Why Qatari support for political Islamism is a menace
I remember the 1960s and 70s only too well. Internationally it was the height of the Cold War. In Britain there was regular industrial unrest, fueled by militant trades unions and often inept senior management and politicians. In the 1970s, the National Union of Miners (NUM) under Arthur Scargill, like many of his colleagues a former communist with pronounced Marxist views, were a thorn in the flesh of successive governments. In the 1974 general election, the question became: Who governs Britain? During the miners’ strike of 1984-85 the NUM received funding from Qaddafi’s Libya and the Soviet Union.
Thanks to the release of official papers and the work of some diligent journalists, we now know a lot more about the efforts the USSR and its Eastern European satellites made to target trades unionists and prominent politicians as potential agents of influence. They were extensive and well funded. They sometimes succeeded. Much the same happened across the whole of Western Europe, where communist parties were often stronger than in the UK.
Acutely aware of the threat to national security, government ministers regularly registered their deep concern. In 1966, Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson denounced the leaders of a dockers’ strike as “politically motivated men.” In the mid-1970s another Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan, and his finance minister, Denis Healey, bravely stood up to extreme left-wing pressure at successive Labour Party conferences. Later, Margaret Thatcher and Neil Kinnock from opposite ends of the political spectrum took firm stands against those they believed sought to undermine democratic politics and an open economy.
They did so because Marxist-Leninism aimed not to advance or improve the liberal capitalist system that formed the basis of British and other European democracies, but to overthrow and replace it.
Marxist-Leninism in its various forms is still with us, but it lacks a determined state sponsor. Its cause was severely damaged by the failure of the Soviet Union, at least as long as that remains a living memory. The new threats to liberal democracies and open economies come from elsewhere. One such source is the emerging new authoritarianism in China, Russia and elsewhere, which seeks to take advantage of the messiness of the democratic process, political stresses in Europe and the US and new and sophisticated digital tools. These authoritarians certainly wish to rebalance the global order in their own favor. But they don’t particularly want to replace — as opposed to shape — other political systems, at least not yet.
This is not the case with another threat to liberal democracy, that of political Islamism. The UK newspaper The Times published two reports last week about huge amounts of funding being channeled by Qatar through certain banks and charitable institutions to Islamist causes in Britain. This year two journalists in Paris published the latest in a series of French books on the subject, Qatar Papers, detailing claims of a massive network of Qatari funding across Europe designed to benefit Islamist causes and groups, notably the Muslim Brotherhood. The book describes what is happening as “entryism,” a word once commonly used to describe alleged communist subversion of Western institutions, and which has come back into vogue in the UK as a consequence of the rise of Jeremy Corbyn.
The UK newspaper The Times published two reports last week about huge amounts of funding being channeled by Qatar through certain banks and charitable institutions to Islamist causes in Britain.
Sir John Jenkins
This has predictably caused a bit of a fuss, but it is an important and timely warning. The principle of non-intervention is an established part of international law, even if what it means in practice in a highly interdependent world is much less clear. States have a broad if not unrestrained right to sovereignty and to their own domestic political, social and economic arrangements in so far as they pose no threat to others. But Islamism, like communism, does not seek to compete with other systems in friendly (or unfriendly) rivalry. It seeks to replace them.
This is a highly sensitive subject, for both Muslims and non-Muslims. But that cannot mean we must be silent. The matter is too urgent. Islamism is the purposeful mobilization of religious and cultural identity in the interests of a sometimes violent but always socio-revolutionary supercessionist and often transnational political enterprise. In pursuit of this it views the extraordinarily complex, diverse and rich civilisation of Islam through the lens of an absolutist and impoverished historicism and claims an exclusive right to decide the exact nature of Islam and the true identity of a Muslim. This can be totalitarian and is certainly deeply destabilising. A brief glance around the Middle East and North Africa suggests several reasons why this might be so. It is equally damaging outside majority-Muslim countries, where social cohesion and national identity have become matters of huge concern at a time of economic turbulence and increasing national populism.
Saudi Arabia was once a patron of numerous Islamist groups globally, for a number of complex reasons; some to do with the threat from Nasser’s Egypt and other varieties of trans-national Arabism, some doubtless to do with a misplaced confidence that the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood simply wanted to promote Islam. By 2002, when the late Prince Naif gave his famous interview on the subject to the Kuwaiti newspaper Al Siyasseh, those illusions had been well and truly shattered, and the Kingdom now seeks other paths.
Qatar, for reasons I still fail to understand, seems not to wish to apply the same lessons, in spite of repeated promises to fellow Gulf leaders. Turkey seems to be following suit not just in parts of the Middle East and North Africa but in Germany, Austria and the Balkans. This is a big problem. And it will remain a problem as long as the Muslim Brotherhood and other forms of political Islamism receive state backing in their attempts to replace not just the international but also domestic political, social, economic and cultural orders with one of their choosing.
• Sir John Jenkins is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange. Until December 2017, he was Corresponding Director (Middle East) at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in Manama, Bahrain and was a Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. He was the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia until January 2015.