House Hearing on Muslim Brotherhood Raises Concerns for Nonprofits

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Date: 
July 17, 2018

Although the primary focus of a July 11, 2018 House hearing on “The Muslim Brotherhood’s Global Threat” was on foreign organizations, the testimony of several witnesses raised the specter of a coordinated campaign against U.S. Muslim humanitarian and civil rights organizations. Many statements in the hearing reflected outdated and often discredited assumptions about how they operate. In the hearing, conducted by the National Security Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, subcommittee members and witnesses sharply disagreed about whether the Muslim Brotherhood presents a unified threat to the U.S. and what the foreign and national security policy approach should be. The video of the hearing is here.

In his statement opening the hearing Subcommittee Chair Ron DeSantis (R-FL) discussed whether the Muslim Brotherhood should be listed as a terrorist organization. He said its affiliates raise funds in the United States (video at 13:33), citing the 2008 conviction of the Holy Land Foundation (HLF) as an example. (HLF was convicted of providing material support to Hamas, a listed terrorist organization some claim is part of the Muslim Brotherhood. See here for background on that case.) Ranking member Stephen Lynch (D-MA) cautioned that terrorist listings should be made on the basis of violent conduct, not ideology (video 56:48) and that bad actors should be differentiated from the surrounding population (video 58:35).  He said a blanket designation of the Brotherhood would have negative impacts (video 1:04:04).

Summary of testimony

The testimony of four witnesses reflected the differences of opinion about whether 1) the Muslim Brotherhood is a single, global entity or a loose network and 2) whether or not it presents a threat to U.S. national security. The witnesses were:

  • Dr. Hillel Fradkin of the Hudson Institute: His testimony described the Muslim Brotherhood’s origins in Egypt nearly 100 years ago. He claimed its participation in democratic processes as “gradualist” approach ultimately aimed at seizing political power. He cited the Brotherhood’s short rule in Egypt after the Arab Spring as evidence that its goals and willingness to employ violence have not changed.
  • Dr. Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies: His statement said the Brotherhood’s “ideology is widely viewed to be the gateway to jihadist violence.” Regarding charities, he said, “If there are ties to terrorism, that is for the FBI to discover.” During the question and answer session he acknowledged that he is not an expert on the Brotherhood in the U.S. (video at 1:15:00) but then went on to make claims about several U.S. nonprofit organizations (see details below). He endorsed a provision of the pending National Defense Authorization Act call for the Departments of Defense and State to conduct a study on the Muslim Brotherhood and recommended targeted designation of violent Brotherhood actors “while keeping an eye on non-violent ones.”
  • Dr. Zuhdi Jasser of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy: His testimony offered a list of U.S. organizations he said are affiliated with the Brotherhood, drawing extensively from claims made by the Investigative Project on Terrorism, run by Steven Emerson, a noted Islamophobe. He described a “revolving door” of groups in the west, including humanitarian agencies, with Brotherhood members in the Middle East (video 40:18). Dr. Jasser mentioned the Syrian American Council, Muslim American Society and Islamic Relief USA. He also cited the Holy Land Foundation conviction, misrepresenting the legal and factual relevance of the “unindicted co-conspirator list” (In that case a  federal court ruled that the Department of Justice violated its own policy by publicly releasing the list. Government attorneys told the courts that the filing the list was a legal maneuver. By naming co-conspirators, the government could use out-of-court statements as evidence that would normally be inadmissible as hearsay.)  Jasser recommended that the committee “Stop engaging Muslim Brotherhood legacy groups in government and media and NGO’s and recognize their Islamist terror sympathies…” and “Re-open investigation into CAIR’s radical ties and into the extensive domestic and foreign network of foundations and poorly hidden branches. Also investigate the Syrian American Council, MUSAID USA and Islamic Relief USA to name a few organizations concerning global Islamist ties.”
  • Amb. Daniel Benjamin, Dickey Center for International Understanding, Dartmouth College served as the State Department’s Counterterrorism Coordinator during the Obama administration. He testified that “As scholars, intelligence analysts and policymakers in past administrations have come to agree, there is no singular, monolithic Muslim Brotherhood…there is no central administration linking these disparate groups.” He said the Brotherhood does not present a global threat, as most groups said to be associated with it “support democracy and abjure violence.”

Nonprofits accused of Muslim Brotherhood ties

During the question and answer portion of the hearing several U.S. Muslim organizations were accused of providing financial support to the Muslim Brotherhood or having associational ties to Brotherhood members in the Middle East.  For example:

Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) cited a recent report from the Middle East Forum that accused Islamic Relief Worldwide and Islamic Relief USA of “extremism and terror connections” (video 1:04:04). Dr  Jasser’s response (video 1:05:18) elaborated on his theory of a “revolving door” of Muslim Brotherhood supporters moving between different organizations, saying that only designation of the Muslim Brotherhood “mothership” will make it easier to go after its “supporters” in the U.S (video 1:06:02). He accused the Muslim Student Association and U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations of being Muslim Brotherhood “legacy groups” (video 1:06:44).

Rep. Gosar said IRW gets over $700,000 in federal funds and gets 20% of its funds from IRUSA (video 1:07:20). Jasser responded by saying that once the Muslim Brotherhood is listed as a terrorist organization the U.S. “can do the same thing to Islamic Relief” that it did to the Holy Land Foundation (video 1:07:45). He agreed with Gosar that IRUSA should not be eligible to receive federal funds, but that can only be stopped by listing the Brotherhood.

Rep. James Comer (R-KY) asked if the Muslim Brotherhood has rejected violence. Amb. Benjaminn explained the variation among Brotherhood groups on this question and emphasized that the U.S. must only put groups on the terrorist list when they carry out terrorist acts (video 1:14:00).  He noted that if the U.S. gets into the business of designating a group as terrorist because “we don’t like its ideology” it will not only violate values of free speech but also undermine national interests (video 1:14:18).  He noted that U.S. engagement with a group does not mean the group receives money or benefits (video 1:14:53).

Rep. Jody HIce (R-GA) asked about the Muslim Brotherhood’s activities in the U.S. Dr. Schanzer responded that, although he is not an expert in this area, certain groups related to the Brotherhood have been involved in terrorist finance cases (video 1:25:00). He cited the Holy Land Foundation criminal case and implied groups such as the Council on American Islamic Relations that were listed as “co-conspirators” played “unspecified roles” in providing support to Hamas (video 1:25:12).  Jasser then went on to blame the Brotherhood for the Boston Marathon bombing and other domestic attacks by individual shooters, without providing details (video 1:27:05).

Toward the end of the hearing Amb. Benjamin noted that there have been no prosecutions of U.S. charities since the Holy Land case (video 1:28:20), saying that DOJ “is watching” and would prosecute if violations were taking place and that the “paucity of prosecutions tells an important story.” However,  Schanzer responded that the lack of prosecutions or terrorist designations against nonprofits only shows a lack for enforcement under the Obama administration and that he hopes to see a “reinvigoration” of the system (video 1:29:05).