On April 18, a Chechen delegation appeared in front of a camera in Volnovakha in eastern Ukraine, about an hour’s drive north of Mariupol. Special forces of the “autonomous republic” have been fighting alongside Vladimir Putin and pro-Russian separatists for an alleged “denazification” of Ukraine for weeks. They reduced Volnovakha to rubble. There are reports of rape and murder.
The Chechens, however, speak of a “liberation” of the city. They justify attacks on civilian buildings. While the propaganda spook is filmed for the local audience in front of a half-bombed block of flats, an inconspicuous man with glasses and a baseball cap stands in the background. Unlike the speakers in the foreground, he is not wearing camouflage colors but a blue quilted vest.
The man silently staring at the camera is Abdul-Wached Niyazov. Niyazov is a Russian citizen and president of an organization called the European Muslim Forum (EMF). The initiators claim to be the legitimate representative of all Muslims in “Greater Europe”, an imaginary construct that is said to stretch from the Atlantic to the Ural Mountains in the east and the Caucasus in the south-east.
The EMF was founded in Barcelona in October 2018. Since then, the organization has tried to expand its influence. It formulates clear and ambitious goals which, if implemented, would fundamentally change Europe. And the organization has contacts with people who presumably have the means to put these goals into practice.
The EMF led a shadowy existence for a long time. Today the organization has a postal address in Denmark, an office in Paris, and for a time it also had a branch in London. Several prominent members come from Germany, according to German security circles, around 70 percent of the supporters live in Russia. The EMF has long planned to move its headquarters to Brussels: the heart of the European Union. From there, according to the goals of the EMF, the members also want to support the construction of mosques and Islamic cultural centers in European countries.
It is no coincidence that Niyazov is now appearing in occupied Ukraine. Rather, it seems as if the President is being pushed wherever major world politics are at play. Photos that he puts on the Internet week after week show him next to the Turkish President, the Secretary General of the Islamic World League, Egypt’s ex-President Mohammed Morsi and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Niyazov proudly presents pictures alongside historical greats such as Yasser Arafat, who died in 2004.
In Ukraine, however, he is not interested in photo opportunities. When asked, he said the current situation offers a “historic opportunity” for Muslims in Europe to work for peace and dialogue. Turkey, as a Muslim country, is also currently acting as a “negotiation platform” between Russia and the West. That sounds as if Niyazov wanted to establish the EMF as a mediator in the shadow of war.
But there are reasonable doubts about the good intentions of the organization. There is Niyazov’s stance on the Russian invasion: when asked, the EMF President affirmed that he would advocate a “peaceful solution to the conflict”. One searches in vain for a condemnation of aggressive war. Instead, he shared the propaganda of the Russian Ministry of Defense on Facebook at the beginning of the invasion: According to this, the “civilian population of Ukraine is not in danger”. In March, he congratulated Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov on his birthday in another message: Lavrov is “at the turning point of historical eras in our most difficult time”. About 15 years ago, Niyazov led a movement called “Muslims for President Putin.”
The EMF is also firmly on the side of the notorious Chechen ruler Ramzan Kadyrov. He recently announced that he wanted to invade Poland after Ukraine. Video from last fall shows Niyazov interpreting for Kadyrov while EMF officials present gifts to the Chechen during a visit to Grozny. “We are brothers,” says one of the men. Kadyrov smiles and touches his heart.
When asked about the background to the meeting, Niyazov remained vague. He does not comment on the serious human rights violations for which the Kadyrov regime is responsible. Only this much: There are developed democracies, democracies with restrictions and “democracies with a strong factor of personal power”. This applies to many countries in Eastern Europe. Of course, one is building relationships with “various Muslim political leaders.”
Islamism experts are alarmed by these alliances. You see the EMF as a new reservoir for Islamist currents. The Swiss human rights activist Saïda Keller-Messahli told WELT: “Behind the facade of the EMF are well-known actors of the Muslim Brotherhood. Organization is their strength, even if their structures are often empty because they are totally disconnected from the vast majority of the Muslim population in Europe.” Nevertheless, the protagonists of political Islam would allow themselves to claim that they speak for the Muslim population and for them represent. “In this way they lure and blind Islamist rulers like Kadyrov or Erdogan,” said Keller-Messahli.
The political scientist Nina Scholz also observes close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, which the constitutional protectors attribute to the area of legalistic Islamism. Scholz is co-author of the book “Everything for Allah. How political Islam is changing our society”. As an expert, she has dealt intensively with the structures of the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe.
She refers to the governing bodies of the EMF. According to the EMF, a man named Samir Falah was on the organization’s council for a long time. Falah, who states on job portals that he lives in Karlsruhe, is the former chairman of the Islamic Community in Germany (today: German Muslim Community), which the Office for the Protection of the Constitution assigns to the Muslim Brotherhood. “Falah has since risen to become chairman of the Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe (FIOE), the European umbrella organization of organizations close to the Muslim Brotherhood,” says Scholz.
Falah left a request from WELT unanswered. Niyazov announced that he had recently left the EMF Council. Nevertheless, we are still in dialogue. The EMF President does not want to discuss his own position on the Muslim Brotherhood. We are open to working with anyone “who acts within the law”. This is also shown by a cooperation with the Union of Muslim Scholars. Expert Scholz says: “This is an organization of Islamic scholars from the Muslim Brotherhood, which was personally founded by the Brotherhood’s current chief ideologue, Yussuf al-Qaradawi, and has its headquarters in Qatar.”
Al-Qaradawi has in the past referred to the Holocaust as Allah’s “punishment” on the Jews. During the Gaza war in 2009, he prayed to Allah to kill the “Zionist Jews” to the last man.
The Office for the Protection of the Constitution is probably keeping an eye on the EMF precisely because of this lack of differentiation from radical ideologies. They hold back with public assessments. One only hears this much from security circles: the EMF is specifically looking for cooperation with authorities, NGOs and the media.
A strategy that Falah also issued at an EMF online conference in December 2020. The headquarters of the EMF must be opened in Brussels or Geneva, Falah said at the time. One must try at different levels to influence European public opinion and decision-making. On the one hand, there is a need for media in English and other European languages that provide “balanced” reporting. On the other hand, an institution must be created that deals with the issue of Islamophobia.
In fact, the forum was already looking for contacts at EU level in 2018, shortly after it was founded. At that time, a delegation around Niyazov traveled to Brussels. Photos were taken in front of the EU Commission buildings. Also present was the German political influencer Tarek Baé, who was involved with the organization in the early stages of the EMF. When asked, Niyazov explained that talks with diplomats had taken place in Brussels. The topic was the situation of the Muslim Uyghur minority in China.
A spokesman for the EU Commission meanwhile denies that there was a meeting with Commission representatives. What is EMF wishful thinking, what is reality? How much substance is behind the full-bodied claims?
A man who has attended several of the organization’s online conferences recalls, “I felt like it was all talk. But nothing happens.” A martial arts official from Germany, who has long been listed as a member of the EMF’s “Executive Committee”, denies any connection when asked: “We were invited to two meetings because it was supposed to be about sports. (…) I and other people took action against the incorrect listing on the website.”
But there are undoubtedly contacts with martial artists. Mixed martial arts fighters like Timur Gadzhimuradov from the Russian Caucasus republic of Dagestan act as ambassadors for the Islamic organization. She proudly reports on the successes of her fighters. It’s about harnessing prominent athletes who “are heard by young people,” explains Niyazov on request.
And when it comes to building a mosque, too, he makes no secret of the plans he has – including for Germany. The construction of places of worship is “one of the most important tasks of the Muslim community in Europe”. In many regions there is not enough Muslim infrastructure, for example in Russia, but also in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria and the Baltic States. In Germany, the East is a problem.
Niyazov would have the financial means for major construction projects: His council includes businessmen like the founder of the British TV channel “Islam Channel”, Mohamed Ali Harrath, and Nasib Piriyev, an Azerbaijani oligarch who made headlines in the past with considerations, a British one Premier League football club to buy.
In March, an EMF delegation also traveled to Turkey, met representatives of the Islamist party Refah Partisi, the Turkish religious authority Diyanet and Bilal Erdogan, the son of the Turkish president. Niyazov called his father, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, “perhaps the smartest and most influential personality in the Muslim world”. However, he did not answer what joint projects there were with the Turkish leadership.