The Muslim Brotherhood Terrorist Designation Act of 2017 was a piece of congressional legislation introduced by Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) that advocates for the Muslim Brotherhood to be labeled a “foreign terrorist organization” (or FTO) by the U.S. State Department. Not to be outdone by Cruz, there have also been reports that Donald Trump might still issue his own unilateral executive order directing the State Department to examine whether it should designate the Muslim Brotherhood an FTO as well.
This would mark the fifth straight year that Republican lawmakers have sought legislation seeking this terrorist designation. However, the Washington Post also reported that previous presidential administrations (both Democrat and Republican) have not viewed the Muslim Brotherhood as a “terrorist” organization and that any such legislation would instead seek to “have a far-reaching [negative] impact on American Muslims at a time when Muslim community leaders say the religious minority is facing the worst harassment it has seen since the aftermath of 9/11.”
Michele Dunne — director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace — stated that if they were successful in their pursuits, Cruz and Trump’s efforts would signify the first time that the United States declared an organization an FTO on purely “ideological” grounds.
“It is wrongheaded and dangerous to tar all [Muslim] Brotherhood members with one brush,” the New York Times editorial board wrote in a February 2017 editorial condemning Trump’s planned executive order. “Such an order would be seen by many Muslims as another attempt to vilify adherents of Islam. It appears to be part of a mission by the president and his closest advisers to heighten fears [of Muslims].” The board further noted that the Muslim Brotherhood “renounced violence decades ago” similar to the Irish Republican Army (IRA) fully renouncing violence in 1994. The board concluded by boldly stating that Trump’s talk about branding the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization has done nothing but “fueled darker fears of an administration intent on going after not just terrorists but Islam” itself.
“Designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in fact plays into the hands of ISIS and other terrorist groups,” Georgetown University professor John Esposito told me during an interview on the subject. “It will be used by the terrorists as a propaganda recruitment tool against the United States. Declaring the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization would fuel an anti-Muslim witch hunt that the U.S. has not experienced since the McCarthy anti-communist era.”
Anti-Muslim activists and the Islamophobia industry have long used the “Muslim Brotherhood” label as a very sloppy shorthand to refer to all American Muslim civic organizations, politicians and government officials with whom they disagree. These anti-Muslim activists have also used it to attack Muslim government officials (like Democratic congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota), longtime Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin and even Gold Star father Khizr Khan, who famously criticized Trump on primetime national television at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) noted that Trump’s initial major executive actions — amounting to a Muslim immigration ban — were an attempt to control foreign Muslims’ entry into the United States. According to SPLC, this latest rumored Trump executive order on the Muslim Brotherhood is squarely “aimed at American Muslims and controlling them while at the same time continuing to demonize Islam” through these questionable federal policies.
J.M. Berger, a counterterrorism analyst at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, spoke to BuzzFeed last year about the idea of a terrorist designation for the Muslim Brotherhood. “Let me be extremely clear. This initiative is concerned with controlling American Muslims, not with any issue pertaining to the Muslim Brotherhood in any practical or realistic sense.”
The SPLC and others also note that there is no hard evidence to support a Muslim Brotherhood designation apart from one single unauthenticated “1991 memorandum” written in Arabic by a man allegedly affiliated with the Brotherhood that anti-Muslim activists and the Islamophobia industry say is “proof” of the organization’s nebulous influence on Americans within the United States.
“This  memorandum, of which there is only one known copy,” wrote Georgetown University law professor Arjun Singh Sethi in a Washington Post column, “has been widely discredited and called a fantasy.” Pulitzer Prize winner David Shipler also wrote about the 1991 memorandum for The New Yorker when he wrote that “virtually all the alarm over the coming Islamic takeover and the spread of Sharia law can be traced back to an old document of questionable authority and relevance entitled ‘An Explanatory Memorandum on the General Strategic Goal for the Group in North America’.” Mr. Shipler wrote that this dubious memo is regularly cited on numerous right-wing websites, and in articles, videos and training materials, which quote one another in circular arguments.
“The memo, however, is far from probative,” he concluded. “It was never subjected to an adversarial test of its authenticity or significance. Examined closely, it does not stand up as an authoritative prescription for action” by any normative means whatsoever.
The Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University once nicely summed up this sketchy 1991 memorandum: “This document should not be taken seriously.”
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