Al Jazeera and Qatar: The Muslim Brothers’ Dark Empire?

, May 14, 2009

Vol. 8, No. 29   May 14, 2009   

  • There has been a significant presence of the Muslim Brothers (also known as the Muslim Brotherhood) in Qatar since the second half of the twentieth century. The first wave came from Egypt in 1954 after Nasser had smashed their organization. The next wave came from Syria in 1982 after Hafez el-Assad bombed their stronghold in Hama. The last group arrived after September 11, 2001 – from Saudi Arabia.
  • In 1995, the present Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, deposed his father in a bloodless palace coup. One of his first steps was to establish the Al Jazeera satellite channel in 1996, which is the most viewed station in the Arab world with an estimated audience of some 60 million.
  • There was never any doubt about the network’s political orientation. Al Jazeera immediately launched scathing attacks on Israel during the Second Intifada and went on to incendiary broadcasts against the United States at the time of the Afghanistan conflict and over Iraq. It was later revealed to be in contact with bin Laden, and was the medium of choice for the video and audio cassettes of bin Laden and his men.
  • During the U.S. war in Iraq, the Americans accused the station of being pro-Saddam, and after the war, of presenting the terrorist groups active in the country in a positive light. One of its reporters stationed in Baghdad always seemed to arrive suspiciously quickly, with his camera, at the site of terror attacks. During the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Al Jazeera behaved as a Hizbullah spokesman. During the Gaza war, a senior Al Jazeera reporter stationed himself at Shifa Hospital, from where he broadcast a stream of carefully selected horror pictures.
  • The Egyptian Maamun Fendi wrote in Asharq Alawsat that some 50 percent of the network’s personnel belong to the Muslim Brothers. He believes that Qatar, by embracing the Brothers while hosting American bases, has found the perfect formula against retaliation by Arab leaders and attacks by Islamic extremists. Al Jazeera has become a weapon in the hands of an ambitious emir who may be driven by the Muslim Brothers and who is threatening the stability of the Middle East.
  • With the Muslim Brothers increasingly aligned in recent years with Iran, by repeatedly attacking the Sunni Arab regimes and inciting against them, Al Jazeera is serving as an important instrument for Tehran and its effort to undermine their internal stability.

Could Qatar and Al Jazeera’s satellite channel located there be secretly manipulated by the Muslim Brothers? This is a question frequently asked by Arab media trying to puzzle out the high profile adopted by the ruler of the tiny desert country and the nationalistic and radical Islamic content of the channel he owns.

Qatar Offers Refuge to Fleeing Islamists

The fact that there has been a significant presence of the Muslim Brothers (also known as the Muslim Brotherhood) in Qatar since the second half of the twentieth century is not in dispute. They came in three successive waves seeking sanctuary from the wrath of the rulers of their countries intent on quashing their subversive activities. The first came in 1954 from Egypt where Nasser had just smashed their organization, making it illegal and putting the Brothers in jail by the tens of thousands – after having executed some of the leaders. He was reacting to a failed attempt to assassinate him. The fugitives settled not only in Qatar but throughout the peninsula (Saudi Arabia and the other emirates).

The next wave came in the 1980s – from Syria. In 1982, Hafez el-Assad thought the activities of the Muslim Brothers endangered his regime and his army bombed the town of Hama, considered their stronghold. Some fifteen to twenty thousand people were killed.

The last group arrived after September 11, 2001 – from Saudi Arabia. The Brothers who had settled there after fleeing Egypt and Syria had joined forces with the Wahhabi clergy to develop a more radical Islam and export it to the West. When it became known that most of the 9/11 terrorists came from Saudi Arabia, the royal family understood at last that mixing Wahhabism, which is an extreme offshoot of Islam as practiced in the kingdom, with the Muslim Brothers was a threat to the stability of the country. The Saudis discreetly kicked out the Brothers, many of whom went to Qatar where they were assured of a warm welcome. Osama bin Laden, who grew up in Saudi Arabia, and al-Qaeda, which he set up, are the fruit of this unholy mix.

In 1999 another group found its way to the tiny emirate, composed of Hamas leaders, led by Khaled Mashal, who had been expelled from Jordan. Hamas, after all, is a branch of the Muslim Brothers set up in the Palestinian territories. However, after some quiet discussions, the ruler of Qatar deemed it best not to let Hamas use the emirate for its headquarters since it would have drawn undue world attention to the presence of the Brothers there. Therefore, Mashal and his people contented themselves with setting up a small office in Qatar and moved to Syria, where they planned attacks against Israel with the full support of that country and of Iran.

The Influence of the Muslim Brothers on Qatar

The Brothers exerted a profound influence on the conservative Bedouin society of Qatar, which numbered less than a hundred thousand people in the 1950s. In a paper he wrote in 2007, Abdallah Alnefissi, a well-known Kuwaiti philosopher, explains that the then ruler of Qatar, Ali Ben Abdullah Al-Thani, was so impressed by their piety and morality that he gave them his trust and let them carry out a wide range of religious and cultural activities. They refrained from setting up their own framework, in order to keep a low profile – perhaps to avoid the long reach of Egypt’s Nasser. They mostly acted individually, as preachers and religious advisers, while slowly infiltrating the corridors of power. They helped set up a Ministry of Education and Culture as well as an institute of religious studies – two institutions that the emirate lacked.

The creed that the Brothers were teaching was that of their founder, Hassan el-Banna, and his master theologian, Sayed Qutb. Their radical Islamic movement was created in 1928 in Egypt but saw itself as endowed with a mission to bring enlightenment to the whole world and reinstate the Caliphate – a Muslim empire ruled by Sharia, Islamic law. As a first step the movement targeted Islamic nations but intended to spread to the rest of the world. Indeed, branches were set up in most Arab countries in the early 1940s.

In Transjordan and in Palestine these branches were founded in 1946 by Said Ramadan, one of the leaders of the movement at the time, who had married the daughter of Hassan el-Banna. His sons Hani and Tarek, who were educated in Switzerland, are today the leading “ambassadors” of the Brothers in Europe. Hassan el-Banna himself was assassinated in 1949 – probably by order of King Farouk of Egypt – after his secret organization had murdered two heads of government and a number of judges in order to plunge that country into chaos, which would have enabled the Brothers to take over. Sayed Qutb had decreed that it was permitted to use force and even to bring down regimes in order to bring about Islamic rule. He was executed by Nasser, but his theories form the ideological and religious platform of all radical Islamic organizations today, al-Qaeda included.

An Ambitious Ruler Stages a Palace Coup

In Qatar the Brothers grew more influential when the present emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, deposed his father in a bloodless palace coup in 1995 (he called the old man who was vacationing in Switzerland, told him he was taking over, and advised him to prolong his vacation). Wildly ambitious, he aspires to bring glory to his country.

One of his first steps was to establish the Al Jazeera satellite channel in 1996, while at the same time closing down the Ministry of Information and abolishing censorship. He also set up the Shura Council, an Islamic version of a consultative parliament – with no real power. In addition, he granted women the right to vote for the few limited political institutions he created. These measures were intended to show that he was both a liberal and a democrat. However, it would be difficult to find anyone in the Arab world ready to believe that an emir enjoying absolute power would agree to true liberalization. Hamad bin Khalifa still rules alone and appointed a distant cousin, Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer Al-Thani, as chairman of the board of Al Jazeera in order to keep a close watch on its activities.

Qatar became a hub of political activity, with dozens of important meetings held in its capital city, Doha. A partial list includes the World Trade Organization, 2001; Asian Olympic Games, 2006; Sunni-Shia Roundtable, 2007; and the first Arab Commission for Human Rights, 2008. In June 2008 Doha was the scene of negotiations between Hizbullah and representatives of the majority coalition in the Lebanese parliament which brought about the “Doha Agreement,” paving the way for a national unity government with Hizbullah given veto power on all decisions.

This could not have been done without heavy pressure being brought to bear on behalf of Hizbullah from Syria and from Iran. Their intervention threw light on the rapprochement between the Emir of Qatar and the radical Islamic camp in the Arab world. This did not come as a complete surprise. The year before, the emir had stunned and embarrassed the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council by inviting President Ahmadinejad of Iran to their yearly summit without asking them, and in violation of the rules since only Arab nations can participate.

In January 2009 he convened a meeting of Arab leaders to discuss the war in Gaza. Though he did not succeed in achieving the required quorum, he nevertheless held the meeting, which was attended by Ahmadinejad and by Hamas rulers (never invited to inter-Arab events). The meeting called on all Arab countries to sever diplomatic ties with Israel and cancel the so-called Arab peace initiative. Egypt and Saudi Arabia angrily rejected these decisions and the Arab League declared them invalid. However, the emir did close down the Israeli commercial office which had opened in Qatar after the Oslo agreements.

In March 2009, just before the annual Arab summit meeting in Doha, the ruler of Qatar managed to broker some form of agreement between the Sudanese government and one of the rebel organizations in Darfur. This apparent show of readiness by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to attempt appeasement and reconciliation on the Darfur issue was intended to convince the UN and the International Criminal Court to rescind the warrant issued for his arrest for genocide. The attempt failed and the warrant remained in force. That did not deter the emir from inviting al-Bashir to the summit in defiance of the international community. The Sudanese president later revealed in a television interview – to the Al Jazeera channel – that the emir had suggested holding the Arab summit in Khartoum as a gesture of solidarity but that he had declined.

President Mubarak of Egypt did not attend the summit and his delegate called on all Arab countries to stand firm against Iran’s interference in their internal affairs; he also launched an attack against Al Jazeera, which he accused of inciting Arab populations against their rulers and threatening their stability. Thus was exposed the great divide in the Arab world between the extremist camp to which Qatar adheres and the pragmatic camp led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

An American Military Umbrella

At the same time, however, Qatar is host to a number of American military installations which had previously been based in Saudi Arabia. That country had felt compelled to ask the United States to help it fight a wave of internal terrorism by evacuating its soldiers in the period following the 9/11 attacks. There are today three U.S. military bases in Qatar including Al Udeid, a few kilometers south of Doha, one of the largest American Air Force bases outside the United States. The war in Iraq was launched from there in 2003. U.S. Army Central Command press conferences and briefings were held throughout the war at another base, Al Seleyah.

Thus, while assured of American backing and protection because of the bases, and enjoying an aura of moderation and aspiration to peace because of the Israeli commercial office (until January 2009), Qatar’s hyperactive emir took on the stature of a serious player in the Arab arena – and was able to move closer to the extremist camp without serious repercussions.

While some commentators went as far as saying that Qatar was becoming a diplomatic force to be reckoned with at the expense of the dwindling influence of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, this is nonsense. Qatar is still a small country populated by Bedouins, with no history to speak of, no developed economy and no army. It does enjoy handsome revenues from the export of gas, having the second largest reserves of that commodity in the world, which gives it the means to undertake its intensive activities. However, this alone is not enough to put it in a position to mediate in the serious issues troubling the Arab world, such as Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinians, and Iran.

Al Jazeera – A New Era in Arab Media

This is where Al Jazeera comes into play. The influential satellite channel brings to Qatar what it lacks to be a serious player. Today, reality can be changed through the media. It is generally thought that the creation of a satellite channel in Doha in 1996 marked the beginning of a new era for the Arab world. The emir recruited seasoned personnel fluent in English and Arabic, most of them from the unsuccessful BBC Arabic channel. Soon the new station was broadcasting news and commentary around the clock. In a matter of years Al Jazeera had assumed a leading role in Arab telecommunications. It is today a vast empire comprising an English news channel, a sports channel, a documentary channel, and a children’s channel. Its broadcasts can be accessed through cellular phones and it has a website updated constantly with the latest news from all over the world. Its latest endeavor is a short-wave radio station broadcasting to the Arab world.

There was never any doubt about the network’s political orientation. Al Jazeera immediately launched scathing attacks on Israel during the Second Intifada and went on to incendiary broadcasts against the United States at the time of the Afghanistan conflict and later over Iraq. It was well received by Arab audiences in the Middle East and among Arab communities in Europe. Its reports appeared truthful and factual to its Arab audience. At the same time it was opening its studios to opposition figures from Arab countries and hosting fascinating debates on the sorry economic and social situation in the Arab world, something that had never been previously seen on television. Politicians, including heads of state, journalists, academics, and religious leaders representing mainline conservative views are confronted with a sprinkling of liberal intellectuals not afraid to speak up publicly. One of the most provocative programs deals with socio-economic issues and radical Islam. Though some progressive and liberal views are expressed there, they are often interrupted by the moderator, who usually defends nationalist and radical Islamic opinions and does not hesitate to challenge the speakers.

Needless to say, Arab leaders do not like being criticized and see in the broadcasts a threat to the stability of their regimes. Some countries, such as Algeria and Saudi Arabia, did not let Al Jazeera set up offices on their soil; others, who had first allowed it, among them Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, and the Palestinian Authority, closed them down quickly – but not for long, having come to the conclusion that closure did not help change the contents of the broadcasts. Saudi Arabia, already on bad terms with Qatar, did take an effective step against Al Jazeera by not letting it broadcast advertisements. Since it is the largest market in the region, this effectively prevents Al Jazeera from achieving financial independence. Saudi Arabia also launched its own satellite channel, Al Arabiya. Though this channel progressed rapidly because of the quality of its programs, it did not overtake Al Jazeera, which remains the one most viewed with an estimated audience of some 60 million. Other Arab countries followed suit and set up satellite channels, but though they extended the boundaries of censorship and lessened government controls, they could not compete with Al Jazeera, which kept up a high level of reporting on all the ills befalling Arab society, while broadcasting religious programs intended to promote an Islamic way of life and praising Arab nationalism.

The Largest Arab Channel Has an Anti-Western Attitude

The United States also set up an Arabic channel of its own, Al Hurra, which began broadcasting in February 2004. It was intended to counteract Al Jazeera’s anti-Western attitude and its support of extremist nationalist forces in the Arab world including Islamic terrorist organizations. During the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, the Qatari channel was encouraging the Taliban and inciting against the West; it was later revealed to be in contact with bin Laden, who was interviewed by one of its senior reporters. When Afghanistan was conquered, Al Jazeera was the medium of choice for the video and audio cassettes of bin Laden and his men. During the U.S. war in Iraq, the Americans accused the station of being pro-Saddam, and after the war, of presenting the terrorist groups active in the country in a positive light. It was also suggested that one of its reporters stationed in Baghdad always arrived suspiciously quickly, with his camera, at the site of terror attacks. This led to the bombing of Al Jazeera offices in Bagdad and Kabul by American forces. Cable networks in the United States and Canada are reluctant to relay Al Jazeera’s broadcasts. In Europe, an Al Jazeera reporter based in Madrid was accused of having links with al-Qaeda.

Religion is central to the channel, with a prominent weekly program called “Sharia and Life” presented by the leading theologian of the Muslim Brotherhood, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who came to Doha from Egypt with the first wave of the 1950s. Qaradawi is considered today one of the most authoritative voices of Sunni Islam. His program addresses mainly the ulemas, the teachers of Sharia in Arab and Islamic countries, as well as in Islamic communities of the Western world. He set up two important institutions: the World Union of Islamic Sages, whose function is to explain his religious edicts to the faithful throughout the world, and the European Council for Fatwa and Research. The council is meant to help Muslim minorities living in the West preserve their religion in a non-Muslim environment – what is called “Dar El Harb” – with which Islam is in a state of war according to Sharia.

Qaradawi’s religious edicts transmitted through the European Council are usually fairly moderate (he calls it the way of compromise, westia in Arabic) and are intended to let the faithful lead normal lives without conflicting with the liberal Western society in which they live. For instance, Qaradawi does not forbid Muslim Americans to enlist in the army and fight fellow Muslims in Iraq. The long-term plan here is to preserve Muslim identity in Western countries until the day Muslims will be strong enough to take over these countries through democratic means or by force.

The depth of Qaradawi’s hatred of the West can be seen in some of his edicts. He has praised and defended suicide bombings against Americans in Iraq as well as against Israeli targets – men, women and children. In a sermon broadcast in January 2009 by Al Jazeera and translated by MEMRI, the fiery preacher had this to say about the Jews: “Oh Allah, take your enemies, the enemies of Islam. Oh Allah, take the Jews, the treacherous aggressors. Oh Allah, take this profligate, cunning, arrogant band of people….Oh Allah, take this oppressive, Jewish, Zionist band of people. Oh Allah, do not spare a single one of them. Oh Allah, count their numbers, and kill them, down to the very last one.”

It is through the platform provided by Al Jazeera that Qaradawi has reached his preeminent position in Sunni Islam, which comprises 85 percent of all Muslims.

Voice of the Muslim Brothers?

The meteoric rise of the network and its increasing popularity have led many political and media commentators in the Arab world to wonder who or what exactly was behind what appears to be its main purpose: encouraging opposition and promoting incitement against Arab regimes, exposing the corruption of their leaders and their entourage, while holding to an extreme Arab nationalist attitude against the United States and Israel and extolling the values of conservative – and sometimes extremist – Islam. It did not take long for one name to emerge: that of the Muslim Brothers.

This hypothesis is supported by a number of facts. The director general of the network, Wadah Khanfar, was a member of the organization in Jordan, where he was arrested. Today he is one of the closest advisers of the emir. Sheikh Qaradawi is also a member of the inner circle of the emir and is known to work closely with Khanfar. Both support Hamas. Arab researchers have succeeded in uncovering a number of other Brothers working for the network, but it is surmised that there are many more. The general consensus is that Yusuf al-Qaradawi is the visible tip of the iceberg. In an article published in 2003 in the London-based Arabic daily Asharq Alawsat, Maamun Fendi, a well-known Egyptian liberal thinker today living in the United States, wrote that some 50 percent of the network’s personnel belong to the Muslim Brothers. He added that their influence in Qatar was rising both in the network and among government circles. According to him, the Brothers had intended to hold their world summit in Qatar in 2003 but had to scuttle their plan when it became known. These summits are usually held in a European capital far from Arab countries, in conditions of the utmost discretion, if not secrecy.

Maamun Fendi believes that Qatar, by embracing the Brothers, an extremist Islamic organization quite popular in the Arab world, while hosting American bases, has found the perfect formula against retaliation by Arab leaders and attacks by all other Arab and Islamic extremists including al-Qaeda.

Having vainly tried threats, diplomatic pressure, and closing down its offices, Arab countries made a last, collective effort to curb Al Jazeera’s broadcasts. In February 2008 Egypt and Saudi Arabia convened in Cairo an extraordinary meeting of the ministers of information of all members of the Arab League. The purpose of that meeting was to impose a series of restrictions on all satellite channels in the Arab world. The proposed rules, which were supposed to be applied in all Arab countries, included a sweeping prohibition against insulting a country’s leaders or impugning its religious and national symbols. Infringement of the rules would give countries the right to freeze or cancel the offending network’s permit to operate. The rules would have made it possible for the regime to stop the broadcasts at will without having to resort to a court decision. However, Qatar and Lebanon refused to endorse the agreement and it never came into effect. So Al Jazeera keeps on being a threat to Arab regimes.

An All-Out Media War Against Israel

Al Jazeera leads an all-out war against Israel in which there is no room for true reporting. The purpose is to bring all Arabs to support the Palestinians and, more specifically, Hamas, which is, after all, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brothers. No efforts are spared to present the Palestinians as the ultimate victims. Hamas representatives are warmly received by news anchors and commentators and they receive far more air time than the Palestinian Authority – a fact often bemoaned by Yasser Arafat who tried vainly to change it.

In the course of the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Al Jazeera behaved as a Hizbullah spokesman in all but name. It broadcasted all Hizbullah communiqués without bothering to check them, as well as footage from Hizbullah’s satellite network, Al Manar, which was deliberately distorting the facts and grossly exaggerating the actual damage. At no time did Al Jazeera take into consideration what Israel had to say about the situation on the ground.

During the Gaza war, a senior Al Jazeera reporter stationed himself at Shifa Hospital, from where he broadcast a stream of carefully selected horror pictures. Once again, they were accepted unreservedly and used to show what was purported to be the endless killing of civilians and especially children.

An Al Jazeera network representative even held a “birthday party” for the terrorist Samir Kuntar upon his return to Lebanon, after his release by Israel in 2008 – a party which was broadcast live.

Incitement against Israel is ongoing to this day. Reporters of the network in Israel (where they have an office enjoying all the benefits awarded to foreign networks) and moderators from Doha never miss an opportunity to ask loaded questions, asking Arab guests: “Why aren’t Arab countries doing anything against Israeli massacres?” or “Why aren’t you calling on Arab countries and the Muslim world to demonstrate and to punish Israel?”

Al Jazeera: A Threat to Regional Stability

Al Jazeera has evaded all attempts to curb it and its broadcasts respect no border. In Egypt, following the recent discovery of a Hizbullah plot inside the country, media have included Qatar and its network in the Iranian axis of evil, together with Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas. On April 18, 2009, Egypt’s Al Ahram described the Qatar/Al Jazeera duo as: “The Qatari propaganda network that belongs to the country of Al Jazeera.”

“Sudanonline,” a Sudanese website, goes a step further and links Qatar with the Muslim Brothers: “What is dangerous is that their organization has the potential to launch a violent conflict and to try by any available means to take over the country. We are very much afraid that Qatar will be consumed by the fire of that organization if it keeps on letting it act. The Brothers do not know the meaning of friendship and keeping faith. Their history shows, especially in Sudan where they are active, that they are all suckling from the same source – the creed of Hassan al-Banna and Sayed Qutb.”

Qatar and Al Jazeera are indeed a very dangerous phenomenon. With the help of the powerful satellite network he created, the Emir of Qatar, a man who does not overly care for democracy and freedom of expression, is trying to assume the mantle of a great power, aided and abetted by the Muslim Brothers – one of the most extreme movements in the Muslim world. He is seen to be getting closer and closer to Iran, in keeping with the dangerous, revolutionary, and wayward vision of the Brothers. Indeed, with the Muslim Brothers increasingly aligned in recent years with Iran, by repeatedly attacking the Sunni Arab regimes and inciting against them, Al Jazeera is serving as an important instrument for Tehran and its effort to undermine their internal stability.

There is an apparent contradiction in the fact that Qatar and Al Jazeera are the flag bearers of Sunni Islam while Iran is the center of Shia Islam. However, the Brothers wholeheartedly support Shiite Hizbullah and praise the assistance given by Iran to Sunni Hamas, which is a branch of their own organization.

Al Jazeera was indeed seen at the outset as the harbinger of a new era in the Arab world. Observers believed that this new satellite channel would pave the way to greater freedom of expression and acceptance of the other. However, it took only a short time to understand that this was not Al Jazeera’s purpose. The channel does not encourage openness. It has its own agenda. It has become a weapon in the hands of an ambitious emir who may be driven by the Muslim Brothers and who is threatening the stability of the Middle East. It could very well be that Qatar has become part of the “dark empire” of the Brothers, weaving its way behind the scenes to achieve the impossible goal of imposing Islam through persuasion, subversion, destabilization, lies and distortion of reality, and eventually using force.

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Veteran Israeli diplomat Zvi Mazel has served as Israel’s Ambassador to Romania, Egypt, and Sweden. He currently directs the Jerusalem Center’s Arabic-language website – infoelarab.org.

About Zvi Mazel

Zvi Mazel served as Israel's Ambassador to Sweden between 2002-2004. From 1996 to 2001 he was Israel's Ambassador to Egypt. He has also held senior positions in Israel's Foreign Ministry as director of the Eastern European division and head of the Egyptian and North African department..