Central-local relations: Issues of autonomy and control within the Union des organisations islamiques de France

Margot Dazey, University of Cambridge

Muslim Brotherhood-inspired organizations in Europe are often portrayed as centralized, hierarchical and disciplined structures (Amghar 2008). Post-Islamist literature further depicts the bureaucratic culture of these organizations, stressing their pyramidal decision-making and rigid management, in opposition to informal networks of young European-born Muslim activists (Haenni 2006, Boubekeur 2007). Privileging a headquarters-focused perspective on organizational structures, these broad characterizations are predicated on a national-level approach, to the neglect of more localized dynamics in cities and provinces. They also tend to present a static picture of the organizations, overlooking the historical evolutions of their inner workings as multi-level institutions.

This memo addresses these lacunae by looking at the internal structure at different territorial levels of the Union des organisations islamiques de France (UOIF), one of the most prominent umbrella organizations in the French Islamic landscape. While some authors have examined the processes of organizational differentiation – with the creation of group-specific associations, for instance youth, students and women (Maréchal 2008) – or specified the movement’s ties with European ikhwani networks (Vidino in Meijer, Bakker 2012), almost nothing is known about the intricate interplay between the Parisian central apparatus and the provincial local sections of the organization.

Departing from top-down methodological approaches and borrowing insights from organization studies (Davis et al. 2005), this memo draws on ethnographic observations, interviews and archival work in both local sections and headquarters of the UOIF. Compared to most case studies in this collection, the focus of analysis does not lie on externally-oriented activism – such as local mobilization of constituents or linkages with state/non-state actors. Rather, it shifts the gaze towards intra-movement dynamics, following fresh lines of inquiry: What is the degree of local autonomy vis-à-vis the central UOIF leadership? Where are the decision-making processes located within the movement? How is unity preserved despite diverging local itineraries? In answering these questions, I argue that (i) a key organizational characteristic of the UOIF stems from its federal structure, (ii) giving some room for local initiatives and self-direction. As a consequence of this structuration, (iii) channels of cooperation and mechanisms of group cohesiveness are necessary tools developed by the central leadership to assure discipline among local factions.

It should be noted that in stark contrast with Muslim-majority countries, Muslim Brotherhood-inspired movements in Europe have jettisoned the primary goal of participating in state governance (Roy in Amghar 2006). Comparisons of their organizational structures need therefore to be drafted cautiously: while in the Middle East “the Brotherhood were working inside of Majority-Muslim societies under the thumb of autocratic states,” in Europe, they are building upon “minorities inside democratic states amongst … secular societies” (Brooke in Meijer, Bakker 2012). Embracing these differences of environments and purposes, Muslim Brotherhood-inspired movements in Europe have built elitist organizations with a very narrow base of educated middle class members, rather than broader mass movements spread in society.

Branch formation: a federal structure

The UOIF was officially established in 1983, but was an amorphous movement since 1981 – a period which remains poorly researched. In particular, little has been written about the initial debates surrounding its organizational features. The founding members of the movement – a handful of North African and Middle Eastern students influenced by Islamic reformism, who had arrived in France in the late 1970s to early 1980s – spent time discussing the most appropriate infrastructure in the French context. They were cautious not to mimic the organizational patterns of Muslim Brotherhood movements in their home-countries. Faysal Mawlawi, their spiritual leader and future guide of the Lebanese Brotherhood, was vocal about the need to craft an organizational machinery adapted to their environment. As an early member described to me in an interview:

I recall that Sheikh Faysal used to say that we were not bound to copy existing structures: we have to think of the reality as it is. France is a big country and linking people through ‘sections’ would prevent them from taking initiatives in their city or their region. It would be better if we allow them to organize themselves locally but also federate them around core elements. (H., Paris, 2017)

Avoiding top-down models also offered a way for UOIF members to distance themselves – at least rhetorically – from their rival group at the time: the Association des étudiants islamiques en France (AEIF). The AEIF was an older association which functioned as an intellectual hub for Arab students with Islamist sympathies and which chose to align itself with the Syrian branch of the Brotherhood, as opposed to the Egyptian parent-movement. Based in Paris and deploying its main activities in the capital, the AEIF started creating sections in other cities (Toulouse, Strasbourg, etc.) and operated as a loosely hierarchical organization.

In the wake of these discussions and other pragmatic considerations – notably the difficulty for provincial members with limited time and financial resources to gather regularly in Paris – founding members of the UOIF opted to establish a federal structure. The bylaws of the organization clearly stipulate its ambition to federate pre-existing autonomous associations rather than to create sections through a vertical approach. As noted by an early member of the movement, this adaptable design partly accounts for the UOIF’s successful expansion:

The UOIF, as we built it, takes care of localities. It federates them. It was born decentralized and… its decentralization is its strength. To be sure, we hear of the central UOIF, the UOIF in Paris, but what really strengthens the organization is its local embedding. (O., Marseille, 2017)

Branch development: personality-based local factions

In the 1980s, the central apparatus of the UOIF was characterized by a low degree of bureaucratization: the headquarters were not yet registered in the state capital and the central bodies were still lacking adequate resources in terms of budget, full-time staff and facilities. In local settings, however, emerging leaders were taking advantage of their relative autonomy to run their own activities and build up their strategic positioning in the local public sphere.

A few studies have briefly discussed the diverging itineraries of these local sections (Geisser 2006, Haenni 2006). Darif has aptly contrasted the development of the Bordeaux branch, built by a group of former university students with an ambitious intellectual project, with the evolution of the Lille branch, composed of Moroccan workers from the Rif mountains concerned with grassroots educational programs in religion and Arabic (Darif 2004).

These distinctive local features are accentuated by the concentration of power into a few emblematic figures. The personalization of leadership (Tareq Oubrou in Bordeaux, Moncef Zenati in Le Havre, Azzedine Gaci in Lyon, to cite but a few) has led to the establishment of local “fiefdoms,” with relative autonomy from the headquarters and a dominant position within the local Islamic landscape.

These self-governing figures and the exclusive circle of local leaders that surround them often represent “factions” within the organization. To draw on the Bordeaux case, the local section is regarded both internally and externally as the “liberal” and “progressive” but also “politically acceptable” wing of the UOIF. Its members are heavily involved in gaining public recognition outside the Muslim community, by participating in interreligious discussions and social events and by maintaining close relations with the local authorities. This process of notability-building, accompanied by an euphemization of the UOIF’s Islamic rhetoric, is subject to internal debates and illustrates the tensions between value commitments and survival concerns explored in other memos (see Clark and Zeidan in this collection).

The autonomy of local sections can lead them to take decisions contradicting the national strategy. For instance, a few branches decided to run for the 2011 election of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (Conseil français du culte musulman, established in 2003 by then France’s Minister of the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy), while the central level of the UOIF boycotted these elections. Similarly, while the executive committee of the UOIF chose to align itself with other Islamic organizations about the date of Ramadan in 2015, as a gesture of political compromise, some local sections opted for remaining loyal to astronomical calculations for the determination of the beginning of feast.

Branch management: mechanisms of cohesiveness

Studying the degree of autonomy of local sections is therefore not enough: a correlated riddle lies in the ways these movements maintain unity over time. In other words: How does the UOIF manage to reconcile rival currents? How does it remain resilient in the face of disintegrative forces? A national leader underscores the increasing need to address issues of coordination and control in light of the local sections’ expansion:

We want an evolution of the UOIF because, before, we were just a federation of associations. We were managing small mosques, small groups … In the small sections where we used to have five or six members, we now possess big mosques, with institutes, with middle schools, with high schools… So how can we structure all this to avoid organizational issues and diverging visions? (K., Paris, 2016)

In order to consolidate the cohesion of the movement, the central bodies of the UOIF use various methods for homogenization. While some are less successful than others, their effectiveness and limitations is out of the scope for this memo.

The first one is the training program arranged by the central apparatus. Local cadres, teachers, imams, and youth members are regularly invited to attend joint educational programs organized in the headquarters. These training sessions are opportunities to align members around common norms, values and objectives and to foster cross-sections interactions. In the words of a mid-range executive working for educational reform within the movement, it is essential to strike a balance between local initiatives and central unity:

For regional leaders or delegates, autonomy should not equate to independence. The question we ask ourselves is: How to take initiatives but keep respecting the general spirit? This should be done without constraints but with a general idea and a common reference in mind. (O., Paris, 2016)

Another instrument for ensuring coherence lies in institutionalized spaces of discussion between senior members of the central level and representatives of local branches. Each section’s representatives meet annually at the UOIF headquarters to confer about local issues and testify about the right understanding of the leadership’s decisions. In addition, local representatives gather annually at a regional level, with the central direction visiting them for follow-up discussions. These meetings give local members a further channel through which to voice their interests and grievances, and allow the national leadership to adjust strategies to current needs. Another national leader delineates the conditions for these exchanges to take place:

We give lot of room for debates for those who think differently…What is important for us is that the board of directors and the general assembly remain strong, so that when they make decisions, these decisions are followed by everyone. As long as these instances are protected, the resilience of the structure is assured. (K., Paris, 2016)

Finally, the management of internal conflict is illustrative of these techniques of accommodating factionalism. The central apparatus has the power to intervene directly in sections’ affairs in case of disagreements that cannot be resolved locally and to remind members of their allegiance to the head of the organization – which has been done occasionally in the last decade. Following specific procedures, the central organization usually acts as a conflict mediator between two conflicting clans, inspired by the Islamic juridical tradition of arbitration.


In a word, this memo could be read as a preliminary examination of the UOIF’s organizational culture. By enquiring power sharing arrangements between the local and central levels, it challenges the “unitary actor assumption” underlying the widely-held image of the UOIF as a monolithic structure and suggests directions for further research on the internal life of Islamic organizations in minority contexts.


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