Should the Trump administration’s ongoing discussions result in designating the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) a terrorist organization, it would harm America’s national security and destabilize Sunni Muslim countries, many of whom are presumed allies of the United States. Despite objections to such a designation from within the administration, President Donald Trump seems to have been persuaded by Egypt’s strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during his recent visit to Washington to make this ill-advised policy.
The decision to declare the MB a terrorist organization reflects an ignorance of the organization’s history, ideology, deep roots in the Muslim world and impact on mainstream Muslim political activism globally. If the administration’s goal is to separate radicals and extremists from mainstream Muslims, then pushing the MB into the radical camp by declaring it a terrorist organization is short-sighted and counterproductive.
According to press reports, Egyptian strongman Sisi on his recent visit to the White House lobbied Trump to declare the MB a terrorist organization. Trump reportedly acquiesced to Sisi’s request because of his visceral attraction to dictators and because of his scant knowledge of the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic politics in general.
Since Sisi removed the MB-affiliated Egyptian president Muhammad Morsi from office in 2013, his regime began to target MB members mercilessly. Thousands were arrested illegally, tortured, put through sham trials and given harsh sentences, including the death penalty. Sisi’s policy directly contradicts his earlier thinking on the matter. He has done that despite his belief that domestic stability in Egypt could best be achieved through a partnership between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.
In the past six years, but especially since Trump came to office, Sisi’s anti-MB policies were often carried out in conjunction with the Saudi, UAE, and Bahraini regimes. They, too, declared the MB a terrorist organization and enacted draconian “terrorism” laws that they then used to silence the opposition in their respective countries.
These regimes fear the MB because of its close connection with the people in Sunni majority countries, and the social, educational and medical services it provides. These autocrats primarily fear the MB because it speaks out for human rights, political participation and the rule of law.
Unlike Sisi’s autocratic regime, the Muslim Brotherhood believes in gradual, peaceful political reform. Since the mid-1990s, the MB has been committed to effecting political reform through the ballot box, not the barrel of a gun. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring in 2011, the MB formed a political party, which won handily in the Egyptian legislative and presidential elections in 2012.
Since its founding in 1928 in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has become the face of community Islam across the Muslim world. Most, if not all, mainstream Sunni Islamic political parties across the globe – from Turkey and Malaysia to Kuwait and Tunisia – are grounded in MB ideology.
Targeting the MB in the Trump White House has been the handiwork of national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Their deeply seated Islamophobia, Iranophobia and support for Sunni dictators drive their anti-MB posture.
The personal relationships that Trump and his family, especially son-in-law Jared Kushner, have forged with selected Arab autocrats in Saudi Arabia and Egypt have led the administration to accept at face value the views of these autocrats on the “terrorism” of the MB. Sadly, by attacking the MB, the Trump administration’s clear message to the Arab and Muslim worlds is that democratic politics does not matter.
The Muslim Brotherhood is not a terrorist organization. Salafist groups such as al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and their affiliates across the globe, which Saudi Arabia supported for years, are the real terrorists. These groups continue to spout a radical, intolerant, narrow-minded ideology emanating from Saudi Islam, which has led some of its followers to attack synagogues and churches across the globe. The MB has not engaged in such violence. Instead, it has encouraged legally established political parties to engage in politics through elections and legislative compromises.
If the White House decides to designate the MB a terrorist organization, most of these parties would become extremely reticent to engage with American diplomats, intelligence officers and other officials at U.S. embassies. Such a move will also alienate millions of mainstream Muslims and endanger American interests across the Muslim world. For all of these reasons, Trump’s precipitous decision, taken on the advice of an Egyptian autocrat, would damage American national security irreparably.
Emile Nakhleh is research professor and director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at UNM. A longer version of this article was published on LobeLog.