(CNSNews.com) – Two Islamic groups in the U.S. that portray themselves as moderate and mainstream expressed shock to learn at the weekend that the United Arab Emirates had included them in a list of terrorist organizations.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which describes itself as “America’s largest Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organization,” and the Muslim American Society (MAS), which calls itself “a religious community service organization,” were among more than 80 groups whose designation was approved by the UAE cabinet and announced on Saturday.
Others listed included al-Qaeda and its various affiliates in Pakistan, Syria, Yemen and North Africa; the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL); the Muslim Brotherhood and several of its U.K.- and Europe-based affiliates; and some Iranian-backed radical Shi’ite groups.
Conspicuously absent was Hamas, despite being the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Like most Arab states the UAE is a vocal supporter of the Palestinian cause.
Also not listed was Iran’s Shi’ite proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah – a curious omission since Hezbollah-linked groups in the Gulf states and Iraq were included.
The groups were designated under legislation promulgated last August, which carries tough penalties for terrorist acts and support for terrorism.
“Whoever seeks or communicates with a foreign state, terrorist organization or with anyone who works for their interests, to commit any terrorist act, shall be punished with imprisonment for life while the death penalty will be imposed if the terrorist act has been carried out,” it states.
CAIR said it was seeking clarification from the UAE about the “bizarre and shocking” report on its designation.
“There is absolutely no factual basis for the inclusion CAIR and other American and European civil rights and advocacy groups on this list,” it said in a statement. “Like the rest of the mainstream institutions representing the American Muslim community, CAIR’s advocacy model is the antithesis of the narrative of violent extremists.”
CAIR called on the UAE government to remove from the list itself, MAS, “and other civil society organizations that peacefully promote civil and democratic rights and that oppose terrorism whenever it occurs, wherever it occurs and whoever carries it out.”
MAS said it was “shocked” to learn about its designation, was seeking official clarification from the UAE, and wanted to seek U.S. government help “to address this issue.”
“The Muslim American Society is a religious community service organization that serves people in the United States,” it said. “We have no dealings with the United Arab Emirates, and hence are perplexed by this news.”
Both CAIR and MAS have been dogged by controversy over the years.
CAIR was named by the Justice Department in 2007 as “unindicted co-conspirators” in its case against the Holy Land Foundation in Texas, whose leaders were convicted the following year of raising money for Hamas. One of the convicted men, Ghassan Elashi, was founder of CAIR’s Texas chapter. He was sentenced to 65 years’ imprisonment.
CAIR maintains that the “unindicted co-conspirators” label holds no legal weight “since it does not require the Justice Department to prove anything in a court of law.” It describes Elashi as a person “once briefly associated with one of our more than 30 regional chapters.”
CAIR receives plentiful media coverage as it campaigns against what it views as anti-Muslim discrimination in the U.S., while denigrating some of its more prominent critics as “notorious Islamophobes.”
The MAS was founded by Muslim Brotherhood members in the early 1990s.
Although it states that it “has no affiliation with” the MB or any other international organization, the MAS does not deny those origins, and also acknowledges the important place of the MB’s foundational texts.
In some cases, however, it says critical evaluation of MB writings “resulted in identifying many areas where such literature was deemed irrelevant or unacceptable to Muslims in America and therefore should not be part of any foundational thought …”
The MAS stresses that this re-examination of the literature is not an attempt to “demonize” the MB, which it describes as “a very broad, diverse movement, present in many countries, with various leanings that cannot be painted with one broad brush.”
The American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD), whose president Zuhdi Jasser is a CAIR critic who has been repeatedly targeted by the group, said its inclusion on the UAE terror list would ideally “cause individuals associated with these groups and broader American society at large to see these organizations for what they really are: purveyors of Islamist apologetics and the malignancy of supremacism.”
“Unfortunately, however, this list will do no such thing,” it said. “Rather, it places CAIR in exactly the position they most enjoy: that of the victim.”
AIFD cautioned against welcoming the UAE move, however, saying repressive regimes like the UAE, Egypt during the Mubarak era and now under President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, and the Assad regime in Syria, act against groups not in order to advance liberty, but “to advance their own tyrannical agendas whilst empowering Islamist groups behind the scenes.”
“The UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other Arab monarchies advance core Islamist beliefs but just want a single tribe to control the Islamist government rather than a populist movement.”
Like its Gulf state neighbors the UAE views the Islamist MB – which ruled Egypt for a year until ousted by the military in July 2013 and has branches across the region – as a security threat.
Qatar, a longstanding MB supporter, has been the exception, and last March the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar to protest that policy.
Alluding to the MB, a senior State Department official in a speech in Qatar last June appealed for decision makers in the region to draw a distinction between Islamists and terrorists, arguing that lumping them together was making the fight against violent extremists harder.
A British government-commissioned review into the MB was reported last month to have concluded that it was not involved in terrorism.
Both Egypt under el-Sisi and Saudi Arabia have designated the MB as a terrorist group.