Champions of Islamism
In recent years, the Sunni Middle East has cleaved into two competing axes, pitting the Turkish-Qatari combine against a Saudi-Emirati axis. Across the region, from Iraq to Libya, these opposing blocs are now contesting each other’s influence.
Islamism is the glue that holds together the Turkish-Qatari axis. Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AKP has a long history with the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Turkish leader began to embrace openly after securing a sizeable majority in Turkey’s 2007 elections. Within Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood – known in Arabic as al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin or simply the Ikhwan – has no room to operate, yet Doha energetically promotes the organization’s ideology and interests abroad. Meanwhile, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have designated the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization in light of the threat it poses to them both at home and abroad.
Following its 2007 electoral victory, Erdogan’s party began co-opting the Brotherhood to cultivate influence throughout the region. Ankara established ties with Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the United States designated as a terrorist group in 1997. Erdogan himself enjoys a close relationship with Hamas leader Khaled Meshal.9 Turkey also cheered the election of Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate in Egypt’s 2012 presidential race. Turkey then pursued a flurry of diplomacy with the Morsi government, negotiating 24 different agreements on trade and other issues.10 Erdogan has also funded mosques and religious education centers in numerous countries, including Albania, Ghana, Kyrgyzstan, and even the United States,11 in an effort to promulgate political Islam and expand his influence.12
At home, Erdogan has supported Islamist social engineering of the Turkish state and society. He has sidelined secular civil servants, expanded compulsory religious education and state-run preacher schools to “raise a pious generation,” and even hiked the price of alcoholic drinks by more than 600 percent.13 Seeking to institutionalize sectarian hegemony, he has taken over and weaponized Turkey’s media to blare Islamist propaganda and attack the pro-secular opposition, while scapegoating Turkey’s religious minorities.14
Qatar, for its part, is officially a Wahhabi state, practicing the same form of Islam as Saudi Arabia. The ruling al-Thani family claims descent from Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the creed’s founder.15 Likewise, the emirate’s Grand Mosque is named after Abd al-Wahhab,16 and Qatari state textbooks are notably Wahhabi in the doctrine that they teach.17 Yet Qatar does not have an active domestic Islamist movement, because the state has co-opted Islamist currents and directed them outward.18
Qatar’s brand of Wahhabism is infused with a Brotherhood-style philosophy of political activism, yet the al-Thani ensure it poses no challenge to their absolute authority. Thus, the Brotherhood’s chapter in Qatar voluntarily disbanded in 1999.19 Doha’s massive hydrocarbon wealth provides cradle-to-grave benefits for its 300,000-odd citizens, thereby preventing Islamist movements in Qatar from building their traditional influence as an opposition force by providing social services, as the Brotherhood does elsewhere. Over time, Qatar and the Brotherhood “came to develop a mutually beneficial relationship so long as the Ikhwan in Qatar were, inevitably, outward facing,” notes scholar David Roberts.20
Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, on the other hand, have long viewed the Brotherhood and other Islamist movements in the region as existential threats. These governments’ fears stem from their desire to preserve absolute control over religious affairs and domestic politics while maintaining a firewall between the two. Indeed, the Brotherhood’s admixture of Islam and politics has proven dangerous to autocratic regimes around the region, as was recently demonstrated during the Arab Spring.21
The UAE has sought to dissolve its Brotherhood branch, al-Islah, since 1994.22 Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, faced a strong internal challenge in the 1990s and 2000s from clerics affiliated with the Sahwa (“awakening”) movement, which mixed the kingdom’s Salafi Islamist teachings with the Brotherhood’s political activism. Starting in 2003, Riyadh also faced a domestic insurgency led by al-Qaeda, which heightened its perception of the Islamist threat.23 It was this crisis that ultimately prompted Saudi Arabia to cease funding Palestinian terrorist groups and to begin questioning its own practice of financing extremism abroad through its widespread Wahhabi networks.
In 2011 and 2012, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi deeply feared that the Brotherhood’s success at the ballot box in Egypt and Tunisia would spark a revival of Islamist opposition within their borders.24 In both cases, Qatari broadcaster Al-Jazeera provided extensive and highly favorable coverage to Brotherhood factions.25 Similar propaganda has been ubiquitous not only in Turkey’s pro-government media but also in Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood outlets broadcasting from Istanbul.26
In March 2014, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE withdrew their ambassadors from Doha, sparking a diplomatic crisis among the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).27 Saudi Arabia designated the Brotherhood as a terrorist group soon thereafter, and the UAE followed suit that November.28 The three countries claimed that Qatar had violated a November 2013 pledge to the GCC, in which Doha promised not to support “the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as outside groups in Yemen and Saudi Arabia that pose a threat to security and stability of Gulf Cooperation Council countries.” Doha also committed, they said, to “preventing Al Jazeera from being used as a platform for groups or figures challenging the Egyptian government.”29
In September 2014, Qatar’s neighbors forced Doha to expel seven leading Muslim Brotherhood ideologues and officials. Every single one of those seven moved, at least temporarily, to Turkey.30 The list included Secretary-General of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood Mahmoud Hussein, as well as Brotherhood members Amr Darrag, Hamza Zoubaa, Gamal Abd el-Sattar, Essam Telima, Ashraf Badr, and Wagdy Ghoneim.31 Ghoneim, an extremist preacher issued a video statement immediately after arriving in Turkey that condemned the “crusader” air campaign against the Islamic State, referring to the U.S.-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.32 Only after he described the president of Tunisia – a country with which Turkey has close ties – as an “infidel” did Ankara take steps to discourage Ghoneim’s incitement.33
Those tensions erupted once again during the run-up to the blockade of 2017. Egypt, along with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain – known as the Arab, or anti-Qatar, quartet – severed relations with Qatar, fuming over Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and extremist groups and usage of Al-Jazeera as a mouthpiece for those groups. The Qataris have remained defiant, continuing to back the Brotherhood, Hamas, and other Islamist groups that the other Gulf states seek to counter. Turkey has kept the embers of the conflict glowing by allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to operate freely from its soil, including Muslim Brotherhood television stations that spew hatred and even incite violence toward the Egyptian regime.
Ankara further stoked this conflict following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents. For weeks, the Turkish government leaked a steady stream of damaging information to the Turkish and international press, weaponizing Khashoggi’s gruesome death to score geopolitical points against Saudi Arabia.34 All the while, at public events, Erdogan continues to flash the four-finger salute of the Muslim Brotherhood, a sign made in memory of the Rabaa massacre, which saw the Egyptian army kill more than 800 pro-Brotherhood protestors.35
This intra-Sunni conflict adds another layer of complexity to a region already grappling with the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide. Both axes now seek to project their power and influence while diminishing that of their rivals across North Africa, the Levant, the Persian Gulf, and even the Horn of Africa. The stability of regional states could become collateral damage in this battle for primacy.