Human Rights Watch on Wednesday outlined how the Trump administration would be able to go after a broad array of Muslim civic organizations if it adds the Muslim Brotherhood to its list of designated foreign terrorist organizations, which administration officials have said privately they are weighing.
Designating the Muslim Brotherhood has long been a cause of right-wing Republicans and U.S. allies Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) reintroduced a bill pushing for the group’s foreign terrorist designation last month, which supporters believe will find traction under President Trump. The initiative’s proponents cite a widely discredited 1991 document as evidence that the brotherhood is plotting a secret Islamist takeover of America.
Middle East experts say the brotherhood is an Egypt-based Islamist organization that renounced violence decades ago, remade itself as a pro-democracy political organization, and was the most successful political party in Egypt until its leaders were overthrown in a 2013 military coup and branded as terrorists.
Members of its sister organizations and offshoots hold elected office in a scattering of other Mideast countries, including Turkey, where officials from the ruling party — a close brotherhood affiliate — are meeting with President Trump’s CIA director (and a onetime co-sponsor of a bill to designate the brotherhood a terrorist organization) Mike Pompeo on Wednesday.
Muslim advocacy groups and Middle East experts have warned that adding the brotherhood to a terrorist list would set a dangerous precedent — by appearing to target a group for its ideology, rather than its actions — and could easily be used to go after American Muslim organizations and individuals.
How would that work? Laura Pitter, the senior national security counsel at Human Rights Watch, pointed Wednesday to a George W. Bush-era executive order that could be applied broadly to freeze the assets of anyone found to be supporting or associating with the organization. Or, in the words of the order: “Financial sanctions may be appropriate for those foreign persons that support or otherwise associate with these foreign terrorists [as designated by the government].”
“If the U.S. government designates the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist group, 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 U.S. if they are noncitizens and having their assets frozen,” Human Rights Watch wrote in a news release.
Pitter said the U.S. government would also, presumably, be able to freeze the assets of American citizens who are suspected of support or association, or charge them with material support to a foreign terrorist organization.
As the law is applied now, Pitter said: “They can freeze assets even when they suspect that you fall under the executive order.” It can be exceedingly difficult to challenge, starting with the logistical difficulty of hiring a lawyer without having access to any cash.
Supporters of the terrorist organization designation also make the claim that the Council on American-Islamic Relations and several other major Muslim civic and advocacy groups are brotherhood front organizations. Those groups, as well as experts on the Islamist movement, say there is no evidence to support that claim. But both supporters and opponents of the terrorist designation believe it would be wielded in an effort to shut those groups down.
Read more about the push to ban the Muslim Brotherhood here.
And if you’re wondering how the Brotherhood has fit into President Trump’s broader rhetoric toward Muslims, read this.