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Trump may label Muslim Brotherhood terror group, but some experts have doubts

President Donald Trump may soon take steps to officially declare a major international Muslim group that is nearly a century old a terrorist organization, a move that could have far-reaching consequences for Muslim groups in the U.S. and allies in the Middle East.

Trump is reportedly weighing an executive order that would direct the State Department to evaluate whether the Muslim Brotherhood and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps are “foreign terrorist organizations” (FTO), as defined by the Immigration and Nationality Act. According to CNN, the White House planned for Trump to sign it earlier this week but it was put on hold due to “serious objections” from career diplomats and security officials.

The Muslim Brotherhood is a network of Islamist organizations with chapters and affiliate groups in many countries. Supporters portray it as a voice of moderation against groups like ISIS and al Qaeda, but critics claim it poses a serious terrorist threat.

The executive order under consideration is just one effort aimed at delegitimizing the group and its affiliates. Republicans in Congress, led by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, have revived legislation that failed under the previous administration to request an official FTO designation for the Brotherhood.

The Muslim Brotherhood Terrorist Designation Act of 2017 would order the State Department to submit a detailed report within 60 days either confirming that the Muslim Brotherhood does meet the criteria to be designated as an FTO or explaining in detail why it does not.

An associated bill would request a similar report on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said Thursday designating the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists would make it easier for the federal government to direct resources to combat the threat he believes it poses.

“The Muslim Brotherhood, in my opinion, has been and qualifies to be a terrorist organization in accordance with our country,” he said.

Although Inhofe pointed to the violent activities of Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups in the Middle East, statutes dictate that an organization must “threaten the security of United States nationals or the national security of the United States” for the State Department to call it an FTO.

What is not in dispute about the Muslim Brotherhood is that it was founded as a movement in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna with the goal of spreading Islamic values throughout society. In its early years, the group was accused of perpetrating assassinations and bombings in Egypt. A failed 2015 Senate bill quoted al-Banna’s writings about the value of jihad.

Although the Muslim Brotherhood formally renounced violence in the 1970s, Palestinian terrorist group Hamas was founded by its members and some other affiliate groups and leaders have also engaged in terrorism.

A Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohamed Morsi, was elected as president of Egypt following a revolution in 2012. He was forced out of office by a coup in 2013 and the Brotherhood was then outlawed there.

The Muslim Brotherhood has long been the subject of suspicion and conspiracy theories in some conservative circles, including occasional allegations that President Obama or others in his White House were working with the group.

In a statement announcing the bill, Cruz accused the Obama administration forming “a grand détente” with the Muslim Brotherhood.

“I am proud to reintroduce these bills that would codify needed reforms in America’s war against radical Islamic terrorism,” Cruz said. “This potent threat to our civilization has intensified under the Obama administration due to the willful blindness of politically-correct policies that hamper our safety and security.”

Some of the most extreme critics of the Muslim Brotherhood have the ear of President Trump. Trump himself has attacked it on Twitter many times and accused the Obama administration of supporting it when Morsi was in power in Egypt.

Chief White House strategist Steve Bannon has reportedly called the group “the foundation of modern terrorism.” In his confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson lumped it in with al Qaeda as “agents of radical Islam.” New CIA Director Mike Pompeo co-sponsored a bill to ban the Muslim Brotherhood when he was in Congress.

Media reports indicate many in the State Department and CIA are uncomfortable with an FTO designation. Some say it will complicate relationships with Muslim allies, weaken moderate voices in the Muslim world, and reinforce the ISIS message that Islam is in a clash of civilizations with the West.

An internal CIA report completed last month and obtained by Politico warned that the FTO designation would “fuel extremism” and be seen as an insult in regions where Muslim Brotherhood groups have popular support.

Ryan Mauro, national security analyst at the Clarion Project, said designating the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization would be appropriate.

“If you believe that we are in an ideological war with radical Islam, then you believe we are in an ideological war with Muslim Brotherhood, in addition to the Brotherhood's long history of direct involvement in terrorism,” he said.

Based on his organization’s research, Mauro disputes claims of any meaningful separation between the Muslim Brotherhood and violent affiliates like Hamas.

“Any decentralization happens so that each wing can adjust to local situations and plausible deniability can exist in order to protect one Brotherhood entity from another's hardship,” he said.

According to Mauro, Brotherhood groups have endorsed attacks on U.S. forces overseas, so it could be seen as a threat to U.S. nationals and security. He also argued that marginalizing the Brotherhood will create opportunities for genuine moderates in the international Muslim community to gain influence.

“The Brotherhood entities and their allies dominate the scene because they've operated for decades and have the highest name recognition, organizational capabilities, political contacts and resources,” he said.

Other experts reject the depiction of the Muslim Brotherhood as an insidious threat to Americans.

“What they’re repeating is the very lie that authoritarian governments in the Middle East have done for decades,” said John Esposito, founding director of the Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, noting that the Brotherhood has been persecuted at times in places like Egypt.

In addition to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Syria have declared the Muslim Brotherhood terrorists, but other allies in the Middle East like Turkey and Jordan treat it as a legitimate political organization. This illustrates why it can be difficult to paint all groups that fall under the Brotherhood umbrella the same.

“The Muslim Brotherhood is a movement,” Esposito said. “It’s not just a specific organization.”

He also questioned why conservative think tanks and experts that have been complaining about the Brotherhood for years have failed to convince the U.S. government to do anything about it so far.

“The question you have to ask yourself is how come they haven’t been able to get any federal agency or anybody else to corroborate what they say?... For me, it’s like ‘Where’s the beef?’ when it comes to these people,” he said.

A controversial report issued by the British government in 2015 found that, while the Muslim Brotherhood officially renounced violence, prominent members defended Hamas attacks in Israel and attacks on coalition forces in Afghanistan. The report concluded that aspects of the Brotherhood’s ideology are “contrary to our national interests and our national security.”

The investigation found no evidence that the Muslim Brotherhood was linked to terrorist activity in or against Britain. However, it also noted significant differences between more moderate messages broadcast by Brotherhood leaders to the English-speaking world and more militant statements being made in Arabic.

The report stopped short of recommending that the group be banned from the U.K., but British Prime Minister David Cameron said at the time that association with the Brotherhood “should be considered as a possible indicator of extremism.”

Under the Senate bill, U.S. organizations like the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) could be targeted for supposed links to the Brotherhood.

ISNA Secretary General Hazem Bata said Thursday that his organization does not have any affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood and never has. He suggested those promoting the legislation know that and have sinister motives.

“This is a bill that has nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood,” Bata said. “It is a bill designed to go after American Muslim organizations.”

He fears authorities will play a “fake game of connect the dots” to tie innocent organizations to the Brotherhood in an effort to weaken the American Muslim community. His group and others are prepared to defend themselves in court if necessary.

“This is McCarthyism all over again,” Bata said. “This is the red scare all over again. This is the paranoid mentality that believes there’s a communist or a Muslim beneath every rock.”

CAIR issued a statement Thursday decrying "the effort to blacklist the Brotherhood."

"The Muslim Brotherhood, amongst anti-Muslim bigots in the alt-right, has been merely code language for Muslims in general and as a means of demonizing of Muslim organisations and activists who are promoting Islamic education as well as civic engagement," Dawud Walid, executive director of CAIR's Michigan chapter, said.

Even some critics of the Muslim Brotherhood balked at the idea of designating the whole thing an FTO.

“The goal here would be to look at the parts, not the sum, because I think the broader picture is the Brotherhood is a disparate organization with lots of different moving parts,” said Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

He considers the Muslim Brotherhood a hate group promoting an extremist ideology, but he doubts an attempt to label all branches of it as terrorists, rather than focusing on specific offshoots that engage in violent activity, would be legal.

“It doesn’t really matter if it’s a good idea or a bad idea,” he said. “It would have to meet the legal threshold.”

Mauro fears such a piecemeal approach to the issue would fall short.

“If you don't designate the Brotherhood as a whole, you'll get stuck in a cycle of designating one manifestation, resulting in another manifestation rising and another designation,” he said. “Designation provides the basis for all Brotherhood entities to be investigated and potentially prosecuted.”

Esposito dismissed the latest push against the Muslim Brotherhood as driven by Islamophobic websites and think tanks emboldened by President Trump and his advisers.

“It’s gotten ratcheted up because we now have a president who has made some statements about American Muslims that have not exactly been carefully worded,” he said.

But Esposito acknowledged there is little Democrats can do to stop Trump or the Republican Congress from pressing ahead with demands that Tillerson’s State Department brand the Muslim Brotherhood as an FTO.

“If they really want to get this ban through, they can do it,” he said.

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