By Rafia Zakaria
February 16, 2017
That the administration of Donald Trump has been busy issuing a host of executive orders in his first few weeks as US president is well known. The orders issued have included the infamous one that banned nationals and green card holders from seven Muslim countries for 90 days and all refugees for 120 days (refugees from Syria indefinitely). Enforcement of that order has been stayed because of an injunction issued by a district court judge, whose ruling was recently upheld by a court of appeals.
Other orders have included one that prohibits government agencies from passing any new regulations unless two other regulations are expunged and three orders instruct the Department of Justice to fight drug cartels, fight violent crime and reduce attacks against the police.
President Donald Trump is not done issuing executive orders; however, according to reports from the new White House, one of the orders under consideration for issuance in the near future would designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation.
Those in favour of the designation, who include former presidential contender Senator Ted Cruz, have argued that the group, which operates primarily in Egypt and Jordan, “espouses a violent Islamist Ideology with a mission of destroying the West”. Cruz has also introduced a bill in the United States Senate that aims to do the same thing.
Supporters of the bill and the executive order under consideration have further argued that diaspora American-Muslim organisations such as the Islamic Society of North America, the Council on American Islamic Relations and the North American Islamic Trust are all front organisations for the Muslim Brotherhood, suggesting that restrictions may also extend to these groups within the United States.
While many Trump advisers and supporters, notably those featured on Breitbart, a website run by now senior White House adviser Steven Bannon, have long opposed the Muslim Brotherhood, the new move has caused concern. Opponents of such a move stress the following: first, equating the group with actual terrorist organisations like Al-Qaeda and the militant Islamic State group casts too broad a net and deflects attention away from actual terror groups that should be the focus of anti-terror efforts.
Second, the broad transnational and loosely connected group has long participated in elections and supported results. Its candidate Mohammed Morsi won the 2012 presidential election in Egypt before he and his allies were swept from power in a military coup. It is because of this that the previous two US administrations, one led by Republicans, the other by Democrats, have both refused to apply the designation.
Third, given that the Muslim Brotherhood has offshoots beyond Egypt, in countries like Morocco, Jordan and Turkey — countries in which the US has interests — the designation would imperil alliances in which America needs cooperation from allies.
Good reasons, however, are not going very far these days in Washington, D.C. Like the content of most of the other executive orders issued in recent days, the debate on designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation has long galvanised anti-Islam politicians and thinkers, many of whom now enjoy plum posts within the administration.
Among policy experts in Washington, there is widespread disagreement. One of them recently wrote that not a single Muslim Brotherhood expert supported designating the group as a terrorist group. Author Eric Trager took the strongest position, saying that the most he could do is describe the Muslim Brotherhood as a “hate group”, which while repugnant and illiberal is not the same thing as a terrorist group.
The issue of the Muslim Brotherhood’s designation is likely to put American Muslims, particularly those from Arab countries where the Brotherhood has a strong presence, more on edge. With the terrorist designation, money that is sent to people or charities or any entity associated with the Muslim Brotherhood would come under greater scrutiny.
Disbursements and connections to the Muslim Brotherhood, even vague ones, could be prosecuted under the US ‘Material Support for Terrorism’ statute, which criminalises any support (even unintentional) to terrorist groups. While there may little truth to the premise that American-Muslim organisations are fronts for the Muslim Brotherhood, it is quite likely that the latter’s designation as a terrorist organisation will affect a good number of American Muslims.
While the Muslim Brotherhood does not itself have a presence in Pakistan, several other Islamist political parties do. If the Brotherhood is designated as a terrorist organisation, it indicates the Trump administration’s willingness to cast a very broad net and equate ‘Islamist’ with ‘terrorist’. While this may not be correct, it is worthy of note since what applies to the Muslim Brotherhood may soon be applicable to other groups as well.
Even if this does not impact the leadership of these Islamist political parties, it will likely have an effect on all those loosely affiliated or connected to these parties or even sympathetic to their views. Combined with the new ‘extreme vetting’ of all visa applicants and even green card holders entering the country, this would mean that anyone who sympathises with these organisations, in letter or spirit, can expect to be barred from entering the US or be deported following visa revocations if they are already there. An Islamist political organisation like the Muslim Brotherhood is not the same as terrorist organisations such as Al Qaeda, Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan or ISIS. At the same time, one does wonder why those having Islamist political beliefs that do not square with liberal constitutional principles are interested in travelling to and living in the United States.
Still, the overly broad nature of designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation is unlikely to accomplish any security objectives for the US. In the near term, it is likely to enable all sorts of wrongful prosecutions of Arab Americans; in the long term, it will likely make the American-Muslim community even more insular, increasing the possibility of alienation and ultimately radicalisation.