(Updated) The Cabinet of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) approved a “terrorist” list of 83 groups on Nov. 15, 2014 that ranges from armed terrorist groups like ISIS and Boko Haram to American and European Muslim humanitarian and rights groups, including the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Muslim American Society (MAS). No reasons were given but it appears the nonprofit listings were based on alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, part of the political opposition in the UAE. Although the list has no legal effect outside the UAE, the accusation alone can cause reputational harm to the nonprofits.  CAIR and several of the other listed nonprofits issued statements calling on the UAE to explain or withdraw the listing.  On Nov. 17 the State Department said it is contacting the UAE for an explanation and the next day said the U.S. does not consider the two groups to be terrorist organizations. The State Department’s 2013 Human Rights Report cited problems with the UAE’s human rights record, including tight controls on freedom of association, assembly and expression.  This incident appears to be another example of use governments using anti-terrorist financing laws as an excuse to clamp down on political opposition and human rights defenders. Freedom House has rated the country as Not Free. Read more for details on the nonprofits’ response, comments from analysts and the UAE’s human rights record.

Listed Nonprofits Respond

Both American groups put on the list immediately issued statements denying links to terrorism and calling on the U.S. government to help address the issue. The Muslim American Society (MAS), based in Virginia, said “We are religious community service organization that serves people in the United States. We have no dealings with the United Arab Emirates, and hence are perplexed by this news.”

CAIR, with headquarters in Washington, DC, has 28 chapters in the U.S. It focuses on protecting civil rights, increasing understanding of Islam and fostering dialog. In the post 9/11 era it has worked to address hate crimes and discrimination against American Muslims, held know your rights workshops and advocated against Islamophobia.

CAIR’s statement on the UAE listing said, “There is absolutely no factual basis for the inclusion CAIR and other American and European civil rights and advocacy groups on this list. 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. We call on the United Arab Emirates cabinet to review this list and remove organizations such as CAIR, the Muslim American Society 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.”

In 2007 CAIR was one of 246 individuals and entities as un-indicted co-conspirators listed in the prosecution of the Holy Land Foundation. In a break with DOJ policies, the list was not sealed and the names, which included most major U.S. Muslim organizations, were made public. Both the trial court in Dallas and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the release violated due process rights under the Fifth Amendment. Government attorneys told both 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. The Federal Rules of Evidence specifically state that such statements “are not alone sufficient to establish…..the existence of a conspiracy and the participation therein” of either the person the statement is attributed to or the defendants.  That has not stopped the accusation from causing problems for CAIR.  As the Washington Post Fact Checker noted in 2011, “The repeated references to CAIR being an ‘unindicted co-conspirator’ is one of those true facts that ultimately gives a false impression.”

European nonprofits put on the list also responded. In Norway a Foreign Ministry official, Bard Glad Pedersen, said the Norwegian embassy in Abu Dhabi, the UAE capitol, has asked UAE officials for an explanation of why its largest Muslim organization, the Islamic Association, was listed.  He said the foreign ministry finds the listing “hard to understand.”  The Muslim Association of Sweden told Al Jazeera it is “frightening that a small regime known for human rights abuses defines European civil society organizations as terror groups.”

Islamic Relief Worldwide, a highly respected humanitarian organization based in the UK and with consultative status at the UN, expressed surprise and said “We assume that our inclusion on the UAE list can only be attributable to a mistake. We do not have a presence or any programmes in the UAE. Islamic Relief Worldwide will be seeking clarification from the UAE Embassy on this matter, with a view to having this wrongful listing removed.”

What Analysts Say

The UAE is a major military ally of the U.S. in the Middle East and is participating in the air strikes against ISIS in Syria.  The Washington Post recently featured the close military ties between the two countries, calling the UAE a “potent ally.” A Nov. 18 article by the Washington Post’s Adam Taylor noted that the UAE list appears to be driven by the UAE’s opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood, which was also listed.  “The type of political Islam advocated by the group is at odds with the federation of hereditary absolute monarchies that rule the emirates, he said. The UAE has joined Egypt and Saudi Arabia in criticizing Qatar for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, bringing regional politics into the situation.

Jim Walsh, a Research Associate at MIT’s Security Studies Program, told Al-Jazeera the UAE list is “very odd.”  He said, “You have people from across the spectrum, some completely devoted to violence and some who don’t seem to be involved in violence at all.”  He noted that the UAE has been slow to list al Qaeda and ISIL but now “switched and gone over to the other side, listing all kinds of groups…”

As Law professor Khaled Beydoun of Barry University asks in a blog, since “geopolitical concerns are behind the UAE designating CAIR as a terrorist organization, what impact will the classification have on the advocacy group, its civil rights mission, and collaterally, Muslim-Americans at large? The ramifications are not only acute, but also extensive.”  He goes on to say that listing CAIR “among the likes of ISIL, al-Qaeda and Boko Haram, the move will embolden Islamophobic elements to pronounce their hateful rhetoric, and expedite draconian policies against Muslim-Americans.”

The UAE’s Restrictions on Nonprofits and Poor Human Rights Record

The State Department’s 2013 Human Rights Report notes that UAE law “prohibits criticism of rulers and speech that may create or encourage social unrest.” The report also notes that political groups and unions are illegal and all nonprofits are required to register with the government and “must follow the government’s censorship guidelines and receive prior government approval before publishing any material.” In August it passed a new law anti-terrorism law that increased penalties and sentences.

The UAE has provided billions of dollars to the military government in Egypt, which has one of the world’s most restrictive laws on civil society. In the past several years the UAE has jailed dozens of people belonging to an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood for sedition, although the group, al-Islah, says it is a pro-democracy organization.