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Qatar’s Introspective Islamists | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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A street in Doha, Qatar, in 1965 (AAA)

A street in Doha, Qatar, in 1965 (AAA)

Dubai, Asharq Al-Awsat—Those who follow the development of Islamist movements in the Gulf often see the same scenario played out over and over again. The story begins with students sent to Egypt for enlightenment. There, they encounter a range of nationalist, Islamist and left-wing thought. They return with both a picture of Abdel Nasser and a handful of slogans, or with an allegiance to Hassan El-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and slogans of a different sort.

Intellectuals and workers alike contributed to the Gulf renaissance, the early adherents hailing largely from Egypt and the Levant. Banna was keen to link the international set who followed foreign affairs with teachers and advisers, whom he supported through his travels and network of supporters. In their wake came a second migration of Brotherhood sympathizers, this one prompted by persecution. It followed the Egyptian authorities’ crackdown on the Brotherhood in the wake of the Manshiya incident and the trials that accompanied the exposure of this secret society, which led to the execution of Brotherhood thinker Sayyid Qutb.

The third migration was of the Syrian Brotherhood following the bloody events of Hama, paired with the agitation in Iraq, which wielded influence over the other Gulf states, including Kuwait. The formative influence of Egypt and the Levant ended, and into the mix entered the Bedouins of the Gulf. The details of their internal debates and organizational structures— the object of their loyalty, what the oath was like, and so on—remain hazy.

In 1961, after his imprisonment and sudden release, a young Egyptian named Yusuf Al-Qaradawi immigrated to Qatar to run the Secondary Institute of Religious Studies. He also founded the Faculty of Shari’a at the University of Qatar. Gaining confidence, he turned Qatar into a base for his travels throughout the Gulf. Qaradawi was not alone. With him were Abdel Moez Abdel Sattar, Dr. Ahmed El Assal and Abdel Badie Sakkar, and together they took on preaching and missionary work. The ruler of Qatar at the time was Sheikh Ali bin Abdullah Al Thani, who placed much confidence in them.

As Abdel Ghaffar Hussain writes in the Emirati paper Al-Khaleej: “The path to expansion was not easy for the Brotherhood and other [Islamic] associations in the Gulf that were not in line with the nationalist movement. Consequently, organized Brotherhood gatherings of any significance were not held until the 1970s. However, a glimmer of hope shone in Qatar when Brotherhood members who had left or been forced out of Egypt sought refuge there. The former Qatari ruler Sheikh Ali bin Abdullah Al Thani adopted them, considering the Brotherhood to be extremely pious Muslims who had been persecuted in their own countries and sought refuge in his…. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood came to him, including two men of prominence in the organization, Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi and Sheikh Abdel Badie Sakkar. Sakkar assumed the status of adviser to the Qatari ruler and Director of the Qatar National Library, which was founded at that time.”

According to Hussain, the Brotherhood used Qatar as a launching pad for its expansion into the Emirates, especially Dubai. In 1962, Sheikh Abdel Badie Sakkar was involved in establishing this office and choosing the teachers and employees of the Qatari Educational Mission in the country. He regularly visited the Emirates and founded a school there, Al-Iman School, in the Rashidiya neighborhood of Dubai. The principals of the school were relatives of Sakkar and others connected to him, and most of the teachers and administrators sent from Qatar were from the Muslim Brotherhood, largely of Palestinian and Syrian origin and linked in some way with the organization’s political agenda.

Hussain adds: “The strange thing is that the English representatives, who had a strong political presence in the Gulf and in the Emirates prior to 1968, watched the Brotherhood’s activities in the region with satisfaction. Perhaps this was due to the Brotherhood’s opposition to Arab radicalism, particularly Nasserism in Egypt, where the interests of both sides converged.”

By many accounts, the core group of Brotherhood members in Qatar remained small, with perhaps a hundred members. This group organized itself, however, and grew in accordance with the Brotherhood model. Some of the young members were educated abroad, which would significantly influence the future of the organization. One of the most prominent of these figures was studying medicine in Cairo in the mid-1970s. His name was Jassim Sultan, and his leadership and ideas were to have great influence on the Muslim Brotherhood in Qatar.

Jassim Sultan—in contrast to the traditional makeup of Brotherhood operatives—was a blend of Islamic culture and knowledge of the humanities. In addition to reading the classic Brotherhood texts by Sayyid Qutb, Said Hawwa, Fathi Yakan and others, Sultan says that: “While studying medicine, [I] was greatly interested in the humanities and literature; perhaps these humanist interests were even greater than [my] interest in medicine.” His exposure to different political ideas in the Arab arena also contributed to his awareness of the importance of studying the Eastern and Western humanistic traditions.

He remembers: “We became more aware of the trend toward reading Toynbee, Hegel, and Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers, with their link to the idea of social mobility. With the major transformations that trended toward China and Asia, I also began to study these.”

Jassim Sultan’s presence in Egypt, adherence to the Muslim Brotherhood, and friendship with its young leaders (such as Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and Essam El Erian) in the mid-1970s, a time of growth for the Islamist movement, contributed to his awareness of the problems that the Brotherhood in its traditional shape still bore. He began exploring reformist ideas in his thinking and rhetoric.

Perhaps Jassim Sultan brought reformist ideas to the young leaders of the Egyptian Brotherhood—the generation of the 1970s. However, there were several factors contributing to the Egyptian operatives’ lack of success in translating these ideas into change within the parent organization, including the traditionalist baggage of the old Brotherhood leadership that had left prison in the early 1970s (an experience the Qatari organization had not suffered from), as well as the critical difference in the size of the two organizations and of the countries themselves. A reformist leadership in a country of limited size like Qatar could reach and influence all of its members easily. This distinguished the Qatari organization from many of the Brotherhood affiliates in the region, as decisions could be made more easily and members influenced in a more flexible and less bureaucratic fashion.

When Jassim Sultan and other operatives returned to Qatar from their studies abroad at the beginning of the 1980s and assimilated into the local Brotherhood, they were shocked by the leadership’s narrow perspective. The organization bore no clear plan or vision for reform aside from that found in the general Brotherhood literature. As a result, serious questions began to be asked by the returnees: Who are we? Where are we headed? Do we have a plan and can we afford it? Is this what we want? Where is the interest of Qatari society in all this?

As Abdullah Al-Nafisi writes in his article on these developments: “It is remarkable that the group dealt with these questions with such gravity, seriousness and prudence, and decided to authorize certain individuals to undertake a detailed study of them, invoking the thinking of founder Hassan Al-Banna and applying it to the experience of the Brotherhood both within Egypt and beyond it.”

Nafisi’s use of the term “remarkable” is due to the fact that many Brotherhood calls for reform died as a result of its incapacity for self-examination and inability to adapt to local conditions.

The process of introspection continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s, but it did not amount to any real accumulation of internal criticism in the Brotherhood. Jassim Sultan indicates that the organization had not issued any reevaluation or criticism since 1949, the year of Hassan Al-Banna’s death.

The first fruit of this reevaluation was the publication of a study in two parts in 1991—the first part under the title Basics of the Islamic Plan for the Renaissance of the Ummah: Readings in the Thought of the Martyr-Imam Hassan Al-Banna.

Remarkably, it was issued under the name of the late Abdelhamid Al-Ghazali (1937–2011), who was a member of the Brotherhood’s Shura Council in Egypt and in charge of its political department for almost eight years, as well as political adviser to the Brotherhood’s general guide. Perhaps the absence of the book’s true author and its issuance under the name of a top Egyptian leader is part of the controversy between the Qatari organization and its parent organization in Egypt in light of this reevaluation and its aftermath.

The second part of the study has not yet been published, but in general it finished with one of the problems that pushed the reevaluation to begin: that the Muslim Brotherhood’s plans generally lacked clarity—what did it want exactly? And how would it get there?

This prompted one of the leaders study to comment that “the Brotherhood’s basic problem in Egypt is its loss of direction. Indeed, they are busy with everyday tasks and fighting the syndicates, clubs and Student Union, and controlling mosques—and they forget in the midst of it the long-term strategic planning.”

Internal debate continued in the Qatari Brotherhood until 1999, when it ended with the Shura Council’s decision to dissolve the society itself and assimilate its members into existing civil society organizations. They were to form an Islamic renaissance movement, rather than remain in the organizational hierarchy. According to the prevailing narrative, this decision, which sparked great controversy, was made internally by an open vote and was the culmination of a long period of reflection and self-criticism.

There are some, however, who tell a different story. Abdelaziz Al-Mahmoud suggests that the leadership was scared by the ongoing prosecution of the Brotherhood in the region and believed that it was better to avoid confrontation. Mahmoud’s account, as well as those of some others, indicates that dissolution was decided upon despite some the disapproval of some of the group’s leaders. Some went to speak with one of the Brotherhood’s most prominent intellectual and spiritual authorities, Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, who was displeased by the decision made by Jassim Sultan and the others. Those who had refused to go along rebuilt the organization’s structure from scratch, while those who had made the decision to dissolve continued working as a general movement without an organizational hierarchy.

The vision of those who rejected the plan stemmed from an adherence to the traditional Brotherhood methodology, firmly attached to the idea of organization—which former Deputy Guide Mohammed Habib addressed in his comments on the Qatari Brotherhood’s decision to dissolve. “The organization defines the direction and principles [of the group] so that its methodology and principles are not lost,” he said. “This call to transform from organization to movement was proven to fail.”

However, the faction that pressed ahead found that in its current societal context, a fixed organization was unnecessary—though this could not necessarily be generalized to all societies. Every society has its own special circumstances. The movement is a natural form encompassing individuals, organizations, initiatives and works carried out by the masses, some sharing an organizing ideology without any single organization. According to Jassim Sultan, however, godfather of reform, the concept of totalitarian organization is a delusion because it resembles the state—not just any state, but the totalitarian state that was toppled by its own totalitarianism.

Beyond the dissolution and the controversy that surrounded it, and regardless of the results, the Qataris did what every branch of the Brotherhood in the Gulf should have: they forced themselves to reexamine their ideology and organization. Every idea is born of a time and place, and it is a fatal mistake to accept one without challenging it, and without grounding oneself in original ideas, rather than simply copying others.

As Jassim Sultan says: “Dialogue produced more solid answers that led us forward, step by step. What seems contradictory at first is in fact the resumption of thinking and moving toward the renaissance we all hope for. The key is dedication to dynamic and constant reflection, and not stubborn adherence to forms that have perhaps been superseded with time without our realizing it.”