least that any of us can do if we wish to retain respect, empathy and civility in our societies. The fact that the institution that aspires to be recognised and trusted by the European people fails do so, explains why it needs a multimillion spin campaign in the first place.
Originally written for Smart Investor, 04/2019