Scholar Lorenzo Vidino has published an article titled “Islam, Islamism and Jihadism in Italy” in which he takes up, among other issues, the subject of the organization known as the Union of the Islamic Communities and Organizations of Italy (UCOII), often linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. Vidino first describes the history of the UCOII:
In this fragmented scenario, where no organization can legitimately claim to represent a sizeable part of the country’s Muslim population, a seemingly leading role has been taken by an Islamic revivalist organization called UCOII (Union of the Islamic Communities and Organizations of Italy). UCOII traces its origins to USMI, a small organization of Muslim students that, at the end of the 1960s, was created in Perugia and other university cities. Composed mostly of Jordanian, Syrian and Palestinian students, USMI was close to the positions of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic revivalist movement that, from its origins in the 1920s in Egypt, has spread worldwide. By the second half of the 1980s, when the first massive wave of North African immigrants arrived in Italy, a student organization such as USMI could no longer satisfy the needs of the new, large Muslim population. In January 1990, representatives of USMI, six mosques from six Italian cities, and individuals incorporated into UCOII. Since its foundation, UCOII has been extremely active on the political scene, attempting to become the main, if not the only, interlocutor of the Italian state. UCOII has managed to achieve an important position within the Muslim community, thanks to its large control over Italian mosques. While its claim to control 85% of Italy’s mosques is difficult to independently verify, it is undeniable that UCOII plays a predominant role in the life of Italy’s practicing Muslim community and that a large number of mosques are, more or less directly, linked to it.
Vidino then takes up issue of the relationship of the UCOII to the Muslim Brotherhood:
UCOII has often been accused of being an extremist organization with ideological and/or organic links to the Muslim Brotherhood. Such links, sometimes proudly admitted, sometimes vehemently denied by UCOII, are not illegal per se, since the Muslim Brotherhood is not considered a terrorist organization nor is banned in Italy or in any Western country. Their existence is nevertheless important to better understand UCOII’s actions and aims, and in order to do so it is important to briefly analyze the presence in Europe of networks related to the Muslim Brotherhood. Over the last 50 years the Muslim Brotherhood has established offshoots in various European countries that today, thanks to their activism and foreign funding, have managed to carve an important space for themselves within European Muslim communities. Revivalist organizations such as the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) or the Union of Islamic Organizations of France (UOIF) have become the de facto representatives of the Muslim communities of their countries, controlling a large number of mosques and interacting with government institutions as preferential partners. Most of these organizations have severed all formal ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, which they understood could taint their reputation. When dealing with the media and governments they often show a moderate façade, publicly supporting integration and democracy. Yet, in their mosques, revivalist organizations espouse a diametrically different rhetoric, still embracing the ideology of the organization to which they trace their origins. Their aim, according to many of their critics, is the radicalization of European Muslim communities and the creation of what Israeli scholar Reuven Paz defines “non-territorial Islamic states”—separate Islamic states within the state, in which Muslims would have separate social spaces (from schools to swimming pools) and separate jurisdiction. Unlike other Islamist groups operating in Europe, Muslim Brotherhood-linked organizations do not resort to or advocate violence to achieve these goals, but have chosen to work within the system and the legal framework.
It may be somewhat misleading to report that most European Muslim Brotherhood organizations have “severed all formal ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.” To begin with, it is not clear that these organizations have ever officially acknowledged such ties making formal severance a logical impossibility. Second, it may be more correct to say that rather than severing ties with the Egyptian “mother organization”, the European Brotherhood along with their counterparts in the U.S. and elsewhere, have grown in importance beyond the Egyptian “Brotherhood becoming instead part of a global network, referred to in these pages as the Global Muslim Brotherhood. Finally, despite the practice of denying “formal connections” to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, global Brotherhood organizations and their leaders such as the Muslim American Society (MAS) or Ibrahim El-Zayat in Germany continue to have strong links with the Egyptian MB.
Vidino goes on to describe the UCOII as the “Italian Branch” if what he calls “this informal European-wide network”:
UCOII is the Italian branch of this informal European-wide network, adopting the same modus operandi of its counterparts in other countries. UCOII views Islam as a complete ideology, without distinction between religion and politics, private and public spheres. Its rhetoric is sometimes filled with encouraging statements favoring integration and tolerance, sometimes marred by endorsement of suicide bombings and strong anti-Semitism. As all other Brotherhood-linked organizations throughout Europe, UCOII aims at swaying the Muslim population to its strict interpretation through the activities of its capillary network of mosques. Given the lack of other structures on the Italian territory, many Muslim immigrants seeking the comfort of familiar faces, languages and smells congregate in mosques, which are often seen more as community centers rather than simply places of worship. UCOII seeks to use its virtual monopoly over mosques to spread its ideology and exercise what Italian expert on Islam Renzo Guolo has defined as a “diffuse cultural hegemony” over the country’s Muslim community. Most Italian Muslims do not seem to share UCOII’s politicized view of Islam and favor a more personal interpretation of it. According to polls, only 5 to 10% of Muslims living in Italy regularly attend Friday prayers at a mosque. Even though the percentage would probably be higher if there were more mosques throughout the territory, the data square with the analysis of most sociologists, who believe that the majority of Muslims living in Italy are not practicing ones. Most of them fast for Ramadan and celebrate Eid al Fitr, but are not significantly more practicing than Italian Catholics. Yet, taking advantage of its extreme fragmentation, UCOII has become the most visible, vocal and organized voice of Italy’s Muslim community. It can be said that the control of the Italian Muslim community has been conquered by an active minority, which has easily prevailed over an unorganized silent majority. Criticism of UCOII is widespread in all quarters and particularly within the Muslim community. Mario Scialoja, the abovementioned former Italian ambassador to Saudi Arabia and a leader at the Rome Grand Mosque, is clear in stating what the problem with UCOII is. “Even if it is indeed so rooted in the territory,” says Scialoja, “UCOII pursues the agenda of an international movement. Hence it does not represent a positive factor for the development of an Italian Islam.” Others have called for a ban of UCOII, given its extremist positions and its support of violence against Israel. Yet, despite all the criticism, UCOII is a reality that cannot be ignored and all actors on the political scene have to interact with it in one way or another.
Again, it may not be entirely correct to describe the European Brotherhood network as “informal” nor is it entirely clear that the UCOII is its Italian branch. All of the major European Brotherhood organizations are part of the Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe (FIOE) which is indeed a formal organization complete with a Brussels headquarters, officers, departments and branch organizations. Although some sources have referred to the UCOII as a FIOE member organization, FIOE itself lists the Muslim Association of Italy (MAI), probably also known as the Alleanza Islamica d’Italia, as its member organization in Italy. The contact person for the MAI is Aboulkheir Breigheche who in 2006 was the Vice-President of the UCOII suggesting a relationship between the MAI and the UCOII that is not understood at the current time.
The article goes on to present more useful information about the role of the UCOII within Italian Islam.