The Muslim Brotherhood and the Question of Terrorism

It’s fine to think that the group is bad, authoritarian, or illiberal. But the debate about designating it pits facts against ideology.

Remnants of a poster of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi are pictured on a wall on a street in Cairo  (Muhammad Hamed / Reuters)

Is the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization? The Trump administration is reportedly considering an executive order designating the group as exactly that. I’ve struggled with how to respond to this question. Responding with facts, as researchers are rightly tempted to do, is important, but it misses the point and presumes that this is, in the first place, a question in search of facts.

There is quite literally not a single American expert on the Muslim Brotherhood who supports designation. Moreover, there is no plausible argument to be made for labeling the group a terrorist organization, at least according to the relevant legal criteria, as Will McCants and Benjamin Wittes lay out. They sum it up quite well: designation “would be illegal.”

It’s fine to think that the Muslim Brotherhood is bad, terrible, authoritarian, or illiberal (in my book on the Egyptian and Jordanian Brotherhoods from the 1980s till today, I highlight the group’s illiberal nature at length). Eric Trager, who I have disagreed with quite strongly on matters relating to the Brotherhood, has called it more akin to a “hate group.” But even he has written against designation. The Brotherhood’s badness, one way or the other, has no bearing on whether or not it is a terrorist organization. Being a terrorist organization involves, among other things, ordering your members to commit terrorist attacks, something no one argues the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is doing.

I worry, though, that in underscoring these facts, experts end up legitimizing the other side in the debate by assuming that they are simply misinformed and might benefit from knowing the “correct” facts about the Brotherhood, when the other side has not, in fact, even attempted to make fact-based arguments. The argument advanced by the Trump administration, and people like chief strategist Steve Bannon, is an ideological one, which fits quite nicely with the narrative of a clash of civilizations. This clash pits the West, and more specifically Judeo-Christian civilization, against “radical Islam,” an amorphous concept which seems to, at least potentially, include not just extremists, but Islamists more broadly, and not just Islamists, but Muslims more broadly.

The Bannon camp is associated with views—once relegated to furthest fringes of the far-right—explicitly raising the specter of a “fifth column” of American Muslims trying to impose sharia on their fellow citizens. In a film outline authored primarily by Bannon, “enablers” of radical Islam also include The New York Times, The Washington Post,  the “American Jewish community,” and even the State Department.

So, no, this isn’t about facts (If it was, American democracy would be on stronger ground). It’s about a broader struggle around ideas and ideology, including the one that too many in Trump’s inner circle seem to believe in quite strongly. In this respect, then, Steve Bannon is right. The question is one that I don’t quite know how to answer, at least not yet: Is this a battle—far-removed from the language of facts, analysis, and information—that liberals even know how to fight?