How not to fuel extremism


Analysts at the Central Intelligence Agency have warned that labeling the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization “may fuel extremism” and damage relations with America’s allies, according to a summary of an intelligence report shared with POLITICO by a U.S. official:

The document, published internally on Jan. 31, notes that the Brotherhood—which boasts millions of followers around the Arab world—has “rejected violence as a matter of official policy and opposed al­ Qa’ida and ISIS.” It acknowledges that “a minority of MB [Muslim Brotherhood] members have engaged in violence, most often in response to harsh regime repression, perceived foreign occupation, or civil conflicts.” Noting that there are branches of the group in countries such as Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco and Tunisia, it cautions that some of America’s allies in the region “probably worry that such a step could destabilize their internal politics, feed extremist narratives, and anger Muslims worldwide.”

“MB groups enjoy widespread support across the Near East­-North Africa region and many Arabs and Muslims worldwide would view an MB designation as an affront to their core religious and societal values,” the document continues. “Moreover, a US designation would probably weaken MB leaders’ arguments against violence and provide ISIS and al­Qa’ida additional grist for propaganda to win followers and support, particularly for attacks against US interests.”

“Designating all Muslim Brotherhood groups worldwide to be terrorists based on the actions of a few might well push the debate over using violence in the wrong direction,” Carnegie analyst Michele Dunne tells Cyber Brief. “So it could actually increase the threat of terrorism against Americans as well as Egyptians rather than diminish it,” adds Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.


Such a designation would also undermine the ability of the Muslim Brotherhood’s members and supporters to participate in democratic politics abroad, says Human Rights Watch.

“Designating the Muslim Brotherhood a ‘foreign terrorist organization’ would wrongly equate it with violent extremist groups like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State and make their otherwise lawful activities illegal,” said Laura Pitter, the group’s senior US national security counsel. “The designation would also unfairly taint anyone alleged to be linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and undermine the exercise of its political rights abroad.”

But the Brotherhood calls for a society governed by Islamic law, and some of its former members and offshoots — most notably Hamas, the Palestinian group whose stated goal is the destruction of Israel — have been tied to attacks, The New York Times adds.

Nevertheless, designating the Brotherhood as a terrorist group would signal that the U.S. was “more interested in provoking conflict with an imaginary fifth column of Muslims in the U.S. than in preserving our relationships with counterterrorism partners like Turkey, Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco, or with fighting actual terrorism,” said Tom Malinowski, an assistant secretary of state under Mr. Obama.

The Muslim Brotherhood preaches a violent, exclusivist ideology, notes Eric Trager, a fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.  “Its websites and social media accounts are chock-full of anti-Christian and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.  Its affiliated networks in Istanbul have threatened foreign nationals in Egypt.  Its leading figures and platforms have embraced violence and martyrdom explicitly.”

But any move to designate the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, will face two technical, but nonetheless significant, hurdles, says Trager, the author of Arab Fall: How the Muslim Brotherhood Won and Lost Egypt in 891 Days (Georgetown University Press, fall 2016):

  • First, the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t a single organization, but an international movement comprised of dozens of national Brotherhood organizations.  (Brotherhood leaders have told me that they have organizations in approximately 70 countries, but this is difficult to confirm). For the most part, Brotherhood organizations share two common characteristics: they subject their members to multi-year indoctrination processes, during which prospective Muslim Brothers are vetted for their commitment to the Brotherhood’s cause and willingness to follow orders.  And Brotherhood organizations possess rigid chains of command, in which each organization’s central leadership dictates orders to local cells, known as “families,” which can be mobilized for a variety of activities, including preaching, political campaigning, providing social services, and violence…..
  • The second hurdle for designating the Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization relates to the narrow question of whether the Brotherhood’s activities meet the legal standard of engaging in “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.”  To be sure, Hamas meets this standard, because it targets civilians for murder.  But in most other cases, Brotherhood organizations are quite careful to avoid crossing the line between expressing their ideological affinity for terrorist attacks – which they do quite prolifically – and directing their members to commit actual terrorist attacks. 

It is imperative to draw a line between the religion of Islam and the ideology of Islamism or radical Islam which has been the inspiration for a war of terror launched against the West in Europe, the United States and Israel, and against Muslims especially in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Gaza and Lebanon, argues the University of Maryland’s Jeffrey Herf:

This ideology, which has Sunni and Shia variations, emerged in the Arab world 1930s and 1940s in the era of fascism in Italy and more importantly Nazism in Germany. …The scholarship on this urgent topic includes Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism (2004) and The Flight of the Intellectuals (2011), Matthias Küntzel’s Jihad and Jew-Hatred: Islamism and the Roots of 9/11 (2002; English, 2013), Bassam Tibi’s Islamism and Islam (2012), and my own Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World (2009).

“All draw a sharp line between the religion of Islam and the large majority of its Muslim adherents, on the one hand, and the minority that adopted Islamism as its creed, on the other,” Herf writes for The National Interest.

“The Brotherhood is not in a meaningful sense a single organization at all; elements of it can be designated and have been designated, and other elements certainly cannot be,” writes William McCants, Senior Fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy and director of its Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution. “As a whole, it is simply too diffuse and diverse to characterize. And it certainly cannot be said as a whole to engage in terrorism that threatens the United States,” continues McCants.

“The Muslim Brotherhood could not control Egypt — where it is from, where it has existed for over 80 years, and where it could not keep control for more than a year,” the Washington Institute’s Trager said. “It sure as hell is not going to take over America.”

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