The Trump administration is reportedly pushing to issue an order that would designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a “foreign terrorist organization,” which would bring the weight of U.S. sanctions against a diverse political movement with millions of members — despite the group publicly disavowing violence nearly 50 years ago.
That’s been a goal of many anti-Muslim activists and professional Islamophobes for years. The government has never gone along with the push to declare the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, largely because intelligence officials and outside analysts agree that the group simply isn’t one. But the difference now is that Donald Trump is in the White House, and bashing Muslims without regard for the possible consequences fits perfectly with his politics.
Even the CIA thinks it’s a terrible idea to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. The agency’s experts warned two years ago that designation of the Brotherhood could actually “fuel extremism” and damage relations with America’s allies, Politico Magazine reported. The agency document, published internally on Jan. 31, 2017, noted that the Muslim Brotherhood — which boasts millions of followers around the Arab world — has “rejected violence as a matter of official policy and [has publicly] opposed al-Qaeda and ISIS” and other terrorist groups as well.
For decades, the “Muslim Brotherhood” label has been deployed as very sloppy shorthand to refer to all American Muslim politicians, government officials and civic organizations with whom conservatives disagree ideologically. Anti-Muslim activists have also used it to attack Muslim government officials such as former congressman Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), longtime Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin — and even Gold Star father Khizr Khan, who famously criticized Trump at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
Nearly 7 million American Muslims would become the primary domestic target of such a designation. If Trump goes ahead, Muslim organizations and community activists who are accused of having ties to the Muslim Brotherhood could potentially be criminally prosecuted for providing “material support” to terrorist groups without even knowing it. Simply put, any “foreign terrorist organization” designation would stigmatize American Muslim civic life by sowing fear and confusion, which would chill free speech for millions of Muslims living in the United States today.
In many ways, this next-level Islamophobia would be history repeating itself. Many Americans forget that millions of Irish Catholics during the 19th century were smeared as “papists” with loyalties only to the Vatican by the Know Nothing Party to discredit them. Similarly, the American Jewish community dealt with a history of naked anti-Semitism in the 20th century, when Henry Ford’s newspaper published conspiracy theories about “international Jewry” to smear them. Trump’s attempts to smear Muslims today — saying “Islam hates us” and trying, before the courts intervened to roll back his orders, to ban Muslims from entering the country — are just the latest version of such biases.
An analysis by the Southern Poverty Law Center of Trump’s pushes to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists argued that was squarely “aimed at American Muslims and controlling them while at the same time continuing to demonize Islam” through these questionable federal policies. If the Muslim Brotherhood is labeled as a “terrorist” organization, anyone who is labeled a Muslim Brotherhood supporter will be seen as a terrorist sympathizer by their fellow Americans without any proof needed whatsoever.
Many people believe that this Muslim Brotherhood designation is simply a political smokescreen to criminalize Muslim civic life. Prominent groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, Center for American Progress and Human Rights Watch have all warned that this anti-Muslim executive order would threaten the constitutional rights of millions of American Muslims in the United States.
The term “scapegoats” is from the Bible’s Book of Leviticus, which referred to a goat that was let loose in the wilderness on Yom Kippur after the high priest symbolically laid the sins of the entire society on its undeserving head. Since time immemorial, we have always had scapegoats whom we blamed for all of society’s problems. From the Holocaust to Japanese internment camps to the Jim Crow South, we have always needed a proverbial boogeyman to portray as “The Other.”
If the Trump administration is successful in designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, it will only lead to the further disenfranchisement of American Muslims, who already are beginning to feel like strangers in a strange land.