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Why listing the Muslim Brotherhood as a terror group is a bad idea

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Trump administration officials are contemplating an executive order that would call for the designation of the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps as terrorist organizations. It's a deeply provocative move that worries a wide spectrum of Middle East experts and counterterrorism analysts. Blacklisting those groups would be counter-productive, they say, bolstering extremists overseas and harming innocent Americans at home.

My colleague Karen DeYoung has already delved into the question of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, an institution at the heart of the regime in Tehran. So we'll stick with the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization founded in Egypt in 1928 that espouses a brand of political Islam. It's a broad, transnational Sunni Muslim movement with loosely connected analogues in dozens of countries.

For a tumultuous couple of years, the Muslim Brotherhood sat at the apex of power in Egypt. Its candidate, Mohamed Morsi, won the country's 2012 presidential election, but he and his allies were swept from power by a military coup the following year. Top leaders were jailed and sentenced to death, while the post-coup regime embarked on a ruthless crackdown that effectively drove the Brotherhood back underground.

The specter of the Muslim Brotherhood has animated a section of the American right for years. They see it as a dangerous jihadist front that inspired Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist party that is already on the State Department's list of designated terror groups. Once-fringe figures like White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon have peddled conspiracy theories — and terrible movie scripts — about Muslim Brotherhood agents in America working toward an Islamic takeover of the Republic.

Now Bannon and other hardline ideologues like Frank Gaffney have the ear of the White House and are keen on bringing their agenda to bear. But the plan to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization generates a host of problems:

1. It makes no analytical sense

Two previous administrations have declined to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terror group. A recent review conducted by the British government arrived at the same conclusion. The organization renounced violence decades ago in favor of attempting to push its Islamist views through politics.

"As a whole, it is simply too diffuse and diverse to characterize," write security experts William McCants and Benjamin Wittes. "And it certainly cannot be said as a whole to engage in terrorism that threatens the United States."

"Designating the Muslim Brotherhood a ‘foreign terrorist organization’ would wrongly equate it with violent extremist groups like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State and make their otherwise lawful activities illegal," said Laura Pitter, senior U.S. national security counsel at Human Rights Watch, in a statement.

Even noted critics of the Muslim Brotherhood, like Eric Trager of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, think designating it a terrorist organization makes little sense.

"These are not good guys. These are not moderate politicians. They support, on an ideological level, terrorism. They cooperate with terrorists. They give a platform for terrorists. But there is not sufficient evidence to show they send their own members to commit terrorism, and that is the standard for a designation," Trager told Politico. "The Muslim Brotherhood could not control Egypt — where it is from, where it has existed for over 80 years, and where it could not keep control for more than a year. It sure as hell is not going to take over America."

2. The designation would help the Islamic State's narrative

An internal CIA report published last month warned that listing the Muslim Brotherhood, which has potentially millions of adherents in the Middle East and North Africa, as a terror group would "fuel" extremism.

"A U.S. designation would probably weaken MB leaders' arguments against violence and provide ISIS and al-Qaeda additional grist for propaganda to win followers and support, particularly for attacks against U.S. interests," stated the report, which was obtained by Politico.

Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said a designation would "feed into ISIS propaganda" that the West seeks conflict with Islam writ large and "vindicates the ISIS narrative that working within state structures is a fool's errand" for Islamists.

3. It demonizes American Muslims

If the group is listed as a terror organization, the ruling would implicate anyone connected to any sort of Muslim Brotherhood activities as complicit in terrorism. This would cast a cloud over a number of U.S.-based charities and civil rights organizations that have indirect ties to Muslim Brotherhood-related groups abroad.

It would also have a chilling effect on Muslim Americans in general. "Muslim-affiliated groups that promote civic values and protect civil rights are crucial to U.S. democracy," said Human Rights' Watch's Pitter.  "Threatening their rights threatens the rights of all Americans."

Muslims "could be criminally prosecuted for providing support, services, resources, expert advice or assistance to the Brotherhood without any intent to support terrorist activity," writes Arjun Singh Sethi, a Washington-based civil rights lawyer. "These laws can be easily exploited and manipulated for political gain, as even the most remote connection to the Brotherhood could pass muster in a court of law."

He concludes: "An executive order on the Brotherhood should be called out for what it is — an attempt to silence dissent and terrify Muslim and Arab communities."

4. It complicates American alliances overseas

The Muslim Brotherhood is a vast entity with offshoots embedded in the political life of countries from Morocco to Jordan to Turkey, whose ruling party sees itself as a cousin of the Brotherhood. A terror designation risks provoking a host of allies the U.S. needs in the messy geopolitics of the Middle East.

It "would signal [the White House is] more interested in provoking conflict with an imaginary fifth column of Muslims in the U.S. than in preserving our relationships with counterterrorism partners like Turkey, Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco, or with fighting actual terrorism,” said Tom Malinowski, an assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration, to the New York Times.

"The greatest damage might be in the realm of public diplomacy," write Nathan Brown and Michelle Dunne of the Carnegie Middle East Center. "Using a broad brush to paint all Muslim Brotherhood organizations as terrorists would be understood by many Muslims around the world as a declaration of war against non-violent political Islamists — and indeed against Islam itself."

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