The UAE Cabinet approved a list of 83 designated terrorist organizations on Saturday, including al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Much more significant, though, was the inclusion of many Muslim organizations based in the West that are believed to be allied with the Muslim Brotherhood movement. Prominent among them are two American Muslim groups: the Council on American Islamic Relations and the Muslim American Society.
The decision to put two mainstream U.S. Muslim groups on its list of terrorist organizations is part of an initiative, together with the Saudis, to undermine the Islamist movement known as the Muslim Brotherhood. The move is unlikely to succeed, but it could cause problems between the U.S. government and the American Muslim community.
Ever since the Muslim Brotherhood's rise in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have felt deeply threatened by the Islamist movement. Both countries supported the July 2013 coup that toppled the Brotherhood-led government of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt. They continue to use their financial might to prop up the government of former military chief President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. In addition, they are trying to make sure that the Brotherhood in the region is generally weakened, or even decimated.
From their perspective, the Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood is a far greater threat to the monarchies than even the jihadism of al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Given the armed insurrectionist approach of the jihadists, the Saudis and Emiratis can crack down on them using coercive means more easily.
But for them, the Brotherhood is a much more insidious threat. Not only does it oppose violence as a means of achieving its political goals, but it also seeks democracy. Therefore, the Brotherhood is not just difficult to counter; it promotes a political system that is a threat to the monarchical systems of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
What is worse for the Gulf Arabs is that the Brotherhood is seen as a legitimate political force in the West. Earlier this year, the Saudis and Emiratis pressured the British government to crack down on British Muslim groups that were part of the global Brotherhood network. London launched an inquiry into the movement within its borders, resulting in an unpublished report that cleared the Brotherhood of links to terrorism.
Frustrated, the Gulf Arabs are pursuing a different tack. By declaring the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Muslim American Society (MAS) as terrorist organizations, they are trying to exploit a fault line within the United States. There is a sizable lobby within the U.S. government that is interested in cracking down on those and other Muslim groups. The Emiratis and Saudis hope the lobby will use the United Arab Emirates' announcement to push in this direction.
While CAIR has for years operated as a nonprofit advocacy entity, in 2007 U.S. authorities named it an unindicted co-conspirator along with about 250 other groups and individuals in a case against the Holy Land Foundation charity. The charity was convicted of supporting Hamas, a designated terrorist organization in the United States, though no formal charges have been brought against CAIR. As a result, it will not take much for groups within the United States that are hostile to CAIR to use the UAE decision against the group.
The goal of the Emiratis and Saudis is to get U.S. authorities focused on CAIR and MAS so that they can use that to press Washington to take action against the Muslim Brotherhood. They are unlikely to get their wish given the lack of evidence that the Brotherhood is engaged in terrorism and given the U.S. focus on fighting jihadists — an effort that requires the Americans to work with moderate forces.
On the domestic front, however, CAIR and MAS could face legal issues. Large numbers of American Muslims support the groups, especially CAIR. Putting them under closer scrutiny could upset American Muslims — exactly the outcome that the Islamic State and al Qaeda want.