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by Hans Dembowski

Arab monarchies disagree on which Islamists are extremists

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt have cut ties with Qatar. They accuse the small Gulf monarchy of supporting extremism and terrorism. To understand the dispute, one needs to know that there are different kinds of Islamist movements.

I do not specialise in Arab countries, so I cannot explain everything that is happening in the region. I have been paying attention to some of the issues, and we have been publishing related contributions in D+C/E+Z. I know that an important faultline between Saudi Arabia and Qatar in recent years has been the different understanding of what kind of Islamism is legitimate.

Both countries are run by absolutist Sunni monarchies and their human-rights track record is depressing. Qatar, however, has been more open minded during and after the Arab spring. It has generally supported various kinds of Islamist forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and related movements in other Middle Eastern countries, for instance Ennahda in Tunisia or the AKP in Turkey. The Saudis, however, have basically focused on their own Wahhabi ideology and movements based on it.

Wahhabism is a very rigid interpretation of the holy scriptures. It has always served to legitimise the rule of the Royal House of Saud. Missionaries have been spreading this intolerant doctrine, which has inspired terrorist movements like the Taliban, Al Kaida and more recently ISIS. Wahhabism also inspire the Salafis who live Sunni Islam the way the Prophet and his followers did almost 1500 years ago.

The Muslim Brothers are quite different. They were originally an anti-colonial movement in Egypt, and it was copied in many countries of the region. The first Muslim Brothers were appalled by the cynicism of British rule. They believed that an ethical government must be guided by the faith. Their movement was suppressed in independent Egypt. The organisation was clandestine and quite hierarchical, but it rose to power as a consequence of the Arab spring.

Qatar welcomed this development, considering it an opportunity for political modernisation. Saudi Arabia, however, was terrified by the Muslim Brothers, especially because they had electoral legitimacy. The idea that the people have a right to chose their government is anathema to the Royal House of Saud. The Muslim Brothers, moreover, relied on their own interpretation of the Koran and did not pay much attention to Wahhabi doctrine.

When Egypt’s military toppled the Muslim Brothers, the generals enjoyed the support of the Saudis, the dominant leader among the Gulf states. Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based international broadcaster, however, kept giving a voice to the newly oppressed movement. Moreover, Qatar’s stance towards Iran and Shia Islam is not as hostile as Saudi Arabia’s.

The Saudis now blame Qatar of supporting extremism and terrorism. The Qataris deny they are doing that. The point is that both sides know that ISIS is a terrorist outfit, but to the Saudis, the Muslim Brothers and affiliated organisations are terrorists too. The Qatari government disagrees.  

Making matters more confusing, Egypts’ new military regime’s harsh repression of the Muslim Brothers has indeed driven some of them underground. Some have probably indeed joined terrorist outfits, as have young men from Tunisia who were disappointed in their nation’s revolution. While the Egyptian and Saudi governments claim that all Muslim Brothers are terrorists, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan openly expresses solidarity with them.

On the other hand, Sunni terrorism which is fundamentally an expression of Wahhabism has turned against Saudi Arabia. Its perpetrators have turned against the monarchy which they consider corrupt because of its ties to the USA. Allegiances are fleeting, and have been for a long time. 

I don’t think the current standoff between Qatar and the four other Arab countries will escalate into war, though I cannot be sure. The US military, which has a big naval base in Qatar, will probably indicate that it stands by its ally and the Saudis will then reduce the pressure. Most likely they felt that US President Donald Trump, visiting their country recently, had given them a free hand to fight terrorism as they understand it. I elaborated why I find his approach destructive in an earlier blog post. That his trip was not a full-blown success has become obvious faster than I expected.

It is also worth noting that, for all we know at this point, the terrorists who recently murdered people in London an Manchester were Sunnis. It is unlikely that they were coordinated in any way by Tehran, and much more probable that they are linked to Wahhabi-inspired outfits.   

If you want to check out some D+C contributions on Islamism, you might like the following ones:

- Ingy Salama elaborated on how Egypt’s current military regime rose to power. 

- Muna El Shorbagi discussed the Egyptian Muslim Brothers’ problems a few months before their downfall. 

- Loay Mudhoon shed light on the world view of Gulf monarchies.

- Maysam Behravesh assessed Iranian policymaking.

- Maryam S. Khan explained how Islamism has shaped Pakistan.



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