While Germany has banned Hizbullah activities on German soil, it has not taken similar action against the Muslim Brotherhood, a much more dangerous organisation given its ideological and organisational relations with virulent Islamist terrorist groups. Why has Germany chosen to focus on the lesser danger?
The German ban, announced in late March, caused confusion. Many news outlets took it to signify that Germany had added the Lebanese Shia movement to its list of terrorist organisations. But when, on 5 May, the Lebanese Foreign Ministry summoned Georg Birgelen, Germany’s ambassador to Lebanon, to demand an explanation, Birgelen said the decision did not mean the German government had designated Hizbullah as a terrorist organisation, only that it had outlawed Hizbullah activities in Germany.
Even the Lebanese government, which told Berlin Hizbullah represented a large segment of the Lebanese people in parliament, assumed the ban signified that Germany had designated Hizbullah a terrorist organisation. Much of the confusion, not just in Lebanon but in the international media, stemmed from the EU’s 2913 decision to designate Hizbullah’s paramilitary wing as a terrorist organisation, but not the group’s political wing: many media interpreted the Germany’s March decision as an extension of the 2013 designation to cover Hizbullah’s political wing.
Unlike the EU decision to designate Hizbullah’s paramilitary wing as a terrorist organisation, with which all EU members have complied, the decision to ban Hizbullah activities applies only to Germany. Peter Stano, spokesperson for EU Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, made it clear that the EU position on Hizbullah had not changed, and the EU continues to draw a distinction between the movement’s political and paramilitary wings. In January this year the UK, which is no longer part of the EU, declared the whole of Hizbullah a terrorist organisation.
It appears that Berlin has left a backdoor open for dealings with Hizbullah. According to German intelligence figures, Hizbullah has around 1,050 members in Germany: that Germany opted not to follow the British example or press for an EU-wide ban on Hizbullah activities, suggests Berlin is unwilling to completely rupture lines of communications with the group.
The timing of the German ban raised several questions. Explaining the ban, Germany’s Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said the pro-Iranian movement in Lebanon disputes Israel’s right to exist and calls for its destruction, and told the German daily Bild that the group’s “criminal activities and planning of attacks” were taking place on German soil.
Has Germany only discovered a fact that has been known since Hizbullah was founded as an Iranian arm against Israel? Were its ears plugged in 2005 when Iranian President Ahmadinejad openly called for the destruction of Israel?
A more realistic explanation for Berlin’s behaviour is that it is not thinking about the past but eying its inevitable clash with Israel over the latter’s expected annexations of large swathes of West Bank territory, a move the EU has said it will oppose. Israel will attempt to cast Germany as the EU ringleader in the outcry against the annexation: in response Berlin will point to its Hizbullah ban as evidence that it has always defended Israel’s security interests. Such a strategy is unlikely to deter Israel, which has long used the Nazi campaign against Jews as a way to blackmail Berlin. One legacy of the Holocaust is that Germany feels a special responsibility towards protecting Israel, remarked Haaretz in one of its first reports on the ban.
So why has Germany not taken the same action against the Muslim Brotherhood?
In December 2018, German security officials warned of the threat the group poses to German national interests and values. Bernhard Freier, head of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) of North Rhine-Westphalia, said that the Islamic Community of Germany (IGD), which the BfV describes as “the central organisation for Muslim Brotherhood followers in Germany”, and organisations working with it, ultimately seek to establish a state based on Sharia law. He warned that in the medium term the Muslim Brotherhood posed a greater danger to Germany than either the Islamic State (IS) or Al-Qaeda.
Berlin also appears to ignore opinion polls that reflect the German public’s growing alarm at Islamist extremism among Arab, and especially Syrian, refugees, some of whom have become embroiled in terrorist activities in Germany under the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood which actively recruits among refugee communities.
What lies behind Germany’s actions against one terrorist organisation, Hizbullah, that threatens Israel, and its reluctance to act against another terrorist organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood, that even German officials say threatens Germany itself? Perhaps Germany does not think its relations with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, which have designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation, are as important as its relations with Israel.
Church bombings and attacks against government buildings in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, and the acknowledgement by Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Egypt that the organisation coordinates with groups such as the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis (now the IS-Sinai Province) designated by the EU terrorist organisations: one would have thought it sufficient for Germany to ban Muslim Brotherhood activity on its soil. But apparently not.
One possible explanation for the inconsistency in German behaviour is that Berlin thinks Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE need Germany more than Germany needs them. Or perhaps Germany is following the strategy it adopted during World War I, when it struck alliances with Islamist groups in the face of a common enemy, the colonial powers Britain and France. In World War I Germany allied with Ottoman ruled Turkey and its pro-Islamic connections in Egypt. Later, it allied with the mufti of Palestine, Amin Al-Husseini, whose organisation was an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Following Germany’s defeat in World War II, Berlin and Turkey backed the Muslim Brothers in Egypt against the Nasserist regime, and used the group as a bulwark against communism. The campaign, steered from Washington, continued until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1992.
The world has changed a great deal since then. Germany needs to change the lenses with which it assesses and formulates its foreign policy, including relations with Islamist organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Berlin has cast itself as an advocate of democratic transformation, a defender of human rights and a bulwark against terrorism. Yet it refuses to discuss the threat the Muslim Brotherhood poses to the stability of the Middle East and, via the Brotherhood’s network of links with fundamentalist groups, to Western interests, and to Germany itself.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly