In the last few years, multiple governments, both in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and the West, have questioned the status of the Muslim Brotherhood, which claims to be a peaceful religious organization, yet gives ideological succor to those who use violence. In several instances, this has led to the group being designated as a terrorist organization. This debate has now reached the White House, with reports at the end of April that President Donald Trump is pushing to have the Brotherhood added to the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations (FTO).
The Nature of the Brotherhood
When it was founded in Egypt in 1928, the Brotherhood was committed to Islamizing society from the bottom-up and violence in service of this revolution was considered licit. The Brotherhood supported the Free Officers’ coup in 1952, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, which abolished the Egyptian monarchy. The Brethren subsequently fell afoul of Nasser and a brutal crackdown beginning in 1954 drove large numbers of their cadres into exile.
These Brotherhood operatives settled in various countries, first in the MENA and later in the West. After Nasser’s death in 1970, his successor, Anwar al-Sadat, changed course, realigning Egypt away from the Soviet Union and towards the West. In this context, Al-Sadat saw the Communists and the Left in Egypt as the primary threat. The Brotherhood was permitted to rebuild in Egypt in this period and publicly set aside the use of violence, if only to avoid further state repression. Abroad, the various branches of the organization that had formed in the 1950s and 1960s became ever-more autonomous.
As Dr. Lorenzo Vidino has explained, while the “Brotherhood entities” work to a “common vision”—and the operatives in the West retain “solid links” to the Middle East—the operatives in each country have “complete operational independence”. This has allowed a partial “reshaping … of the Brotherhood’s ideology and tactics to fit into non-Muslim majority societies,” Vidino adds.
For a complex of reasons—historical, organizational, and economic—the Brotherhood and Brotherhood-derived organizations and individuals have become disproportionately powerful as community interlocuters in the West. Vidino notes that some Western governments engage the Brotherhood knowing full-well what it believes; sometimes they hope to moderate it and sometimes they wish to use its organizational prowess to deal with Muslim populations.
But the Brotherhood engages in copious amounts of deception, too, telling Westerners in their own languages what they want to hear, while inciting against the West as corrupt and immoral when speaking in Arabic in the MENA region.
It would be “a grave analytical mistake to lump the Brotherhood’s ideology together with” Salafist and Salafi-jihadist organizations like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS), as Vidino points out. At the same time, the Brotherhood’s role as the godfather of Islamist militancy should not be overlooked. It was Brotherhood figures in the 1970s who helped fuse together the doctrinal aspects of Salafism and the revolutionary methods of the Brothers to create Salafi-jihadism.
America and the Brotherhood
Elements of the team around Trump came into office viewing the Muslim Brotherhood as on par with the Salafi-jihadists in terms of the threat posed, whether directly or as a breeding ground for “non-violent extremists” who could later take up arms. In order to actualize this view as policy, an FTO designation for the Brotherhood was an obvious step.
The U.S. government has a wide array of tools that can be used to stifle an organization on the FTO list that are not available against other groups, even those on the Treasury list of terrorist organizations. If the Brotherhood was declared an FTO, the U.S. would impose wide-ranging economic and travel sanctions on companies and individuals who interact with them.
The U.S. would not be the first country to consider the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Syria banned the Brotherhood in 1963, shortly after the Ba’ath Party seized power. Russia listed the Brotherhood as a terrorist group in 2003, Egypt in 2013, and in 2014 Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and United Arab Emirates followed suit.
Eventually, the Trump administration shelved plans to put the Brotherhood on the FTO list in 2017.
The debate has returned to the White House after a visit on April 9 by the Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The primary organized opposition to Al-Sisi’s rule since he came to power in 2013 has been from the Muslim Brotherhood, including elements of the organization that have publicly re-embraced violence.
Many analysts oppose designating the Muslim Brotherhood as an FTO. The argument rests on a few pillars.
One objection to an FTO designation for the Brotherhood is based on the political facts, namely that the group is so diverse across different countries. There is no monolithic Brotherhood that can be labelled.
Another objection is legal: it is not clear that the Brotherhood crosses the legal threshold for an FTO. William McCants, a scholar of militant Islamism at the Brookings Institution, is among those who says that the Brotherhood does not meet the criteria for designation under the statute, and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) takes a similar view. Moreover, linked to the first point, it is argued that those branches of the organization, like HAMAS in Gaza, which clearly do meet the definition of an FTO can be, and already are, dealt with separately.
There is then the geopolitical objection. In Turkey, the ruling party of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is an offshoot of the Brotherhood, and in Jordan, Morocco, and numerous other regional states, the Brotherhood forms a significant element of the political system. A designation could create legal and political difficulties with these friendly governments.
A final objection is that a designation risks providing a pretext for human rights abuses, with regional governments able to crack down on legitimate, peaceful opponents by calling them members of the Brotherhood. Such crackdowns on peaceful opposition tend to open the way to violent extremists.
Why Take This Step?
Despite the potential difficulties with putting the Muslim Brotherhood on the FTO list, it is a step that should be taken in order to curb an organization that has served as the ideological forerunner to contemporary violent Islamist groups. For all the diversity of the Brotherhood entities, the risks of the Brotherhood ideology remain consistent, a radical challenge to democracy, liberal values, and human rights.
The incompatibility between the Brotherhood and liberal values was expressed by the Brotherhood’s founder, Hassan al-Banna, in a lecture he gave in October 1958:
Islam does not recognize geographical boundaries, nor does it acknowledge racial and blood differences, considering all Muslims as one umma [nation or community] … [and] every inch of land inhabited by Muslims is their fatherland. …
The Muslim Brethren … strive for Islamic unity … they believe that the caliphate is a symbol of Islamic union and an indication of the bonds between the nations of Islam. … The Muslim Brethren see the caliphate and its re-establishment as a top priority.
The Brotherhood stands for undemocratic values on women’s rights and disseminates narratives that actively incite hatred against religious minorities, notably Christians and above all Jews.
The Brotherhood’s view of gender roles was displayed at the 57th session of the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in March 2013. In response to the Commission’s declaration condemning violence against women, the Brotherhood issued a ten-point statement rejecting it.
If the CSW had its way, the Brotherhood said, it would change the relationship of man and wife, “replacing guardianship with partnership” and eliminating the need for a husband to consent to things like his wife travelling. This “full equality in marriage” was, the Brotherhood made clear, intolerable.
The Brethren statement went on to reject the idea that a woman had the right to file legal charges of rape against her husband, and inveighed against the CSW notion that “the authority of divorce [should be removed] from husbands and plac[ed] in the hands of judges”.
The Brotherhood went on to condemn the CSW declaration since it would entail the state providing contraceptives and abortions; abolishing polygamy; and granting rights to homosexuals.
The CSW declaration would “contradict established principles of Islam, undermine Islamic ethics, and destroy the family,” the Brotherhood said. CSW “would drag [society back] to pre-Islamic ignorance”.
Throughout history, Allah has imposed upon the [Jews] people who would punish them for their corruption. The last punishment was carried out by Hitler. By means of all the things he did to them—even though they exaggerated this issue—he managed to put them in their place. … Allah willing, the next time will be at the hands of the believers.
Al-Qaradawi has been quite explicit that suicide terrorism against Jewish Israelis is acceptable:
The martyrdom operations carried out by the Palestinian factions to resist the Zionist occupation are not in any way included in the framework of prohibited terrorism, even if the victims include some civilians.
When Al-Qaradawi revoked his fatwa licensing “martyrdom operations” in 2015, this was no act of moderation. The terms in which Al-Qaradawi abrogated his fatwa left in place the ideological justification for such terrorist attacks, especially against Jews.
Further, Al-Qaradawi’s view of jihad bil-sayf (“jihad with the sword”, i.e. armed jihad) is that it is fard al-‘ayn, an “individual duty”. This view is in line with the jihadists. Traditional Islam, by contrast, regards jihad bil-sayf as fard al-kifaya, a “communal obligation” that can only be sanctioned by a valid authority against an enemy.
It was on this basis of an “individual duty” for jihad that Al-Qaradawi issued a fatwa telling Muslims to ignore their national governments and to attack Western installations in their countries, since these facilities were an invasion:
Resisting the invaders is an individual duty [incumbent] on all Muslims. If the enemies invaded a Muslim country, the people of that country should resist and expel them from their territories. … It is an individual duty on all Muslims, men and women.
Designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization will be a complex undertaking, most likely including a revision of the criteria used to designate FTOs, but it is necessary given the group’s role in the creation of the jihadi movement and its ongoing role in fostering extremism.