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September 2018

The Islamist Factory

<p><span style=The Islamist Factory

Hakim El Karoui
Former Senior Fellow - Arab World, Islam

Hakim El Karoui dirige le bureau parisien de Brunswick, groupe d’origine britannique de conseil en communication.

Il est notamment l'auteur du rapport Un islam français est possible et Nouveau monde arabe, nouvelle "politique arabe" pour la France.

Il a enseigné à l’université Lyon II avant de rejoindre le cabinet du Premier ministre en 2002. Après un passage à Bercy, il rejoint, en 2006, la banque Rothschild. En 2011, il rejoint le cabinet de conseil en stratégie Roland Berger où il est co-responsable de l’Afrique et du conseil au gouvernement français. Il a créé et dirigé pendant 5 ans Volentia, société de conseil stratégique. Il est aussi essayiste et entrepreneur social (il a créé le club du XXIème siècle et les Young Mediterranean Leaders).

Hakim El Karoui est normalien et agrégé de géographie.

“The Islamist ideology generates fear. But we should be driven by reason rather than fear. It is by understanding the machinery of the Islamist engine that we will be able to respond to the challenge before us.”

Hakim El Karoui

After the publication of a first report in 2016 on Islam in France and a second in 2017 on France’s Arab policy, Institut Montaigne is publishing a third report focused not on Islam, but on Islamism.

Why this report? Because even though the subject is still very much in the French and European spotlight, it remains poorly understood. What is Islamism? What are its objectives? Its impact? Its key players? The concepts are complex, the words are foreign, the motivations are unclear, and the driving forces behind the development of this ideology are difficult to understand. The ambition of this work is simple: to demonstrate and explain the entire transmission mechanism that leads from the creation of Islamism to the dynamics that enable its spread in France and in Europe: 

  • Genealogy: the contexts in which it was born, the philosophical questions it raises, the vision of the world it carries;
  • Production: the places where it is manufactured and the administrative machines that produce it;
  • Spread: the men and women who convey it, the networks, both political and social, that disseminate it; 
  • Reception: the way it has developed in Europe. 

Following the completion of this work, it appears that Islamism is a powerful but poorly understood contemporary ideology. Its aim is clear: to create a global project with religion as the life framework and the project for the individual and society. Its values are often opposed to Western values: group vs. individual, religious norm vs. individual freedom, inequality between men and women vs. the pursuit of equality, etc.

The response to the development of Islamism in France and Europe should be driven by reason rather than fear. To understand this ideology’s creation and dissemination mechanisms. To imagine a new organization of Islam, in France and in Europe. For European Muslims to promote an alternative discourse, compatible with our societies. 

This work is based on numerous documentary sources:

  • We reviewed over 200 books and scholarly reports, in English, Arabic, French and German;   
  • We conducted about 60 interviews with institutions, associations, prisons, religious leaders and citizens in eight Arab and European countries
  • We carried out a pioneering analysis of the Saudi Leaks, a set of more than 122,000 Saudi Foreign Ministry documents uncovered by Wikileaks in June 2015; 
  • We analyzed 275 fatwas (Islamic legal statements issued by an expert in religious law); 
  • We carried out a thorough analysis of a massive quantity of data collected on Twitter and Facebook on the origin and frequency of Islamist content on social networks. 

What is Islamism?

Before going any further, let us define what Islamism is. The topic is tricky and subject to controversy, the term being sometimes claimed, sometimes rejected by those who tend to be included in this category.

In our report, we consider all forms of Islamism. They make up - beyond religious belief and personal spirituality - an interpretation of the world, a vision of the organization of society, including the secular world, and a role given to religion in the exercise of power. By this triple definition (interpretation of the world, social organization, relationship to power), it is a contemporary political ideology.

Islamism makes up an interpretation of the world, a vision of the organization of society, and a role given to religion in the exercise of power.

Different currents of Islamism coexist, the two main ones being Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood. While there are major ideological differences between the Wahhabis and the Muslim Brothers, both groups seek to turn Islam into a way of life and a program for the individual and society, aiming to preserve an Islamic civilization and to establish a universalist and proselyte vision of Islam. It is a comprehensive program aimed at codifying and normalizing social interaction:

  • Gender relations (gender diversity is prohibited among Wahhabis),
  • Dietary norms (Halal),
  • Economic principles (Islamic finance),
  • The norms governing relationships with others (al-wala' wa al-bara', which defines among Wahhabis the separation between Muslims and non-Muslims and can go as far as total rejection of others),
  • Dress codes and behavioral standards (veil, beard)

Where does Islamism Come From?

 Before being disseminated to the rest of the world, Islamist ideologies were born and developed in particular countries and contexts and transformed the societies in which they were born: the Muslim Brotherhood ideology in Egypt, then in other countries of the Arab world; Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia; Turkish-Islamism in Turkey; the Islamic Revolution in Iran.  

Three Pivotal Moments  

These matrices present fundamental ideological differences, but their history proceeds at a similar pace, through common defining moments:

  • The 1920s, the end of the World War I and the Ottoman Empire. In Turkey the sultanate and then the caliphate were abolished and the Republic proclaimed; in Saudi Arabia, Ibn Saud completed the conquest of the Arabian peninsula by taking the two holy places of Islam, Mecca and Medina; in Egypt, a new form of relationship to religion appeared in 1928 with the creation of the Muslim Brotherhood; a new dynasty, the Pahlavi, emerged in Iran.
  • The end of the 1970s, the powerful comeback of religion in the face of nationalist ideologies (Turkish, Iranian, Arab) running out of breath. In 1979, the Iranian monarchy was overthrown by the Islamic Revolution. In 1979, in Saudi Arabia, the legitimacy of power was contested by a millenarian group that seized the Great Mosque of Mecca. In 1980 in Turkey, a coup disrupted political life and began the “Turkish-Islamist synthesis”, which paved the way for the rise of political Islam in the country. In 1981, Sadat, the President of the Arab Republic of Egypt, was assassinated by religious extremists. Finally, the international context favored the rise of political Islam with the invasion of Afghanistan by the USSR in 1979, followed by the emergence of an armed Jihad.
  • A third break can be identified in 2011 with the Arab Spring which led to the electoral victory of political parties linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. While they do not always manage to stay in power, they are carried by increasingly conservative societies, also influenced by Salafism as imported from Saudi Arabia. Finally, Jihadism, the constitution of a self-proclaimed Islamic state within the region, and the restoration of the caliphate by the latter in 2014, continue to raise the issue of the relationship between power and religion. 

Saudi Arabia

Wahhabism is the implementation of Quietist Salafism at the state level, in Saudi Arabia. Islam is the very foundation of the state; religious law (Sharia) is the country’s legal foundation. More than a religion, it embodies an alliance inseparable from politics and religion. It is at once an Islamic way of thinking, a system of government and an omnipresent social framework.

The strength of Wahhabism and the Saudi power is maintained through a number of channels: significant economic power, fueled by oil; remarkable political stability, backed by the Ulamas (theologians), and the prestige of having to manage the Islam’s Holy Sites, a major tool of religious soft power.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Arab World

The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 in Egypt by Hassan al-Banna and quickly became a key player of the political life. Its initial objective was simple: to promote a return to real Islam in society. The Brotherhood was first social before being political: it developed a significant community presence on the ground to promote an Islamic renaissance. Its development required a “bottom-up Islamization”, i.e. through social actions that affect the whole population.

The Brotherhood organization has branches in almost all Arab-Muslim countries, which became important players on the political scene from the 1990s (creation of Hamas, Sahwa movement in Saudi Arabia, political party in Yemen and Kuwait, etc.) and during the Arab Spring, which enabled them to gain power, namely in Tunisia and Egypt. They have nevertheless failed, confronted with the reality of a country’s management, and are increasingly challenged in the Arab world.


Since 2002, a political Islamist party, led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been in power: the AKP. Its ideology is conservative and based on religion. But it is politics that govern religion in Turkey; clerics are at the service of public policy.

In Turkey, Islamism has adopted a strong nationalist character - which distinguishes it from the Muslim Brotherhood - to blend into Turkish-Islamism.


Iran is majoritarily Shia and is presented as Saudi Arabia’s main competing Muslim model in the region. All the state machinery is under the direct or indirect control of an Ayatollah (the Supreme Leader). However, the expansion of its ideology is limited and focuses on Shia organizations.

How does Islamism Spread?

Islamism is a globalized ideology. From the 1960s, it spread outside the regions where it was born to develop in the rest of the Muslim world and then to all territories where Muslims are present, including in the West. Several channels formed the basis of its expansion.

Saudi State-Sponsored Salafism

Saudi Arabia has been officially exporting Wahhabism since the 1960s. It does so through theoretically autonomous institutions, but which actually operate at the heart of Saudi state structures:

  • The Muslim World League (MWL) acts as central body. It is the Saudi royal family’s diplomatic instrument, whose purpose is to “organize the cooperation between the Islamic state’s different political, economic and cultural areas”;
  • The Islamic University of Madinah (IUM) is a training institute for imams, preachers, and missionaries in which 80 percent of students are of foreign origin;
  • The World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY) is an assembly whose purpose is to defend Muslim identity by educating a new generation;
  • The International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO) represents the charitable arm of Wahhabism, dedicated to the defense and the protection of Muslims.
  • In addition, there is the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) whose purpose is to strengthen cohesion in the Muslim world, mainly around diplomatic, economic or scientific questions.

Thus, Saudi Arabia's expansionist fervor, supported by funding from the oil industry, reflects the pan-Islamic ideal of the Saudi government seeking to have a monopoly on Islam, on discourse as well as on Muslims. 

Wahhabism as soft power is a diplomatic lever that allows Saudi Arabia to influence the international scene and primarily the Middle East. Its action is now deployed in different parts of the world, as shown by the Saudi Leaks, revealing the country’s strategy on a global scale.

The European Muslim Brotherhood

The Muslim Brotherhood’s ultimate objective is rooted in a program of expansion. In Europe, they defend political and social positions that must transcend national origins. The connections between the European Muslim Brotherhood and their Middle Eastern counterparts are undeniable but they are not systematic, they do not take their orders from Egypt but share similar references and goals.

From the 1980s onwards, they took on the problems of Europe’s Muslim communities, such as identity, education and Islamophobia. They then mobilized the Muslim community and formed networks, associations and general or sectoral federations at different levels to represent this community within municipalities, European states or the European Union. The European Muslim Brotherhood draws on an identity-based discourse and proposes a form of Muslim citizenship.

In France, the UOIF, Union des organisations islamiques de France (Union of Islamic Organizations of France) has gradually emerged as a major player of Islam around two central themes: the fight against Islamophobia and the Palestinian question. In the UK, the main organization linked to the Muslim Brotherhood is the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB). The objectives are similar and they rely on Islamic charities. In Germany, the Islamische Gemeinschaft Deutschland is less powerful than its French and British counterparts, the German Muslim community being predominantly Turkish.

While in Europe the Muslim Brotherhood was able to grow adeptly in the 1980s and 1990s, it has had difficulties since renewing its leadership. Above all, they have been caught off guard by the rise of Salafism, which has benefited from European youth’s strong religious needs and from young people’s attraction for this simplified version of Islam.

The Turkish Diaspora’s Supervision Through Religion 

In Europe, the objective of Turkish religious organizations is to maintain the links between the diaspora (about 5 million people in Europe, almost 3 million of them in Germany) and the community of origin. 

This supervision is ensured by the Foreign Affairs department of the Diyanet - an institution issuing official Islam - which maintains tight control over the imams it sends to Europe, and the Millî Görüs network - a political movement - with a dense network of mosques and associations in European countries.

Salafist Preaching in Europe

Salafism, though not predominant, is the most dynamic Islamic movement in Europe. It is primarily  Quietist Salafism (focused on religious discourse and the believers’ behavior) rather than political or Jihadist. It has gradually established itself as the reference from which each Muslim must judge his religious practice. 

This dissemination is not the work of one state alone, it is the result of an accumulation of spontaneous initiatives that certainly emanate from what the Saudis created, but which no longer belongs to them, since this development has largely escaped them. Today, there is no major Salafist organization capable of uniting the movement.

The Media

Saudi television channels, particularly developed in the Maghreb, have contributed to the theological and religious impregnation of French Muslim populations of North-African origin. From their family and friends, these populations have been gradually exposed to this particularly rigorist interpretation of Islam.

The example of Salafism shows the importance of the media in spreading ideology:

  • Today, books have played a major role in the spread of Salafism, because their free and simple nature makes them easily accessible;
  • Tapes were distributed in the Maghreb and in Western Europe to spread the Islamist message throughout the 1980s and 1990s;
  • Satellite television channels were also crucial. Al Jazeera was able to offer an unprecedented political debate in the Arab world coupled with the construction of a propaganda system intended to promote the Muslim Brotherhood and their religious leader, Youssef al-Qaradâwî. Saudi religious television channels (such as Iqraa) have also contributed to the Islamization of Muslims throughout the world;
  • Today, the Internet and social networks have taken over, with impressive force.

What is the Impact of the Islamist Ideology in France and Europe?

Islamists in France are Largely a Minority Among French Muslims

Muslims sensitive to Islamist theories represent a minority today in France. This minority is however the talk of the town. There is a gradation in the desire to stand out from the rest of the population, to appear as a community apart and that even breaks away for the most radical. The questions of Halal and the veil are symbols of differentiation; they are identity levers, norms and models that influence daily life and go far beyond the circles of Muslim Brothers or Salafists.

The survey conducted in 2016 by Institut Montaigne suggested the figure of 28% of Muslims classified as “secessionists and authoritarian”. It is the result of ideological work carried out for several years by different movements that have overlapped: preaching (Tabligh) in the 1980s, identity-based mobilization (Muslim Brotherhood) between 1989 and 2005, a movement obsessed with religious practice (Salafism) since then.

The Salafist discourse has succeeded in establishing itself as the religious reference from which Muslims must think their conception of religion and of their religious practice.

The Salafist discourse is based on the study of sacred texts and rests on the idea of Western decadence.. It has succeeded in establishing itself as the religious reference from which Muslims must think their conception of religion and of their religious practice. A dichotomy then emerges between the community, made up of the pure, and the impure exterior from which they need to clearly distinguish themselves.  The aim is total differentiation, a break in order to form another society that would live by its own rules. 

Today, the powerful impact of ideology is materialized by the formation of an alternative system: with its ideology, its economy, its social codes and its organizing principle, Halal, which is today an all-encompassing way of life rather than a mere way of ritually slaughtering an animal. Although movements close to Islamists are overwhelmingly setting the standard of religious behavior, adherence to these practices today goes much further than the militant or sympathizing Islamists group alone.

Social Networks, a Unique Sounding Board for Islamist Preaching

Islamism, be it political or purely theological, makes massive use of the Internet and social networks to disseminate its ideology and mobilize its sympathizers. On the Internet, Islamists, and more particularly Salafists, have a monopoly in all matters relating to the Muslim faith.

Saudi Ulamas are among the most influential intellectuals in the world with a specific characteristic: they are not isolated individuals but five or six personalities, unknown in the West, who radiate on Twitter and Facebook and are followed by several millions or even tens of millions of people. Among Muslim influencers, they have by far the greatest impact, far ahead of the main religious figures of the Muslim Brotherhood. Also far ahead of those who today represent a moderate European Islam.

On Twitter, five Saudi preachers are among the 16 most influential accounts within the area of ideas

Popular Saudi preachers on Twitter

For eight months, we analyzed with the company Bloom, an analysis solution based on artificial intelligence from social media, speeches relayed on the Internet and more particularly on social networks. This study has allowed us to assess the incredible audience that the major Islamist accounts enjoy on a global and national scale.

In France, when news stories or a societal issue closely or remotely affects a Muslim, there is a massive and consistent reaction by Internet stakeholders, who seize on the episode in question to condone it as an ideological struggle. That was the case during the “Free Tariq Ramadan” digital campaign, or the controversy around the young singer Mennel Ibtissem, episodes that played a key role in identity-driven discourse on the Internet.

And Elsewhere in Europe?

Emerging in the 1970s, their establishment marks a movement of re-Islamization of Muslim individuals and their descendants living in Europe.  This re-Islamization can be linked to Tabligh, as in France, Belgium or the United Kingdom, or to Turkish Islamic networks, as in Germany. In parallel, the Muslim Brotherhood movement developed in Europe, particularly in the 1980s, and in all the surveyed countries. In the 2000s, Belgium, Germany and the United Kingdom saw the dynamic establishment of Salafist movements.  The magnitude of this movement varied depending on the country, its legislative framework and the Muslims’ history in different societies.


At the end of this journey, one thing is very clear: in spite of being poorly understood in the West, Islamism is an ideology, a global narrative that aims to provide an explanation to the world, a meaning to life, and a common destiny to Muslims. Islamism therefore has its place among contemporary ideologies; it thinks independently, with its own concepts, analytical framework and vision of the world. The values carried by Islamism are very often orthogonal to Western values, hence the feeling of confrontation that many Westerners feel against Islamism. Yet we should be driven by reason rather than fear.

  • In France, an institution must be created, responsible for organizing and funding the Muslim faith (training and remuneration of imams, construction of places of worship, theological work and fight against Islamophobia and anti-Semitism): the Muslim Association for Islam in France. (AMIF)
  • Moreover, it is essential to have an alternative Muslim religious discourse in French that is parallel to the mainstream discourse prevalent on social networks today, meaning the Salafist discourse. Like the PREVENT campaign implemented by the British, France must equip itself with the means and important networks to disseminate this counter-narrative. Who can do that? Muslims. Those of France and Europe, who must mobilize despite their numerous reservations (the refusal to be defined according to their religious identity, a tendency to trivialize their Islamity, fatigue in the face of the acrimonious wrangling between religious officials, fear of radical Islamists, etc.) because the solution will come from them.
  • This should be coupled with the reinvention of the promotion of the Republican narrative.  Islamism is successful in many domains, including the duly relayed feeling of a void in the public discourse, which extends beyond mere political discourse.  However, the Republic must affirm its model as an open model yet one that is based on values, principles and rules whose normativity cannot be challenged. It is necessary to rethink the state’s communication on republican values, particularly on social networks. 
  • It is essential to mobilize the Ministry of Education: training schools’ management and educators on secularism, which they are not always familiar with. Teach them to interpret the manifestations of religious extremism, as well. Understand what is permissible in the name of freedom of religion, and what is not because it violates this same freedom of religion (which is also that of not believing) is crucial.  To revive the learning of the Arabic language is key, especially since Arabic courses have become for Islamists the best means of attracting youth in their mosques and schools.
  • Beyond school and the Ministry of Education, the state must improve its organization to initially know precisely what is going on, beyond issues directly related to security and public order.  While strong and useful measures have been taken to manage the most violent individuals, anything that falls ahead of the phenomenon is unknown and scarcely dealt with. The state must ensure greater awareness of ideological proponents and Islamism’s political and social outcomes; it must help those who wish to fund counter-narrative initiatives in French, conduct a full-scale diplomatic mission, implement inter-ministerial measures and action plans of republican persuasion in the neighborhoods where it is necessary. Finally, it must provide intensive outreach.  This outreach must also encourage moderate Muslims, who have until now been much too silent, to take over debates that affect Islam.
  • The diplomatic question is also crucial in the resistance campaign against Islamism. First, an explanatory work must be undertaken vis-à-vis the countries that fund and control their communities of origin while exercising political leverage over France.  It is necessary to ensure with Saudi Arabia that the AMIF has the central role in the organization of the pilgrimage.  Finally, the Muslims of France must communicate with Muslim states on theological questions: what is valid in Turkey or in Saudi Arabia must not be taken at face value in France.
  • More generally, religious cooperation with the Maghreb and the Gulf countries is to be seriously considered. We share common interests in the religious domain.  Therefore, in addition to the development of a counter-narrative against terrorists and the organization of the pilgrimage, cooperation should focus on a theological program whose objective is to find the right answers to concepts issued by the Saudis, which pose so many problems in France. This is the paradox of the situation: Saudi propaganda is at the origin of the development of Salafism. But Salafism will not be effectively fought without Saudi Arabia. The arrival of Mohammad bin Salman, the Crown Prince, is from this point of view an opportunity (even if we must remain cautious and judge on facts and not only on words and intentions).
  • Finally, the rise of Islamism is also a European issue.  It deserves the mobilization of institutions, in particular the European External Action Service (EEAS), to change their way of dealing with the problem and to agree on sharing each member’s lessons and good practices. The European Union has a duty to look closer at the Islamist reality and not concentrate only on sharing information and coordinating the terrorist threat in its member countries. It is also at the European level that a diplomatic and theological program bringing together religious leaders, Islamicists and theologians must be embarked upon to enable the emergence of a debate on conflicting theological issues. It is at the European level that a training of religious executives can be conducted. Europe must take hold of the question of Islam, without passion or hatred, but with attention and reason: it is in the interest of European Muslims to escape the grip of countries of origin and escape Islamist control, and it is also in Europe’s interest, given how common and central the question of Islam and the fear created by this religion have become in the continental political debate.
<p><span style="color:#ffffff;"><strong>The Islamist Factory</strong></span></p>
Executive summary
(4 pages)
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