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House Republicans: Syria's dictator banned the Muslim Brotherhood, why shouldn't we?

Hafez al-Assad: probably not the best guy for US policymakers to cite as an example.
Hafez al-Assad: probably not the best guy for US policymakers to cite as an example.
(Poo/AFP/Getty Images)

It's not every day that you see approving references to a Syrian dictator's campaign of repression in a bill in the US Congress. Yet that's exactly what happened on Wednesday, when the House Judiciary Committee passed a Republican-authored bill approvingly citing Hafez al-Assad's 1980 crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood — which culminated in the 1982 Hama massacre, a mass killing of civilians that indirectly presaged the current civil war.

The bill, picked out by BuzzFeed's Tom Gara, would "require the Secretary of State to submit a report to Congress on the designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization." The Brotherhood is not recognized as a terrorist group under current US law, though it does include some Brotherhood-affiliated groups, such as Hamas.

The bill, authored by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) and co-signed by a number of Republicans, cites the fact that other countries label the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group to support its claim that they are, in fact, terrorists. The first one the bill lists is Syria.

(2) In 1980, following a wave of assassinations targeting government officials and the June 16, 1979, massacre of 83 military cadets in Aleppo, the Government of Syria—

(A) banned the Muslim Brotherhood from the country; and

(B) made membership in the organization 13 punishable by death.

It's pretty odd for a bill to approvingly cite the Syrian dictator whose son is currently a US enemy, but it's far worse if you know the context here.

For a few years leading up to 1980, Syria's Shia-dominated government had been facing a low-level Sunni insurgency, led in part by the Muslim Brotherhood. The Syrian government responded with heavy-handed violence, killing many people affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, whether they were armed or not.

The conflict ended in 1982, when the Syrian military waged a campaign against its own city, Hama, killing at least 20,000 civilians.

Assad's criminalization of Muslim Brotherhood membership, then, is inseparable from his larger policy of suppression and state violence. It was also a precursor to his son Bashar al-Assad's crackdown in Syria today.

This points to a bigger problem with the bill, called the Muslim Brotherhood Terrorist Designation Act. In most places where it operates, the Muslim Brotherhood is not a terrorist organization anymore. While there are important debates to be had about the Islamist group's role in politics, particularly given its hostility to liberal values, this is not the same thing as being a terrorist group.

Labeling the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization is, in essence, asking the US government to criminalize a political party that is pretty popular in much of the Middle East — and to join an unpalatable shortlist of regimes that criminalize them as well. Here the other governments that the House bill cites as banning the Brotherhood:

  • Egypt
  • Saudi Arabia
  • The United Arab Emirates
  • Bahrain
  • Russia

Consider Egypt, for example. The country's military dictator, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, criminalized the Muslim Brotherhood after he overthrew an elected Muslim Brotherhood government in a 2013 coup. Sisi solidified his power with a brutal crackdown. On August 1, his security forces opened fire on a group of pro-Muslim Brotherhood protestors in Cairo's Rabaa al-Adawiya Square on August 1, killing at least 817 people in one day.

Since then, Sisi has become a popular figure among American conservatives; a "folk hero," as my colleague Max Fisher says, for hard-line war-on-terror types. Ted Cruz, for example, has praised Sisi's "courage" in taking on "the radical Islamic terrorists who are threatening the world." The violent means Sisi uses to repress said "terrorists" are skated over or, on occasion, openly celebrated.

And that's what is really troubling about this bill: It is calling for the US to align itself with a policy that authoritarian, even murderous, governments use as a pretext to massacre political opponents. That doesn't mean the US is about to launch its own violent crackdown on Islamists at home, of course. But it is concerning to see that a group of lawmakers seem to approvingly cite foreign dictators who have done this.

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