President Trump may be ready to intensify his antagonism of Muslims. Reports suggest that the White House is considering an executive order directing the State Department to assess whether the Muslim Brotherhood should be designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization. Some Republicans, including Trump’s erstwhile rival Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), have been pushing for this for a long time, and it will have ramifications far beyond the Middle East, where the group primarily operates. The result is likely to be intimidation, harassment and smears of Muslim and Arab groups here in the United States.
The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928 and sought to instill Islamic values into everyday life. It later evolved into a popular social and political organization and became Egypt’s leading opposition party. It has since inspired similar movements in countries such as Indonesia, Turkey, Jordan and Morocco. The Brotherhood disavowed violence long ago, and noted scholars have emphasized that it has fostered democratization and moderation in the Middle East. Two previous U.S. administrations concluded that it does not engage in terrorism, as did a recent report by the British government.
Despite this overwhelming evidence, some have suggested that the Brotherhood is waging a civilizational jihad and intends to destroy the West with the support of civic and political organizations in the United States. These are unfounded conspiracy theories, though: The Brotherhood doesn’t have a known presence in the U.S., most Muslim Americans know very little about it and no organization active in the U.S. has been shown to have any connection to it.
Yet if the group is designated as a terrorist organization, a growing $57 million Islamophobia machine, backed by large funders, well-organized institutions and junk scientists, will be ready to lead an effort to link the Muslim Brotherhood to groups here. This industry demonizes Islam through fake news, ersatz reports and hateful rhetoric; fearmongers and peddles falsehoods about Sharia law; and encourages lawmakers across the country to criminalize Muslim and Arab communities through bans, registries, watch lists and the like. They have helped introduce more than 100 anti-Sharia bills in state legislatures and encouraged and trained law enforcement to see Islam as a religion of violence.
These anti-Muslim groups will now double down on their favorite smear tactic: They will declare that the Brotherhood is taking over the country and accuse prominent Muslims, their organizations and allies of being conspirators. Just as the Red Scare of the 1950s saw the chimerical specter of worldwide communism everywhere, accusations alone will have the power to destroy reputations and chill lawful activity, including freedom of worship, association, expression and charitable giving.
The witch hunt could be widespread and expansive. Cruz and allies such as Frank Gaffney, who advised him during last year’s campaign and reportedly advised Trump’s transition, has repeatedly argued that three of the largest Muslim organizations in the country — the Islamic Society of North America, the Council on American Islamic Relations and the North American Islamic Trust — are affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood. No evidence supports this view, apart from a single memorandum prepared in 1991 by a man affiliated with the Brotherhood, which discussed Muslim American organizations “march[ing] according to one plan.” This memorandum, of which there is only one known copy, has been widely discredited and called a fantasy. Moreover, in the years that have followed, these groups and countless others have been vetted and are now a celebrated part of American life.
The Islamic Society of North America, for example, is a religious umbrella organization similar to the National Council of Churches or the Jewish Federations of North America. I spoke at their annual convention last year and learned that they foster Islamic awareness, engage in interfaith work, develop youth programming and run matrimonial services. The Council on American Islamic Relations is an advocacy group that fights for the civil rights of all Americans, including Muslim Americans. I’ve been on panels with them and attended meetings in Congress alongside their staff. Seventeen U.S. senators and 85 U.S. representatives have praised the organization in recent years.
In addition to attacking institutions and community groups, anti-Muslim outfits have sought to smear prominent individuals by accusing them of supporting the Brotherhood. Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin, Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist, Reps. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and André Carson (D-Ind.), former CIA Director John Brennan and even former president Barack Obama have all been accused of supporting the mythical Brotherhood boogeyman.
The White House may join the chorus as well, as the Trump administration has repeatedly vilified Islam and stigmatized Muslims. Trump’s chief strategist, Steven K. Bannon, has warned of an “Islamic Republic in the United States” and declared that “Islam is not a religion of peace.” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Trump’s nominee for attorney general, previously argued to ban all Muslims, and national security adviser Michael Flynn has called Islam “a vicious cancer.” Openly accusing Muslim and Arab civil society of supporting the Brotherhood could be next.
If the Brotherhood is designated a foreign terrorist organization, the government could bring criminal charges against Muslims, Arabs and their institutions by invoking dangerously broad and expansive material support of terrorism laws. They could be criminally prosecuted for providing support, services, resources, expert advice or assistance to the Brotherhood without any intent to support terrorist activity. 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.
For example, those who provide humanitarian aid or teach peace negotiation skills intended to deter violence can be charged with material support. In 2010, the Supreme Court found that the Humanitarian Law Project could not help foreign terrorist organizations learn peaceful conflict resolution as that would help legitimate the organizations and free up other resources for terrorist activities. Just the publicity of a failed prosecution could be enough to shutter the doors of a Muslim community group or institution.
Scholars, journalists and analysts who study the Brotherhood have expressed similar concerns. Many who have contacted or advised the organization over the years now fear they could be charged with material support of terrorism even though they have never supported violence.
Once charged, individuals and groups would be prohibited from contesting the underlying foreign terrorist organization designation in their criminal trial. Only the Brotherhood would have legal standing to challenge the underlying designation, and it is unlikely to do so. The Brotherhood doesn’t have a known presence in the U.S., and by law would have to contest the designation in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. So far, no organization has ever successfully challenged their designation as a foreign terrorist organization in the D.C. circuit.
Organizations could likewise have their assets frozen by the Treasury Department, a death knell in today’s liquidity driven world. The Office of Foreign Assets Control at Treasury has argued that it needs only reasonable suspicion that an organization is providing “financial, material or technological support for, or financial serves to,” or is “otherwise associated” with a specially designated global terrorist to designate them a terrorist entity and block its assets. Innocent individuals and institutions could again be ensnared by expansive notions of material support. Here there is at least some recourse for U.S. people and institutions, as a federal court previously found that the government cannot freeze a U.S. charity’s assets without first obtaining a warrant based upon probable cause and meeting other basic due process requirements. But here too, the mere suggestion of a connection to terrorism may be sufficient to shut down a U.S. organization, especially one that relies on charitable giving.
The timing of this proposed order isn’t coincidental. As we’ve seen in recent weeks, Muslim and Arab civil society is more organized and impactful now than ever before. Groups have staged rallies, provided direct legal services and created hotlines for those impacted by the travel bans; mosques have agreed to serve as sanctuaries for immigrants; and store owners and taxi drivers in New York, many of them Muslim, have joined in solidarity and protest.
This is the vibrant civil society that the Islamophobia industry and Trump’s team so desperately want to crush. 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.