A bill introduced this week by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) calls on the U.S. State Department to determine whether the Muslim Brotherhood is a foreign terrorist organization. Advocates for American Muslims suspect a darker purpose ― to smear and potentially prosecute American Muslim advocacy groups, a move that could prove disastrous for the civil rights of Muslims in this country.
Cruz and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) introduced the Muslim Brotherhood Terrorist Designation Act in both chambers of Congress on Tuesday. In a press release, Cruz said that the brotherhood espouses “a violent Islamist ideology with a mission of destroying the West” and that formally designating them a terror group would “enable the U.S. to take action that could stifle the funding they receive to promote their terrorist activities.”
It’s the fifth time members of the Senate and House, urged on by a multimillion-dollar network of anti-Muslim groups, have attempted to label the Muslim Brotherhood a terror organization.
But American foreign policy and counterterrorism experts, while highly critical of the brotherhood’s brand of Islamism, have generally not viewed the organization as a threat to U.S. national security. They have argued that a terror designation might needlessly complicate U.S. relations with Middle Eastern countries where the brotherhood or its offshoots hold some level of influence.
Additionally, a British government investigation last year determined that while the Muslim Brotherhood had ties to extremism, it was not a terrorist group.
American Muslim advocates contend that the real intent of Cruz’s bill has little to do with foreign policy. Rather, they argue, the legislation would enable the U.S. government to target domestic Muslim groups that Cruz and others earnestly believe are part of a massive, covert conspiracy to destroy the U.S. from within.
A 2001 executive order issued by President George W. Bush gave the State and Treasury departments broad powers to investigate organizations that the government alleges have provided material support to, or are “otherwise associated with,” a designated terror group. Those being investigated can have their funds frozen and be subject to warrantless searches and asset seizures. The investigations can drag on for years, effectively shutting down the organization.
A 2009 American Civil Liberties Union review of Muslim charities in the crosshairs found that Bush’s executive order “effectively allows the government to shut down an organization without notice or hearing and on the basis of classified evidence, and without any judicial review.”
Now Cruz’s legislation looks like another step along that road.
“The bill is about domestic control of Muslims,” Corey Saylor, director of the department to monitor and combat Islamophobia at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), told The Huffington Post. “It has everything to do with a widely debunked conspiracy theory that Muslim organizations are nefarious.”
“Let me be extremely clear,” J.M. Berger, a counterterrorism analyst at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, told BuzzFeed last fall, speaking of the broader idea of a terrorist designation for the Muslim Brotherhood. “This initiative is concerned with controlling American Muslims, not with any issue pertaining to the Muslim Brotherhood in any practical or realistic sense.”
The Muslim Brotherhood affects CAIR the way a dust storm on Mars affects the weather in Washington, D.C. Corey Saylor of the Council on American-Islamic Relations
For years, anti-Muslim groups have claimed that CAIR, the country’s largest Muslim civil rights organization, and other pro-Islam groups in the U.S. are, in fact, fronts for the brotherhood.
Saylor vehemently denied that allegation on Wednesday. “The Muslim Brotherhood affects CAIR the way a dust storm on Mars affects the weather in Washington, D.C.,” he said, adding that CAIR has never received funding from the brotherhood.
Yet with the election of Donald Trump, who has surrounded himself with anti-Muslim conspiracy theorists, and with Republicans in control of the Senate and House, the proposed Muslim Brotherhood Terrorist Designation Act has a chance of passing and being signed into law.
Lana Safah, a spokeswoman for the Muslim American Society, another high-profile Muslim advocacy group, told HuffPost that her group has “no affiliation with any foreign or international organization.”
Yet, she said, “in the Trump era, and in the most Islamophobic atmosphere the American Muslim community has ever experienced, it seems we should expect the unexpected, such as this unprecedented designation, which no former administration has made. It would cripple the operations of any Muslim organizations linked, however circumstantially, to the Brotherhood.”
“Demonizing these organizations,” she added, “will only hinder national security efforts to eradicate the roots of violent extremism.”
Nathan Lean, author of the 2012 book The Islamophobia Industry, agrees. He said designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group could give government officials cover to effectively dismantle U.S. Muslim groups. And that, he fears, would lead to “the wanton violation of American Muslim civil rights.”
The ‘Civilization Jihad’ Conspiracy Theory
The allegations that the Muslim Brotherhood has ties to CAIR ― as well as to groups like the Muslim American Society, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the International Institute of Islamic Thought ― stem largely from a single discredited document titled “An Explanatory Memorandum on the General Strategic Goal for the Brotherhood in North America.” The memorandum, found during a 2004 FBI raid of a Virginia home, was written by a Muslim Brotherhood member named Mohamed Akram Adlouni in 1991.
In horrifying language, Adlouni called for the Muslim Brotherhood to engage in a “Civilization-Jihad” wherein Muslims would work at “eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within and ‘sabotaging’ its miserable house.” He listed a number of American Muslim organizations, including CAIR, in an appendix to the memo.
“Imagine if they all march according to one plan!!!” Adlouni wrote ― a seeming admission that these organizations were not, in fact, engaged in any “civilization jihad.”
Adlouni does not appear to have been a significant player in the Muslim Brotherhood, so his letter can’t be interpreted as a set of orders. Rather, he sounds like a subordinate trying to persuade higher-ups, at one point asking that the brotherhood “not rush to throw these papers away.”
In 2011 testimony before the House Select Intelligence Committee, Tarek Masoud, a professor of international relations at Harvard University, said that Adlouni’s list of Muslim organizations appeared “aspirational.”
“It seemed to me upon reading the memorandum that the Muslim Brotherhood member who wrote it believed that his organization was not working with American Muslim organizations and should be,” Masoud recounted to HuffPost this week.
A 2016 report by the Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University dismissed the memorandum as “one man’s utopian vision.” Adlouni’s call for “civilization jihad” was never adopted by the brotherhood, the report concluded, and his phrasing almost never turns up in “mainstream Islamic literature” over the two decades since he wrote the document.
But among anti-Muslim groups like the Center for Security Policy, which has close ties to Cruz, this document is still held up as definitive proof that peaceful Muslim groups in the U.S. are hellbent on committing “civilization jihad.”
The Muslim Brotherhood Has Landed!
Cruz cited the “civilization jihad” memorandum in his press release this week. In the previous version of the Muslim Brotherhood bill he introduced last year, he named CAIR and two other groups ― ISNA and the North American Islamic Trust ― as “affiliates” of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Under the helm of Gaffney, the Center for Security Policy has arguably done more than any other group to push the “civilization jihad” conspiracy theory. It is listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, whose website describes Gaffney as “gripped by paranoid fantasies about Muslims destroying the West from within, suspicious that Barack Obama was actually born in Kenya, and a proponent of a new version of the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee to root out suspected Muslim subversives.”
Gaffney has also baselessly accused multiple political figures ― including Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin and conservative activists Grover Norquist and Suhail Khan ― of infiltrating the U.S. government on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“The Muslim Brotherhood has become a boogeyman for these people and it’s just become the dirty word you can connect these groups to,” said Eli Clifton, a fellow at the Nation Institute and co-author of the Center for American Progress’ 2011 report “Fear Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America.”
“I think there’s very limited evidence, if any, that [the Muslim Brotherhood] have gained an active role in the U.S., or that it influences in a direct way the policies or advocacy positions of groups representing Muslim Americans,” Clifton said.
The alleged connections being drawn between groups like CAIR and the Muslim Brotherhood are “very shoddy,” according to Lean, the author of The Islamophobia Industry.
In the worldview of the Center for Security Policy and similar anti-Muslim groups, Lean said, if someone’s “brother-in-law’s cousin’s nephew’s half-brother was once in the grocery store lane with a man who was in the Muslim Brotherhood ... that’s sufficient evidence that that particular individual or group is representative of the Muslim Brotherhood. That’s hyperbole in a way, but that is the sort of the logical leap that these people make.”
The reality, Lean said, is that “there is never evidence” that CAIR or ISNA or the International Institute of Islamic Thought ― to name a few of the Islamophobes’ targets ― are on the brotherhood’s payroll or otherwise represent the brotherhood.
Neither Cruz nor Gaffney responded to a request for comment on this story.
A group that couldn’t control Egypt for a year certainly couldn’t control America. Eric Trager of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy
Not every expert agrees that the effort to label the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group is merely a ploy to go after American Muslim organizations.
Eric Trager, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of the 2016 book Arab Fall: How the Muslim Brotherhood Won and Lost Egypt in 891 Days, said there is honest concern “within the policy community more broadly that the Brotherhood is a radical organization whose ideology contributes to terrorist acts.”
Nonetheless, he said, there’s “no evidence” that American Muslim groups are fronts for the brotherhood. Plus, there’s “no such thing as being a sort of Muslim Brother.” The process to become a member of the brotherhood is “very rigorous,” Trager said.
“It takes five or eight years to join,” he said, and “they vet you at every stage.”
Trager thinks there are groups in the U.S. that might “share some views with the Brotherhood, sort of ascribe to the same ideology, that have the same view that Islam should control every aspect of life.” Members of the brotherhood are sometimes invited to speak at events held by American Muslim organizations, he said, pointing to a Muslim American Society conference last month.
As for Cruz’s bill, Trager said he sees what he called “a technical question more than anything.” The Muslim Brotherhood, he said, is better understood as a hate group than a terrorist organization.
“Its primary purpose is not acts of violence,” Trager said, “but to promote a theocratic, power-seeking and exclusivist position that is very explicitly anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, anti-Western and even anti-those Muslims who do not share its outlook.”
Another complication for those pushing for a terror-group label, Trager said, is that the Muslim Brotherhood was essentially “decapitated” after Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, who had close ties to the brotherhood, was ousted in 2013. “It doesn’t seem to me that the Muslim Brotherhood functions as an organization in a sense of command and control as it did in 2013 and prior,” said Trager.
Asked about Gaffney’s assertion that the Muslim Brotherhood wants to commit “civilization jihad” in the West, Trager said “a group that couldn’t control Egypt for a year certainly couldn’t control America.”
Masoud, the Harvard professor, identified a foreign policy downside to Cruz’s bill. Important U.S. allies in the Islamic world ― including Jordan, Tunisia, Morocco, Turkey and Qatar ― are either sympathetic to or have the Muslim Brotherhood (or related organizations) as players in their politics.
“There is a great deal of diversity among our allies in terms of how they view the Muslim Brotherhood,” Masoud said. “In some, the group is legal and operates openly, and in others, it is banned as a terrorist organization. But even among those countries that have banned the Brotherhood, there is much variation in how they have dealt with the group over time and in their own relations with Brotherhood organizations in different countries.”
A ‘Sweet Moment’ After Trump’s Victory
After Trump’s election, anti-Muslim groups in the U.S. were in a celebratory mood.
The day after the election, Gaffney told Breitbart Radio that Trump’s win was “literally a blessing from God” and that declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group would be a key part of Trump’s “strategy of victory over jihad.”
And then, as if to encapsulate his own conspiracy theory, Gaffney said, “We’ve got to stop taking counsel from [the Muslim Brotherhood], direction from them, and allowing them to operate in our midst subversively, and that’s what’s been going on for some 50 years now.”
Brigitte Gabriel, founder of Act for America ― which the Southern Poverty Law Center has also listed as a hate group ― bragged in a Dec. 13 fundraising email that her group had a “direct line” to the Trump White House and that his presidency would be a “four-year window of opportunity” to declare the Muslim Brotherhood a terror group, among other objectives.
And Jamie Glazov, managing editor of the anti-Muslim site FrontPage Magazine, said on Nov. 12, “What a sweet moment, what a miraculous moment. CAIR, ISNA, and other Brotherhood front groups should be shaking in their boots.”
Those who worry about the rights and safety of American Muslims have been less joyous since the election.
The Islamophobia Industry author Lean warned that if the U.S. declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terror group, it’s likely the government could launch “wholesale surveillance” of the Muslim community ― much as the New York Police Department once did, “which violated [Muslims’] rights.”
And that, Lean suggested, would be the relatively “benign” outcome. “When you render a group a terrorist group,” he said, “that opens up the door for a lot of really damaging possibilities, like endless prosecution of Muslim Americans that simply hold different political or religious positions than Cruz, [Ben] Carson, Gaffney, Trump and that band of fear-mongers.”
When groups like CAIR are weakened or dismantled, the people they represent become more vulnerable to persecution.
Peter Gottschalk, a professor of religion at Wesleyan University and co-author of the 2007 book “Islamophobia: Making Muslims the Enemy,” told HuffPost that Cruz’s bill hearkens back to dark chapters in American history.
“It certainly strikes one as similar to early twentieth-century anti-Semitic claims in the U.S. and Europe connecting any powerful Jew to ‘international Jewry,’ which both erases any sense of their legitimacy while feeding conspiracy theories that galvanize nativist support,” Gottschalk said.
He also pointed to the work of the Know Nothing Party in Massachusetts in the 19th century. With enough allies in the state legislature, Gottschalk said, they “established [the] Smelling Committee to examine Irish Catholic homes, schools, and churches for possible weapons while prominent Irish Catholics and organizations were viewed as puppets of the Vatican.”
Whether the particular target was Jews or Catholics or Muslims, Gottschalk said, the goal was always “to smear Americans as under foreign institutional control and part of an international conspiracy.”
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