Founded in Egypt in 1928 and with branches or affiliates in over 70 nations, the Muslim Brotherhood today masquerades as a legitimate Islamic institution and a benign democratic actor. It is neither. Aside from the group’s well-documented links to the financing of terrorism, it was the Brotherhood that birthed modern-day Islamism, a supremacist totalitarian ideology that seeks to undermine pluralist societies and impose hardline theocratic regimes. The United States should designate the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization (FTO).
In the doctrine of political Islam, or Islamism, the faith must be expressed through statehood, a concept conspicuously absent from both the Koran and most of Islam’s 1,400-year history. Hostile to secularism, and steeped in anti-Semitism, Islamists exploit democratic institutions to further their sectarian aims. They have no intention to share power and every intention to subject nation-states to an invented sharia. Political militancy and violent martyrdom are central to the Islamist ethos. The Muslim Brotherhood has become adept at disguising its totalitarian ambitions, but no one should be fooled either by the group’s heterogeneity or by its participation in democratic politics.
Morsi quickly granted himself powers to legislate without judicial oversight or review and reinstated the Islamist-dominated parliament, which had been disbanded for being unconstitutional. He then proposed a new constitution that would have entrenched Islamist control and weakened democratic accountability.
“The Brotherhood has been exposed,” wrote the Saudi journalist M’shari al-Zaydi. “Their true puritanical face” has been uncovered, “which they had previously managed to hide behind false smiles and shaky claims about democracy, dialogue, tolerance.” Opponents dubbed Morsi “Egypt’s new Pharaoh,” noting that he had exceeded even the powers amassed by Mubarak. The Egyptian people found the Brotherhood’s agenda offensive, and it triggered another revolution, which deposed Morsi and his government.
In Tunisia, Brotherhood leader Rachid Ghannouchi has tried to rebrand his Islamist party, Ennahda, as “Muslim democrats” — a move ominously reminiscent of Erdogan’s repackaging of the AKP as “Muslim conservatives.” While Western commentators gushed at Ghannouchi’s espousal of a new, moderate Islamism, Tunisians were not taken in by the doublespeak: It was one message for the West, another for the Tunisian mosque-goer.
In every instance, the Muslim Brotherhood poses as democratic, only later to reveal its totalitarian underpinning. Critics like me are smeared for exposing it as Islamist. We are called apostates, a charge that is roughly equivalent to “McCarthyite” in America and to “fascist” in Europe but that, in the Muslim world, incites murder.
We underestimate the Islamists at our peril and to their great advantage. Overlooking the Muslim Brotherhood’s gymnastic shape-shifting that it undertakes to hide its true ideology, many American liberals fear that designating the group a foreign terrorist organization would stifle democratic participation in countries where the U.S. should be promoting it. Sympathizers cite the Brotherhood’s formal disavowal of violence. But as any Muslim Arab politician will attest, that is to ignore the group’s past association with the militant Islamism that has inspired most of today’s active jihadist groups.
In the United States and Europe, the Brotherhood works to portray Western Muslims as marginalized and victims of discrimination. It aims to drive a wedge between Muslims and the wider society.
In the United States and Europe, the Brotherhood’s strategy is not to attempt to Islamize Western societies; stories about the imposition of sharia in the West are alarmist and misleading. Rather, the group works to portray Western Muslims as marginalized and victims of discrimination. It aims to drive a wedge between Muslims and the wider society. By encouraging separatism and indoctrinating its members with the totalitarian tenets of 20th-century Islamism, the Muslim Brotherhood seeks to disrupt the fabric of democracy.
Consider the notorious Munich mosque and its incestuous history with jihadism. Mahmud Abouhalima, convicted of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, had regularly attended the mosque, the nerve center of the Muslim Brotherhood in post-war Europe. Abouhalima sought spiritual counsel from the mosque’s imam, Ahmad al-Khalifa, who admitted his connection with Abouhalima but denied any connection to the bombing plot. Later, Osama bin Laden’s chief financial officer and personal mentor was arrested outside Munich and, before extradition to the U.S., called Khalifa for guidance. Khalifa admitted to contact with him, too, but said that he served in a purely humanitarian role.
German intelligence found some years later that a Syrian businessman it was monitoring was attending a similar Brotherhood mosque, Al Quds, in Hamburg. Among his contacts was a young Muslim, Mohamed Atta. Unclear on the significance, German intelligence discontinued their surveillance. Two years later Atta piloted American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, having been radicalized at the Hamburg mosque. Without the Muslim Brotherhood environment in which Abouhalima and Atta were molded, their jihadist attacks would not have happened.
While the Muslim Brotherhood may not be pulling the trigger, it nurtures jihadism efficiently and relentlessly: work that the Brotherhood sees as a service to the future global caliphate. Terrorism is so much more than the final act. It is the cultivation, material support, and protection of all the actors. In the propagation of terrorism, the Muslim Brotherhood has no equal and no competitor.
The United States should follow the lead of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, which, after long and bitter experience, have designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Once the State Department makes that determination, America’s intelligence agencies will be lawfully empowered to investigate Brotherhood activities currently hidden from view.
Some who object to the proposed FTO status for the Muslim Brotherhood argue that, while some critique of the organization is justified, hard evidence to support the designation “terrorist” is lacking. They ignore the history of the most egregious acts of terror waged against the United States and depend on a woefully simplistic dichotomy of the immediate post 9-11 era: Violent Islamist jihadists are bad; Islamists who don’t launch jihad are good, and therefore moderate. That naïveté only abets the Brotherhood in its deceptive pose as a moderate Muslim group that is compatible with democracy. The boundaries between violent and nonviolent Islamism are highly permeable, and without the nonviolent variety, there is no jihadism.
Some argue that designating the Brotherhood a terrorist organization would drive it underground and fuel radicalization, but in many of its activities it is already de facto underground, just as its members are de facto already radicalized. Islamism’s subversive intentions, whether avowedly violent or not, are well known in many Muslim-majority countries as well as in Western Europe, where intelligence agencies have broader remit.
Exposing Islamists as dangerous totalitarians is not an act of anti-Muslim bigotry but an essential defense of both liberal democracy and Islam. The Brotherhood will use the charge of Islamophobia to obfuscate and deter scrutiny and dissent, but do not listen to them. Rather, heed the experience of Muslims. No one knows the Brothers better.
— Qanta A. Ahmed, an associate professor of medicine at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She is the author of In the Land of Invisible Women.