On December 2, 2020, Senator Ted Cruz reintroduced the “Muslim Brotherhood Terrorist Designation Act.” In a press release, Cruz stated that the bill would advance America’s war against “radical Islamic terrorism.” If it had passed, it would have required the State Department to report if the Muslim Brotherhood—the transnational Muslim organization originally founded in Egypt in 1928—met the legal threshold for designation as a terrorist group. To bolster his case, Cruz added, “Many of our closest allies in the Arab World have long ago concluded that the Muslim Brotherhood is a terrorist group that seeks to sow chaos across the Middle East.” The bill, which had been a longtime goal of the Trump administration, ultimately did not pass the committee stage, as it also had not done the previous two times Cruz introduced it in 2017 and 2015. Yet, efforts like Cruz’s have continued to have consequences for U.S. Muslim activism and religious life by creating a chilling effect on the free speech and association of American Muslim individuals and organizations. And, ironically, U.S. efforts to promote religious freedom in the Arab World are contributing to this suppression of Muslim communities back home. This is because a key U.S. ally of international religious freedom, the United Arab Emirates (the UAE), is also the same country leading efforts to suppress Muslim democratic activism and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Cruz’s bill did not define “the Muslim Brotherhood,” but it’s worth noting that the organization renounced violence decades ago and now advocates democracy in the Arab World. The movement has served as the inspiration for a wide range of offshoots and a number of political parties and organizations, ranging from the governing Justice and Development Party in Morocco to Hamas in Gaza, who maintain a loose affiliation with it. Yet, in contrast to this complex reality, vague references to “the Muslim Brotherhood” as a shadowy, centrally-organized, and all-powerful entity are a common feature of right-wing conspiracy theories advanced by figures such as Cruz’s former foreign policy advisor Frank Gaffney and others who populated former President Donald Trump’s inner circle. In that context, American Muslim immigration and institution-building are part of a “civilizational Jihad” orchestrated by the Muslim Brotherhood that seeks to subvert and ultimately overthrow the United States via a process of “creeping Sharia.” As Dawud Walid of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) put it, oftentimes in the U.S. right-wing context “the Muslim Brotherhood” is simply “code language for Muslims in general.”
Indeed, the bill’s vague wording meant that almost all long-established U.S. Muslim organizations, with no ties to violence, ranging from the civil society organizations such as the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), nonprofits and charities like Islamic Relief, to campus Muslim Student Associations, could conceivably be linked to what Cruz termed “funding and promoting radical Islamic terrorism” and consequently have their assets frozen or be deported if they were non-citizens. Opponents of these bills have rightly highlighted that almost any Muslim civil society organizations, charities, or student groups could theoretically be linked to the Muslim Brotherhood in the vaguest of terms based on, for example, the fact that a number of such Muslim organizations were originally founded by immigrants affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1960s and 1970s who had recently arrived in the United States. As a result, such a bill is feared to be a plausible legal rationale for closing down almost any U.S. Muslim organization.
These legislative efforts did not succeed, and are now even less likely to do so under the Biden administration. However, these continued efforts have a chilling effect on American Muslim social and religious life; that is, individuals and organizations consciously limit their constitutionally protected freedom of expression and activity out of fear of possible sanctions. This fear is because non-violent advocacy or activism in support of, or co-ordination with, a designated terrorist group would be categorized as providing material support for terrorism. As Harvard Law Professor Noah Feldman highlighted in a Bloomberg Opinion piece, “Within the U.S., it would be hard to find a Muslim charity or nongovernmental organization that hasn’t at some point engaged in arguably coordinated activity with the Muslim Brotherhood, such as co-sponsoring a speech.” Thus, the issue with such bills is not only the threat of their actual passing, but also the effect that the continual introduction of such bills has on the rights of U.S. Muslims.
Significant here is that this domestic effort to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization does not occur in isolation. As UCLA Law Professor Khaled Abou El Fadl has noted, “In the Muslim World, the bogeyman of the Muslim Brotherhood has been exploited by authoritarian governments to repress their citizens for more than half a century.” What is more recent, however, is the increasingly transnational efforts of these authoritarian governments and, in the case of the UAE, the connection with those who advocate for religious freedom in the Arab World. Generally, transnational authoritarianism refers to the phenomena whereby regimes seek out dissidents and activists among diaspora communities beyond their borders in order to threaten or, as in the case of the brutal murder of Saudi Arabian journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi (himself a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood as a movement for democracy in the region), assassinate them.
The UAE regime viewed the 2011 Arab Spring and its calls for democracy across the region as an existential threat. In March 2011, after a diverse group of 133 activists, academics, lawyers, and other public figures presented a petition calling for modest democratic reforms in the UAE, the regime launched a crackdown that in particular targeted members of the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, known as al-Islah (Reform), which had recently come together for the first time with liberal secular activists in the country to advocate for limited reforms. After suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood at home, the UAE embarked on a transnational effort to undo the Arab Spring’s few democratic gains, of which the crowning achievement was the success of the UAE-backed military coup in Egypt in 2013 that overthrew Egypt’s first freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi, formerly a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. The aftermath of the 2013 coup was extraordinarily bloody, including the massacre of likely more than 1,000 unarmed protesters by the Egyptian army in a single day.
The transnational authoritarianism of the UAE is somewhat different from other states in the region in that the Emirati regime targets threatening ideas rather than individuals or diaspora communities, notably the Islamically informed democratic activism promulgated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Encouraging allies such as the U.S. to designate, or threaten to designate, the Muslim Brotherhood—both real or imagined—as a terrorist organization is a key part of the Emirati attempt to suppress such activism beyond its borders. As the researcher Jalal Harchaoui told the Egyptian outlet Mada Masr, the UAE focuses “on ideational risks rather than conventional security risks,” that is, any kind of Islamically informed political or social activism that could be theoretically linked to the Muslim Brotherhood is targeted. Transnationally, through an army of PR firms, lobbyists, and supportive think tanks, the UAE aspires to become a “soft superpower” by changing the very nature of the conversations in North America and Europe around the subject of Islamically informed social and democratic activism in order to promote support for wider clampdowns on Muslim speech, association, and religiosity that it considers a threat. Thus, while Cruz’s efforts were not coordinated with the UAE, the country’s transnational authoritarian effort continues to foster an environment that renders such efforts more conceivable.
In addition to these efforts to suppress Islamic democratic activism at home and abroad, the UAE is the United States’s leading ally in the advocacy of international religious freedom in the Arab World, and key figures involved in the latter also enable the former. In 2014, the UAE founded the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies (FPPMS), an organization headed by the Mauritanian Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah along with his close confidant, the American Sheikh Hamza Yusuf. In 2018, the UAE also established a Fatwa Council, the country’s official state body that issues Islamic legal rulings and oversees the training of Emirati religious functionaries. Since Bin Bayyah and Yusuf are on the Fatwa Council, they are, in effect, among the country’s highest-ranking Islamic officials.
Since 2014, Bin Bayyah has positioned himself as one of the leading Muslim figures in the realm of international interfaith dialogue, condemning violence committed by groups such as ISIS and leading calls for toleration toward persecuted minorities in the Arab World. The lavish annual FPPMS interfaith conference that he leads in Abu Dhabi is the marquee event of the interfaith calendar regularly attended by diplomats and practitioners. The issue with such seemingly laudable moves is that they are predicated upon a very particular form of Muslim religiosity that academics Walaa Quisay and Thomas Parker have termed a “theology of obedience,” which not only promotes subservience to authoritarian rulers but also casts trends in Islamic democratic activism—notably the Muslim Brotherhood—as dangerous and part of a wider web of religious deviance that is continuous with violent groups such as ISIS. On November 23, 2020, the official Emirates News Agency reported that Bin Bayyah’s Fatwa Council had declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, reports that he never denied.
As I demonstrate in my new book, Rivals in the Gulf, Bin Bayyah’s arguments serve a dual purpose on the international stage. He lends credence to the view that deviant interpretations of Islam are the prime cause of chaos and violence in the Arab World. As he told a gathering at the Council on Foreign Relations about countering extremism, “Religion is like an energy. You can make with that energy a bomb that is devastating in its effects. You can also make with the same energy things that are beneficial.” On the one hand, this rhetoric signals him as a willing and able partner for policy-makers and practitioners who work in the field of international religious freedom. (Both Sam Brownback and Rabbi David Saperstein, who were U.S. ambassadors-at-large for the promotion of international religious freedom under the Trump and Obama administrations, have praised and frequently attended the FPPMS conference.) On the other hand, Bin Bayyah’s rhetoric also provides a rhetorical cover for his UAE sponsor’s suppression of dissent at home and abroad.
Bin Bayyah and Yusuf enjoy large followings in the U.S., and it caused an uproar in November 2020 when the Fatwa Council they lead reportedly declared the Muslim Brotherhood—and potentially a large swath of U.S. Muslim political and social activism—to be threatening. Those reports emerged right before Bin Bayyah and Yusuf were scheduled to be keynote speakers at the annual Reviving the Islamic Spirit (RIS) conference last December. RIS is one of the largest annual Muslim conventions in North America, which prior to the Covid-19 pandemic had typically drawn thousands of attendees. However, Bin Bayyah and Yusuf had effectively just condemned key sponsors of the RIS event—in this instance the charity Islamic Relief Canada and local Muslim Student Associations—as terrorists on the basis of their historic connections to the Muslim Brotherhood. Amid the furor, Bin Bayyah was uninvited. While Yusuf’s name remained on the program, he did not speak. A recording of a previous lecture of his was aired instead, leading to speculation he had similarly been asked not to attend. Other high-profile RIS invitees such as the NYU Muslim Chaplain Imam Khalid Latif had withdrawn due to Bin Bayyah’s participation, condemning the “dangerous positions from UAE-based councils that have named individual Muslim leaders and organizations like ISNA, Islamic Relief, and CAIR as being linked to terrorism.”
FPPMS has enjoyed since its founding the support of figures ranging from ambassadors to Christian and Jewish religious leaders to practitioners such as Melissa Rogers, the head of the newly reconstituted White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Though Bin Bayyah and Yusuf are regularly feted at State Department events on religious freedom in Washington, D.C., and likely will continue to be under the new administration, U.S. diplomats and academics who work on the promotion of religious freedom have noted a marked lack of coherence between the domestic and foreign policy realms. Continuing to work with partners who appear to support the religious freedom of minority communities in the Arab World, albeit in extremely limited ways, while abetting foreign powers’ pursuit of minority communities back home will only compound this disjuncture.
David H. Warren is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Jewish, Islamic, and Middle Eastern Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. His book, Rivals in the Gulf: Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Abdullah Bin Bayyah and the Qatar-UAE Contest Over the Arab Spring and the Gulf Crisis, was published in January 2021.