Feature

The Trump Administration’s Islamophobic Holy Grail

Designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group would cripple U.S. foreign policy and launch a domestic smear campaign.

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It is the holy grail of the anti-Islam lobby: the designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a “foreign terrorist organization” (FTO) by the U.S. government.

The move could mean open season on American Muslims, cripple U.S. policy in the Muslim world and have implications for American domestic politics. Officials in President Donald Trump’s administration are currently debating issuing an executive order to implement the designation, while proponents on Capitol Hill are pushing legislation with the same objective.

“It will absolutely fuel the line in the Middle East that we are inherently anti-Muslim,” argues Ryan Crocker, who served as U.S. ambassador in four Arab countries, as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan. “Because while Trump and his nearest and dearest may not have any clue of how the Brothers are organized and how much autonomy each country’s organization has, this will just send a broad-brush message: All you need to be is Muslim to be blacklisted.”

Domestically, the proposed designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group “is viewed by some as a silver bullet, but actually, it’s more like a cluster bomb that’s going to cause damage everywhere,” says James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute.

The move threatens to introduce an Islamophobic parlor game into American culture, fueling speculation on the degrees of separation between any Muslim and proponents of jihad. That’s because the Muslim Brotherhood is the granddaddy of most Islamist political movements around the world — both peaceful and violent. Many politically active Muslims who emigrated to the United States and helped to found Muslim civic associations here were either members of the Brotherhood, or had friends who were. As with the Kevin Bacon parlor game, look hard enough at almost any Muslim organization in the United States, and you are likely to find some glancing connection to the Brotherhood.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), one of two Muslims in Congress and a candidate for chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), knows about being smeared by association. A network of anti-Muslim websites regularly accuses Ellison, without evidence, of being a Muslim Brotherhood operative, a campaign that took on new vigor when he announced his candidacy to chair the DNC, including accusations he is “a Muslim Brotherhood shill.”

“You sound paranoid when you say there is a well-financed, organized movement to promote anti-Muslim hate,” Ellison told me in an interview last year. “But the fact is, it’s true and well documented.”

If the terrorism listing is implemented and Ellison wins the DNC chair race, it will likely give some Republicans another excuse to attack him and the Democratic Party. American attitudes toward Muslims dramatically improved during the presidential campaign — but the shift has been heavily partisan, almost all of it among independents and Democrats, 81 percent of whom now report a favorable attitude toward Muslims, according to a recent Brookings Institution poll.

“You score points if you attack Muslims on the Republican side. You don’t get those points on the Democratic side,” says Zogby.

The Trump administration has the power to unilaterally designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization. Under existing law, the recommendation is made by the State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism: If the secretary of state, after consultations with the attorney general and the Treasury secretary, agrees to list the group, Congress has seven days to object. If it does not, the group joins the 61 organizations currently on the list, from the Islamic State and al Qaeda to Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo.

State Department sources tell me that Middle East experts there are arguing against declaring the Brotherhood a FTO. That’s both because of a designation’s impact on foreign policy, and because there is a lack of evidence that the group meets the requirements of being declared a FTO — namely, engaging in terrorist activities of threatening the security of American nationals. But their new boss, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, has already lumped the Muslim Brotherhood in with groups that have carried out direct attacks on American interests.

“The demise of ISIS will also allow us to increase our attention on other agents of radical Islam like al-Qaida, the Muslim Brotherhood, and certain elements within Iran,” he said in prepared testimony during his confirmation hearing last month.

Bills introduced in Congress by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-Fla.) is the other path to the same endgame. It would give the secretary of state 60 days to report back to Congress on whether he believes the Muslim Brotherhood meets the criteria of a terrorist group. The legislation would give the administration political cover, if Trump and his advisors decided they need it after the pushback on the immigration ban. Similar bills were introduced during the Obama administration, but not only did the White House refuse to list the Brotherhood, it recognized the Muslim Brotherhood government that won Egypt’s first democratic election in 2012.

“This bill would impose tough sanctions on a hateful group that has spread violence and spawned extremist movements throughout the Middle East,” Díaz-Balart said as he introduced the bill. “Designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization is an important step in defeating violent extremists.”

Most experts on the Muslim Brotherhood say that is a deeply flawed, simplistic, assessment. Founded in Egypt in 1928, the group is the forerunner of Islamic political movements around the world. But to portray it as a monolithic organization with a central leadership and single goal is simply wrong.

“There is a common DNA, there’s a common core of ideas and beliefs,” says Lorenzo Vidino, director of the George Washington University Program on Extremism. “But you have such different groups, such different entities. If the Brotherhood in Yemen has current links to terrorism and has been involved in violence, the Brotherhood in Tunisia is a completely different beast, which has behaved in a completely different way.”

Ryan Crocker says that when he was U.S. ambassador to Iraq, the Muslim Brotherhood was America’s main ally among the country’s Sunnis. If the Brotherhood is put on the terrorism list, implicating all groups with even distant ties, building such alliances won’t be an option — anywhere.

In Syria, that would seriously hamper the U.S. ability to work with the anti-Assad opposition. And American diplomats from Tunisia to Kuwait would find themselves barred from speaking to members of parliament and key political opposition groups.

That, Crocker predicts, will hinder American diplomacy and produce even more extremism. He worries that it would cripple the U.S. ability to work with Sunni Muslim groups opposed to radical extremists like the Islamic State, since even the moderates likely have ties to the Brotherhood. That would leave Washington with no alternative to backing authoritarian regimes in order to take on the terrorists. “I think it will get really bad, particularly in places like Jordan,” he told me. “It’s certainly going to help some of the younger Brothers make the case for moving to violence.”

The United Arab Emirates and several other Persian Gulf countries have already declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, though Saudi Arabia is reportedly considering steps to remove the group from its terrorist list, a reminder that the designation has more to do with regional politics — in particular, relations with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s anti-Brotherhood regime — than any perceived terrorism threat.

Domestically, the listing of the Muslim Brotherhood risks dramatic implications for the civil liberties of American Muslims.

“The conspiracy theory has been that essentially every Muslim organization in the United States is a front for the Muslim Brotherhood and we’re all part of a plot to undermine the United States from within,” says Corey Saylor of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the group most often accused of being a Brotherhood front by the anti-Muslim lobby, a charge it vehemently denies.

“The goal isn’t to shut down the Muslim Brotherhood. The goal is to wage this ideological war against Muslims and the institutions that they are associated with,” argues Nathan Lean, author of the book The Islamophobia Industry.

Former FBI agent Michael German says the experience of other groups charged with terrorism ties during George W. Bush’s administration shows that organizations accused of being associated with the Muslim Brotherhood could find themselves in a Kafkaesque nightmare.

“Much of the evidence in the administrative file used to justify the designation [of terrorist groups] is classified…. So the entity is in a position of trying to argue against facts they don’t even know and accusations they haven’t even heard,” says German, who is now a fellow at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. Numerous groups accused of links to terror have had their assets seized, even though they were never convicted of a crime.

The difference between previous efforts to have the Brotherhood listed as a FTO and the current push is that proponents of the Brotherhood conspiracy theories now hold — or in the case of disgraced former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, held — key positions in the White House.

Aside from Flynn, who called Islam “a cancer,” there is Kellyanne Conway, who once conducted a flawed survey for anti-Muslim crusader Frank Gaffney that claimed more than a quarter of American Muslims want to punish unbelievers. White House advisor Stephen Miller, author of the recent immigration ban, is a long-time mentee to David Horowitz, who the Southern Poverty Law Center has called “the godfather of the modern anti-Muslim movement.” And Attorney General Jeff Sessions has warned of the danger of radicalization among “the U.S.-born children of migrants.”

Horowitz recently bragged about his ties to the Trump White House, noting that a retreat he hosted “featured dozens of prominent conservative figures including now Vice President Mike Pence and soon to be Attorney General Jeff Sessions.”

The Washington Post reported that Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon once drafted a documentary-style screenplay about a dystopian near future in which a “fifth column” made up of “Islamic front groups” had transformed the United States into the “Islamic States of America.”

Bannon is not alone in seeing terrorists under the bed — even in the Lincoln Bedroom. Anti-Muslim campaigners have claimed for years that Muslim Brotherhood operatives had infiltrated former President Barack Obama’s administration. The accusation was repeatedly featured on Breitbart when it was headed by Bannon, and has bounced around the anti-Muslim echo chamber from alt-right bloggers like Gaffney to more mainstream conservative commentators such as Jeffrey Lord and talk show host Glenn Beck.

The alleged Muslim Brotherhood infiltrators include Hillary Clinton’s top aide, Huma Abedin, as well as conservative activists Grover Norquist and Suhail Khan. Former Blackwater CEO Erik Prince, brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, is among those making such claims. Trump advisor Roger Stone even accused Khizr Khan, the Gold Star father who upset Trump with his speech at the Democratic National Convention, of being “a Muslim Brotherhood agent.”

The allegation that six senior Obama administration staffers or advisors were Brotherhood operatives can be traced back to a piece of disinformation published in an Egyptian magazine, Rose al-Yusuf, seven months before the military coup that ousted that country’s democratically elected Brotherhood government. The story appeared to have been planted by the “deep state” of intelligence and military officials that survived ousted President Hosni Mubarak and was likely designed to embarrass the Obama administration, which the antidemocratic forces blamed for supporting the elected Brotherhood government, headed by Mohamed Morsi.

“Do these six individuals mark a turning point for Obama’s administration from a position of opposition to Islamic organizations and groups to being the largest and most important supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood in the world?” asked the unsourced article, which would become part of a broader campaign against the Obama administration after the coup led by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Various figures in America’s anti-Muslim lobby would seize on the claim, which was published with no evidence to back it up.

Bizarrely, in laying out the case for declaring the Brotherhood a terrorist group, the Cruz-Díaz-Balart bill justifies the listing with the fact that Egypt, Syria, and Russia have all done the same. But in each of those three countries, the declaration of the Brotherhood as a terrorist group has led to violent crackdowns that fed a cycle of terrorism. As Paul Pillar, a former CIA national intelligence officer for the Middle East, noted in an article about the proposed American ban on the Brotherhood, “closing peaceful channels for the expression of political Islam moves more people into the violent channels.”

Few experts dispute that elements of the Brotherhood do carry out violent acts of jihad abroad. The Palestinian group Hamas, which is already on the U.S. government’s terrorism list, is an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. And since the Egyptian coup that ousted the Brotherhood government, there has been a wave of terrorist acts in that country, some undoubtedly by Brotherhood members who have turned to violence. But experts say it would be a mistake to view the Muslim Brotherhood as a monolithic organization taking orders from a centralized leadership.

“The MB universe is a ‘broad church’ — the Libyan MB is not like the Jordanian MB, the Egyptians are not like the Tunisians, and so on,” H.A. Hellyer, author of A Revolution Undone: Egypt’s Road Beyond Revolt, told me. “It is important not to assume too much of a connectivity between the different MB inspired groupings.”

The British government opted not to declare the Brotherhood a terrorist group after a 2015 study ordered by the British House of Commons concluded that, while aspects of the Brotherhood acted contrary to British values and national interest, there was “no indication” the group sought to create an Islamic state in Britain and “has not been linked to terrorist related activity in and against the UK.” American backers of the listing would likewise be hard-pressed to identify terrorist activity by the Brotherhood “in and against” the United States.

Radical jihadis have actually identified the Muslim Brotherhood as an enemy rather than a potential ally. Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, himself once a member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, last year likened the group to a “poultry farm” and its members to “chickens.” Likewise, the leader of the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, told Al Jazeera in 2015 that he hoped that one day, “the [Syrian] Muslim Brotherhood will realize that their plan of action is wrong…. They should take up their arms and wage jihad for the sake of Allah.”

U.S. civil rights and Muslim community activists worry that adding the Brotherhood to the FTO list will open the door to accusations of guilt by association.

Among the potential targets is the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA), which has branches on campuses across the United States and describes itself as “a non-profit organization that strives to facilitate networking, educating, and empowering the students of today to be citizens of tomorrow’s community.”

Anti-Muslim campaigner David Horowitz has said that the MSA’s campus chapters are “arms of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the fountainhead of the terrorist jihad against the West.”

The charges against the MSA are emblematic of the situation that could be faced by other American Muslim groups. A handful of individuals who were members of the MSA when they attended university have been convicted of terrorism, accused of terrorism-related crimes, or deported. These include 9/11 mastermind Khaled Sheikh Muhammad and al Qaeda propagandist and recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen who was president of the MSA chapter at Colorado State University and was assassinated in a U.S. drone strike in 2011.

But a large percentage — possible the majority — of Muslim students attending college in the United States join the MSA, which conducts social activities, sponsors scholarships, and organizes charity events. Are they all guilty by association? Any more than all police officers should be suspect because a handful of bad cops are convicted each year?

America hasn’t had an official litmus test for political ideas since the “red-baiting” of the McCarthy era. This is precisely what has so many worried about the broad-brush labeling of anything associated with the Muslim Brotherhood as “terrorist” — which might appropriately be called “green baiting,” for the color associated with Islam.

Even those who study or write about political Islam abroad and American Muslim organizations at home could be vulnerable. “Not only does this put at risk of prosecution all such nonviolent associations, but it also risks potentially any independent scholars or journalists who provide them even with the assistance of defending or propagating their views,” warns Yale associate professor Andrew March.

In other words, they could end up accused of “un-American activities,” much like the diplomats, academics, journalists, and Hollywood figures targeted six decades ago. Meanwhile, Muslims in the United States and around the world will have another reason to believe America hates them.

Photo credit: AWAD AWAD/AFP/Getty Images

Lawrence Pintak is a journalist and scholar who has reported on America’s relationship with the Muslim world since 1980. He is a non-resident senior fellow at The Atlantic Council and was founding dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. A former CBS News Middle East correspondent with a PhD in Islamic Studies, he is the author of several books on relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world. “Islam for Journalists (and Everyone Else)” will be published on Kindle in March.

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