THOSE WHO favor the United States designating the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization, a move being considered by the Trump administration and advanced by a few members of Congress, think it will strike a singular blow against violent extremism. But they labor under an illusion. The Muslim Brotherhood is not a single, cohesive unit, but rather a sprawling organization. It does not systematically engage in terrorism, although some parts of it have turned to violence. A blanket designation would be a mistake.
Founded in 1928 in Egypt as a religious, social and political organization, the Muslim Brotherhood has evolved over subsequent decades. After endorsing the use of violence in its early years, the Egyptian branch of the Brotherhood disowned it in the 1970s in exchange for the freedom to organize politically and socially. Following the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt, the Brotherhood moved into politics and one of its members, Mohamed Morsi, was elected president in 2012. His faltering performance led to mass protests, and he was deposed by the military a year later. Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, now Egypt’s president, has outlawed the Brotherhood, arrested its leaders and members, and pressed hard for Washington to impose the foreign terrorist designation.
In Tunisia, a party inspired by the Brotherhood is openly engaged in politics, and the democratic transition would have been impossible without its moderate leadership. Among Palestinians, the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, which has waged a violent conflict against Israel, is also an offshoot of the Brotherhood and is already on the U.S. foreign terrorist organization list. A Jordanian branch, purged of extremists, is represented in parliament. A 2015 review by the British government concluded that “for the most part, the Muslim Brotherhood have preferred non violent incremental change,” but “they are prepared to countenance violence — including, from time to time, terrorism — where gradualism is ineffective.” A blanket designation would injure those who seek change without terrorism.
Under U.S. law, the designation as a foreign terrorist organization is to be made by the secretary of state. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) have reintroduced legislation that would urge the secretary to make the designation, saying the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, “espouse a violent Islamist ideology with a mission of destroying the West.” If the Muslim Brotherhood were so labeled, anyone in the United States or abroad who provided “material support or resources,” including something such as democracy training, would be at risk of removal from the United States, as well as financial sanctions.
The possibility of this being used unfairly against Muslim groups in the United States is real, and worrisome, given the inclination of President Trump and some members of his team to unfairly conflate all Muslims with the danger of terrorism. An overly broad designation against the Brotherhood would also have unwanted blowback in the Middle East, tainting people who are working for nonviolent change. This is a case where the United States needs a laserlike attention to real threats, not a senseless political designation that would miss the mark.