The proposal has garnered opposition from Muslim groups that could be targeted in the case of a ban, such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), as well as civil and human rights groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch.
Even the CIA and figures in the State Department are objecting.
At the end of January, an internal memo circulated within the CIA was leaked to media. It warns that banning the Muslim Brotherhood “may fuel extremism,” stating the group has “rejected violence as a matter of official policy and opposed al-Qaida and ISIS.”
“If the US government designates the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist group,” Human Rights Watch said earlier this month, “then not only its members, but anyone either in the United States or abroad suspected of providing support or resources to the group would be at risk of removal from the US if they are non-citizens and having their assets frozen. They would also risk unfairly being targeted for prosecution under various laws.”
Past prosecutions targeting organizations and individuals alleged to have provided material support to foreign terrorist organizations indicate the injustices that could be in store.
Several high-profile cases over alleged material support to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which are already designated by the US State Department as foreign terrorist organizations, resulted in acquittals or gross miscarriages of justice in which individuals were sentenced to decades in prison for raising money for charities, including groups which were also recipients of US government aid.
Even in the cases of acquittals, these trials put the accused, their families and communities through years-long ordeals.
Designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization would put charities, civil rights groups and individuals at risk, Human Rights Watch warns.
Some believe this is the intention.
“The US Islamophobia network and its political allies are pushing this designation to create a new era of religious McCarthyism where being an American Muslim or an advocacy organization pushing back against anti-Muslim rhetoric is enough to disqualify you from civic participation,” Robert McCaw, government affairs director at CAIR, told Politico.
There is broad opposition to banning the Muslim Brotherhood. So who is pushing for it?
Emboldening the fringe
Lobbying efforts to ban the group stretch back at least five years, but their failure to gain traction until now reflects how much leverage a fringe group of Islamophobia operatives has gained with Trump’s ascendancy.
In 2011 and 2012, a series of congressional hearings was held to discuss the supposed threat of “radical” Islam in the US. The members of Congress and some of the speakers who participated focused on the Muslim Brotherhood, even suggesting that the organization had infiltrated federal agencies under President Barack Obama.
In the summer of 2012, former congresswoman Michele Bachmann requested an investigation into US agencies she suspected had been infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Bachmann has also called for the US to designate the group as a terrorist organization.
Two major developments in the Middle East were easily exploited in order to stoke fears about political Islam. In Egypt, following the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the heavily repressed Muslim Brotherhood emerged as the leading opposition party; and in Syria, armed Islamist groups gained power in the movement against President Bashar al-Assad.
Speaking at a congressional hearing in November 2012, after the Muslim Brotherhood had won Egypt’s first democratic presidential election, Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank affiliated with the Israel lobby group AIPAC, warned that a “Muslim Brotherhood-led” opposition against al-Assad could potentially create a situation where Israel was surrounded by two Islamist governments.
“The Muslim Brotherhood was seen as threatening because it offered a different vision for the region,” said Abdullah Al-Arian, a professor of history at Georgetown University in Qatar, referring to the group’s early success after the 2011 uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, in which popular movements overthrew dictatorships.
“That resulted in it being considered a terrorist organization in some states, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, its assets seized and eradicated from society,” he added.
Al-Arian, whose father was the target of a 12-year terrorism prosecution that resulted in the government dropping all charges, described the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in some Arab states as a reactionary anti-democratic wave, not simply an anti-Muslim push.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s short-lived ascendance in Egypt proved it posed no threat to Israeli or US interests, according to Joel Beinin, Middle East historian at Stanford University.
Columbia University professor Joseph Massad has noted the Muslim Brotherhood government of President Muhammad Morsi also maintained Egypt’s ties with Israel and continued pro-Israel policies, including the closure of the border with Gaza.
Despite right-wing pressure on the US to renounce the Muslim Brotherhood, more sober voices in government maintained that the group posed no threat to the US.
National Intelligence Director James Clapper testified to Congress in February 2012 that the Muslim Brotherhood offered the most viable competition to al-Qaida.
All this did not placate those on the far right.
Behind the politicians trying to claim that the Muslim Brotherhood was seeking to replace the US Constitution with Islamic law were career Islamophobes, including Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy, who began influencing Trump while the latter was still campaigning for president.
The Southern Poverty Law Center describes Gaffney as “one of America’s most influential and notorious anti-Muslim figures.”
Gaffney’s center worked closely with Bachmann, a member of Congress until 2015, while she was pushing for an inquiry into alleged infiltration of the US government by the Muslim Brotherhood. Gaffney also served as Ted Cruz’s adviser when the senator authored his first proposal to blacklist the Brotherhood.
After Trump’s inauguration, one of Gaffney’s key allies, Sebastian Gorka, was appointed as a deputy national security assistant.
Walid Phares, the former political leader of the far-right sectarian Lebanese Forces militia who advised Trump during his campaign, has argued that Muslim civil rights groups are fronts for a “jihadist” agenda.
And Zuhdi Jasser – a medical doctor and talking head who has no formal appointment in the Trump administration but defended the president’s executive order to ban entry to people from seven predominantly Muslim countries – has testified at the congressional hearings against the threat of what he calls “Muslim Brotherhood legacy groups,” such as CAIR and the Muslim Public Affairs Council.
Almost every discussion related to banning the Muslim Brotherhood includes an invocation of a 1991 memo touted as being written by a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. It is frequently claimed that the memo lays out a secret plan to take over the US.
The claims were debunked by Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative for tracking Islamophobia. The document was written by Mohamed Akram Adlouni, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who was hoping to influence the group’s priorities, though he ultimately failed to do so, according to the Bridge Initiative.
The memo has been pushed by Gaffney since it was first introduced into evidence against the Holy Land Foundation, the target of one of the most aggressively prosecuted federal terrorism cases that saw five charity workers convicted of material support for terrorism.
Though only five men were indicted in the Holy Land Foundation case, prosecutors took the unusual step of publishing a list of “unindicted co-conspirators” that included more than 300 groups, associating them with terrorism but not giving them a mechanism to refute the accusation. Many of the same groups that are now in the crosshairs of a Muslim Brotherhood ban were first targeted in that case.
“That trial unraveled a lot of this,” Georgetown professor Al-Arian said, noting that CAIR and the Islamic Society of North America, two mainstream American Muslim groups, were named as co-conspirators.
“For both of those organizations to be drawn into a terrorism financing trial was an attempt to draw the entire community with this brush of extremism,” Al-Arian said.
Targeting wide range of Muslim groups in US
The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928, and soon established branches in Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Kuwait and throughout much of the Arab world, the Stanford historian Beinin told The Electronic Intifada.
Today, Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups exist in Middle Eastern and North African countries ranging from Tunisia to Turkey. The Brotherhood’s status varies from country to country: it has been outlawed in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Syria and Russia, but it enjoys popular success elsewhere, including Morocco and Jordan.
The Muslim Brotherhood has no real presence in the US, but those who are now pushing for the group to be listed as a foreign terrorist organization allege numerous mainstream Muslim American groups are fronts for it.
“I think banning the Muslim Brotherhood would lend itself to the Trump campaign’s narrative of being tougher on terrorism,” Al-Arian told The Electronic Intifada.
“It in many ways would represent the logical escalation of a conflict that has already taken on every manifestation of militancy in the Middle East, by incorporating movements that have vocally expressed their opposition to US foreign policy,” Al-Arian added, noting that the Obama administration pursued the “war on terror” started by the George W. Bush administration by expanding its field of drone warfare.
Groups that have been accused of being Muslim Brotherhood affiliates by right-wing proponents of the ban include CAIR and the Islamic Society of North America, as well as the Muslim Student Association, chapters of which exist on college campuses across the US.
The same right-wing voices also allege al-Qaida, ISIS and all militant Sunni Islamic groups operating in the Middle East are descendants of the Muslim Brotherhood.
They contend that a wide range of groups sprang from the same ideological seed as the Muslim Brotherhood. This notion forms the basis of so-called radicalization theory, which justifies profiling people with a particular set of beliefs because they allegedly pose a high risk of becoming national threats. According to this logic, a student activist in the Muslim Student Association might one day fight for al-Qaida.
During a 2016 hearing organized by Senator Ted Cruz to examine how US agencies were allegedly de-emphasizing radical Islam in combating terrorism, then Senator Jeff Sessions, now the US attorney general, made his views known. Sessions asserted the validity of using ideology – in this case religion – as potential grounds to preemptively prosecute people who might, according to this logic, commit a terrorist attack in the future.
“Not a terrorist group”
“The Muslim Brotherhood provides a convenient catch-all label,” Georgetown’s Al-Arian explained. “It’s similar to the way you can look at the Red Scare: you didn’t have to be a member of the official Communist Party to be accused of being a sympathizer with communism. This operates the same way.”
“The spectrum – this idea that somehow all militant movements in the Middle East are graduates of the Muslim Brotherhood – is, factually, a very inaccurate narrative,” Al-Arian said.
Career officials seem to agree. Speaking to Politico, a former State Department official who coordinated counterterrorism under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the ban “an incredibly stupid thing to do,” because, simply, the Muslim Brotherhood “[is] not a terrorist group.”
Stanford’s Beinin said “the Muslim Brotherhood have a lot of enemies, but that’s not evidence that they’ve actually done anything.”
Will McCants, another former State Department adviser on countering extremism, told Politico the idea of banning the Brotherhood is a “fringe idea that I guess has now made its way into the mainstream.”
It may be a fringe idea, but those who have pushed for it are now part of the Trump White House inner circle.
Charlotte Silver is Associate Editor for The Electronic Intifada.