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US Academics: Stand Up for Muslim American Civil Society

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US Academics: Stand Up for Muslim American Civil Society
Oppose the Muslim Brotherhood FTO Designation

After President Trump’s executive orders banned students, professors, deans, and other academics from returning to their campuses, the academic community quickly rallied together to defend its Muslim members. In the wake of these orders, their still-indeterminate consequences, and other troubling executive actions, we now face the possibility of another policy that would further persecute the Muslim community and drastically impact university campuses.

This January, congressional Republicans proposed legislation to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). President Trump and his advisers, encouraged by figures like Steve Bannon and Frank Gaffney (who is listed as a “misinformation expert” in the Center for American Progress’ Fear, Inc. report), have expressed the administration’s desire to carry out this designation, which can occur without congressional legislation or judicial oversight. While such a move has been proposed under past administrations by figures like Ted Cruz and Michele Bachmann, it has always been dismissed -- by the Bush and Obama administrations, and, more recently, by the CIA and the British government -- as one that is unwise for both our domestic and foreign policies.

While the designation’s significant international implications have been widely discussed, its stark impact on Muslim Americans at home -- and on the academic community -- remains woefully unaddressed. These include its effect on our foreign policy, as it would prevent us from engaging with any group that has even the most distant relationship with the Brotherhood, including the governments of strategic allies like Turkey and Tunisia. The designation would also be factually inaccurate, given that there is no evidence that the Muslim Brotherhood has systematically encouraged or perpetrated violence. Finally, it has dubious legal standing, as there is no legally viable way to define the very diverse and amorphous Brotherhood. But aside from these questions of impact, accuracy, and legality, this designation has the very real potential to decimate Muslim civil society and civil rights organizations and chill academic and political speech.

Over the last 16 years, some of the country’s largest Muslim American organizations -- including the Islamic Society of North America, the Muslim Student Association, and the Council on American Islamic Relations, have been accused of having historic or fabricated ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. And while none of these organizations currently have ties to the group, the idea that they do -- and that the Muslim Brotherhood is secretly and insidiously infiltrating the US government -- remains popular among the far right, including key members of the Trump administration.

Based on these accusations, the designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as an FTO would open up any organization or individual with even the slightest hint of affiliation, real or fabricated, to prosecution under federal material support laws, which criminalize any form of support for FTOs. Over the last 16 years, the applicability of these laws has extended not only to coordinated donation and physical action, but also to First Amendment-protected activities like public or online support or uncoordinated translation, as in the case of Boston native Tarek Mehanna, who was sentenced to 17 years in 2011 under material support laws for translating Al-Qaeda documents. Further, material support laws also cover engagement with the intent of peacemaking, endangering international NGOs and human rights organizations engaging in peacebuilding work across the world. For organizations rather than individuals, material support charges allow the almost instantaneous freezing of assets and shuttering of operations.

What this means, then, is that a Muslim Brotherhood FTO designation would allow the White House and the State Department -- without legislative or judicial oversight -- to freeze the assets and shut down the operations of Muslim civil society and civil rights groups, including CAIR, the largest Muslim civil rights and anti-discrimination group in the country. Thus not only would the administration continue to launch repeated attacks on Muslim Americans, including the recent Muslim ban and threats of registry, but it would also dismantle the front line of defense for Muslim communities in these increasingly fraught times.

For an administration convinced that Islam is engaged with a civilizational struggle with the West, then, this policy is not about the Muslim Brotherhood itself. Instead, it’s about the administration’s lens of intense suspicion and distrust of Muslim communities that paints them with a broad brush of violence and civilizational “otherness.” As J.M. Berger, a counterterrorism analyst at George Washington University, wrote, “Let me be extremely clear: This initiative is concerned with controlling American Muslims, not with any issue pertaining to the Muslim Brotherhood in any practical or realistic sense.”

But the effects of such a designation are not only disastrous for Muslim communities; within the academy, the FTO designation could have far-reaching effects, given the precedent of the consideration of forms of speech as material support. Indeed, such an impact should be deeply concerning to the academic community, which holds the values of free speech and rigorous scholarship dear. If the Muslim Brotherhood is designated as an FTO, key scholars, especially in Middle Eastern Studies or Islamic Studies departments, may be open to charges of material support. In this way, the claims made by a small faction of anti-Muslim individuals could cause scholars and academic programs to be open to prosecution for activities such as translation, copyright coordination, or print or online publication. It may also have damaging effects on international travel programs offered by universities, and on the ability of all scholars to engage critically and fully with the communities that they study.

The Trump administration’s designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as an FTO is not only an irresponsible move; it is also a dangerous one. It is politically unnecessary, does not make anyone safer, and instead criminalizes and chills First Amendment-protected speech while making even more vulnerable a community that is already under attack. In response to such insidious strategies rooted in a worldview that characterizes all Muslims as violent and regressive, we must stand together to promote the ideals of freedom of speech, religion, and assembly espoused by the First Amendment and foundational to the work that the academic community does.

In this statement, we join a variety of writers and publications which have spoken against such a possibility, including figures from the Council on American Islamic Relations; Professor J.M. Berger, counterterrorism analyst at George Washington University; Andrew March, associate professor of political science and law at Yale University; the Center for American Progress; the Bloomberg Editorial Board, Human Rights Watch; Washington Post writers; William McCants and Benjamin Wittes at the Brookings Institution; Arjun Singh Sethi, civil rights lawyer and adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center and Vanderbilt University Law School; Nathan Lean, author of The Islamophobia Industry; Tom Malinowski, an assistant Secretary of State under President Obama; Baher Azmy, the legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights; and other experts and scholars.

We therefore call on members of the academic community to add their names in support of the First Amendment rights of scholars and Muslim American communities across the country to practice their religion; assemble and build civil society organizations; and think, write, speak, or research without the threat of censorship or prosecution. Join us in rejecting these dangerous and divisive politics and urging our government to oppose this unfounded and indefensible designation.

We the undersigned hereby:

  1. Oppose any executive order designating the Muslim Brotherhood as an FTO
  2. Affirm support for any faculty or community member affected by such a designation
  3. Stand up for Muslim organizations in the United States targeted by the designation, including the Council on American Islamic Relations, and
  4. Uphold the values of the First Amendment, including the freedoms of religion, assembly, and speech, in politics and academia.

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