Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of State hit out at the Muslim Brotherhood in the opening statement that he delivered on Wednesday to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
At the onset of his confirmation hearing, Rex Tillerson called the group “an agent for radical Islam like al-Qaeda…and certain elements within Iran.”
The assessment raises the possibility that the Trump administration will not eschew the sort of Islamophobia and authoritarianism that Trump himself promoted during the presidential campaign.
Republican advisers and lawmakers have, in recent years, pushed bizarre theories about the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, calling, at times, for crackdowns on the organization, modeled after dictatorial governments abroad.
In Feb. 2016, for example, Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved of legislation that would have forced the State Department to label the Brotherhood a terrorist organization.
In a report on the proposal, GOP lawmakers positively cited the Syrian government’s decision in 1980 to ban the Brotherhood–a decree that preceded the massacre of tens of thousands of civilians in Hama. The document also praised anti-Brotherhood decrees by the Egyptian, Saudi Arabian and Bahraini governments.
“I fear that this bill appeals to our base fears,” John Conyers (D-Mich.), the committee’s ranking Democrat said, at the time, of the measure. “Islamophobia may be good politics—time will tell—but it certainly is not good policy.”
Conyers noted then that the Brotherhood has, since the 1950’s, been “predominately a non-violent religious political and social service organization.” Neither Hillary Clinton nor John Kerry mentioned the group in opening statements delivered during their confirmation hearings.
The Muslim Brotherhood has also featured in unfounded theories peddled by high-ranking Republican campaign advisers.
The chief of staff for Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, for example, promoted claims about Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin being a secret member of the group. The assistant, who is also Flynn’s son, resigned from the Trump transition team in December, when his unsubstantiated views received increased media scrutiny.
The same tale about Abedin had been promoted by Frank Gaffney, an adviser on the 2016 presidential campaign of Ted Cruz (R-Texas). Gaffney was the center of attention on the campaign trail, during the primary, after Cruz called for the policing of “Muslim neighborhoods.”
The appeal came from Cruz months after the front-running Trump raised eyebrows by floating the idea of banning all Muslims from entering the US.
Democratic lawmakers, too, have been the target of malicious criticism about the Brotherhood, from other figures who are welcomed by Republican lawmakers with open arms.
Chris Gaubatz, a witness at a hearing chaired last summer by Cruz, accused Reps. Andre Carson (D-Ind.) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) of having Brotherhood ties. The two lawmakers are the only Muslims in Congress.
On the global stage, in recent years the Muslim Brotherhood has featured most prominently in Egypt, a close US ally. The country’s only democratically-elected president in history, Muhammed Morsi, was the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood leader. In 2013, Morsi was overthrown in a military coup.
Wednesday’s confirmation hearing has been heavily anticipated, with Tillerson having limited foreign policy experience and no public sector service under his belt. Before being selected by Trump to be America’s next chief envoy, he was the CEO of oil conglomerate Exxon-Mobil, and has spent decades working for the dirty energy producer.
Before assuming public office, the former oilman will first have to convince Republicans he is fit for the job. If all Democrats vote against the nomination, Tillerson can only afford two Republican defections.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is one GOP senator who might reject Trump’s nominee. At Wednesday’s hearing, Rubio aggressively questioned Trump’s choice, pressing Tillerson to give his views on the Russian government and on reports of Russian war crimes in Syria.
The former executive’s industry ties to Moscow have been fodder for much criticism on Capitol Hill, amid allegations surrounding the Russian government and the election year hack of the Democratic National Committee.
US intelligence agencies have said that the exfiltration of DNC emails was ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin to benefit Trump. They have not yet produced forensic evidence to back up this claim. Last week, however, the Director of National Intelligence released an unclassified version of a mutli-agency report that outlined some of the reasoning behind the allegations.