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How an obscure policy effort could hurt American Muslims

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 1/12/2017 Abigail Hauslohner
Members of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood protest the Islamic State and carry a banner with pictures of police officers killed by the Islamic State, in Amman, Jordan, Dec. 23. © Jamal Nasrallah/EPA Members of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood protest the Islamic State and carry a banner with pictures of police officers killed by the Islamic State, in Amman, Jordan, Dec. 23.

Lawmakers have introduced a measure calling for the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the oldest Islamist organizations in the Middle East, to be designated a foreign terrorist organization, and for the first time in recent years they are optimistic that the administration will sign on.

The Muslim Brotherhood Terrorist Designation Act, introduced this week by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) on both sides of Congress, advocates for the designation on the grounds that the Muslim Brotherhood espouses “a violent Islamist ideology with a mission of destroying the West.”

It marks the fifth straight year that lawmakers have introduced legislation to this effect; previous administrations, as well as experts, have not viewed the group, which has held elected political office across the Middle East, as a threat, and have preferred to engage it diplomatically.

President-elect Donald Trump, his supporters say, sees things differently.

Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for secretary of state — and the person who would make such a designation — on Wednesday referred to the Brotherhood as an adversary during prepared remarks before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but stopped short of calling for a terrorist designation.

Jordanian people during a protest the Islamic State after Friday prayers in Amman, Jordan, Dec. 23. © Jamal Nasrallah/EPA Jordanian people during a protest the Islamic State after Friday prayers in Amman, Jordan, Dec. 23.

Tillerson said the administration’s top priority in the Middle East must be defeating the Islamic State, which has been implicated in the murders of thousands of people, but suggested the Brotherhood would come next.

“The demise of ISIS will also allow us to increase our attention on other agents of radical Islam like al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood and certain elements within Iran,” Tillerson said Wednesday during his confirmation hearing. ISIS is another name for the Islamic State

If the Trump administration adds the Brotherhood, it would mark the first time that the U.S. government has pursued the terrorist designation on ideological grounds, experts say.

It is also likely to have a far-reaching impact on American Muslims at a time when Muslim community leaders say the religious minority is facing the worst harassment it has seen since the aftermath of 9/11.

Proponents of the measure, including members of Trump’s incoming administration, have long used the Muslim Brotherhood label as shorthand for Muslim organizations, politicians and government officials who they disagree with, and civil rights advocates fear those allegations could be used as pretext to investigate and alienate those who challenge the government’s treatment of Muslims.

Supporters of the designation have wielded it most frequently against advocacy groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which regularly files lawsuits on behalf of Muslims who have experienced discrimination, as well as charities.

They have also used it to attack Democratic members of Congress, Muslim government officials, longtime Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin, and the Gold Star father Khizr Khan, who criticized Trump at the Democratic National Convention in the summer.

Corey Saylor, who oversees CAIR’s response to Islamophobia, describes the allegation of a connection as “pure conspiracy theory,” but worries that a formal terrorism designation for the Brotherhood could then “be used as a pretext to essentially go into organizations, shut them down, and say ‘we’re investigating them.’”

“Years later, [they’ll say] ‘Oh sorry there’s nothing there.’ But the effect is, those organizations no longer exist,” he said. The label, he added “could also be used to isolate organizations and drive away potential allies.”

Baher Azmy, the legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, said he viewed the move as “part of a two-step process to delegitimize a great swathe of American Muslim advocacy organizations.”

“This is sort of a massive cudgel, if it were passed, that could really be used to question, to target to harass advocacy organizations,” he said.

Supporters of the designation have suggested as much.

In announcing the Muslim Brotherhood Terrorist Designation Act, Cruz’s office cited a widely discredited 1991 memo from a Muslim Brotherhood member as evidence that the group is working to eliminate Western civilization from within, and referred to CAIR as an affiliated organization.

Experts on the Brotherhood say it poses no threat to the United States — typically one of the criteria for designating a foreign terrorist organization — and many have also questioned the extent to which it is alleged to participate in violence.

Founded in Egypt in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood is widely viewed as the mother of political Islamist movements. In its modern incarnation, it has sought to implement Islamic law and governance in several Middle East states through participation in democratic elections.

It has also spawned dozens of offshoots, including some extremist groups like the Palestinian militant group, Hamas, and al-Qaeda, which broke from the Brotherhood long ago.

Other offshoots like Tunisia’s Ennahda party and Turkey’s AKP — whose agenda Trump’s national security adviser retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn has lobbied for — hold elected office.

The Brotherhood won Egypt’s first democratic elections following the 2011 ouster of strongman Hosni Mubarak, but was later ousted itself in a military coup, and remains the target of an intense military crackdown.

After Egypt’s military overthrew the elected Brotherhood government in 2013, President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi and regional allies, including the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, that have also viewed the group as a political challenger, designated it a terrorist organization, and have urged the United States to do the same.

Michele Dunne, a Middle East and foreign policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that if successful, Cruz’s effort would signify “the first time that the United States would declare an organization to be a foreign terrorist organization on ideological grounds.”

Typically, she said, the designation is reserved for groups that have actually carried out acts of terrorism against civilians or U.S. citizens.

“The Cruz bill certainly doesn’t establish that the Brotherhood has done anything like that,” she said, adding that the designation would therefore put Washington on “a slippery slope.”

“I think it would put the United States on a course to be subject to demands from a lot of governments around the world to get their ideological enemies to be declared terrorist organizations,” she said.

In the United States, experts and civil rights advocates also wondered if the terrorist designation could be used to prosecute sympathizers.

“Domestically, there’s a whole slew of Muslim American organizations, some of which have members, I’m sure, which are sympathetic to the Brotherhood [or] schooled in the Brotherhood,” said Nathan Brown, an expert on the organization and Egyptian politics at George Washington University.

Calls for Trump to “deport,” “annihilate” or “expel” the Brotherhood — along with a list of other organizations, CAIR in particular, have lit up social media in the weeks since the November election, and CAIR officials said their offices have been inundated with calls and emails warning them that their time is almost up.

“I think President Trump should expel every member of CAIR and the Muslim Brotherhood on day one. Send them back to their sandbox,” tweeted one person under the screen name “housecracka,” who is followed by Flynn, as well as Cruz. (CAIR is an American organization).

Others hashtagged their warnings to the Brotherhood with #MSA for the Muslim Student Association, #ISNA for the Islamic Society of North America and #MPAC, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, too.

Cruz and Diaz-Balart’s bill has three co-sponsors in the Senate, and 20 in the House, including Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee Michael McCaul (R-Texas).

Three of Trump’s Cabinet nominees, including his picks for CIA director and attorney general, are previous co-sponsors of the bill.

Flynn and his deputy K.T. McFarland, as well as defense secretary nominee, retired Gen. James Mattis, have also previously blasted the Brotherhood and political Islam. All three, along with Trump, have praised Egypt’s authoritarian leader Sissi.

Former speaker of the House and Trump adviser Newt Gingrich said he thinks that unlike President Obama, the incoming Trump administration will go ahead and designate the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, severing all diplomatic interaction and opening up the opportunity to go after people in the United States.

“My guess and it is purely a guess, is that the administration would lean toward that designation because I think there’s a sense in large parts of the world that groups that are affiliated with [the Muslim Brotherhood] are terrorist organizations,” Gingrich said.

The formal label “would put pressure on the groups that have been willing to affiliate with the Brotherhood,” he added, naming CAIR as one such group. “It would certainly put them on the defense psychologically.


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