by Emile Nakhleh
Much has been written recently about the Trump administration’s possible plans to designate the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) a terrorist organization. Such thinking reflects ignorance of the organization and its history, ideology, and deep roots in the Muslim world. If the administration’s goal is to separate radicals and extremists from mainstream Muslims, as the newly appointed National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster has advocated, then pushing the MB into the radical camp by declaring it a terrorist organization is shortsighted and counterproductive. Such a move is also destined to alienate millions of mainstream Muslims and endanger American interests and personnel across the Muslim world. It is heartening to learn from press reports that McMaster told an all-hands meeting at the National Security Council last week that he objected to the use of the term “radical Islamic terrorism” because it is used as a propaganda tool by terrorists and extremists and does not convey the true nature of Muslim societies.
Demonizing the MB in the Trump White House has been the handiwork of Michael Flynn, who was recently dismissed from his position as Trump’s first national security adviser, Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and other White House anti-Muslim ideologues. Their deeply seated Islamophobia and irrational belief that the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated the American political system and is intent on Islamizing American society, without factual evidence, led them to proceed with designating the MB a terrorist organization.
The two cornerstones of this idea are fear mongering and ignorance—much like the bogus claim that the so-called Sharia law is sweeping this country and undermining the US Constitution. Throughout the presidential campaign and since the new administration has taken office, these ideologues have peddled an anti-Muslim agenda driven by fake claims against Muslims. Fortunately for the country, Flynn was booted out before he had time to institutionalize his policy paradigm of hatred and divisions. By comparison, his replacement, Lt. Gen. McMaster, is a seasoned and rational observer of the Muslim world and is expected to adopt a more nuanced approach toward the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. Although he is not expected to proceed with Flynn’s ill-advised MB proposal, it is important for the Trump administration to deepen its knowledge about the MB and its role in Muslim countries. Such knowledge cannot be conveyed in 140-character tweets, nor should it. Of course, it’s still possible for Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and his supporters in Congress to push their legislation against the Muslim Brotherhood.
Arab Dictators and the MB
Some Arab dictators and potentates—for example, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt—much like some of Trump’s advisers, also oppose the Muslim Brotherhood and have declared it a terrorist organization. Unlike some White House Islamophobes, Sisi and his fellow autocrats in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and elsewhere are against the MB for political, not religious reasons. They fear the MB because of its close connection with the people and the social and educational services it provides. These autocrats primarily fear the MB because it speaks out for human rights, political participation, and the rule of law.
Arab dictators’ antagonism toward the MB began to crystalize in the mid-1990s when the MB and its ideologically affiliated parties across the region started looking favorably at national elections. The MB argued that regardless of the “un-Islamic” behavior of some regimes, the MB would participate in national elections under whatever modality the regimes allowed. For example, the MB ran in Egyptian national elections in affiliation with other parties or as “independent” candidates. They generally did very well because the public viewed them as less corrupt than the autocratic regimes and the ruling elites and provided services that the state failed to do. The MB became the face of civic Islam in many Arab and Muslim societies.
It’s ironic that Sisi of Egypt would declare the MB a terrorist organization right after he toppled the MB president Muhammad Morsi in a military coup in July 2013. At the conclusion of his 2005-2006 study tour at the US Army War College in Carlisle, PA, he wrote a thesis in which he argued that domestic stability in Egypt could best be achieved through a partnership between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. Largely because of such a position, president Morsi appointed him chief of staff of the Egyptian military.
Arab dictators would support any policy by the Trump administration against the MB because they foolishly believe that would augment their legitimacy. Recent history has shown this to be a losing proposition. In previous columns, I argued that declaring the MB a terrorist organization was risky, self-defeating, and a recipe for radicalization. Such a policy is equally dangerous today.
The MB and Sunni Islam
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 and movements are grounded in MB ideology. Many of these parties in Muslim majority countries have been elected to national legislatures and have been part of the governing process in their respective countries. The MB is the oldest, largest, most visible, and most organized Islamic Sunni political organization in the Islamic world.
American diplomats, intelligence officers, and other officials at US embassies all over the world have dealt with these parties, exchanged information, and learned much about Muslim societies and Islamic activist organizations. During my government service, my colleagues and I engaged regularly with such Islamic political parties and movements as the MB in Egypt, the AKP in Turkey, the Justice and Development Party in Morocco, the PKS in Indonesia, PAS in Malaysia, the ICM in Kuwait, the IMU in Uzbekistan, the Islamic Party in Kenya, the Islamic Movement in Israel, al-Nahda in Tunisia, al-Islah in Yemen, and the Islamic Action Front in Jordan.
Diplomatic and intelligence exchanges with many of these parties were a mine of information about political Islam, Islamic activism, and the whole process of Islamization—lawful and nefarious—in Muslim countries. Intelligence reports and briefings based on these exchanges helped inform senior policy makers and indirectly served the national interest of the United States. By engaging over the past 30 years with these political parties, which represent the vast majority of mainstream Sunni Muslims, American policymakers developed a better understanding of the Islamic world, the different historical, religious, and ideological narratives of Muslim societies, and the distinction between radicalism and extremism and mainstream Islam.
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 US embassies. American national security would be damaged irreparably. The Afghan and Iraq wars and the so-called Global War on Terror after 9/11 should have taught us that unintended consequences, if not well thought out before a certain policy is undertaken, could be disastrous. Assuming he survives the looming conflict with Steve Bannon over process and policy, Gen. McMaster has all the right skills, experience, and intellectual acumen to make sure the US doesn’t fall into similar traps.
Photo of former Egyptian military chief of staff Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.