By James M. Dorsey
Punching above its weight, the United Arab Emirates is wielding a combination of religious soft power, commercial and economic sway, and hard power in its bid to counter political Islam in ways that potentially could threaten pillars of Western democracy as well as US and European strategic interests.
The UAE’s footprint is visible across the globe, most recently in France, the latest arena in what amounts to a battle for the soul of Islam, as well as in US disclosures about the nature of Emirati intervention in Libya.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia appear to have been lobbying for a tougher French policy towards political Islam prior to the crackdown initiated by President Emmanuel Macron in the wake of the gruesome killing of a schoolteacher in September and subsequent attacks, including on a church in Nice.
The lobbying, emphasizing common interests in countering political Islam and Turkey, with which France is at odds in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean as well as on the issue of political Islam, aligned themselves neatly with Mr. Macron’s domestic and international agenda.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia in effect gave the French leader welcome Muslim cover to target political Islam and Turkey more than six months before the attacks this fall as he gears up for an election in 2022 in which Marie Le Pen, the leader of the far right, nationalist and anti-immigration National Rally, looms large.
Speaking in the French city of Mulhouse in February, Mr. Macron laid out his strategy to combat political Islam represented by the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists who in his words insist that Islam’s legal code supersedes the laws of the French Republic and emphasize what he calls “Islamist separatism” and “Islamist supremacy.” The UAE and Saudi Arabia have both declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization.
Austria last month started cracking down on the Brotherhood following a shooting rampage in the heart of Vienna in which four people were killed.
Kuwait and Qatar are funding the construction of an Islamic religious and cultural centre in Mulhouse. The UAE and Saudi Arabia alongside Bahrain and Egypt have been boycotting Qatar economically and diplomatically since 2017, alleging that the Gulf state is a prime supporter of Islamist groups.
“In the Republic we cannot accept that we refuse to shake hands with a woman because she is a woman. In the Republic, we cannot accept that someone refuses to be treated or educated by someone because she is a woman. In the Republic, one cannot accept school dropouts for religious or belief reasons. In the Republic, one cannot require certificates of virginity to marry,” Mr. Macron said.
Qatar has backed the Brotherhood in the past and is home to Yusuf al-Qaradawi, widely viewed as a one of the foremost influencers of the Brotherhood, a catch-all for a multitude of aligned Islamist groups that bicker among themselves.
The foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Qatar as well as mediator Kuwait expressed hope in recent days that talks in advance of a Gulf summit in Riyadh later this month would produce at least a first step towards an end of the boycott.
Mr. Macron’s crackdown involves tighter legal control of Muslim organizations and aims to centralise the formation and accreditation of Muslim religious leaders in the country.
Critics, including United Nations experts, charge that a new security law introduced in parliament undermines democratic freedoms by implicitly targeting Muslims, imposing a wider ban on home schooling and controls on religious, sporting and cultural associations, and introducing degrees of surveillance and limits on freedom of expression.
Mr. Macron “does not want to see Muslims ghettoized in the West and he is right. They should be better integrated into society. The French state has the right to explore ways to achieve that,” UAE minister of state for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash said in November.
Playing on Mr. Macron’s differences with Turkey that are shared by the UAE, Mr. Gargash suggested that the French president was drawing a line in the sand for his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “It is only when he is shown the red line that he shows himself ready to negotiate," Mr. Gargash asserted.
Mohammed al-Issa, head of the Muslim World League, a one-time major vehicle for the global propagation of past Saudi ultra-conservatism that now projects the kingdom’s undefined notion of moderate Islam, insisted last month that the law would defend French secularism against Islamic radicalism.
Speaking earlier at an inter-faith conference in Paris co-hosted by the League, Mr. Al-Issa stressed that religion needed to be protected from political exploitation to safeguard youth against extremist groups.
Much of Mr. Macron’s thinking appears to be informed by French Muslims who maintain close contact with both the French and Emirati governments.
Hakim El Karoui, the French-born son of an anthropologist of Islamic law and nephew of a former Tunisian prime minister, has long advocated notions of a French Islam that are reflected in Mr. Macron’s thinking.
This includes an undifferentiated view of political Islam, the notion of Islamists being secessionists or separatists, and the belief that Middle Eastern funding and political manipulation of faith rather than of domestic and economic factors primarily drive support for political Islam.
An advisor to former French prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, university lecturer, investment banker, geographer and author of several reports on Islam in France, Mr. El Karoui has long projected the UAE as a model of best practice in countering political Islam and fostering a moderate form of the faith.
The UAE promotes a concept of state-controlled Islam that preaches absolute obedience to the ruler.
“I think that France and the UAE must engage more in a religious debate. The positions of the moderate Muslims in France can be close to the ones of the UAE,” Mr. El Karoui told an Abu Dhabi-based newspaper in 2018.
French Middle East scholar Francois Burgat noted in an interview that “arguments put forth by El Karoui are enthusiastically embraced by authoritarian leaders in the Muslim world. They absolve them from responsibility for problems in their own societies.”
Mr. Macron’s UAE and Saudi-backed campaign is producing unintended advantages for the two Gulf states in their battle for the soul of Islam. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are in competition with one another but also frequently see their interests aligned.
In a parallel development, the Belgian government, acting on the advice of security services, this month rejected a request of the once Muslim World League-controlled Grand Mosque in central Brussels to be recognized as a faith community.
Justice minister Vincent Van Quickenborne said the application had been rejected because agents of the intelligence service of Morocco, a competitor for ownership of the definition of a moderate form of Islam in Europe and West Africa, had gained control of the mosque since Saudi Arabia handed it back to the government in 2018.
“I cannot and will not accept that foreign regimes hijack Islam for ideological or political motives, try to call the shots here and prevent Muslims in our country from developing their own progressive Islam,” Mr. Van Quickenborne said, echoing Mr. Macron’s approach.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute