Since Muslims are the primary targets in the global fight against terrorism (and since Muslim countries are where the fight is primarily being waged), the decision by various Muslim states, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates, to declare Qatar a sponsor of terrorism should trigger a bout of existential reflection. If Muslim countries have collectively been the target in the fight against terrorism, then what does it mean when several of them collectively target “one of their own?”
To be sure, there is nothing new about one Muslim country labeling another a state-sponsor of terrorism. Saudi Arabia regularly accuses Iran of promoting terrorism, and vice-versa. These accusations are, however, part of a bilateral strategic and sectarian rivalry. The branding of Qatar as a terrorist state is a far more dangerous iteration of this labeling phenomenon, because of the countries involved and the earnestness of the effort.
The campaign against Qatar, which has included a cyber attack and full-throttled media blitz, is an attempt by several Sunni states to police acceptable politics and collectively establish a certain, very questionable definition of terrorism. More specifically, these countries have singled out Qatar because of its relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, which they consider a terrorist organization. Branding Qatar a terrorist state is a gateway to universally branding the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, and may set the stage for doing the same to all Islamist political parties in the future—irrespective of country or context.
It is unsurprising, then that many of the demands made of Qatar to resolve the diplomatic impasse relate to the country’s relationship with the Brotherhood. Unlike groups that promote Islamism through violent means (and can thus be more credibly labeled “terrorists”), the Brotherhood has chosen to work within political systems. Indeed, it is precisely the way the Brotherhood has developed and fashioned itself, by championing the relevance of Islam in society and politics while also displaying a willingness to work within established social and political norms, that makes the group threatening to governments like Saudi Arabia.
Some Gulf countries realize, however, that there is no “one size fits all” approach to the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, Kuwait, the Gulf country with the best relationship to its local Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, has opted to stay out of the anti-Qatar coalition and has played the role of mediator. Instead of viewing the Muslim Brotherhood as a political threat, Kuwait has sought to integrate the group into the state—even allowing Brotherhood members to participate in parliamentary elections. In Bahrain, the government may wish to prosecute all Brotherhood sympathizers as terrorists, but members of the organization hold various positions in the government and state services. As Professor Marc Lynch has noted, the Muslim Brotherhood is, like other Islamist political groups, best understood “as [a] rational political movement responding to distinctive political opportunities and challenges” in each country, rather than an ideological actor, as the “terrorism” label might suggest.
Promoting Qatar and the Brotherhood as a terrorism coalition—one a funder, the other a recipient—also allows members of the anti-Qatar group to deflect attention away from their own questionable behavior. The anti-Qatar countries may have some legitimate reasons for accusing the peninsular state of backing extremist organizations, but these are charges they too must answer.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who are the leading forces behind Qatar’s isolation, are, at best, problematic partners in the fight against international terrorism. Saudi Arabia is, notably, the birthplace of fifteen out of the nineteen September 11 hijackers. It arms Salafist militias in Syria, and spreads its strict interpretation of Islam through the funding of madrasas and mosques. Such factors, even if not enough to make Saudi Arabia an official state-sponsor of terrorism, have helped establish the country as one of the central ideological hubs sustaining international terrorism. While not adhering to the same state sanctioned interpretation of Islam as Saudi Arabia, the UAE has reportedly been lax in its approach to combating extremist financing, and has sponsored many of the same activities of which it accuses Qatar.
Some may wish to believe that declaring Qatar a sponsor of terrorism is the crowning achievement in the War on Terror. After all, the fight against terrorism targets Muslim populations and occurs in Muslim countries, so let them sort out who is a terrorist. But, as long as the term “terrorism” is more of a political label than a technical definition, collective agreement on who is a “terrorist” will remain elusive. Labeling Qatar a terrorist state is dangerous for precisely this reason. The effort to brand the country, the Muslim Brotherhood, and potentially all Islamist political parties as terrorist entities represents a perilous program to eradicate alternative political visions on a regional scale.
As the anti-Qatar campaign lurches forward, and few countries feel inclined to directly question it, all that will remain are governments like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt on one side, and a wide range of “terrorists” on the other who refuse to fall in line.