February 8, 2017 The Trump White House is reportedly considering designating the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization, or "FTO." The factual argument against such a designation has been well and repeatedly made. Experts--including those within the U.S. government--have noted that such a move would rest on legally dubious grounds and would not help in the struggle against violent Islamist extremism, but would cause harm to vital bilateral relationships in the Middle East.
Most troublingly, labeling the Muslim Brotherhood as an FTO could expose law-abiding Muslim Americans and others living within the United States to claims of materially supporting a terrorist group, a criminal offense. While the White House's intent in considering an FTO designation is difficult to discern, the obvious downsides of the decision and previous statements by administration officials leave open the real possibility that linking American Muslims to alleged criminal activity is the very purpose of the action. Such a move would be an exceptionally dangerous infringement of individuals' constitutional rights and should be rejected by all Americans. As Human Rights First has previously noted, there are many downsides to designating the Muslim Brotherhood as an FTO:
* Any designation would be unworkably broad. There is no single "Muslim Brotherhood" organization. Instead, Brotherhood affiliated and inspired organizations exist in a wide range of countries, and their conduct and activities are shaped by the context in which they exist. Those Muslim Brotherhood groups that do use terrorist tactics, like Hamas, have already appropriately been designated terrorist organizations. In other countries, like Turkey or Tunisia, Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated parties exist within democratically elected governments closely allied with the United States. In Syria, the United States supports groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood engaged in a military conflict with ISIL.
* Any designation would likely increase the threat from violent Islamist extremists. In most countries, Muslim Brotherhood-linked political movements have favored peaceful participation in electoral politics when permitted to do so. Many have been heavily criticized by terrorist groups like al-Qa'eda and ISIL for this choice. Were the United States to designate the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, the action would thus strengthen those who argue that nonviolent opposition to tyranny is pointless and empower advocates of political violence.
Governments like those in Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Syria would like the United States to designate the Brotherhood a FTO not because the organization is illiberal and Islamist, but because it advocates for more representative, democratic governance. Instability and insecurity--including the threat of Islamist inspired terrorism--are rooted in the Middle East's crisis of governance. Closer alignment by the United States with regional authoritarians will lead to more instability and more terrorism, not less.
* On a practical level, the administration's stated priority of winning the fight against ISIL in Iraq and Syria requires close cooperation with Turkey. Yet a move to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as an FTO would almost certainly further strain relations with the Turkish government, which largely supports the group.
Such a demonstrably harmful proposal suggests that its real purpose is not to achieve the stated objective of making Americans safer, but rather to spread fear and division within American society by further tarring American Muslims. Ruling on Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, the Supreme Court found that because money is fungible, donations to a nonviolent wing of an FTO are tantamount to funding terrorism. If the Trump administration designates the Muslim Brotherhood as a whole an FTO, it could expose innocent Americans to prosecution. An American who sent remittances to a family member involved with the Muslim Brotherhood's peaceful political activities in Kuwait, Jordan, or Morocco could be charged with material support for terrorism. Like magic, the U.S. government could thus conjure up "radical Islamic terrorists" within America's borders with the stroke of a pen.
The proposed designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as an FTO fits the Trump administration's pattern of adopting policies based on demonstrably false assumptions. The primary purpose of such actions is to sow fear about the problems they purport to address, rather than taking a fact-based approach to resolving them.
The highly controversial executive order suspending the refugee admissions program and entry from seven majority Muslim countries is a case in point. President Trump has called for "extreme vetting" of people from Muslim-majority countries entering the United States, but homeland security and intelligence officials from both political parties have repeatedly reported that such vetting is already in place and has been working effectively for years.
Similarly, President Trump has falsely claimed that the media is purposefully under-reporting terrorist attacks carried out by Islamist extremists around the world, fueling public fears of Muslims by suggesting that they commit more terrorist violence than is generally reported.
Policies based on falsehoods are inherently perilous. Policies that could result in criminal prosecutions of innocent Americans are a threat to the American way of life. As the Trump administration considers taking this extraordinarily misguided step, we should all be aware of--and alarmed by--the stakes.