The implications of a Trump war on political Islam

The White House should stop taking cue from Arab dictators on its foreign policy.

Trump Sisi
President Donald Trump met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in the Oval Office of the White House on April 9, 2019 [AP/Evan Vucci]

One has to admire US President Donald Trump‘s tenacity. Despite the many fiascos of his Middle East policy, he keeps going down the same path, with the same partners, come what may.

Since his first foreign trip landed him in Saudi Arabia and Israel two years ago, the president has been on a roll, trampling all over traditional liberal US policies, defying the United Nations, violating international law and heightening tensions in the Middle East – all at the request, or in support, of these special partners.

This trend intensified over the past few weeks. The White House overrode Congress to continue assisting the Saudi war effort in Yemen and lent its support to the renegade general, Khalifa Hafter, during his assault on the Libyan capital, Tripoli. It also proclaimed the Syrian Golan Heights part of Israel and gave approval to the Israeli annexation of occupied Palestinian territories.

It tightened sanctions on Iran, designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp a “foreign terrorist organisation” and deployed carrier strike group battleships to the Gulf.

As a result of these policies, tensions throughout the region are escalating, yet the Trump administration won’t reconsider, let alone reverse any of them. It has only really done that once – when it stepped back from its hastily-taken position on the blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt two years ago.

But that’s the exception that confirms the rule.

The White House has given the Israeli, Egyptian and the Saudi regimes and their allies carte blanche to do as they please domestically and regionally, as long as they purchase US weapons, invest in the US economy and support US initiatives in the Middle East, like the soon to be revealed “deal of the century”. 

It has doubled down on its partners despite their grave human rights violations and costly wars and embraced their autocratic vision of equating Islamism with instability, and stability with military authoritarianism.

But the latest move of the Trump administration to essentially declare war on the Muslim Brotherhood may well be the spark that ignites the powder keg that the Middle East has become.

How ‘terrorist’ is the Muslim Brotherhood?

The White House announced it was intending to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation soon after Trump met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi last month and praised him as a “great president” despite his dark human rights record.

General el-Sisi had led the coup d’etat against the Muslim Brotherhood the year after their 2012 electoral victory, imprisoned thousands of its members, and outlawed the organisation. Saudi Arabia and the UAE followed suit a few months later. These regimes consider the group a major threat to their rule and an ally to regional nemeses like Turkey and Qatar.


Past US administrations have steered away from such designation despite their aversion to the movement, and almost all US academics and analysts, even those critical of the Muslim Brotherhood, agree it is not a terrorist organisation. They believe designating it as such is imprudent, shortsighted, and counterproductive.  

Even Trump’s former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who in his Senate confirmation speech called the Muslim Brotherhood an agent of “radical Islam” in the same breath as al-Qaeda, stood against the terror designation. He believed the “classification of the Muslim Brotherhood in its entirety as a ‘terror’ group complicates the security and politics of the Middle East”.

This is especially the case, because the Brotherhood is a fragmented, polycentric international movement that does not, in principle, embrace violence to reach its goals. The few offshoots that do employ violence to attain their goals, like Hamas, have already been designated terrorist, rightly or not. 

But the majority of the groups under the movement’s umbrella have either embraced preaching (dawa) as the way to spread Islam or joined the democratic process whenever possible. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates have been elected to various syndicates and parliaments in countries like Jordan, Morocco and Kuwait – all allies of the US.

Indeed, some of the US’s closest allies in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were Muslim Brotherhood leaders, like the former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani and Iraqi politician Mohsen Abdul Hamid, who became the head of the Iraqi Governing Council following the 2003 US invasion.

Designating all of these and millions of members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the world, including many thousands in the US and Europe, terrorists and banning them from participating openly in the political process in their respected countries is terribly wrong and short-sighted.

It would disrupt the ongoing crucial rethink process within the movement after the costly failures it suffered over the past few years. Some Muslim Brotherhood members are abandoning the group to become independent, others abandoning politics altogether in favour of charity and social work, and still, more are rebranding themselves Muslim Democrats, separating their preaching from politics, along the lines of Christian Democracy in Europe.

Perhaps the most damaging for regional and indeed global security is equating the Muslim Brotherhood with al-Qaeda and treating them as one, which spells disaster. It would not only push many Brothers underground, but also strengthen violent jihadi groups and vindicate their claim that the West at large sees all Muslims as terrorists and Islam as a threat.

As the White House is about to sacrifice real stability and democracy at the altar of someone else’s crusade against political Islam, Sudan and Algeria are showing a third way that strays away from the deadly polarisation between generals and jihadis and between autocrats and Islamists – one that is led by men and women, religious and secular, old and young, all embracing civilian rule, political reconciliation and economic reform.  

Well, that is, of course, until Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE begin meddling in North Africa with the blessing of the White House.

Repeating the same mistake over and over again

All this makes one wonder: why – after decades of pursuing security at the expense of democracy, and stability at the expense of human rights in the Middle East and achieving neither – are US leaders repeating the same mistake?

What is said about those who repeat the same thing over and over again but expect a different result each time? 

Well, the US is anything but insane. In fact, it has been overly pragmatic to the degree of cynicism. But entrusting Israel and Middle East dictators with US foreign policy and security as the safer choice will prove utterly reckless.

The balance sheet from the past two years or even two decades is telling. If US investments in peace and security in the Middle East were listed on the stock market, their stock would have bottomed out long ago. Yet these high-cost low-yield diplomatic and strategic investments continue unabated, running huge deficits to the detriment of the very people they purport to support.

Like pyromaniac firemen, US officials are preaching peace and security, but in reality, are firing up conflict and violence to the detriment of the Middle East. If they don’t stop and reverse course, the very fires they have fanned may eventually burn them too.