Is Donald Trump implementing a backdoor Muslim registry?

Designating the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization could lead to a crackdown on mainstream Muslim organizations in the U.S.
Photo: Ted Eytan
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If at first, you don’t succeed, try, try again, goes the old proverb.

Two years into his presidency, it has become clear that if Trump doesn’t get his way, he does one of three things: Blame someone else (as he did with the Democrats when two migrant children died in detention at the southwest border last year), throw a tantrum (recall him pounding the table and demanding he get his way or the shutdown would continue, after Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi refused to fund his border wall) or retreat quietly and try again later — with the hope that whatever warped policy idea he wants to push through doesn’t get noticed by journalists and policy experts as much the second time around.

The latter is essentially what happened when the idea of a Muslim registry — a proposed database of Muslims living in the U.S. — first surfaced. We all heard Trump’s infamous call for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” during the 2016 presidential campaign. When Associated Press cameras captured the Kansas secretary of state, Kris Kobach, carrying documents outlining plans requiring “special registration” of immigrants as he walked into a meeting with Trump, and an MSNBC reporter asked if “there should be a database or system that tracks Muslims in this country,” Trump responded with his usual vagueness: “There should be a lot of systems. Beyond databases. I mean, we should have a lot of systems.” But when pressed on whether his administration would implement a Muslim registry, his response was crystal clear. He “absolutely” would.

Muslim and Jewish civil liberties groups, among others, were infuriated. Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, even said he would sign up as a Muslim if a registry were created. “If one day Muslim Americans will be forced to register their identities, then that is the day that this proud Jew will register as a Muslim,” he told an anti-Semitism conference in New York.

Then, in January 2017, Trump dropped the travel ban bomb, signing an executive order banning foreign nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries from visiting the U.S. In March, Republican Senator Ted Cruz dropped another. He proudly introduced the Muslim Brotherhood Terrorist Designation Act bill in Congress, saying it aimed to “protect against the violent jihad carried out by the Muslim Brotherhood affiliates both in the United States and the rest of the world.” Formally branding the Brotherhood a terror group, Cruz said, will enable “the U.S. to take action that could stifle the funding they receive to promote their terrorist activities.”

A few weeks later, the bill was quietly dropped. It’s not clear why, although it’s worth recalling that it faced considerable criticism within the State Department, the foreign policy community, and the anti-terrorism and security community. There were, and still are, multiple reasons why banning the Muslim Brotherhood would be a nightmare from a security and policy perspective (Middle East policy analyst Shadi Hamid explains why here). But there were devastating domestic implications as well, which went largely unexplored by U.S. journalists and which I detailed at that time in The Independent — namely the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood’s “affiliates” would encompass leading U.S. Muslim civil liberties organizations.

With the bill dropped, conversation about the Muslim Brotherhood designation halted — until this week. On Tuesday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said the Trump administration was planning to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization. Security and policy experts are again warning of its recklessness. But it’s doubtful whether anyone in Trump’s inner circle is listening, or even cares.

The Muslim Brotherhood is Egypt's oldest Islamist movement, with more than a million members across the Middle East. The ideology played a major role in inspiring the Arab Spring movements, when U.S.-backed dictators in Egypt and Tunisia were toppled from power. Given this background, it’s no wonder they’re being targeted by Washington hawks. Even Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi attested to the movement’s relevance shortly before his murder: “The eradication of the Muslim Brotherhood is nothing less than an abolition of democracy and a guarantee that Arabs will continue living under authoritarian and corrupt regimes.”

What does the Muslim Brotherhood have to do with American Muslims? In three words: CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations), ISNA (the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and MSA (Muslim Students Association).

Each of these grassroots organizations play a crucial role in serving and defending the interests of American Muslims. It’s safe to say that pretty much every Muslim in America today will have heard of or supported a CAIR event at some point. As the largest Muslim civil liberties organization in the country, it holds events on everything from civic engagement to youth leadership retreats. It also counsels and mediates on behalf of Muslims who have experienced religious discrimination or hate crimes. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that CAIR plays a key role in the U.S. Muslim immigrant success story.

When the Muslim Brotherhood gets formally designated as a terror organization, policy experts say CAIR and other advocacy organizations will most definitely be at risk of being shut down — despite U.S. foreign policy and counter-terror experts concluding that the movement and its affiliates are not a threat to national security.

“Over the past five to ten years there’s this really consistent idea of the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists trying to infiltrate the U.S,” Hamid, who works for Washington think tank the Brookings Institution, said in response to Sanders’ announcement. “You have this kind of conspiracy theory [spread by the Breitbart media world, among others] that different U.S. Muslim organizations have ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. So I think the real concern here is, is this designation a smokescreen to essentially attack the American Muslim community through guilt by association? Then you get into this really slippery slope of, is the American Muslim community guilty until proven innocent?”

No surprise there. American Muslims have long been considered guilty until proven innocent by Trump and his cronies. His earlier rhetoric about a Muslim registry (which has not been implemented — to our knowledge) and the travel ban on majority-Muslim countries (which was implemented) attest to this. But let’s also consider the fact that if a registry was ever created, it would probably not be called one. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t manifest in other ways though — like a list of individuals and groups “connected” to the officially terrorist Muslim Brotherhood perhaps?

“Concerned about a Muslim registry? This is the Muslim registry,” Mike Merryman-Lotze from the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia said back in 2017 after Republicans first tried to get the Muslim Brotherhood Terrorist Designation Act passed.

“This is an exceptional move. If this bill passes, that determination will be a political act, not an act based on the advice, review, and findings of the U.S. officials responsible for making these decisions within the State Department and Security Services.”

There’s no doubt that this latest push by Trump presents an enormous risk to the civil liberties of American Muslims — a weary lot, who after nearly two years of living in the emotional roller coaster of a Trump presidency may not recoil in surprise upon reading this. But Canadians, too, need to be alert. The conspiracy theories that Breitbart and their ilk disseminate lie on our doorstep too.

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