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Reports: White House Considers Branding Muslim Brotherhood a Terrorist Organization

The New York Times published a major article Tuesday on the White House debate over formally designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. It is an interesting contrast with an article on the same subject (albeit by different authors) the Times ran just a week ago.

A week ago, the headline was “Trump Pushes Dark View of Islam to Center of U.S. Policy-Making.” This dark view was fretted over several times in the body of the article and dismissed as the thinking of fringe hysterics and fearmongers who do not understand how the Religion of Peace really works:

Rejected by most serious scholars of religion and shunned by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, this dark view of Islam has nonetheless flourished on the fringes of the American right since before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. With Mr. Trump’s election, it has now moved to the center of American decision-making on security and law, alarming many Muslims.

Quoted in the article as purveyors of “the hard-line opinions of what some have described as the Islamophobia industry” were White House strategist Steve Bannon, former Breitbart News National Security Editor Dr. Sebastian Gorka and his wife Katharine, National Security Council official Tera Dahl, and counterterrorism adviser Walid Phares, all of whom have “written for Breitbart News, the right-wing website previously run by Mr. Bannon.”

The article also cited frequent Breitbart News Daily radio guests Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer of Jihad Watch, and Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy. After making him the poster boy for “dark views of Islam” with a photograph, the NYT introduced Gaffney by letting his critics beat him up for a while:

Mr. Gaffney has been labeled “one of America’s most notorious Islamophobes” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The Anti-Defamation League describes him as a “purveyor of anti-Muslim conspiracy theories.” And even the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual meeting of right-wing politicians and activists, banned Mr. Gaffney temporarily after he accused two of its organizers of being agents of the Muslim Brotherhood.

In an interview, he explained his view of Islam, which focuses less on the violent jihad of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State than on the quieter one he sees everywhere. By his account, potential enemies are hidden in plain sight — praying in mosques, recruiting at Muslim student associations and organizing through mainstream Muslim rights groups — and are engaged in “this stealthy, subversive kind of jihad.”

“They essentially, like termites, hollow out the structure of the civil society and other institutions,” Mr. Gaffney said, “for the purpose of creating conditions under which the jihad will succeed.”

The new article from the New York Times, by contrast, is far more respectful of the critique advanced by Gaffney and company of the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, its tone is so different that Gaffney remarked on it during his Wednesday morning appearance on Breitbart News Daily.

The NYT article on the potential terrorist designation of the Muslim Brotherhood cites many of the same people as the previous post and, while it would be a stretch to say they are cited with approval, they are shrouded in much less contempt and paranoia.

“They” really means “we,” because Breitbart News is once again prominently featured as a locus of skepticism about Islamism and the Muslim Brotherhood. As a point of order, it should be noted that Breitbart News covered the debate over terrorist classification for the Brotherhood in great detail weeks ago and gave a very thorough hearing to the arguments against doing so.

The Times still goes out of its way to give the Muslim Brotherhood and the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) the benefit of the doubt:

Some congressional Republicans reintroduced legislation last month calling on the State Department to designate the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization or explain why it would not. “It’s time to call the enemy by its name,” Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who sponsored the measure with Representative Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, wrote on Twitter.

Among those objecting is the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which describes itself as the largest Muslim civil rights organization in the United States. Mr. Gaffney and others have accused it of being a front for the Brotherhood, which the council denies. It said such an order by Mr. Trump would be a brazen attempt to repress Muslims.

“We believe it is just a smoke screen for a witch hunt targeting the civil rights of American Muslims,” said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the council. He said that, given what he called false attempts to link Muslim Americans to the Brotherhood, a terrorist designation would “inevitably be used in a political campaign to attack those same groups and individuals, to marginalize the American Muslim community and to demonize Islam.”

CAIR has been declared a terrorist organization by the United Arab Emirates and was named by federal prosecutors as an unindicted co-conspirator in a Hamas-funding operation.

But the New York Times goes on to document the history and scope of the Muslim Brotherhood at length, making it clear that there are links between various individuals and organizations under its umbrella worthy of concern. Indeed, one of the more compelling arguments against a terrorist classification is that it could make intelligence-gathering against the sinister elements of the MB more difficult.

Also, as the article notes, the Brotherhood has already been classified as a terrorist organization by regional powers (and U.S. allies) such as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, none of whom can fairly be accused of desiring a “witch hunt” against Muslims.

CAIR’s effort to brush the Brotherhood aside as a phantom menace is extremely disturbing. It is very real, it most certainly does have influence in the Western world, and it is huge. In its own report on the White House deliberations, the Wall Street Journal points out that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps may also be designated a terrorist organization, and that politically explosive task would be far easier to accomplish than censuring the Brotherhood.

Whatever one thinks of sharia law, a desire to incorporate its principles into secular law is not inherently “terrorist.” It is possible to be controversial, wrongheaded, or even conspiratorial without engaging in terrorism. Specific requirements must be satisfied for the terrorist designation to be applied. There is also a slightly less severe “associate” designation that can be applied to groups that assist terror organizations financially and/or politically.

Human Rights Watch argues that neither set of criteria have been met for the Muslim Brotherhood. “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 the group’s senior U.S. national security counsel, Laura Pitter. “The designation would also unfairly taint anyone alleged to be linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and undermine the exercise of its political rights abroad.”

HRW’s case against the designation boils down to the Muslim Brotherhood’s size protecting it from censure; it has so many branches and associates that the risk of “unfairly being targeted for prosecution under various laws, including those banning material support for terrorism” would be unacceptably high. The process of appealing such a judgment is difficult and protracted, while the consequences are severe.

Human Rights Watch also fears that if the United States classifies the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, “governments already hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood would have an excuse for politically motivated repression.”

The surge of media interest in the Trump administration’s deliberations suggests that a decision may be forthcoming. The New York Times mentions that the administration might prefer to wait for legislation from Congress, although legislation such as the Cruz-Balart bill merely calls upon the State Department to apply the designation.

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