When America’s founders passed the First Amendment, protecting the right to dissent was the objective.
Having experienced a repressive English state, they understood the hallmark of authoritarianism lies in the absence of freedom of thought, speech and association.
Yet, Trump’s promise to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation runs contrary to these fundamental American values. The consequence could be devastating for American Muslims’ civil liberties.
For nearly two decades, the US’ Middle East authoritarian allies and domestic Islamophobes (many of whom now serve as advisors in the Trump administration) have been advocating to criminalise “political Islam”. This vague and pejorative label is frequently used to delegitimise Muslim activists, scholars and religious leaders who hold dissenting political views.
Although the dictators and Islamophobes have different targets in mind, their goal is the same – to criminalise dissent and quash political opposition.
Middle East dictators seek US approval for their violent crackdown against their strongest political opposition movement – the Muslim Brotherhood.
American Islamophobes want to criminalise Islam. The designation could unleash material support to terrorism prosecutions of non-violent, religious American Muslim activists who challenge unconditional US support for Israel, oppose Islamophobe’s anti-Sharia campaigns, and defend religious freedom rights of Muslims.
If Trump goes through with designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group, the grounds of criminality will not be engaging in or directly supporting terrorism. Rather, it will be political beliefs. The government, therefore, would be unfettered in criminalising a wide range of views it disfavours.
“The message to American Muslims is clear: If you want to evade the heavy hand of the national security state, then you must secularise”
Challenging secularism, supporting faith-based government policies informed by Islamic values, or opposing US support of dictators who deny political rights to nonviolent Muslim Brotherhood members abroad could trigger prosecutorial action against American Muslims.
Furthermore, academics attending international conferences in Turkey, Qatar, Jordan and Kuwait; Muslim organisations inspired by their Islamic faith to challenge the political order; and Muslim journalists critical of human rights violations of members of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East could find themselves under investigation for supporting terrorism.
These investigations legally authorise asset freezes, which is the death knell of an organisation. They could also lead to “material support for terrorism” charges that do not require the government to prove the accused engaged in violence. So long as there is evidence the accused knew the Muslim Brotherhood was designated as a terrorist organisation, their nonviolent actions can be criminalised.
Similarly, Muslims seeking asylum from persecution by Middle East dictators could be denied on the mere suspicions they are “political Islamists”. The same reasoning would expand national security grounds for denying applications for US citizenship by law-abiding, practising Muslims living in the United States.
Ultimately, the freedom to dissent guaranteed by the First Amendment will not apply to Muslims. This totalitarian outcome is not accidental.
A multi-million dollar Islamophobia industry, with members currently in the US government, has aggressively advocated for deporting, banning and criminalising Muslims. These right-wing extremists have defamed Muslims as inherently violent, incapable of practicing democracy, and savage as part of a broader “clash of civilisations” narrative.
The narrative has inundated Americans with propaganda warning them practicing Muslims are a suspect fifth column. Praying, fasting during Ramadan, donning a beard, or wearing a headscarf are portrayed as evidence of an illicit “Islamisation of America.” Admitting Islam informs how you live your life is treated as treasonous.
The message to American Muslims is clear: If you want to evade the heavy hand of the national security state, then you must secularise, assimilate into White Protestant normalcy, and dare not challenge American hegemony in the international order.
Only secularised Muslims will be tolerated on condition they blindly support government policies or depoliticise altogether.
Attempts to criminalise “political Islam” were on full display in a July 2018 Congressional hearing entitled The Muslim Brotherhood as a Global Threat.
Zuhdi Jasser, a darling of the Islamophobia industry and right-wing politicians, testified “[m]aking the Muslim Brotherhood radioactive would allow the light to shine upon their most potent antagonists in Muslim communities – those who reject political Islam and believe in liberty and the separation of mosque and state.”
“The only ‘good Muslims’ are those who uncritically support the status quo and blindly parrot US government propaganda”
Throughout his testimony, Jasser condemned political Islamists and articulated the agenda of his Islamophobic backers – to abuse counterterrorism laws to deny American Muslims their constitutional right to hold unpopular political views. The only “good Muslims” are those who uncritically support the status quo and blindly parrot US government propaganda.
Weaponising counterterrorism laws to silence dissenting minorities are certainly not new.
J. Edgar Hoover targeted the Black Panther Movement and Nation of Islam on account of the FBI’s determination that black nationalism was a national security threat. Their ideas, not violence, consequently drove anti-terrorism enforcement.
African Americans who vocally criticised the United States as an oppressive White Supremacist state found their organisations subjected to aggressive surveillance, informant infiltration, sting operations and prosecutions.
While Muslims have been experiencing these aggressive state tactics since 9/11, a designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorist will make it much easier for the Trump administration to target more Muslims in an already racialised counter-terrorism regime.
“The consequence could be devastating for American Muslims’ civil liberties”
All the while, alt-right and white nationalist groups can continue to spew vile, hateful speech that inspires violent racists to shoot synagogues, mosques and churches. Calls to criminalise their ideas are rebuked by pointing out that anti-terrorism policies based on a fear of ideas, rather than proven violence, is “alien to the traditions of a free society and to the First Amendment.”
But if the Middle East dictators and American Islamophobes have their way, these same rights will not be afforded to American Muslims. And America will creep closer to the authoritarian state the founders sought to avert.
Sahar Aziz is Professor and Chancellor’s Social Justice Scholar at Rutgers University Law School. She also serves as the founding Director of the Rutgers Center for Security, Race and Rights.