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Trump Considers Listing Muslim Brotherhood As Terrorist Organization


The Trump administration is considering listing the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. The broad, diverse group is opposed by Egypt and Saudi Arabia and offshoots of it have been blamed for violence, but it also has members of parliament in some countries. A terror listing would complicate relations with them and feed into anti-Muslim sentiments in the U.S., as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has long advocated putting the Muslim Brotherhood on the terrorism list. He cosponsored a bill calling for that when he was a Kansas congressman. And though he didn't mention it directly in Cairo earlier this year, he made clear that this administration is confronting what he described as the ugly reality of radical Islam.


MIKE POMPEO: President Sissi joined us; he joined us in denouncing the twisted ideology which has wrought death and suffering on so many. I thank President Sissi for his courage.


KELEMEN: Egypt's Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi came to power after toppling a Muslim Brotherhood government, and he's led a massive crackdown on the group. Last month he came to the White House repeating his request that Trump put the group on the terror list. The State Department says it won't comment on internal deliberations. The Washington director for Human Rights Watch, Sarah Margon, points out that Pompeo's own personal advocacy could be a factor.

SARAH MARGON: He has really taken a pretty hard-line stance that he could easily try to translate into a designation. He's also taken a very close alliance with Egypt's President Sissi and, you know, has sought to maintain that relationship, despite a significant downward trend in ongoing democratic deficit there.

KELEMEN: But it's not so easy to label a group like the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, says Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former terrorist finance analyst at the Treasury Department.

JONATHAN SCHANZER: The problem is the designation of the entire network because the entire network spans 90-something countries. Some of these splinter groups are political factions that are very much part of their local government, and then, of course, there are some that are actively engaged in violence.

KELEMEN: Founded in Egypt in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood is now a diverse movement, and he says it probably won't meet the strict criteria for a terrorist designation. Schanzer says some branches in Yemen or Libya, for instance, could, but he says the administration seems to be looking at a blanket approach, as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others want.

SCHANZER: These what are described as traditional, conservative Sunni countries have a real bone to pick with Qatar, Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood. There is a new schism that has made itself very clear in the Sunni world. It's no longer a Shiite versus Sunni problem in the Arab world; there's now Sunni versus Sunni as well, and the Muslim Brotherhood, at the end of the day, is that fault line.

KELEMEN: The move could also have implications in the U.S., where Brotherhood supporters historically had been involved in Muslim organizations and charities. Margon of Human Rights Watch says, for American Muslims, it's like a Rotary Club.

MARGON: There has been such a push in the last couple of years, so much rhetoric out there, to turn the Muslim Brotherhood into the evil bogeyman. And all of that is generated by a growing Islamophobia; that there's a real lack of understanding of what the organization is and its chapters do.

KELEMEN: Margon says that putting the group on the terror list could have a chilling effect on free speech and association among Muslims in the U.S. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

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Michele Kelemen
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.