The denationalization of American Muslims

Peter Beinart writes: On March 6, the zoning board in Bayonne, New Jersey, turned down a request to convert an old warehouse into a mosque. Such denials are happening with increasing frequency in the United States. In the 10 years between 2000 and 2010, the Justice Department intervened seven times against local communities that prevented Muslims from building mosques or other religious institutions. In the six years between 2010 and 2016, that number jumped to 17.

At the zoning board meeting, one woman called Islam a “so-called religion.” Residents claimed the Muslim Brotherhood would control the mosque. The Facebook page of the group “Stop the Mosque in Bayonne” features a man holding a sign that says “Democracy or Sharia Law.”

This is the language of Frank Gaffney. For a decade and a half, Gaffney, a former Reagan administration Pentagon official who heads a small Washington think tank called the Center for Security Policy, has been making two interrelated arguments. First, that the Muslim Brotherhood—which he claims seeks to replace the United States Constitution with a Caliphate based upon Sharia law—secretly controls most American mosques and Muslim organizations. Second, that Islam is not actually a religion. It is a totalitarian political ideology. Thus, its adherents should be treated not like Christians or Jews, but like American Nazis during World War II.

For years, Washington conservatives ridiculed these arguments and stigmatized Gaffney for making them. In 2003, after Gaffney attacked two Muslim staffers in the Bush White House, anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist banned him from his influential “Wednesday meeting” of conservative activists. In 2011, according to sources close to the organization, the American Conservative Union informally barred Gaffney from speaking at CPAC, the ACU’s signature event. In 2013, the Bradley Foundation, which had backed the Center for Security Policy since 1988, cut off funds. That same year, Gaffney lost the Washington Times column he had been writing since the late 1990s. As late as December 2015, The Daily Beast declared that, “Frank Gaffney has been shunned by pretty much everyone in conservative intellectual circles.”

Yet less than 18 months later, America is led by a president, Donald Trump, who has frequently cited the Center for Security Policy when justifying his policies towards Muslims. Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has called Gaffney “one of the senior thought leaders and men of action in this whole war against Islamic radical jihad.” Trump’s Attorney General, Jeff Sessions—who has said “Sharia law fundamentally conflicts with our magnificent constitutional order”—in 2015 won the Center for Security Policy’s “Keeper of the Flame” Award. Trump’s CIA Director, Mike Pompeo, has appeared on Gaffney’s radio program more than 24 times since 2013. Sebastian Gorka, who runs a kind of parallel National Security Council inside the White House called the Strategic Initiatives Group, has appeared on Gaffney’s radio program 18 times during that period. He’s called Sharia “antithetical to the values of this great nation” and recently refused to say whether he considered Islam a religion.

In truth, conservatives never actually marginalized Gaffney’s ideas. Even when shunned in Washington, they grew steadily on the grassroots right in response to conservative disillusionment with America’s post-9/11 wars. Gaffney’s theories represent an effort to “denationalize” American Muslims—to strip them of their national identity and legal protections—with chilling precedents in American and European history. And although these theories have opponents, as well as supporters, in the Trump administration, they are already changing the relationship between American Muslims and their government in frightening ways. [Continue reading…]

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Defense Secretary Mattis withdraws Patterson as choice for undersecretary for policy

The Washington Post reports: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has withdrawn retired senior diplomat Anne W. Patterson as his choice for undersecretary for policy after the White House indicated unwillingness to fight what it said would be a battle for Senate confirmation.

U.S. officials said that two members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), were strongly opposed to Patterson’s nomination because she served as U.S. ambassador to Egypt from 2011 to 2013, a time when the Obama administration supported an elected government with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood that was ultimately overthrown by the Egyptian military.

The withdrawal leaves Mattis with a bench still empty of Trump-appointed senior officials, a situation that stretches across the administration as Cabinet secretaries have not chosen or the White House has not approved nominees. Although Obama administration holdovers remain in a few jobs, after eight weeks in office, President Trump has not nominated a single high official under Cabinet rank in the Defense or State departments. [Continue reading…]

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The Trump administration’s Islamophobic holy grail

Lawrence Pintak writes: It is the holy grail of the anti-Islam lobby: the designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a “foreign terrorist organization” (FTO) by the U.S. government.

The move could mean open season on American Muslims, cripple U.S. policy in the Muslim world and have implications for American domestic politics. Officials in President Donald Trump’s administration are currently debating issuing an executive order to implement the designation, while proponents on Capitol Hill are pushing legislation with the same objective.

“It will absolutely fuel the line in the Middle East that we are inherently anti-Muslim,” argues Ryan Crocker, who served as U.S. ambassador in four Arab countries, as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan. “Because while Trump and his nearest and dearest may not have any clue of how the Brothers are organized and how much autonomy each country’s organization has, this will just send a broad-brush message: All you need to be is Muslim to be blacklisted.”

Domestically, the proposed designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group “is viewed by some as a silver bullet, but actually, it’s more like a cluster bomb that’s going to cause damage everywhere,” says James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute.

The move threatens to introduce an Islamophobic parlor game into American culture, fueling speculation on the degrees of separation between any Muslim and proponents of jihad. That’s because the Muslim Brotherhood is the granddaddy of most Islamist political movements around the world — both peaceful and violent. Many politically active Muslims who emigrated to the United States and helped to found Muslim civic associations here were either members of the Brotherhood, or had friends who were. As with the Kevin Bacon parlor game, look hard enough at almost any Muslim organization in the United States, and you are likely to find some glancing connection to the Brotherhood.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), one of two Muslims in Congress and a candidate for chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), knows about being smeared by association. A network of anti-Muslim websites regularly accuses Ellison, without evidence, of being a Muslim Brotherhood operative, a campaign that took on new vigor when he announced his candidacy to chair the DNC, including accusations he is “a Muslim Brotherhood shill.”

“You sound paranoid when you say there is a well-financed, organized movement to promote anti-Muslim hate,” Ellison told me in an interview last year. “But the fact is, it’s true and well documented.” [Continue reading…]

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Trump talk of terror listing for Muslim Brotherhood alarms some Arab allies

The New York Times reports: In Morocco, it would tip a delicate political balance. In Jordan, it could prevent American diplomats from meeting with opposition leaders. In Tunisia, it could make criminals of a political party seen as a model of democracy after the Arab Spring.

Of all the initiatives of the Trump administration that have set the Arab world on edge, none has as much potential to disrupt the internal politics of American partners in the region as the proposal to criminalize the Muslim Brotherhood, the pre-eminent Islamist movement with millions of followers.

“The impact would be great,” said Issandr El Amrani, an analyst with the International Crisis Group based in Morocco, where a Brotherhood-linked party won the last election in October. “It could destabilize countries where anti-Islamist forces would be encouraged to double down. It would increase polarization.”

At issue is a proposal floated by Trump aides that the 89-year-old Brotherhood be designated as a foreign terrorist entity. The scope of any designation remains unclear, but its potential reach is vast: Founded in Egypt, the Brotherhood has evolved into a loose network that spans about two dozen countries. It has officially forsworn violence. [Continue reading…]

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Should the Muslim Brotherhood be designated a terrorist organization?

William McCants and Benjamin Wittes write: Is the Muslim Brotherhood (1) a foreign organization that (2) engages in terrorist activity or retains the capability and intent to do so and (3) whose terrorism threatens the United States or its people?

The short answer is that the Brotherhood is not in a meaningful sense a single organization at all; elements of it can be designated and have been designated, and other elements certainly cannot be. As a whole, it is simply too diffuse and diverse to characterize. And it certainly cannot be said as a whole to engage in terrorism that threatens the United States.

The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928. Today, the group has chapters in dozens of countries that are nominally coordinated by an international organization helmed by the Supreme Guide of Egypt’s Brotherhood. It is difficult to assess the strength of the ties between the international organization and the various Brotherhood chapters, because of the organization’s penchant for secrecy. The Brotherhood in Egyptian is especially secretive because it operated underground for many years as a result of government suppression, which produced a cult-like organization. Where Brotherhood chapters have been allowed to operate more openly, there is more transparency.

From the available evidence, it seems the international organization (al-tanzim al-`alami or al-tanzim al-dawli) is unable to coerce its members or even set their agendas. Although every Brotherhood chapter wants their local governments to implement Islamic law, they have very different policies as to how that should be accomplished and they frequently disagree with one another. Sometimes these disagreements lead Brotherhood chapters to leave the international organization, as Kuwait’s Brotherhood did after the body supported Saddam’s occupation of their country. As one of America’s foremost scholars of the Muslim Brotherhood has written, the group’s international organization “most closely resembles today’s Socialist International: a tame framework for a group of loosely linked, ideologically similar movements that recognize each other, swap stories and experiences in occasional meetings, and happily subscribe to a formally international ideology without giving it much priority.” [Continue reading…]

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White House weighs terrorist designation for Muslim Brotherhood

The New York Times reports: President Trump’s advisers are debating an order intended to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization, targeting the oldest and perhaps most influential Islamist group in the Middle East.

A political and social organization with millions of followers, the Brotherhood officially renounced violence decades ago and won elections in Egypt after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Affiliated groups have joined the political systems in places like Tunisia and Turkey, and President Barack Obama long resisted pressure to declare it a terrorist organization.

But the Brotherhood calls for a society governed by Islamic law, and some of its former members and offshoots — most notably Hamas, the Palestinian group whose stated goal is the destruction of Israel — have been tied to attacks. Some advisers to Mr. Trump have viewed the Brotherhood for years as a radical faction secretly infiltrating the United States to promote Shariah law. They see the order as an opportunity to finally take action against it.

Officially designating the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization would roil American relations in the Middle East. The leaders of some American allies — like Egypt, where the military forced the Brotherhood from power in 2013, and the United Arab Emirates — have pressed Mr. Trump to do so to quash internal enemies, but the group remains a pillar of society in parts of the region.

The proposal to declare it a terrorist organization has been paired with a plan to similarly designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, according to current and former officials briefed on the deliberations. Leaders of the corps and its Quds Force unit have already been put on a government terrorist list, but Republicans have advocated adding the corps itself to send a message to Iran.

The Iran part of the plan has strong support within the White House, but momentum behind the Muslim Brotherhood proposal seems to have slowed in recent days amid objections from career officials at the State Department and the National Security Council, who argue that there is no legal basis for it and that it could alienate allies in the region. Former officials said that they had been told the order would be signed on Monday, but that it had now been put off at least until next week. [Continue reading…]

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Islamism after the Arab Spring: Between the ISIS and the nation-state

Shadi Hamid, William McCants, and Rashid Dar write: Five years after the start of the Arab uprisings, mainstream Islamist groups — which generally seek to operate within the confines of institutional politics — find themselves brutally repressed (Egypt), fallen from power (Tunisia), internally fractured (Jordan), or eclipsed by armed groups (Syria and Libya). Muslim Brotherhood and Brotherhood-inspired movements had enjoyed considerable staying power, becoming entrenched actors in their respective societies, settling into strategies of gradualist democratic contestation, focused on electoral participation and working within existing state structures. Yet, the twin shocks of the Arab Spring — the Egyptian coup of 2013 and the rise of ISIS — have challenged mainstream Islamist models of political change.

The first section of the paper analyzes how recent developments in the region are forcing a discussion of the various fault lines within Islamist movements in Muslim-majority countries. The second brings out the challenges faced by Islamist parties, which, once admitted into the halls of power, have had to play politics in circumscribed contexts and make difficult compromises while not alienating their conservative constituencies.

The third section considers how Islamist groups have made sense of ISIS’s rise to prominence. The fourth takes a closer look at the state-centric approaches of Brotherhood-linked movements and how these are either coming under scrutiny or being challenged from various quarters, particularly by younger rank-and-file activists. The paper concludes by briefly considering to what extent Islamist movements will be able to “see beyond the state” in the years (and decades) to come.

Download the full report

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Egypt’s Brotherhood, Sisi both put out feelers for reconciliation

Abdelrahman Youssef writes: The word “reconciliation” has been dominating the Egyptian political scene for almost two weeks. Talk has revolved around the future of the relationship between the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood, which is facing the worst crackdown since its establishment.

Political discussions in Egypt are not what brought about this prevalent idea; rather, it emerged due to a number of coalesced factors, notably the statement of Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Magdy al-Agaty, who said in an interview, “We can reconcile with a member of the Brotherhood as long as his hands are not stained with blood. [Brotherhood members] are Egyptians in the first place. Why don’t we make peace with them and integrate them into the fabric of the Egyptian people if they did not commit any crime?”

However, it was not long before this controversial issue came to the surface again when Mohamed Fayek, head of the National Council for Human Rights, said July 3, “There will be a presidential pardon soon for all the detained young people who were not involved in armed activities.” [Continue reading…]

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Is Egypt becoming a republic of fear?

 

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Three years after the coup, lessons still unlearned from Egypt’s tragedy

Abdullah Al-Arian writes: Had it been allowed to continue, last Thursday would have seen Mohamed Morsi’s four-year term as president of a post-authoritarian Egypt draw to a close. Instead, last week marked the third anniversary of Morsi’s forced removal by a military coup that has reimposed a perpetual dictatorship upon 90 million citizens.

The calamity of Egypt continues to unfold daily, with mounting human rights abuses, stifling of dissent, widespread corruption, economic crisis, and the consolidation of power in the hands of a new authoritarian ruler, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

All of Egypt’s independent political forces acknowledge that the country’s dismal state represents a betrayal of the revolutionary movement launched in 2011. But for all of the talk that the embers of Egypt’s revolution continue to burn, however dimly, there can be no revival of that moment without a genuine appraisal of the events of 30 June, 2013 and their consequences. [Continue reading…]

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Egyptian court sentences two Al Jazeera employees to death

The Associated Press reports: An Egyptian court on Saturday sentenced six people, including two Al-Jazeera employees, to death for allegedly passing documents related to national security to Qatar and the Doha-based TV network during the rule of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.

Morsi, the top defendant, and two of his aides were sentenced to 25 years in prison for membership in the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood group but were acquitted of espionage, a capital offense. Morsi and his secretary, Amin el-Sirafy, each received an additional 15-year sentence for leaking official documents. El-Sirafy’s daughter, Karima, was also sentenced to 15 years on the same charge.

Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected leader, was ousted by the military in July 2013 and has already been sentenced to death in another case. That death sentence and another two – life and 20 years in prison – are under appeal. The Brotherhood was banned and declared a terrorist organization after his ouster. Khalid Radwan, a producer at a Brotherhood-linked TV channel, received a 15-year prison sentence. [Continue reading…]

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The meaningless politics of liberal democracies

Emma Green writes: Ben Affleck has become an unlikely spokesman for a view on Islam held by many on the American left. In 2014, the actor made a now-famous stand against Bill Maher and Sam Harris in defense of Muslims, arguing that it’s wrong to make generalizations about the religion based on ideological extremists and terrorists. “How about the more than 1 billion people who aren’t fanatical, who don’t punch women, who just want to go to school, have some sandwiches, and pray five times a day?” he said.

In his new book Islamic Exceptionalism, Shadi Hamid — an Atlantic contributor, a scholar at Brookings, and a self-identified liberal — calls Affleck’s declaration a “well-intentioned … red herring.” Islam really is different from other religions, he says, and many Muslims view politics, theocracy, and violence differently than do Christians, Jews, or non-religious people in Europe and the United States.

Perhaps his most provocative claim is this: History will not necessarily favor the secular, liberal democracies of the West. Hamid does not believe all countries will inevitably follow a path from revolution to rational Enlightenment and non-theocratic government, nor should they. There are some basic arguments for this: Islam is growing, and in some majority-Muslim nations, huge numbers of citizens believe Islamic law should be upheld by the state. But Hamid also thinks there’s something lacking in Western democracies, that there’s a sense of overarching meaninglessness in political and cultural life in these countries that can help explain why a young Muslim who grew up in the U.K. might feel drawn to martyrdom, for example. This is not a dismissal of democracy, nor does it comprehensively explain the phenomenon of jihadism. Rather, it’s a note of skepticism about the promise of secular democracy — and the wisdom of pushing that model on other cultures and regions.

Most Islamists — people who, in his words, “believe Islam or Islamic law should play a central role in political life” — are not terrorists. But the meaning they find in religion, Hamid said, helps explain their vision of governance, and it’s one that can seem incomprehensible to people who live in liberal democracies.

I spoke with Hamid recently about Islamism, ISIS, and the “patronizing” assumptions Americans sometimes make about Islam. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. [Continue reading…]

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Rethinking language: ‘Islamism’ as a dirty word

Jonathan Brown writes: Much depends on whether one thinks “Islamism” is a dirty word. This is true for policymakers in the West and leaders in the Muslim world alike. As with the moniker “The Muslim Brotherhood,” the word “Islamism” is thrown about loosely and clumsily because it is an amorphous and contested term that reflects the worldview (perhaps deepest fears?) of whoever is using it more than any fixed reality. Those who are suspicious of “Islamism” almost always imagine it, along with “The Muslim Brotherhood,” to be some durable transnational network, uniform in its most threatening characteristics wherever it appears.

Yet what was true before the Arab Spring, and what has emerged as even truer since its dismal failure, is that “Islamism” is local in both its shape and appeal. Analysis of Islamist movements continues, very sensibly, to be carried out on a country-by-country basis. This is because it is the ecosystem of the nation-state that continues to play the dominant role in shaping events. Elements of that system include the particular response of a government to Islamist opposition (Morocco’s accommodation of Islamist parties early on in the Arab Spring vs. Egypt’s return to Nasserist liquidation); the particular historical space for political involvement in a country (Kuwait’s relatively open political discourse versus Saudi Arabia’s closed discussions); the particular history of Islamist movements in that country (the Jordanian Brotherhood’s decades of subdued democratic activity versus Yemen’s Islah and its involvement in Yemen’s civil wars); or the impact of foreign policy considerations (for example, how the nationalist-cum-sectarian threat of Iran can trump Saudi Islamists’ objections).

Since the Arab Spring, Islamists, already nationally bound, have remained so. As Steven Brooke notes in his contribution to Brookings’s Rethinking Political Islam initiative: “A defining characteristic of Islamist groups has been their fundamental accommodation to the existence of current states.” He goes on to describe how “Islamist groups participated in political systems, adopted national discourses, and largely subjugated their activism to regime laws.” It is worth noting that this is essentially what distinguishes Jihadists from Islamists. Jihadists are those Muslim actors whose acts of violence proceed from their no longer considering themselves subject either to the regimes controlling the land in which they live or to the monopoly (and hence, accountability) of states on the use of violence.

A great irony since the Arab Spring has been that the truly transnational factors have not been “Islamism” but rather the clumsy and horribly damaging responses by numerous Arab regimes to its perceived threat. [Continue reading…]

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Sisi’s stature melting away

David Hearst writes: President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has been burning the candle at both ends. Having burned his way through Egypt’s largest political party, the Muslim Brotherhood, Sisi went on to give secular liberals who supported his coup against Mohamed Morsi the same treatment: imprisonment, torture or banishment. A significant part of Egypt’s political and intellectual elite is now in exile. He has one source of legitimacy left – the international community. This week, he’s been burning his way through that.

Sisi’s week should have started on a high – the visit of the Saudi King Salman. After all the tension between the two countries (at the time of Salman’s succession, the pro-Sisi media declared the then crown prince not fit for office) and after all the reports of money from Saudi drying up, this should have been an occasion to silence all doubters: Salman was investing $22bn in Egypt. The Egyptian presidency described Salman’s visit as “crowning the close brotherly ties between the two countries.”

Salman’s visit had been much hyped, as indeed Sisi’s visit to Britain was in November last year. Sisi expected each to be a breakthrough of its kind. And yet during his visit to London, Cameron cancelled all British flights to Egypt as a result of the downing of a Russian airliner over Sinai, sounding the death knell of the Egyptian tourist industry. A similar disaster awaited Sisi in Salman’s visit. [Continue reading…]

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Leahy asked State Dept. to investigate Israel and Egypt’s human rights ‘violations’

Politico reports: Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and 10 House members have asked the Obama administration to investigate claims that the Israeli and Egyptian security forces have committed “gross violations of human rights” — allegations that if proven truei could affect U.S. military aid to the countries.

In a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry dated Feb. 17, the lawmakers list several examples of suspected human rights abuses, including reports of extrajudicial killings by Israeli and Egyptian military forces, as well as forced disappearances in Egypt. The letter also points to the 2013 massacre in Egypt’s Rab’aa Square, which left nearly 1,000 people dead as the military cracked down on protesters, as worthy of examination.

Leahy’s signature is particularly noteworthy because his name is on a law that conditions U.S. military aid to countries on whether their security forces are committing abuses. [Continue reading…]

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The failure of Egypt’s democratic transition was not inevitable

Tahrir_Square

Michael Wahid Hanna writes: The fifth anniversary of the 2011 Egyptian uprising has produced an oddly structuralist set of reflections in which the failure of its democratic transition has taken on an almost foreordained quality. Influential political science interpretations of the Egyptian uprising’s failure have focused analytical attention on structural factors, such as the role of a politicized and overreaching military, the uneven balance of power between the Muslim Brotherhood and its non-Islamist competitors, the former regime’s political structure and the weakness of transitional institutions.

Structure matters, of course. But so does agency. Overly structural interpretations miss the decisive impact of highly contingent events, deflects responsibility from the political actors whose choices drove the transition off course and can lead to unwarranted skepticism about the possibility of meaningful political change.

Egypt’s transition to a legitimate, civilian-led political order after the popular mobilization of January 2011 always faced long odds, but the failure of the transition was never inevitable. Structural explanations of the July 2013 military coup gloss over the fear and uncertainty that shaped political decision-making over the previous two years. The political openings of 2011 were real and potentially transformative and could have provided a platform for slow but sustainable change. Structural analysis should not become an excuse for political malpractice or an analytical surrender to the necessity of autocracy. Different decisions by key political actors such as the military, the Muslim Brotherhood and the National Salvation Front could have shaped a very different political environment. [Continue reading…]

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