“I am the new Qarmat”, the former Emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad Ben Khalifa Al-Thani, is reported to have once said, in an apparent reference to the founder of a rebellious Islamic movement reputed to have championed social justice in the 9th century Iraq, but has over time evolved into a sub-sect of Shia Islam.
The report appears in a new book about Qatar by French journalists Nicolas Beau and Jacques-Marie Bourget (Le Villain Petit Qatar, cet ami qui nous veut du mal. Fayard 2013 – “Our Friend Qatar, the little villain who doesn’t wish us well”).
The authors seek to uncover the duplicitous nature of the Al-Thanis’ foreign policy : ostensibly embracing modernity and democracy, while at the same time bankrolling and promoting Islamism ( an atavistic and violent political ideology) in all forms, also in the name of democracy.
This does not come as a surprise for many in the Middle East, but may very well be news for French or, for that matter, Western readers at large.
Whether he actually uttered those words or not, matters less. It has been obvious for those who witnessed Sheikh Hamad’s rise to power and his controversial adventures in foreign policy that he wanted to stand up and be counted, to leave a legacy of some kind.
Whether he will be remembered as confused or mischievous trouble-maker, maverick worshipper of the limelight, or a trail blazer, we leave that to future historians.
Next to gas, political Islam or Islamism is Qatar’s second most important export. Bankrolling all kinds of Islamist movements is the emir’s favourite hobby and the country’s more or less official foreign policy. While he indulges Islamist opposition in other countries, no form of opposition is allowed at home. He rules like an absolute monarch.
For those who watch the Arabic Al-Jazeera, no other evidence or persuasion is needed of the official Qatari orientation . The English version of the network is however a different creature and is part of Qatar’s strategy to speak one language to Western audience and another to the Arabs.
But apart from the emir’s delusions of historic grandeur, it is not entirely clear what he hopes to achieve by jumping on the bandwagon of political islam : to wield a big stick, to punch above his weight, to settle scores with regional powers, to spite his rivals. Or simply to be noticed !
Or may be the motives are a lot more mundane. According to former chief of French intelligence services, Jean-Calude Cousseran, quoted in the book, “the role the emir has taken upon himself in international affairs is the best way to escape from boredom in a world where he has exhausted all means of having fun.” A dangerous diversion though.
The Al-Thanis , write the French journalists, “have transformed Doha to refuelling station for the majority of extremists in the world. The only condition for admission is to be Islamist. Besides an office for the Talibans, you will find the Algerian Islamist Salvation Front, several branches of suicidal -martyr Chechenians , Syrian fundamentalists, the list of religious symbols is limitless. Just create ‘an islamic front’ and Doha would will give you an office, a lodging and a cover. ”
This has been happening not only in Qatar, but practically any where there are Muslims, from Damascus to Dakar. And France – home to the largest Muslim community in western Europe – is one such place. The authors detail Qatari efforts to use their petrodollars to infiltrate Muslim communities and convert young French Muslims to the cause of Islamism and to support Muslim Brotherhood outfits in Europe.
Once gain, this should come as no surprise to Qatar watchers. The Al-Thanis have played a key role in selling the Muslim Brothers to the West as “ the moderate Islamists” that can defeat or at least contain “al-Qaeda” – a fiction that has apparently worked for some, but is beginning to unravel after the Egyptian uprising against the Muslim Brothers exposed the fallacy of their “moderation” or their commitment to democracy.
Shining a light on Qatar matters because since 9/11 attention has been focused mainly on Saudi Arabia or Egypt as the two countries most likely to give birth to, nurture and export militant jihad.
Little attention has been paid to the role played by the tiny Gulf state of Qatar in this global drama. The Qataris have escaped the scrutiny they deserve because they cunningly pursued a double-edged policy of courting the Islamists and the West at the same time. This schizophrenic policy has been the subject of much speculation and bemused reflection on where it might ultimately lead. Naturally, the policy has gained Qatar many friends and enemies . The future of the country and Al-Thanis themselves may depend on how this bizarre contradiction continues to play out and how it may one day be resolved.
The global reach of the Qataris is such that if you scratch the surface of many things called “Islamic” in Western cities and towns nowadays and you are most likely to find a money trail leading back to Doha. The declared aim is purely religious, ostensibly cultural or charity, but in times of crisis such outfits are called upon to shoulder the mantle of “holy war” , or to stand up to “attacks on Islam ”, real or imagined. Given the right kind of psychology, these organisations could also be the incubators of walking time-bombs.
Islamism sets Muslims apart from the rest of the world. That separateness can easily degenerate into conflict and explode into violence. Instead of encouraging integration and contributing to the Western societies they live in, the ideology encourages Muslims to remain separate, different, and look down upon their “decadent” and “immoral” host community. It nourishes and maintains the Muslim ghetto mentality, and sows the seeds of eternal conflict. And Qatari money plays no small part in financing the standard bearers of this ideology.
Mali is a good example of Qatari duplicity. The authors provide evidence that Qatari money and military hardware was being flown to Al-Qaeda in Africa while the French army was fighting them on the ground.
At the height of the war on Al-Qaeda in Mali, both the Muslim Brothers of Egypt and the Qataris were singing from the same hymn sheet. The ousted Muslim Brothers president of Egypt, Moahmed Mursi, publicly criticised the French intervention, so did Al-Jazeera’s Qaradawi and the Qatari FM, alebit hiding behind the usual diplomatic language such as “I don’t think force will solve the problem.”
It has been hoped that the new emir of Qatar who took over after his father stepped down earlier this year might signal a change of tack. So far, no sign of that. The Al-Thanis’ embrace of Islamism appears to be long term. The question is whether this is a polygamy of convenience or a life-long commitment ? Given that the Al-Thanis are in bed with the Americans and Al-Qaeda at the same time, something will have to give one day. And given the Islamists history of turning their guns on their erstwhile allies once they have fallen out, I would be extremely worried if I were a member of the Al-Thani clan.
(this piece was written for the Islamist Gate http://www.islamistgate.com/list/2/opinion)