President Donald Trump’s administration is seeking to designate the Muslim Brotherhood political movement a foreign terrorist organization ― a move that experts warn would greatly complicate American diplomacy in the Middle East, fuel extremism and lead to the persecution of Muslim groups in the U.S.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are pushing for the designation. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement that the “designation is working its way through the internal process.”
It’s an alarming development for foreign policy experts across the political spectrum who say the Muslim Brotherhood, a loose umbrella association with organizations in different countries, is nowhere near the top of the list in terms of threats to U.S. national security. The terror designation, they say, will destabilize U.S. relations with countries where the Brotherhood or its sympathizers hold influence. Those countries include Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait and Turkey ― important U.S. allies against real terrorism.
“The greatest damage might be in the realm of public diplomacy,” Nathan Brown and Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Middle East Center wrote in January 2017, when the Trump administration was last considering the designation. “Using a broad brush to paint all Muslim Brotherhood organizations as terrorists would be understood by many Muslims around the world as a declaration of war against non-violent political Islamists — and indeed against Islam itself.”
The designation would put the Muslim Brotherhood on a government list with dozens of other organizations and would make it illegal for anyone under U.S. jurisdiction to provide “material support or resources” to the group. It would also ban members from traveling to the U.S., and would make them “removable” from the country, according to the State Department.
The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928 to advocate for governments to be run according to Islamic laws and values. Its most influential figures renounced violence decades ago, and its Egyptian branch won elections after mass uprisings deposed President Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring in 2011. That branch and the global Brotherhood movement fell into disarray in 2013, after the Egyptian military ousted President Mohammed Morsi.
For years, anti-Muslim hate groups in the U.S. — many of them with deep ties to Bolton and Pompeo — have promoted conspiracy theories attempting to tie political opponents and prominent American Muslim organizations to the Muslim Brotherhood. Frank Gaffney, a former Pentagon official and head of the Center for Security Policy, an anti-Muslim think tank, has baselessly linked the Muslim Brotherhood to such figures as Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin and conservative activist Grover Norquist.
While these anti-Muslim groups and their advocacy for the terror designation were once relegated to the fringe of American politics, they have real influence in Trump’s White House.
A CIA memo obtained by Politico in January 2017 said that a terrorist designation for the Muslim Brotherhood would “fuel” extremism. Some of the movement’s rhetoric and affiliates have been connected to militant Islamists, but the so-called Islamic State and other terror groups criticize the Brotherhood as insufficiently militant and overly cooperative with Western-backed regimes, and many Brotherhood figures have spoken out against Muslims joining such organizations.
A terrorist designation would “provide ISIS and al-Qaeda additional grist for propaganda to win followers and support, particularly for attacks against U.S. interests,” the CIA memo said.
Both the George W. Bush and the Obama administrations declined to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terror group. A British government investigation in 2016 concluded that the group is not a terrorist organization.
If U.S. officials see a proven threat from organizations within the Brotherhood, they already have power to act without the kind of broad designation Trump is seeking. For instance, the Palestinian group Hamas, which is rooted in the Brotherhood, was designated a terror organization in 1997.
“As a whole, [the Muslim Brotherhood] is simply too diffuse and diverse to characterize,” William McCants and Benjamin Wittes, security experts at the Brookings Institution, argued in a 2017 paper. “And it certainly cannot be said as a whole to engage in terrorism that threatens the United States.”
McCants and Wittes added that “if credible evidence of terrorist activity is not forthcoming, it would quite simply be illegal for the United States to designate the Brotherhood on purely ideological grounds.”
Laura Pitter, senior U.S. national security counsel at Human Rights Watch, said in a 2017 statement that “designating the Muslim Brotherhood a ‘foreign terrorist organization’ would wrongly equate it with violent extremist groups like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State and make their otherwise lawful activities illegal.”
The move would also likely embolden autocrats around the Muslim-majority world who see the Brotherhood as a political threat, and who often justify crackdowns on opponents by warning that they have ties to the group and therefore, ostensibly, to violent Islamism. Experts say this kind of repression often drives people to give up on seeking change through peaceful reform and instead turn to militancy.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have designated the Brotherhood a terror organization, which expands their power to persecute activists on allegations of Brotherhood links, and Egyptian dictator Abdel-Fatteh el-Sissi, who has jailed tens of thousands of his own citizens, is reportedly behind Trump’s new interest in the move.
Experts and American Muslim advocates say a U.S. designation would similarly enable the Trump administration to target domestic Muslim groups.
The designation is “about domestic control of Muslims. It has everything to do with a widely debunked conspiracy theory that Muslim organizations are nefarious,” Corey Saylor, the former director of the department to monitor and combat Islamophobia at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told HuffPost in 2017.
CAIR, a Muslim civil rights organization, is one of several American Muslim groups accused of being a front for the Muslim Brotherhood.
“The Muslim Brotherhood affects CAIR the way a dust storm on Mars affects the weather in Washington, D.C.,” Saylor said.
“There is a very large Islamophobia industry whose favorite smear tactic is to accuse Muslims and Muslim civic organizations in the U.S. of supporting the mythical Muslim Brotherhood boogeyman,” Arjun Sethi, a civil rights lawyer and professor at Georgetown University, told HuffPost. “This industry would use the designation to intimidate, harass and smear Muslim and Arab groups here in the United States.”
The terror designation, Sethi said, would allow the U.S. government to “invoke very expansive and broad material support laws and criminally prosecute or freeze the assets of Muslim and Arab activists and/or their organizations who’ve done nothing wrong.”
The State and Treasury departments have wide-ranging powers to investigate organizations that the government alleges have provided material support to, or are “otherwise associated with,” a designated terror group.
Groups under investigation can be subject to warrantless searches and asset seizures. Investigations can drag on for years, effectively shutting down the organization.
Sethi said the Trump administration could push to use conspiracy theories connecting groups like CAIR to the Muslim Brotherhood as a pretense for prosecuting them ― a “witch hunt” hearkening back to dark chapters in American history.
“It could easily resemble the Red Scare, as some will declare that the Brotherhood is taking over the country,” Sethi said. “Accusations alone could destroy reputations and chill freedom of worship, association and expression.”
“This designation will build upon the Muslim ban and other Islamophobic policies,” he added, referring to Trump’s disastrous executive order banning immigrants and visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries. He pointed out that the designation could target groups that stood up against Trump’s ban.
“This decision would confirm what we all know: Donald Trump has waged war on Muslims worldwide,” Sethi said.