Conspiracist Campaign to Crush Muslim Civil Society Organizations

Sen. Ted Cruz, via PBS.
Sen. Ted Cruz, via PBS has written a new initiative advanced by right-wing Republicans in Congress and reportedly backed by the Trump administration which puts American Muslim civil society groups in the government’s crosshairs. Without the same outraged protests or condemnatory press conferences inspired by Trump’s travel ban targeting visitors and dual citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries, the lesser-known effort is aimed at crushing robust Muslim civil society organizing in the United States, using the framework of the war on terror.

The initiative aims to declare the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, a designation that in practice, is likely to provide a vehicle for a network of anti-Muslim crusaders to hound unaffiliated, mainstream Muslim organizations and potentially criminalize their leadership.

The effort emanates from fringe conspiracy theorists who, backed by a well-heeled Islamophobia industry, espouse the unfounded claim that the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated the far reaches of the U.S. government. These fringe figures charge that prominent political players, from Huma Abedin to Grover Norquist to Keith Ellison, are operating as secret agents of the organization.

Today, this fringe theory has a direct line to the White House.

This January, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart and Sen. Ted Cruz introduced the Muslim Brotherhood Terrorist Designation Act in both congressional chambers.

In a press release championing the legislation, Cruz invoked a supposed clash of civilizations. “I am proud to reintroduce these bills that would codify needed reforms in America’s war against radical Islamic terrorism,” he said. “This potent threat to our civilization has intensified under the Obama administration due to the willful blindness of politically correct policies that hamper our safety and security.”

In 2014, Rep. Michele Bachmann introduced legislation to “impose sanctions against persons who knowingly provide material support or resources to the Muslim Brotherhood or its affiliates, associated groups, or agents, and for other purposes.”

The legislation named key Muslim civil society organizations, including ISNA and CAIR.

Authoritarian governments have continued to exert pressure on the United States to impose the designation, among them the UAE and Egypt. In 2013, Egypt’s determination that the Muslim Brotherhood was a terrorist organization was used to justify a violent and large-scale crackdown on dissent, including mass torture, disappearances and the unfounded arrests of tens of thousands of people.

This conspiracy theory is backed by an Islamophobia industry that in a report released in 2011, the Center for American Progress, CAP, determined that seven foundations shelled out $42.6 million between 2001 and 2009 to think tanks advancing anti-Muslim policies. In a separate study published in 2015, CAP identified what it called a $57 million industry that is predicated on the spreading of anti-Muslim sentiment. This industry directly supports concrete policy measures targeting Muslim communities in the United States, including the NYPD’s invasive surveillance system and the more than 100 anti-Sharia bills that have been introduced at the state level across the country.

Arjun Singh Sethi, a civil rights lawyer and professor at Georgetown University Law Center, told AlterNet that this effort represents “version 2.0 of the Muslim ban and will be used as a vehicle to attack and smear Muslim civic and political organizations in the United States. The $57 million Islamophobia industry will do anything in its power to arbitrarily and erroneously link groups in the United States to the Muslim Brotherhood. These accusations alone can destroy reputations and tarnish organizations forever.”

Sethi continues “If the Muslim Brotherhood is designated a foreign terrorist organization, this industry will double down on the tactic. This designation could spark a witch hunt similar to what we saw during the red scare. Innocent institutions and individuals could be tarnished and impugned. In addition, the government could invoke expansive material support laws and seek to prosecute individuals and institutions, forfeiting their assets.”

Sethi underscored that this political campaign comes despite the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood does not have a known presence in the United States.

Arun Kundnani is the author of The Muslims Are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror and an adjunct professor at New York University. During an interview with AlterNet Kundnani said “The effect would be to criminalize many of the leading figures leading the protests against Trump,” Kundnani continued “It would effectively criminalize Muslim organizations that constitute the main opposition to the wider Trump agenda, in terms of the Muslim ban and civil rights. Primarily, it would remove opposition to the wider Islamophobic agenda.”

Kundnani continues, “We can have a debate about the Muslim Brotherhood and what the nature of the organization is, but the proposed designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization has nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s a paranoid fantasy.”

Alongside this legislative push, advisers to Trump are reportedly weighing an executive order to declare the Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization.