Why Have US Attempts to Designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a Terrorist Organization Failed?
by Dr Najat AlSaied
Numerous attempts have been made by the United States to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation, but these attempts have failed. Most recently, the Trump Administration, after consultations with both its national security team and leaders in the region and concluding that the Muslim Brotherhood was a gateway to jihadism, was still unable to designate it. Under such designation, companies and individuals would have been banned from providing any form of material support for, or resources to Muslim Brotherhood officials, such as financial services, weapons or logistics. But it was unclear whether the Trump Administration’s designation would apply only to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, or to the various Islamist movements across the world that are informally referred to as the Muslim Brotherhood.[i]
Several expert reports make the case for the Muslim Brotherhood to be designated a terrorist organisation, some of which have been widely publicised while others have been vehemently opposed to which has blurred lines, sowed confusion and resulted in being unable to definitively decide on the contours of the terrorist and extremist ideologies of the Muslim Brotherhood. There are numerous reasons for this failure notably: the Orwellian, double-speak discourse about the Muslim Brotherhood in Arabic and in European languages (re: English, French) and the polarisation of both the media and the public debate.
This work seeks to bring clarity back to the debate by showcasing the failed attempts at designation, exploring the opposing claims to the debate and how to remedy the various misrepresentations of political Islam, namely the Muslim Brotherhood, in the US media.
Lack of Consensus
The lack of consensus, or bipartisan agreement, in the US related to political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood, contributed to the further polarisation of political parties. Tensions are further inflamed by the fact that the Democratic and Republican Parties, and their related media outlets, promote conflicting positions—a fact reflected in the most recent US election. If there was bipartisan agreement on critical matters pertaining to the stability and security of the region, and the role played by political Islam, the Middle East would not have been so concerned with the outcome of the election.
While it is important to note that support for, or opposition to, the Muslim Brotherhood cannot be neatly packaged into Democratic or Republican discourses the last election saw a more charged debate along such lines. Indeed, many movements supportive of political Islam backed Joe Biden’s campaign in the hope of a return to an Obama-Biden acceptance of the Brotherhood during the protests known as the Arab Spring, which helped its rise to power in several Arab countries—led by Egypt and Tunisia. Amr Farouk, a researcher on terrorist groups and political Islam, indicated that Brotherhood mediators in the United States have arranged a meeting for next March between the Egyptian Brotherhood leaders in exile abroad and representatives of the Democratic Party as well as figures from Congress affiliated with the Biden Administration. Former President Barack Obama will also be included in these forthcoming deliberations between Brotherhood leaders and the new administration. This meeting will discuss the status of the organisation in Egypt, while presenting recently-compiled files that attack the Egyptian state and its institutions.[ii] At the same time, the Muslim Brotherhood was emphatically opposed to Trump’s re-election largely because Trump sought to designate them as a terrorist organisation.[iii]
This underscored key foreign policy differences between the previous Obama and the Trump Administrations. Obama supported the Brotherhood during the so-called Arab Spring while during the Trump presidency, pro-Muslim Brotherhood lobbies, such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and countries such as Qatar, which hired 35 US lobbying firms and paid them at least US $19.5 million between 2017 and 2018 alone,[iv] were attempted to prevent the terrorism designation. Such internal political tensions are exploited by Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood.[v]
Opponents of the designation argue that doing so could generate accusations that Muslim-American organisations and politicians retain Brotherhood sympathies, exposing them to censure in case they have provided funds or material support to the Brotherhood. Such a designation would also pose a risk to academic researchers who have worked, in the past, with the Brotherhood, such as Shadi Hamid, Director of Research at the Brookings Doha Center, and researchers in the Azmy Bishara-run Arab Center in Washington. However, the targeting of US-headquartered organisations or individuals would almost certainly be challenged in court where the legal foundations for accusation seem weak.[vi]
Consider the attempts to place CAIR and the Muslim American Society (MAS) — two Muslim American organisations with alleged ties to the Brotherhood — on the US terrorist list in 2014.[vii] In response, the New Jersey-based organisation, Egyptian Americans for Freedom and Justice (EAFAJ), toured lawmakers on 04 May 2017, and lobbied them not to support the designation.[viii] It is widely thought that the designation is unlikely to succeed because it would cause problems between the US government and the American Muslim community, especially with powerful organisations, such as CAIR, which objects to the designation on the grounds that would, allegedly, be a crackdown on civil liberties and could serve as a barrier to democratic participation.[ix]
Additionally, the fact that there is no consensus among the Arab states — even in the Arabian Gulf — on how to treat the organisation and whether to designate it as a terrorist organisation further undermines efforts in reaching a bipartisan consensus. Consider that Kuwait, and Oman have adopted an accepting approach to the Muslim Brotherhood while Saudi Arabia and the UAE have adopted a more hardline position[x] as they perceive the Brotherhood as a threat to regional security and a gateway to extremism. In this way, Saudi Arabia and the UAE argue that supporting the Muslim Brotherhood is the equivalent to supporting terrorist groups, such as Da’esh and Al-Qaeda, because of their shared extremist ideology. On the other hand, countries that are more accepting of the Brotherhood see it as a legitimate opposition group and a cushion from other internal and external threats, such as the expansion of Iranian influence. These countries seek to contain the Brotherhood through cooption: giving them political positions so they would not use more subversive means to exert control.[xi] Political parties with Muslim Brotherhood roots participate in parliaments and even governments in many Arab countries, such as Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan and Kuwait. So, a blanket declaration of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation might create a litany of diplomatic problems.[xii]
The Double Discourse of the Muslim Brotherhood: Arabic vs European Languages
According to the Vice President of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), Alberto Fernandez, the threat posed by political Islamist groups — mainly the Muslim Brotherhood — is that they present a tolerant version of themselves to the West and only their true radical selves to the Arab region. There is, therefore, a danger that political parties with liberal views (such as the Democrat Party, in the US) may not be aware of the true intentions of Muslim Brotherhood-linked organisations. The Obama Administration, for instance, regarded political Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, to be convenient counterweights to extremist groups like Da’esh and Al-Qaeda because of the view that they were a moderate version of political Islam able to stifle terrorist narratives.
More conservative European and US political parties (such as the Republican Party) tend to view the Muslim Brotherhood as a gateway to extremism and argue that political Islamists and terrorists share the same radical ideologies mainly rooted in the teachings of Hassan al-Banna, an Egyptian schoolteacher and the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian Islamic theorist and a leading member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and 1960s. Since this school of extremist thought stems from the Muslim Brotherhood, supporting them means supporting terrorist groups such as Da’esh and Al-Qaeda, because they share the same extremist ideology.[xiii]
Additionally, Fernandez explained that the states in the region which oppose political Islam, notably Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, have not successfully presented their position and failed to explain the reasons behind their decision to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation. Instead, they tend to speak in a vague and abstract language about terrorism, or focus on generic issues without explaining the two-faced nature of the Muslim Brotherhood; that there is one radical face seen by countries in the Middle East and another more tolerant one presented internationally. This double-speak serves their political ambitions.[xiv]
Due to such unclarity and the lack of supporting evidence, the Muslim Brotherhood, and their sympathisers in the US, believe that opposition to them is an attack on pluralism. This highlights fears of the group’s political empowerment, potential electoral successes and commitments to the democratic process, which resonates with, and rings alarm bells, in the West. It is also worth noting that countries in the Middle East opposed to political Islam are more closely allied to political parties with conservative views such as the Republican Party (US), while advocates of political Islam, such as Qatar, Turkey and Iran, are more closely allied to parties with more liberal orientations such as the Democrats (US).[xv]
Support for the Muslim Brotherhood in the United States can partially be explained by a lack of understanding and partially due to a long-standing relationship with mutual interests. The US’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood movement can be traced to the 1950s and it is a continuation of the Brotherhood’s relationship with the United Kingdom that funded its establishment in 1928. Key figures of the Muslim Brotherhood movement migrated to the US some 70 years ago and assumed important positions in US academic and policy-making circles. Consider, for instance, that Salam Al-Marayati (Iraq) was advisor to President Barrack Obama while Founder and Executive Director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council and Muhammad Majid (Sudan) was Advisor on Sharia Law to Obama while Head of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA).[xvi] Both these figures were prominent in the Muslim Brotherhood.[xvii]
The Muslim Brotherhood and the Arab Spring
Since the beginning of the so-called Arab Spring, an assortment of mainstream media outlets, particularly in the US and UK, provided sympathetic coverage of political Islam and provided a platform to its advocates. This tendency is, perhaps, best illustrated by an article in The Economist, called ‘Islamists, elections and the Arab spring: And the winner is…’[xviii] The article gives the impression that the Muslim Brotherhood support a liberal interpretation of democracy while the reality is very different. Nearly all violent Islamist groups follow illiberal ideologies (from Da’esh and Al-Qaeda to Hamas) which are derived from the Muslim Brotherhood. They do not support pluralism, women empowerment, minority rights (etc). Often Muslim Brotherhood ideologues present a tolerant, moderate, even liberal, version of themselves to the West and only their true extreme selves to the Arab region.
As a result of their extremism, Egyptians protested against the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood (30 June 2013) and supported a military coup d’état against President Mohammed Morsi a few days later. Many Western media outlets and governments provided sympathetic coverage of, and political support for, the 25 January revolution against Hosni Mubarak in 2011. In contrast, coverage and support during the ousting of Morsi was less enthusiastic. Some media, notably CNN, depicted events in a binary manner; as a military coup. The US then delayed deliveries of some military equipment to Egypt. The groundswell of support among the Egyptian people for the military, and the estimated 22 million people who protested against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were reduced to a footnote.[xix]
Polarisation of the Media and FARA
There is a high degree of polarisation in the US media which reflects a general lack of bipartisan cooperation on an array of political issues including, as discussed above, on key security issues in MENA. There is, it should be noted, a clear bias in the media which favours the Muslim Brotherhood. This may generate several dangerous consequences including: first, because the main media outlets in the US are monopolised by key influencers such as Jeff Bezos (owner of The Washington Post) and Rupert Murdoch (owner of News Corp and Fox Corporation) they have exaggerated global outreach and can produce huge impacts on political realities without checks and balances. And, second, the US media is in English, an international language, and is therefore very accessible. Storylines from these outlets can produce unwanted echo-chambers and turn opinion to fact more easily than others. This can damage national or individual images and, more dangerously, dismiss legitimate national security threats.
Returning to the case of the Muslim Brotherhood, even cursory scrutiny of predominate media coverage shows bias against states, such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt, which oppose political Islam. At the same time, scant attention has been paid to the particulars of the Muslim Brotherhood, their financing, international connections, goals and strategies. In the US, the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), should be revisited in this context since it requires that agents, linked to foreign governments, make periodic public disclosures of their relationship to those foreign actors, as well as the nature of their activities. If FARA is not to be applied to the case of the Muslim Brotherhood, an explanation must be forthcoming since it is clear that it is not an organic, US organisation and, crucially, it has been very apt in shaping law in the US.
When it comes to the designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation, answering whether or not FARA applies is fundamental. If the Brotherhood is, indeed, a foreign actor taking orders from outside the national territory of the US then its ideological relationship to some of the most pronounced terrorist groups in the world must also be more publicly disclosed. This would be the first and most important step in determining the role that the Muslim Brotherhood plays in international terrorism. From there, perhaps, the case could be more comprehensively made for designating the group.
12 March 2021
[i] Rebecca Ballhaus, Courtney McBride and Jared Malsin, "Trump Administration Seeks to Designate Muslim Brotherhood as Terrorist Organization," The Wall Street Journal, April 30, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/trump-administration-seeks-to-designate-muslim-brotherhood-as-terrorist-organization-11556631257
[ii] Sky News Arabia, "The terrorist Brotherhood organization. The beginning of the immigration season to America" [In Arabic], December 6, 2020, https://www.skynewsarabia.com/middle-east/1398471-%D8%AA%D9%86%D8%B8%D9%8A%D9%85-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%95%D8%AE%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%95%D8%B1%D9%87%D8%A7%D8%A8%D9%8A-%D8%A8%D8%AF%D8%A1-%D9%85%D9%88%D8%B3%D9%85-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%87%D8%AC%D8%B1%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%94%D9%85%D9%8A%D8%B1%D9%83%D8%A7
[iii] Bader bin Saud, “A Biden presidency promises a return to the Obama-era Muslim Brotherhood alliance,” Alarabiya English, October 15, 2020, https://english.alarabiya.net/en/in-translation/2020/10/15/A-Biden-presidency-promises-a-return-to-the-Obama-era-Muslim-Brotherhood-alliance
[iv] Thomas Frank, “Accusations, Lawsuits Challenge Qatar’s Multimillion-Dollar Lobbying, ‘Damage Control’ PR,” The Arab Weekly, August 5, 2018, https://thearabweekly.com/accusations-lawsuits-challenge-qatars-multimillion-dollar-lobbying-damage-control-pr
[v] Dania Khatib, Arab Gulf States’ Lobbying in the US in the Wake of the Arab Gulf Uprisings, Routledge, 2018, 3-4.
[vi] Marc Lynch, “Attempts to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization have failed before. Why is it returning now?” The Washington Post, May 1, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/05/01/designating-muslim-brotherhood-terrorist-organization-has-failed-before-why-is-it-returning-now/
[vii] Stratfor, “The UAE and Saudi War on the Muslim Brotherhood Could Be Trouble for the U.S,” Stratfor, November 18, 2014, https://worldview.stratfor.com/article/uae-and-saudi-war-muslim-brotherhood-could-be-trouble-us
[viii] Cynthia Farahat, “The Muslim Brotherhood Lobbies Congress,” The Daily Caller, May 16, 2017, https://dailycaller.com/2017/05/16/the-muslim-brotherhood-lobbies-congress/
[ix] Raymond Tanter and Edward Stafford, “Designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a Terrorist Organization is a Bad Idea,” Foreign Policy, March 3, 2017, https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/03/03/designating-the-muslim-brotherhood-as-a-terrorist-organization-is-a-bad-idea/
[x] Dania Khatib, “Arab Gulf States’ Lobbying in the US in the Wake of the Arab Gulf Uprisings”, 33-41.
[xi] Matthew Hedges and Giorgio Cafiero, “The GCC and the Muslim Brotherhood: What Does the Future Hold?” Middle East Policy Council, Spring 2017, https://mepc.org/journal/gcc-and-muslim-brotherhood-what-does-future-hold
[xii] Michele Dunne & Andrew Miller, “Nine Reasons Why Declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a Terrorist Organization Would Be a Mistake,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 3, 2019, https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/05/03/nine-reasons-why-declaring-muslim-brotherhood-terrorist-organization-would-be-mistake-pub-79059
[xiv] Najat AlSaied. “The Qatar Crisis and the Uprooting of Terrorism From its Roots” [In Arabic], Al Hurra, September 21, 2017, https://www.alhurra.com/a/Qatar-Saudi-trump-terrorism/393195.html
[xv] Marc Lynch, “Attempts to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization have failed before. Why is it returning now?” The Washington Post, May 1, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/05/01/designating-muslim-brotherhood-terrorist-organization-has-failed-before-why-is-it-returning-now/
[xvi] Amr Ammar, Civil Occupation: The Secrets of January 25 and the American Marines [In Arabic], (Egypt: Waleed Printing House, 2013), 349.
[xvii] Bader bin Saud, “A Biden presidency promises a return to the Obama-era Muslim Brotherhood alliance,” Al Arabiya English, October 15, 2020, https://english.alarabiya.net/en/in-translation/2020/10/15/A-Biden-presidency-promises-a-return-to-the-Obama-era-Muslim-Brotherhood-alliance
[xviii] The Economist, “Islamists, Elections and the Arab Spring - And the Winner Is,” The Economist, December 10, 2011, https://www.economist.com/leaders/2011/12/10/and-the-winner-is
[xix] Osman El Sharnoubi, “Revolution Not Coup': Anti-Morsi Egyptians Tell CNN,” Ahram, July 6, 2013, http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/75881/Egypt/Politics-/Revolution-not-coup-AntiMorsi-Egyptians-tell-CNN.aspx