Home/Daniel Larison/Designating the Muslim Brotherhood Is Wrong and Illegal

Designating the Muslim Brotherhood Is Wrong and Illegal

U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, President Trump and National Security Advisor John Bolton at the NATO Foreign Ministerial in Brussels, Belgium on July 12, 2018. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

Trump is preparing to do a client’s bidding once again with an outrageous decision to label the entire Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization:

The Trump administration is pushing to issue an order that would designate the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization, bringing the weight of American sanctions against a storied and influential Islamist political movement with millions of members across the Middle East, according to officials familiar with the matter.

The White House directed national security and diplomatic officials to find a way to place sanctions on the group after a White House visit on April 9 by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, for whom the Brotherhood represents a source of political opposition. In a private meeting without reporters and photographers, Mr. el-Sisi urged Mr. Trump to take that step and join Egypt in branding the movement a terrorist organization.

Labeling the entire Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists would be completely wrong and unjustified, and it would be another reckless giveaway to authoritarian clients that would use this designation to intensify repression against their domestic opponents. It would also have serious implications for U.S. relations with many predominantly Muslim countries, some of which have members of the group serving in their governments. Even for this sanctions-happy administration, imposing sanctions on all of the countries, firms, and individuals connected to the Muslim Brotherhood should be a bridge too far. Perhaps most worrying of all, the designation could be used to attack the civil and political rights of Muslims here in the U.S., and I assume this is why the idea has always been supported by anti-Muslim zealots. The only people that favor doing this are dictators that want cover for repression and ideologues that stoke anti-Muslim prejudice. Unfortunately, the Trump administration is unduly influenced by both.

The main reason why the designation is wrong is that most chapters of the Muslim Brotherhood do not engage in or support terrorism in any way, and they certainly don’t represent a threat to the U.S. If the U.S. begins labeling non-violent Islamist groups terrorists on the say-so of the dictators and despots that want to jail and kill them, it has abandoned any pretense that its use of the terrorist designation is anything more than a blacklist for groups whose politics we dislike. Individual chapters of the Muslim Brotherhood can be designated if they meet the criteria, and some have been, but a blanket designation on all of them is absurd. The proposed designation would bring us much closer to using the Saudi definition of terrorism that treats political violence and non-violent dissent as if they are the same thing.

There is the other minor detail that designating the entire organization as terrorists would be illegal:

But there’s at least one other reason why Trump should stay his hand on a Brotherhood designation: It would be illegal.

The Brotherhood as a whole, in several different respects, does not meet the criteria for designation under the statute. That’s why, despite pressure from governments like Egypt and the UAE over a protracted period of time, it has not been designated to date under any of the previous three administrations. Barring a change in statute that would almost certainly render the material support law unconstitutional, a designation, notwithstanding the ferment for it, would not be lawful today either, even under a Trump administration.

If Trump goes ahead with this, it would not be the first time that the Trump administration has run roughshod over U.S. law to do what they want, but it is important to understand that there is no legal basis for what the administration is preparing to do here.

McCants and Wittes add:

If credible evidence of terrorist activity is not forthcoming, it would quite simply be illegal for the United States to designate the Brotherhood on purely ideological grounds. To be sure, the Egyptian Brotherhood pursues an illiberal agenda in a democratic framework, but that is not a lawless act. Criminalizing the group for a set of ideas, by contrast, would be a lawless act.

It would also be the latest sign that the Trump administration is so heavily influenced by the authoritarian governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE that these client states are effectively dictating U.S. foreign policy on a number of issues.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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