Monday,27 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1350, (22 June - 5 July 2017)
Monday,27 May, 2019
Issue 1350, (22 June - 5 July 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Qatar and the Brotherhood in Europe

The Gulf state of Qatar has acted as a launch pad to Europe for Muslim Brotherhood ideologues in recent decades, always with the aim of serving Qatari foreign policy objectives, writes Tarek Dahroug

Al-Qaradawi, Moza and Ramadan

The Qatari regime, which subscribes to the Wahhabi theological and political creed, first turned to Muslim Brotherhood figures as a way of freeing itself from the decades-long religious and cultural hegemony of Saudi Arabia, bringing in Brotherhood teachers and religious scholars to serve as teachers and imams in mosques and the Qatari Ministry of Education.

The ruling family in Qatar hoped to achieve various ends in this process. One was to substitute the Saudi model with that of the Muslim Brotherhood, which it was hoped would be more controllable and whose influence inside Qatar would be easier to contain over the shorter and longer terms. The second was to utilise the Muslim Brotherhood to serve Qatari foreign policy objectives.

Qatar thus lent itself as a launch pad to Europe for Brotherhood members from other Arab countries, a process that proceeded in tandem with the development of the larger Muslim Brotherhood project after Brotherhood ideologue Said Ramadan founded the Islamic Cultural Centre in Geneva in 1961. Qatar footed the bill for Ramadan’s accommodation. Another Qatari motive for throwing in its lot with Brotherhood ideology was the popularity of this relative to Salafist trends in the Arab region at the time.

Vehemently opposed to the Nasserist Arab nationalist project of the 1950s and 1960s, Qatar flung its doors wide open to Muslim Brotherhood figures who arrived in Doha in successive waves. Among the best known were Ahmed Al-Assal, who taught and served as an imam in Qatari mosques, and Abdel-Muezz Abdel-Sattar, who had served as a personal assistant to Brotherhood founder Hassan Al-Banna in Palestine in 1946 and who later became the director of the department of Islamic Studies in the Qatari Ministry of Education.

However, the most powerful of all Brotherhood figures recruited by the Qatari regime was Youssef Al-Qaradawi who immigrated to Qatar in 1969, founded the Faculty of Islamic Law at Qatar University in the 1970s, and then went on to become the lynchpin for the Qatari ruling family’s designs to disseminate the Brotherhood project throughout the Middle East and North Africa and in Europe, especially from the early 1990s.

11 September 2001 attacks in the US

While Qatar was serving as its platform for the regional and international spread of its ideas, the Muslim Brotherhood presence in Qatar underwent a number of institutional developments. In 1974, the Qatari chapter of the Brotherhood was founded against the backdrop of two major factors: the mounting Islamist tide in the Arab world as a whole in the period and the return of Qatari students from religious institutions in a number of Arab countries where they had been exposed to Brotherhood influence.

In promoting the establishment of the Brotherhood chapter in Qatar, the Qatari authorities sought to create a façade for collaboration with other Brotherhood organisations and movements in the Arab world and Europe. It was also a way of controlling the Brotherhood domestically. The Qatari authorities prohibited Brotherhood members from engaging in any influential social or religious activities inside Qatar. Its activities were restricted to a handful of schools for memorising the Quran and the production of the Qatari Umma magazine that ceased publication in the 1980s.

The Qatari recruitment of Muslim Brotherhood leaders and pundits from the Arab world continued through subsequent decades. Among the most notable figures to arrive were Ali Al-Salabi, leader of the Libyan chapter of the Brotherhood, Mohamed Qotb, brother of ideologue Sayed Qotb, and Abbas Madani, the leader of the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front. In addition, Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist Ennahda Movement in Tunisia, began to travel back and forth to Qatar in the 1990s when Qatar began to finance his movement and its extensions in Europe, most notably the Union of Islamic Organisations in France which served as the French chapter of the Brotherhood and the charter of which was drawn up by Ghannouchi.

Qatar derived further incentive for its pro-Brotherhood drive from the Saudi aversion to the organisation after it came out in support of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein during the crisis that erupted following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. This created a vacuum that Qatar hastened to fill during the 1990s in the framework of its rivalry with Saudi Arabia, on the one hand, and its opposition to the Arab regimes and especially Egypt, on the other.

The first wave of the Qatari drive to empower the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe occurred in this context.

Brotherhood in Europe

THE FIRST WAVE: The publication of Qaradawi’s “The Priorities of the Islamist Movement in the Coming Period” in 1990 inaugurated the first wave of the Qatari drive to empower the Brotherhood in Europe, which lasted until the 11 September 2001 events.

The book served as a constitution for Qatar’s ideological outlook in supporting Brotherhood institutions in the West in general from the outset of 1990s to the present day. Al-Qaradawi called for the renunciation of violence and the use of proselytising and dialogue in his book in order to promote what he termed “centralism between extremism and secularism”.

He also proposed the principle of what he called the “jurisprudence of Muslim minorities” in view of the rising numbers of Muslims in the West and the risks of their complete assimilation into Western societies which in turn would have necessitated the creation of a separate community for Muslims in the West termed the “Muslim ghetto in the West”.

Qatar staged its entry into the development of Islam in Europe in the 1990s against the backdrop of various developments. The first was Qatari emir Hamad bin Khalifa’s coup against his father in 1995, after which Doha adopted a more aggressive approach to the Brotherhood empowerment project. The second was the mounting tension between European societies and the second generation of Muslim immigrants living in them, especially following the crises surrounding the wearing of the Muslim headscarf or veil in France by some Muslim women and the publication of Anglo-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses in the UK in 1989.

The terrorist attacks in France during the 1990s and the 11 September 2001 attacks in the US drove the identity clash between the second generation of Muslim immigrants and Europe to higher peaks of intensity.

In the meantime, Qatar founded the Al-Jazeera TV channel in 1996, and Al-Qaradawi continued to mobilise support for the project of spreading Muslim Brotherhood ideas among Arabic-speaking Muslim communities by means of his “Islamic Law and Life” programme that become one of the most effective instruments for Qatari policy in Europe.

Another phenomenon that proved advantageous to Qatar was the emergence of a number of contradictions within European Muslim communities. By the late 1990s, two major fundamentalist projects were vying with each other in the Islamist sphere in Europe. One was fundamentalist Salafism that thoroughly rejected Muslim assimilation into European identity and all forms of political participation. The other, actively supported by Qatar, was the Brotherhood ideology that advocated social and political assimilation and was instrumental in enabling Brotherhood leaders in Europe to deepen their relations with the European authorities by assuming the role of official spokesmen for European Muslims.

During the 1990s, Qatar also launched a number of umbrella religious organisations in Europe in order to give greater scope for the Brotherhood in Europe. It furnished Al-Qaradawi with the financial and political support he needed to establish and head the European Council for Research and Fatwas (Islamic legal rulings), for example, founded in Dublin in 1996, which became a major instrument for the expansion of the Brotherhood in Europe.

With members drawn from imams and ulema (religious scholars) affiliated with the Brotherhood in various parts of the Islamic world, the council was designed to win the legitimacy that would enable the Brotherhood and allied movements to monopolise the Islamic space in Europe for issuing religious decrees and in order to consolidate the Brotherhood’s leadership role among Muslim communities in Europe.

Ahmed al-Rawi

THE SECOND WAVE: Qatar used the 11 September 2001 attacks in the US as the starting point for the second wave of its project to empower the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe.

One of the repercussions of those events was a gap in the Brotherhood’s funding mechanisms because of the freezing of the assets of the Al-Taqwa Bank founded in the Bahamas in 1988 by members of the International Muslim Brotherhood such as Youssef Nada, Ghaleb Hamat and Said Ramadan in order to finance Brotherhood activities around the world (Al-Qaradawi is a major shareholder alongside a number of members of the Qatari ruling family).

The US Department of the Treasury accused the bank and its founders of funding Al-Qaeda to carry out the 11 September attacks. The asset freeze, which lasted until 2010, curtailed the activities of a large number of Brotherhood-affiliated individuals, companies and economic establishments that dealt with the Al-Taqwa Bank in Africa, the Gulf, the US and Europe. Qatar, in keeping with its role as the promoter of Brotherhood empowerment in Europe, stepped in to fill the void and act as a funder of Brotherhood organisations in Europe and abroad.

Such developments served the interests of the emir, Hamad bin Khalifa, who funded the dissemination of Brotherhood ideology in Europe in order to develop a multinational Islamic opposition front against the Arab regimes in the pre-Arab Spring period. The project targeted North African communities in France and their extensions in Belgium and, to a lesser extent, in Italy and Spain, in addition to the UK in its capacity as the centre of the Brotherhood opposition to the Arab regimes and to the Egyptian regime in particular.  

Qatar played a dual role in the Islamic equation in Europe. The first was to promote closer relations with Brotherhood members from North Africa and Egypt via the European gateway so as to position Doha as a mediator between the European capitals and Muslim communities in Europe as it stepped in to play the role of pacifier in the bouts of tension that arose against the backdrop of domestic and regional crises (the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Madrid and London bombings of 2004, the 2005 crisis surrounding the Danish cartoons that insulted the Prophet Mohamed, and so on).

The second entailed using the Brotherhood opposition in Europe as a way of advancing Qatari interests in its rivalry with the regimes in North Africa and Egypt. One of Doha’s chief strategies in this process was to promote the creation of a Brotherhood Crescent in the western Mediterranean using the Brotherhood movements in Tunisia and Morocco in conjunction with a north-south corridor passing through southern Europe (France, Italy and Spain) to the North African communities in Western Europe.

At the same time, Qatar pursued a number of other courses in order to empower the Brotherhood. It increased its financial and political backing of Muslim Brotherhood organisations in Europe via Ghannouchi and the Union of Islamic Organisations in France. This organisation of the Brotherhood in France, with its large North African minority, politically and ideologically dominates the more than 500 Brotherhood-affiliated organisations under its umbrella and serves as the Brotherhood arm for expansion in Europe.

At the same time, Qatar established a number of looser entities in order to give broader scope for the Brotherhood’s manoeuvres in Europe. It funded various initiatives and unofficial federations, perhaps the most salient being the global campaign set up in opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. With its headquarters in Qatar, this campaign was the product of an initiative by Al-Qaradawi with the support of Abdel-Rahman Al-Naimi, a Qatari national who served as secretary-general of the campaign and whom the US Department of the Treasury has accused of funding jihadist organisations in Syria, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and the Shabab Mujahideen Movement in Somalia.

The organisational structure of the campaign, which focuses its efforts on Europe and the West in order to counter Western aggression against the Muslim peoples, is comprised of various Brotherhood movements including the Saudi-based Sahwa (Awakening) Movement and the Kuwaiti Islah (Reform) Movement, and it counts among its members Anas Al-Tikriti, Brotherhood spokesman in the UK, Abdel-Maged al-Zindani, Brotherhood leader in Yemen, Ghannouchi and a number of Brotherhood members from Palestine, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt living in Europe, the US and Canada.

In 2013, in the context of the Qatari drive to optimise its gains in Europe, the campaign allied itself with other Brotherhood entities that receive direct support from Doha. The most important is the International Union of Muslim Scholars founded by Al-Qaradawi in London in 2004 that serves as a framework for prominent members of the International Muslim Brotherhood from the Arab world, Europe and Asia (it also includes a number of Shia scholars).

Other non-government entities are the Qurtubah Institute, a Brotherhood-affiliated research centre based in London, and the Consultative Centre for Research and Rights. Both are headed by Anas Al-Tikriti. In addition, there is the Al-Karama Foundation founded by the Qatari Abdel-Rahman Al-Naimi (the secretary-general of the campaign) in Geneva in 2004 and funded by Qatari businessman Khalifa Al-Raban.
The foundation engages teams of lawyers to combat alleged forced disappearances and acts of torture practised by the Arab regimes.

Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa

QATARI FUNDING MECHANISMS: The Qatari funding map for the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe is shaped by two tangential courses, one targeting countries with heavy concentrations of North African immigrants, most notably France (a major base for the International Brotherhood), Belgium and Luxembourg (geographic extensions of France), and Spain and Italy, and the second is primarily based in the UK and relies on funding activities at Oxford University and a number of cultural institutions and research centres affiliated with the Brotherhood. There has also been the funding of major mosques in Ireland and Denmark.

Qatari funding mechanisms vary between direct Qatari government channels and indirect channels, as epitomised by the Qatar Charity Foundation, founded in 1992 and serving as the main façade for Qatar’s funding of Brotherhood projects in Europe. In addition, there are private funders, whether from the ruling house, such as the former emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa and Sheikha Moza Al-Missned, mother of the current emir, or members of the Qatari business community close to the ruling family.

The Qatari government has devised new mechanisms for funding European Muslims outside the conventional Brotherhood frameworks in order to avoid the stereotype of Qatar as a funder of Islamist movements. It has set up a 100 million euro fund in collaboration with the French government in order to finance entrepreneurship projects by Muslims in marginalised districts of France. It is worth noting in this regard that the Brotherhood and the Salafist movements have a heavy presence in such marginalised districts in France that have large concentrations of second and third-generation North African immigrants.

In addition to such unconventional means, the Union of Islamic Organisations in France and its subsidiary entities have continued to receive conventional funding over the past decade from diverse sources, whether the Qatari government, the Charity Foundation or private Qatari citizens. The union has received an estimated 11 million euros from the Qatari government, two million euros from the Charity Foundation, and another five million from Qatari businessmen.

The Qatari government allocated about a million euros to the European Institute of Human Sciences in 2007 and 2008. An organisation that belongs to the Union of Islamic Organisations, its academic board is headed by Al-Qaradawi and its function is to train preachers and imams in Europe.

In 2016, the Qatari Charity Foundation in collaboration with Qatari businessmen contributed five million euros to the construction of the Annour Islamic Academy in Mulhouse, a city in Alsace near the French border with Germany and Switzerland, which would serve the approximately 150,000-strong Muslim community in the border area. Prior to this in 2009, the Charity Foundation also funded the Association of Alsace Muslims to the tune of seven million euros to build an Islamic religious and cultural centre on a 4,600 m2 plot of land.

In 2012, a Qatari businessman donated a large sum of money to the Islamic Society of Western France (Société Islamique Ouest France) for the construction of the Al-Salam Mosque in Nantes, where this society, part of the French Muslim Brotherhood, is based. Also in 2012, the Qatari Charity Foundation made its foray into the educational system in France, paying 1.5 million euros to buy a new building to house the Al-Razi School in Lille. The first dedicated Islamic school in France, this was founded on the basis of an initiative by prominent members of the Union of Islamic Organisations in France.

In 2014, the Qatari Charity Foundation paid 1.1 million euros to the League of Belgian Muslims, the Belgian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is controlled by members of the Tunisian Ennahda Movement close to Ghannouchi. An array of other Brotherhood-oriented societies in Belgian cities such as Brussels, Liege, Ghent and Anvers are in the orbit of this league. The foundation funded the first Islamic centre in Luxembourg in 2015.

In the framework of the Qatari drive to promote the Brotherhood in southern Europe, the Qatari government funded the project of the Union of Islamic Organisations in Italy to construct a religious centre in Sicily to serve as a centre of spiritual authority for Italy’s approximately 1.5 million Muslims, must of whom are of Tunisian or Moroccan origin. It should be noted that 60 per cent of the mosques in Italy are controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood.

In Spain, the Qatari government donated 300,000 euros to the Islamic League for Dialogue and Coexistence, which cooperates closely with the Islamic Relief Organisation founded in London by Egyptian Brotherhood leader Essam Al-Haddad. The Ennahda Movement dominates the Spanish-based League through individuals close to Ghannouchi.

As observed above, a large share of Qatari funding is destined for Britain since this is a headquarters of the International Muslim Brotherhood. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa, the former Qatari ruler, donated around 11 million pounds sterling in the post-Arab Spring period for the renovation of St Anthony’s College in Oxford. The donation was made on behalf of the Sheikh Hamad Chair for Islamic Studies at the college, which is held by Brotherhood member Tarek Ramadan, grandson of Hassan Al-Banna and Qatar’s lynchpin for the Brotherhood project in Europe in the post-Arab Spring period.

Meanwhile, the Qatari Charity Foundation has funded a number of economic organisations in the UK, such as the Eman Trust, a fund dedicated to funding Yemeni Brotherhood members residing in Britain and to supporting centres that provide religious education to British converts to Islam. The director of the Trust is Ahmed Al-Rawi, a prominent British Brotherhood member who previously headed the Union of Islamic Organisations in Europe and the Association of British Muslims that represents the Brotherhood in the UK.

Essam Al-Haddad

Elsewhere in northern Europe, in 2014 the Qatari government donated 20 million euros to the Islamic Council of Denmark (the Danish branch of the Brotherhood and a member of the Brotherhood-dominated Union of Islamic Organisations in Europe) for the construction of the largest mosque in Copenhagen. Doha contributed another half a million euros to help fund the construction of the Blue Mosque in the Netherlands.

THE THIRD WAVE: Qatar adopted a new direction in its project to empower the Muslim Brotherhood project in Europe in the Arab Spring and post-Arab Spring period, one that departed from the reliance on Brotherhood organisations with their traditional ideologies.

The new tangential course relies on actors outside the Brotherhood organisational framework in Europe and the creation of platforms conducive to new objectives in order to improve Qatar’s image within the Islamic sphere in Europe.

Towards this end, Qatar has utilised recent developments affecting Islam and Muslim communities in Europe over the past decade that have given rise to a new group of individuals termed “religious centrists” (or “mediators”) who espouse a discourse more consistent with the circumstances of European Muslims after the rise of the second and third generation of immigrant communities than the older discourse of the first generation.

One of the most important of these religious centrists and one who enjoys considerable popularity among large segments of European Muslims is Tarek Ramadan, the author of a number of works about Muslims in Europe who rose to prominence at the beginning of the millennium. Qatar sees him as perfect for its purposes in the post-Arab Spring period because of his legitimacy as a grandson of Brotherhood founder Hassan Al-Banna and son of Said Ramadan (Al-Banna’s son-in-law) and a prominent figure in the International Brotherhood in Europe.

It is little wonder, then, that after Qatar funded the creation of the Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Chair for Islamic Studies at St Anthony’s College at Oxford University in 2011, Tarek Ramadan was appointed to the chair. He was simultaneously appointed director of the Centre of Islamic Legislation and Ethics in Doha, a post he assumed in 2012. He is thus perfectly situated to serve as an instrument for promoting the Qatari project in its new post-Arab Spring guise because of his capacities as a spokesman for Europe’s large populations of immigrants from Arab countries and for French-speaking Muslim communities from North Africa in particular who are primarily concentrated in France.

Although Tarek Ramadan has denied any organisational affiliation with the Brotherhood, the neo-Brotherhood project he espouses with Qatari political and financial support seeks to distance the Brotherhood from the stereotypical image of “religious orthodoxy” among middle-class Muslims by means of a modernist recasting of the literature of Hassan Al-Banna and other Muslim Brotherhood ideologues.

In this regard, Ramadan advocates a two-pronged discourse. On the one hand, he emphasises the need for Muslims to abide by the values of democracy and freedom in Europe. On the other, he encourages the creation of a kind of Islamic ghetto system and the dissemination of ideas such as “Islamic citizenship” and “social jihad” in the framework of European society, ideas that fall within the scope of his focus on the cardinal principles of the Brotherhood, including one which entails the prioritisation of the affiliation to the Islamic community over affiliation to the state.

Such notions are inherently contradictory to the realities of European societies, which apply the principle of the separation of religion and state, confining faith to the personal realm and keeping religion out of the European public sphere.

Born in Geneva in 1962, Tarek Ramadan is an instrument for controlling immigrant Muslim communities as he has cast himself as a model for European Muslims with the power to address immigrant Muslim communities in a pragmatic way since he rose to prominence at the turn of the millennium. Former British prime minister Tony Blair personally selected him as a member of the British working group in the wake of the London bombings in 2005. He also served as an advisor to former British prime minister David Cameron on combating radicalism in the UK. In 2004, he served on a committee created by the French National Assembly preparatory to debate on a bill banning religious symbols from the public domain in France.

In spite of his close relationship with Western governments, Ramadan was once banned from entering France for six months (from November 1995 to May 1996), and in 2012 he (as well as Al-Qaradawi) was prohibited by a decree from the French interior minister from speaking during the general convention of the Union of Islamic Organisations in France on the grounds that his ideas were “inimical to the spirit of the French Republic” and “did not serve the interests” of French Muslims. The French authorities rejected his application for French citizenship in 2015.

The US also banned him from entering the country from 2004 to 2010, when then secretary of state Hillary Clinton granted him an entry visa. That was shortly before the Arab Spring erupted. He has also been prohibited entry into a number of Arab countries, such as Egypt, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Morocco, Algeria, Libya and, most recently, Mauritania.

The writer holds a PhD in international affairs from the Sorbonne in Paris.

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