The Other Muslim Ban
President Trump’s first few weeks in office were marred by controversy over his executive order, called a “Muslim ban” by critics, which barred citizens of seven majority Muslim countries from the country for 90 days and indefinitely blocked Syrian refugees from entry to the United States. Despite this executive order being rejected by a Federal court and all the attention it has attracted, there is another “ban” that is being considered in the highest halls of government that could have implications greater than that of a temporary immigration ban.
Earlier this year Texas Senator Ted Cruz tabled, before submitting to the State Department, a bill to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group. This came before Secretary of State Rex Tillerson compared the Muslim Brotherhood to al-Qaeda in his confirmation hearing, and leaks circulated that the Trump administration is considering designating the group a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO).If this move comes to fruition and the Muslim Brotherhood is labeled a terrorist group it would have wide-reaching implications for U.S. foreign policy. No terrorist actions would be prevented, many more would be caused, and America’s standing in the Muslim world would forever be degraded.
The first issue such a designation would run into is that there is no one “Muslim Brotherhood.” Founded in Ismailia, Egypt in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood was created on the premise that the Muslim world was on the decline and under siege from the West. The only way to restore the region to its lost greatness was to reorganize society with Islam at its center. Not bothering to define the details of what such a society would look like, the Muslim Brotherhood opened affiliates throughout the Muslim world. Each of these affiliates shared a common vision, but not much else. While a decentralized operation is not a disqualifier for being designated a terrorist group, see al-Qaeda post-9/11, the Muslim Brotherhood goes beyond that. There is no central command and control for the Muslim Brotherhood, no single group hierarchy, and no common policies. The Brotherhood is more of a movement than an organization. Therefore blanketing each affiliate with the term “terrorist” seems intellectually dishonest. Moreover the movement itself is not inherently violent in nature, unlike the movements that drive al-Qaeda and ISIL.
In addition to its vision of a theocentric society, Muslim Brotherhood affiliates share a gradualist approach to changing society. Whereas al-Qaeda reviles and targets political structures, the Muslim Brotherhood embeds in the political cultures of its host country. In countries like Sudan, Bahrain, and Jordan, affiliates participate in the government, either as ruler’s allies or loyal opposition. Affiliates have resorted to violence, in environments where violence is the norm, such as in Libya and Palestine. The norm however, is that the Brotherhood is an invested participant in the existing political structure, unlike terrorist groups whose goal is to disrupt existing structures with violence.
Moreover the Brotherhood also has a history of standing firmly against violence, even in the face of persecution. In 1964 when one of its more radical members, Sayyid Qutb, wrote a diatribe calling for jihad, the Egyptian Brotherhood leader Hasan al-Hudaybi issued a stern rebuke from prison. Fast-forward to 2013 when the Egyptian military had just overthrown President Mohammed Morsi and was readying to massacre 800 of his Muslim Brotherhood brethren, Brotherhood general guide Mohamed Badie emerged and declared, “our peacefulness is stronger than their bullets.”
So if the designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization is factually inaccurate, what would be the practical repercussions? As mentioned, Muslim Brotherhood affiliates cooperate with governments across the Muslim world and in many instances compete in elections for national office. They’ve already held power in Egypt and Tunisia and the chances are good that at some point they will win power again. When that happens the United States cannot afford to have it’s diplomatic, military, and political leaders hands tied by what essentially would be a ban on a particular government.
Second, many Brotherhood members who are not radicalized may very well become so once they have been labeled terrorists. When the doors to peaceful political participation are closed, violent action and apathy become the only alternatives. In Egypt, the crackdown on the Brotherhood (including its designation as a terrorist group by the Egyptian government) has left many younger activists wanting for more revolutionary action. More pressure by the United States will only drive these youth further down the path toward resentment of the West.
Finally, regardless of the fate of Brotherhood members, real terrorist groups like ISIL and al-Qaeda will use such a designation as a recruitment tool. A ban of the Brotherhood would not be a criminalization of any action but of a belief, namely the belief that Islam should have a role in the public sphere. Not only would such a penalization hold Islam to a higher standard than any other religion, it would also be at odds with the beliefs of many Muslims worldwide. Most importantly, it would reinforce a narrative that America is at war with Islam, driving more Muslims into the arms of radicals.
When the United States launched a “war on terror,” it was in response to a specific incident. President Bush was careful not to persecute any faith or ideology, only those committed to perpetrating violence against civilians. An FTO designation against the Muslim Brotherhood would be a departure from this legacy. It would signal to the world that it is not enough to commit oneself to non-violence but that one must also think the same way as those in Washington. It would be a cruel irony that in seeking to protect our way of life, we end up imposing it on the rest of the world.