Blacklisting the Brotherhood has nothing to do with 'anti-terrorism'

Trump blacklisting the Brotherhood has nothing to do with 'fighting terrorism'
6 min read
02 May, 2019
Comment: Trump's push to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a 'terror group' has more to do with Islamophobia and authoritarianism, than 'fighting terrorism', writes Mohamed ElMasry.
'Trump's position on the Brotherhood is in line with far-right American inclinations' [Getty]
The New York Times reported Tuesday that US President Donald Trump is preparing an order for the US government to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation.

The terror designation push comes in the immediate aftermath of Trump's April 10 White House meeting with Egyptian President Abdelfattah al-Sisi, whose regime declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation in 2014 and has already benefited from Trump's greenlighting of Egyptian government-perpetrated human rights abuses.

Max Boot's Wednesday opinion article in The Washington Post contended that Trump was manipulated and influenced by his recent meeting with Sisi. There is likely some truth to this argument, and Boot makes a compelling case based on Trump's long history of heeding the advice of dictators.

But his argument is also a slight oversimplification, or at least an incomplete account. Trump's position on the Brotherhood is in line with far-right American inclinations and motives, and is rooted in recent American politics and history.

Stifling American Muslim political activism

American efforts to declare the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation are not brand new. They have long been spearheaded by far-right American political figures affiliated with the "Islamophobia Industry," including Frank Gaffney and Steve Bannon, among others.

In 2017, the Trump administration, at the behest of Gaffney, considered and discussed declaring the Brotherhood a terror group. At the time, the administration was persuaded by more level headed policy advisers to back off.

Mainstream American Muslim groups are often branded by far-right Islamophobes as Muslim Brotherhood affiliates even though they are distinctly North American

Importantly, efforts to associate the Brotherhood with terror are not driven primarily by any genuine concern with terrorism. How could they be?

For starters, no serious scholar or analyst considers the Muslim Brothers to be Islamic State or al-Qaeda-like. No Muslim group has been more closely studied than the Brotherhood, about whom voluminous bodies of scholarly literature exist.

Read more: Trump administration considers blacklisting Muslim Brotherhood following Sisi visit

The scholarship, which my co-author and I recently reviewed as part of a book 
project on the Brotherhood, highlights the movement's ideology, history, and political performance, among many other things.

Importantly, while the literature is often critical of the group's beliefs and performances, it points consistently to its rejection of political violence and, in particular, refusal to target civilians.

Moreover, in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terror attacks on the United States, every western government in the world has devoted resources to studying the Brotherhood's potential link to Muslim terrorist networks.

The results of investigations have been clear, unsurprising, and consistent with the scholarly literature - the Brotherhood is not a terror group. To date, no western governments have ever designated the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation.

If anything, the Brotherhood, despite its arguable failings as a political group, might be seen as a type of antidote against acts of violence perpetrated in the name of Islam.

The group's formal embrace of democratic norms, consistent denunciation of extremists, interest in normalised relations with western governments, and rejection of violent means to overthrow Muslim governments, have consistently drawn the ire of Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda and 
other Muslim extremist groups.

In recent years, IS and its offshoots in Egypt have declared the Brotherhood apostates who have gone outside the fold of Islam.

What, then, is the motivation for some far-right American political figures to brand the Muslim Brothers as "terrorists"?

Put simply, these efforts are rooted in broad attempts to silence and control Muslim activism in American society.

The Muslim Brotherhood's social welfare and political activism programmes have been widely modeled by Muslim charitable and political advocacy organisations in North America and Europe.

Meanwhile, far-right Islamophobes in the West have tried to paint the Brotherhood as a type of umbrella for any Muslim organisation involved in democratic politics, activism, or social welfare. This is precisely why Trump's motion is so important.

In the US for instance, mainstream American Muslim groups - including the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), Islamic Relief, the Muslim Students Association (MSA), the Muslim American Society (MAS), and the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) - are often branded by far-right Islamophobes as Muslim Brotherhood affiliates, even though these groups are distinctly North American, entirely independent, and bear no associations with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (or any other international chapter of the Brotherhood).

The authoritarian link

Authoritarian Arab governments allied with Trump have helped fuel anti-Muslim policy and bigotry in America. For example, when the United Arab Emirates declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation in 2014, it also proclaimed Islamic Relief and CAIR to be terrorist organisations.

The UAE, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia - all of whom see Muslim participation in democracy as a threat to their authoritarianism and hegemony - appear highly motivated to bury any and all Muslim political activism in the United States.

Sisi has already benefited from Trump's greenlighting of Egyptian government-perpetrated human rights abuses

In recent years, this three-country axis has spent millions of dollars on anti-Muslim political lobbying and media propaganda in the United States. Importantly, all three countries are allied with American far-right and pro-Israel lobby groups.

If Trump succeeds in branding the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation in the United States, he would further empower Islamophobes and, importantly, suffocate American Muslim political advocacy, activism, and charity work, including important work carried out on behalf of non-Muslim Americans.

Additionally, an American terror designation could serve to enable authoritarian leaders even more than they already have been.

Early in his presidency, Trump signaled that holding foreign allies accountable to recognised human rights standards would not be a priority for his administration. Governments in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE took Trump's signals as a green light. On Trump's watch, all three countries have carried out some of their worst human rights transgressions in recent memory.

And all of this is to say nothing of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's formal international offshoots in countries allied with the United States.

Each international chapter of the Brotherhood - in Morocco, Tunisia, Kuwait, Jordan and Palestine - is independent and unique.

The UAE, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia all see Muslim participation in democracy as a threat to their authoritarianism and hegemony

Nonetheless, these international chapters, which participate formally in politics in their respective nations, would not take kindly to the US branding the Muslim Brotherhood a terror organisation. How would US policy vis-à-vis these groups, and the countries which they help represent, be affected? This is an open question.

The big picture

Former US President Barack Obama didn't do much to help the 2010-2011 Arab Spring protest movements succeed, and arguably did his best to ensure they failed. However, the former American president at least paid lip service to democratic reforms in the Arab region, for example famously praising Egyptian pro-democracy protesters in 2011.

Eight years after Obama hailed democratic movements that sprung up in several countries in the Arab region, Trump represents a complete American about-face.

Trump has fully embraced the Arab authoritarian leaders spearheading ongoing counter-revolutions in multiple countries. If the push to brand the Muslim Brothers a terror group is any indication, it's clear Trump considers his work in this area unfinished.

Mohamad Hamas Elmasry is an Associate Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, and an Assistant Professor of Communications at the University of North Alabama. He writes about the sociology of news, the media and race, and Egyptian politics and media.

Follow him on Twitter: @elmasry_mohamad

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.