According to reports, the Trump administration is considering designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO); the initiative comes on the heels of a proposed bill by Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) called the Brotherhood Terrorist Designation Act.
While much of the media focus has been on the ‘Muslim ban,’ very little attention has been given to this initiative, which arguably could have profound implications for Muslims and Arabs in the United States and abroad, by alienating U.S. allies and marginalizing Muslim civil rights organizations.
The Muslim Brotherhood is an eighty-nine-year-old transnational social and political movement, which originally began in Egypt in 1928, and has since expanded into nearly two dozen branches in different countries throughout the Muslim world. While each branch is autonomous, a common thread amongst them is the rejection of violence, combined with participation in domestic political processes. One notable exception to this is Hamas in Gaza, which was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood but broke away from the organization’s pursuit of nonviolence, despite winning local elections.
On the international front, FTO designation may alienate important U.S. allies in the Middle East. The Brotherhood has offices in countries like Morocco and Tunisia, both key U.S. allies. In Morocco, the prime minister’s Justice and Development party has ties to the group; in Tunisia, one of the most important parties, Ennahda, is also affiliated with the Brotherhood.
On the domestic front, designation is expected to have a chilling effect on Muslim civil society, a point made by a coalition of dozens of faith-based organizations along with civil and human rights groups that came out in opposition to the proposed bill:
Designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization could lead to a witch-hunt against Muslim civil society in the U.S. It could also open the door to the threat of legal action by the government against Muslims and civil society organizations by invoking overbroad and unfair laws and executive orders regarding designated entities. For example, individuals could be criminally prosecuted for providing support, services, resources, expert advice or assistance to the Muslim Brotherhood without any intent to support terrorist activity. A designation could also result in unconstitutional asset seizures and effective shut-downs of civil society and rights groups. Despite court rulings requiring probable cause and due process when the Treasury Department seizes Americans’ assets, the Department has not changed its internal regulations. The Department takes the view that it can block or freeze the assets of any individual or organization that is providing ‘financial, material, or technological support for, or financial services to,’ or is broadly ‘otherwise associated’ with a designated terrorist organization. There is no requirement of actual intent or knowledge of wrongdoing. The Treasury Department’s decision can rely on classified information the targeted person or organization cannot see or meaningfully refute, and a blocking order can be issued pending investigation into whether the target is somehow associated with a designated group.
Pushback to the proposed legislation has also come from an unexpected source: The Central Intelligence Agency. CIA analysts released a document at the end of January, warning that designating the Brotherhood as a FTO would embolden fringe extremists and undermine the work done by the United States and its allies to counter terrorism.
The FTO designation would upend the fundamental civil rights of Muslim civil society in the United States and undermine the relationship with critical U.S. allies. The damage designation would do would, as such, be far-reaching and perhaps irreversible.