Muslim Brotherhood, Mainstream In Many Countries, May Be Listed As Terrorist Group | KUOW News and Information

Muslim Brotherhood, Mainstream In Many Countries, May Be Listed As Terrorist Group

Feb 22, 2017
Originally published on February 22, 2017 10:27 am

It's a chilly midmorning in a clinic in the working-class neighborhood of Sweileh in Amman, Jordan. Children wearing winter coats donated by charity organizations sit on plastic chairs, waiting to see doctors and dentists.

Pamphlets in the clinic, published by the Muslim Brotherhood, offer advice on being a good Muslim and instruction on how to pray. But it's not really religion that brings people here.

"They come here mainly because they only pay a symbolic amount for treatment ... and all the medication is free," says clinic supervisor Aisha Radwan.

The patients are mostly refugees and Jordanian orphans. The clinic is one of dozens in a charity network founded by the Muslim Brotherhood and now run by the Jordanian government. The clinic even received support from the U.S. Agency for International Development, which funded its renovation three years ago.

In the U.S., the Trump administration is considering designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization — a move that would be welcomed by Egypt, which has had a complicated history with the organization, and several other countries. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Syria also consider the group a terrorist organization, accusing it of trying to topple existing governments.

But in Jordan, one of the strongest American allies in the region, the Muslim Brotherhood's charitable activities have made it part of the fabric of mainstream society. The organization's political wing is the biggest bloc in the Jordanian Parliament.

The movement also has members of Parliament in another U.S. ally, Tunisia, and in Bahrain, where the U.S. maintains military bases.

"The brotherhood is everywhere in the world where there are Muslims," says Murad Adeleih, spokesman for the Islamic Action Front, the organization's Amman-based political wing.

He says the Muslim Brotherhood is a peaceful civil society organization operating in 92 countries. It officially renounced violence decades ago. Leaders say there are few operational links between its organizations in different countries, but the central tenet they share is promoting Islamic thought and ideals.

Adeleih and many analysts say designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization would encourage extremism by sending the message that the U.S. does not differentiate between different Muslim groups.

"Frankly, this is a dangerous [proposal] because it constitutes a war on Islam," Adeleih says in his office in downtown Amman. "In a lot of countries, we are in partnership with governments and parliament. It would be very difficult to implement."

The Muslim Brotherhood was born in Egypt as a nationalist movement under British occupation in the 1920s. In recent decades, it gained popularity by offering the prospect of a religiously based alternative to corrupt, autocratic governments.

A year after the fall of Egypt's longtime president, Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian voters elected a Muslim Brotherhood president. He was toppled in a 2013 military coup that brought current president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, to power, after which the organization was outlawed.

Egypt has since hunted down and killed Muslim Brotherhood leaders and jailed thousands of its members.

Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood officially broke ties with the Egyptian organization after the 2013 military coup.

Many Egyptians believe the Muslim Brotherhood was incapable of governing in Egypt and squandered its chance at power. That defeat has shaped a more conciliatory Muslim Brotherhood in countries such as Jordan, which has defused the movement's power by splitting it and encouraging a pro-government faction.

"The brotherhood is a seasoned movement that understands the dynamics of politics and the need to be able to lead a constructive dialogue. That is how they have evolved and developed," says Jordanian political scientist Labib Kamhawi.

Kamhawi says designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group would create serious problems for Jordan's King Abdullah, a key partner in the fight against ISIS, and for Jordan itself.

"It would be very difficult to defend such policies or accept it. Jordan would be forced to take a stand that would not condone such policies," he says. "You cannot assume that the U.S. is a friendly nation if this friendly nation is launching a vicious campaign against Muslims."

A major British government report concluded that although offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood have engaged in violence, it should not be classified as a terrorist organization.

Over decades, the Muslim Brotherhood has put down deep roots in Jordan through its network of charitable organizations. Those organizations are now controlled by the Jordanian government, but the group still commands considerable influence.

Down the hall from the clinic in Sweileh, director Mohsen Ramawi meets with caseworkers to go over the detailed files of new families, orphans and needy students applying for aid. The money comes from donations — many from people who believe the Muslim Brotherhood is more efficient and less corrupt than the government.

A widow named Azaya comes in to collect a monthly payment of about $50. She works full time in a clothing store but doesn't make enough to support her three daughters.

"We treat people as Islam asks us to treat people, especially the poor," says Ramawi.

Caseworker Maha Gharbouti presents Ramawi the file of a new applicant — a Jordanian family with an undernourished child.

Gharbouti studied pharmacy, but at the charity, her main job is supporting widows. Her warm brown eyes are the only things visible behind the all-enveloping black niqab she wears.

"The women can tell me their problems and their feelings," she says. "These [are] the things the government can't help with."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now let's talk about another possible change in policy. It involves a terrorist designation for one of the Arab world's oldest political movements. For nearly 100 years, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood have been active in dozens of countries. And now some in Congress and close to the Trump administration would like it to be on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations. Haven't done it yet, but they're thinking about it. Critics of this move say the group is not violent and that it would unfairly target people for prosecution. NPR's Joanne Arraf went to see the Muslim Brotherhood at work in Jordan.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: It's mid-morning in this clinic in a working-class neighborhood in Amman. The waiting room was packed with families in winter coats waiting to see doctors and dentists. A sign on the wall says the clinic was renovated by the U.S. government's Agency for International Development three years ago. Pamphlets by the Muslim Brotherhood publishing house offer advice on being a good Muslim and instruction on how to pray, but it's not really religion that brings people here.

AISHA RADWAN: (Through interpreter) They come here mainly because they only pay a symbolic amount for treatment and all the medication is free.

ARRAF: That's clinic supervisor Aisha Radwan. The patients are mostly refugees and Jordanian orphans. It's one of dozens of clinics founded by the Muslim Brotherhood and now run by the Jordanian government.

The Brotherhood is an international movement. It started in Egypt under British occupation in the 1920s. Six years after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt elected a Muslim Brotherhood president. He was toppled in a military coup and is now in jail, like thousands of his followers. In January, Egypt sent an official delegation to Washington to urge the U.S. to put the group on its terrorist list.

But here in Jordan - and in places from Bahrain to Tunisia - the Brotherhood is mainstream. The organization's political wing, the Islamic Action Front, forms the biggest bloc in the Jordanian Parliament. Spokesman Murad Adeleih says putting the Brotherhood on the terrorist list would encourage extremism.

MURAD ADELEIH: (Through interpreter) Frankly, this is dangerous because it constitutes a war on Islam. The organization exists in 92 countries. And in a lot of countries, it's in partnership with the government and parliament. It would be very difficult to implement.

ARRAF: A major British government report concluded that although offshoots of the Brotherhood have engaged in violence, it's not a terrorist group. The organization describes itself as peaceful and dedicated to fostering Islamic ideals. Jordanian political scientist Labib Kamhawi says a U.S. terrorist designation would create problems with the kingdom, one of the strongest U.S. allies in the region.

LABIB KAMHAWI: Jordan would be embarrassed - I mean the government itself, the king. If Trump pursues such policies, it would be very difficult to defend such policy or accept it.

ARRAF: Over decades, the Brotherhood has put down deep roots in Jordanian society through a network of charitable organizations it founded. And it has considerable influence.

Down the hall from the clinic, Mohsen Ramawi meets with caseworkers to go over files of poor Jordanians applying for aid. The money comes from donations, many from people who believe the Brotherhood is less corrupt than the government.

MOHSEN RAMAWI: We would treat people as Islam asks us to treat the people, especially the poor people, the orphaned people. And that's what make our good reputation for all - most of the people in this country.

ARRAF: Maha Gharbouti presents cases of needy families for approval. One of them is a mother of three with an undernourished 4-year-old. Gharbouti's eyes are the only things visible behind the all-enveloping black niqab she wears.

MAHA GHARBOUTI: (Through interpreter) The women can tell me their problems and their feelings. These are the things the government can't help with.

ARRAF: There are a lot of things the government can't help people with in this largely poor country. In a lot of neighborhoods, it's made the Brotherhood part of the fabric of Jordanian society.

Jane Arraf, NPR News, Amman, Jordan.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The audio version of the story incorrectly states that the 2012 election took place six years ago; it has been five years.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.