September 20, 2017

Qatar Crisis Stirs Islamic Debates

The grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Abdullah Al Sheikh, prays at the Imam Turki bin Abdullah mosque during Eid al-Fitr morning prayers in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Sept. 9, 2010. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

One of the key aspects of the ongoing Gulf crisis, which pits a quartet of countries composed of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt against Qatar, is the attempt to denounce Qatar and its leadership over its support of Islamist activist and jihadist networks. This has involved not only an international campaign to isolate Qatar, but also an internal one to discredit the Qatari leadership among Arab and Islamic audiences. Last week in Saudi Arabia the campaign intensified with the announcement of the discovery of an “intelligence cell” linked to a foreign country. This announcement has coincided with the arrest of dozens of influential leaders, mostly from “Sahwa” Muslim Brotherhood-inspired networks and popular televangelists, but also including intellectuals and youth activists.

While it is still early to understand the full scope and implication of these actions, it does appear to include a highly significant clampdown on what has been a diverse and influential sphere of Islamist and other political actors, guided not only by the heterodox Salafi-Muslim Brotherhood Sahwa, which shaped a generation of Saudis, but also by the desire for political reform, which animated Gulf youth engagement with the Arab Spring. The link with a foreign country, presumably Qatar, will likely serve to discredit this range of sociopolitical actors who are prominent, often with a substantial media presence, and have demonstrated, at some point, a willingness to critique the government. In short, their influence could be perceived as a threat to – or at least a check on –  the new more nationalist Saudi Arabia emerging under the centralized authority of the young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

A review of the reactions of Islamic associations and personalities weighing into the debate throughout the Qatar crisis, as well as those abstaining, reveals this current state of flux within the Islamic politics of the Gulf.

The Players

The current campaign against Qatar has been noteworthy in its public dimensions. The efforts of Gulf governments to mobilize society behind their positions run counter to the traditional reticence to have the public engage in foreign policy. The quartet’s prohibition on expressing sympathy for Qatar under penalty of imprisonment precluded public debate within those countries and effectively neutralized Islamic networks that may have been inclined to rally to Qatar’s defense. In making the case against Qatar, then, the quartet has enlisted and enjoyed the support of religious personalities, officials, and associations. Social media has served as a central vehicle for state messaging and engagement with their societies.

The UAE, credited as the early proponent and prime animator of opposition to political Islam, has gained heft in the campaign thanks to the support of the key clerical bodies in Saudi Arabia and Egypt: the Council of Senior Scholars and Al-Azhar, respectively. This is in keeping with the UAE’s conviction that the reassertion of these traditional and state-influenced bodies is imperative to counter Islamist networks such as the Moslem Brotherhood, which it perceives as a threat to its socially liberalizing policies at home and strategic positioning in the region. Both have publicly supported the quartet’s position and have deployed tactics to undermine Qatar’s Islamic legitimacy. They have been joined in the campaign by the Abu Dhabi-based Muslim Council of Elders, a transnational clerical initiative that includes prominent centrist Islamic scholars as well as Al-Azhar officials.

The embargo against Qatar has been critiqued by the Doha-based International Union for Muslim Scholars, the Yusuf al-Qaradawi-led international network, along with former Muslim Brotherhood activists, including exiles residing in the country. The predisposition of different Islamist tendencies may be read, with some reservations, from Kuwait, where public debate about the crisis is still tolerated. There, Qatar has found public support from the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi activist groups, while more quietist movements have demonstrated little appetite for the embargo, instead urging Gulf mediation and unity. It can also be divined in Saudi Arabia from the positive reaction of two prominent – and recently detained – Saudi sheikhs to the extremely short-lived attempt at resumption of mediation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The sheikhs’ public support for reconciliation may have contributed to their arrests.

The Message

The message of the quartet’s campaign against Qatar, as well as the counter-campaign by Qatar’s supporters, has been carried by and among religious audiences through public statements, private Twitter feeds, and media commentary. Particular flashpoints, notably the hajj, have been used to question the Islamic – and political – legitimacy of rivals.

The initial June 5 announcements from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, severing ties with Qatar and imposing an embargo, focused on the accusation of Qatar funding terrorism and extremist groups, including some associated with Iran. The statements went on to accuse Qatar of threatening the security of Gulf states, both by harboring these groups and intervening in the internal affairs of the embargoing states. That same week, the quartet amplified the association of Qatar to terrorism by releasing a list of 59 individuals and 12 entities living in or associated with Qatar, a claim supported, in part, by U.N.- and U.S.-sanctioned terror listings.

The actions of the quartet were supported by the Muslim Council of Elders, which condemned in tweets Qatar’s alleged backing and funding of terrorist organizations, media incitement, and threatening the security of the region. Al-Azhar praised the stance of the Saudi-led coalition cutting ties with Qatar, calling it “necessary for the protection of the Arab nation.”

In an interview, the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Abdullah Al Sheikh, declared the quartet’s actions to be “in the interest of Muslims and beneficial for the future of Qataris.” He went on to accuse the former emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, and members of the Muslim Brotherhood of distorting the image and “Salafi centrism” of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Based on this accusation, prominent descendants of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab later issued a statement demanding Qatar remove his name from Doha’s mosque, in a direct slap at the religious credentials of the Qatari rulers.

Qatar rejected the actions of the quartet in a formal statement, calling the measures unjustified and based on unfounded allegations: “The purpose is clear: The imposition of guardianship over the state.” Qatar also received support from the Doha-based International Union for Muslim Scholars, headed by the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated cleric Qaradawi, which declared the boycott of Qatar “haram” due to the importance of unity and reconciliation, especially among countries related by lineage and blood. The Qatari media worked to undercut the accusations and demands made by Saudi religious officials. In a particularly provocative headline, Qatar’s al-Rai newspaper referred to the Saudi Council of Senior Scholars as “the Council of Senior Hypocrites.” Still, the difficulty of challenging the Saudi religious establishment was underlined by the removal of the article due to the media storm it elicited on social and traditional media throughout the Gulf.

Owing to the stiff penalties in the quartet countries for expressing sympathy for Qatar, many prominent clerics who have been critical of Saudi state policies in the past have remained silent over the Qatar crisis. This was noted by the Qatari media, which described the scholars as acting as if the crisis “doesn’t mean anything to them.” The move to sever the transnational ties of Islamist movements was further illustrated by Bahrain’s Muslim Brotherhood charitable and political arms, which have been important supporters of the ruling Al Khalifa. On the eve of the embargo, they issued a formal statement declaring their Islamic program to be “centrist” and “national,” and stating that they have “no relations whatsoever to any foreign religious authority.” They also voiced their support for Saudi efforts to “unify the views of Islamic countries [as expressed] in the recent summit.”

The neutralization of Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist activist networks within the Gulf countries left Kuwait as a key arena for public debate over the Qatar crisis. The political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic Constitutional Movement, issued a formal statement supporting Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah in his efforts to settle differences among the Gulf states, and stressing the importance of Gulf unity and stability, especially in the face of security and economic challenges. Members of more activist Salafi groups echoed this position, warning that cutting off ties with Qatar would only lead to more victims. Meanwhile, more quietist Salafis, who usually defer to state authority on political matters and often support the Saudi religious establishment, also warned of the dangers of disunity in the current regional climate, and called for de-escalation.

The Hajj Dispute

The annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca served as another flashpoint in challenging the Islamic leadership of Saudi Arabia and credibility of Qatar. The embargo on Qatar presented obstacles for Qatari pilgrims due to the absence of direct flights from the country and the alleged difficulty for Qataris to obtain hajj permits.

Qatar accused Saudi Arabia of politicizing this religious obligation and escalated its complaints to the international level. Qatar’s National Human Rights Commission sent a formal complaint to the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of belief and religion claiming the restrictions are in violation of international law that guarantees the right to worship. Saudi Arabia reacted furiously to this challenge of its custodianship of Islam’s holiest sites in Mecca and Medina, with the Saudi foreign minister denouncing Qatar’s threat to internationalize the pilgrimage as an “act of war,” with Saudi media noting its similarity to earlier ploys by Iran.

The Saudi efforts to resolve the problem of Qatari pilgrims turned the tables on the emirate when a descendent of Qatar’s founder and brother of Qatar’s former ruler presented himself as an intermediary to negotiate a resolution to allow the pilgrims to enter Saudi Arabia as honored guests of the government. The appearance of Abdullah bin Ali al-Thani threw into question Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani’s stewardship of his own pilgrims and, implicitly, the legitimacy of his rule. Since that time, Abdullah bin Ali has issued a statement calling on his royal brethren in the Al Thani and Qatari elite to gather to discuss a resolution to the crisis.

The Reassertion – and Reframing – of State Authority

The course of the Qatar crisis has thrown into relief the shifting players and parameters of Islamic authority and activism in the Gulf states. In clear evidence is the reassertion of state authority over nonstate Islamic actors and movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, through the reliance on state religious establishments, traditional centers of Islamic authority, and state support for new religious associations. The mobilization of a more nationalist narrative has been used to discredit alleged Qatari interventionism and to mobilize societal support for the quartet campaign via social and traditional media.

The ability of transnational Islamic networks such as the Muslim Brotherhood to mobilize support has been hindered, silenced on threat of imprisonment, and cast under suspicion of working against the state. As the influence of Islamic networks on state policy is curtailed, the endurance of these networks and activists will be sorely tested, particularly if Saudi Arabia deepens its clampdown on their activities and even liberty, presumably claiming links to Qatar as justification. There are already some early signs of the emergence of more revolutionary voices from exile, such as the newly formed Union of Opposition Forces in the Arabian Peninsula. The outcome of these contests will impact the future path not only of Qatar, but of Islamic authority in the Saudi kingdom and beyond.

Kristin Smith Diwan is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.