WASHINGTON — The U.S. government’s definition of terrorism is not hard to find. It’s posted on the FBI’s website.
Terrorism needs to involve dangerous acts to human life that violate federal or state law. It must appear to be aimed at intimidating the civilian population, influencing government policy through coercion, or affecting government conduct through mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.
Under this definition, designation of foreign terrorist groups would seem clear. But, in fact, partisan politics plays a significant role in views of foreign actors, specifically those with religious affiliations.
Late last month, the House Judiciary Committee approved legislation along party lines calling on the State Department to designate the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt a foreign terrorist organization. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., the Judiciary chairman, said he was “troubled” to learn that the State Department has never taken the step.
“The Brotherhood is not, factually speaking, a terrorist group,” said Shadi Hamid, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle over Islam is Reshaping the Modern World. “The fact that some, especially in Congress, would suggest otherwise is evidence of the low quality of our foreign policy discourse.”
While there is little chance the State Department will comply, the resolution, sponsored by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., and a companion measure, sponsored by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, represent the growing partisan divide on Islam and terrorism highlighted by the 2016 presidential campaign.
Goodlatte said that a terrorist group label would force the administration to deny admittance to “aliens tied to the Muslim Brotherhood,” and increase grounds for not admitting and deporting immigrants associated with the group. It would also subject material supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood to criminal penalties and allow the Secretary of the Treasury to require U.S. financial institutions to block all financial transactions involving the group’s assets.
The Republican majority on the Judiciary Committee moved swiftly on the bill. The decisive hearing lasted only 25 minutes and skipped some procedures, such as testimony from intelligence agencies, the departments of State and Defense, or academic experts.
Democrats at the hearing protested, noting a similar lack of procedure last year for legislation to designate the Taliban as a terrorist group.
“It is very worrisome that the majority appears to be making a habit of bringing up measures for consideration that have received no deliberative process whatever,” Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., the committee’s top Democrat, said at the February hearing.
The Muslim Brotherhood, founded by Hassan al-Banna in 1928, is an Egyptian Islamist organization dedicated to instilling Islamic law—that is, Sharia—based on the teachings of the Quran and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.
Whereas terrorism requires violent acts against civilians intended to cause fear for a political purpose, Islamism is the belief that spheres of life should be run according to Islamic values, including governance.
John Esposito, professor of religion and international affairs and of Islamic studies at Georgetown University, said in an interview the Muslim Brotherhood never responded with violence to significant repression and arrest under Hosni Mubarak’s regime from 1981 to 2011. Its track record has been to function as a social organization and, when permitted, as a political organization that participates in elections, he said.
While the Brotherhood itself renounces violence, its Islamist ideology has spawned various militant Islamist offshoots, including al-Jihad in Egypt, whose members assassinated then-president Anwar Sadat in 1981, and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, whose charter seeks the destruction of the State of Israel.
“As Americans,” Brookings’ Hamid said, “it’s understandable that some would be uncomfortable with some of what the Brotherhood believes when it comes to the role of religion in public life, their conservative social policy, their positions on gender issues and so on. But to say that a group is bad, if that’s what you think, and to say that a group is a terrorist group are two completely different things.”
The bill comes in the midst of a presidential campaign in which some Republican candidates have increasingly argued that elements of Islam are incompatible with American values.
Frontrunner Donald Trump has said he thinks “Islam hates us,” Sen. Cruz insists radical jihadists be labeled as Islamic and Marco Rubio says there is a “clash of civilizations” between the West and radical Islam.
“Islamism quite lazily has been used as a catchall for everything that’s bad and dangerous in the Middle East,” Hamid said. “Part of this fits into the Islamophobic discourse that we see everyday coming primarily from the Republican candidates. This tendency to equate Islam to Islamism to terrorism is a slippery slope.”
After Mubarak was overthrown in the 2011 Arab Spring, the Muslim Brotherhood, emerging as an organized political party following decades operating as a social welfare group, won the parliamentary and presidential elections. But a turbulent year of majoritarian rule by the Brotherhood—including favoritism to Islamist-aligned groups, harassment of opposition and persistent economic hardships—led to a popular uprising and military coup overseen by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, ousting President Mohamed Morsi.
Gen. Sisi, along with U.S. allies Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization and imprisoned thousands of its members.
“The Republican response is very much influenced by the lobbying of the Egyptian government and the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia,” Georgetown’s Esposito said. “You now have a government in place that came together through a military-led coup, which has engaged in more violence and terror than any contemporary Egyptian government.”
Esposito said Saudi Arabia and the UAE financially supported the coup out of fear that the democratization movements of the Arab Spring would spread to the Gulf States and threaten their monarchies. As a result, they have heavily lobbied the West on behalf of the Egyptian government.
“In the Gulf area and in other Muslim countries in recent years,” he said, “when there have been free and fair elections, very often, members of Islamic groups have emerged as major political players. For some of these governments, they fear any and all opposition, let alone one that appeals to religion, because their legitimacy and their stability is based on security forces, not elections.”
The U.S. House bill cites the Muslim Brotherhood being designated as a terrorist organization by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Russia and Syria as a reason for the U.S. to label the group as well. Hamid said these countries as “very problematic in every case,” calling them some of the most repressive regimes in the world.
“When you’re actually making common cause with the Assad regime (in Syria) to make your argument,” he said, “that undermines you at the very outset.”
The legislation heavily emphasizes the Muslim Brotherhood’s commitment to jihad, an often-misunderstood Islamic belief that best means to struggle or strive. Most interpretations and applications of jihad are non-violent, though the word has gained infamy through militant Islamist groups’ justification of martyrdom as jihad.
When Cruz introduced the companion bill in the Senate in November, he said, “The Brotherhood’s stated goal is to wage violent jihad against its enemies, and our legislation is a reality check that the United States is on that list as well,” in a statement.
“Jihad does not necessarily equal terrorism,” Hamid said. “Jihad is a very complex idea in the classical Islamic tradition. I doubt that anyone working on this bill is even vaguely aware of how different scholars over Islamic history have discussed what jihad means in practice.”
In fact, unlike terrorist groups ISIS and al-Qaida, the Muslim Brotherhood has sought to promote Islamic governance within existing state structures and has accepted modern nation-states and the electoral process. Salafi jihadist groups like ISIS, by contrast, believes that any legislative efforts by an elected body is a direct violation of God’s sovereignty. As a result, ISIS considers members of the Muslim Brotherhood to be apostates.
The impact of labeling the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group goes beyond mere partisan politics. The designation could endanger both civil liberties and U.S. national security, Hamid said. Branding Islamism as terrorism could give the government greater leeway to invade individual privacy, particularly for Muslims, he said.
“What if you have a conservative Muslim who’s an American citizen?” Hamid said. “If they believe in illiberal things about religion’s role in public life, are we suggesting that they are not actually true citizens or that their loyalty is to be questioned?”
On the national security front, chastising the Muslim Brotherhood—a major player in the Middle East with positive support throughout much of the area—could be detrimental to U.S. interests in the region, Hamid said. The first step in counterterrorism, he said, is actually knowing who the terrorists are.
Rep. Conyers said he feared the terrorism designation bill “appeals to our base fears.”
“Islamophobia may be good politics, time will tell, but it certainly is not good policy. It does not serve our national security or foreign policy interests. It will not make us safer.”