Behind the Gulf crisis lies a religious rift within the Sunni world

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:55:00

In addition to redesigning the Middle Eastern geo-political balance, the year-long conflict pitting Qatar against the Saudi Arabia, Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain coalition has also ratified a political-religious rift within the Sunni world: a split between an Islamist camp sponsored by Doha and an anti-Islamist camp, supported by the states of the quartet.   


A complicated relationship

The current conflict is the last chapter in the history of the complicated triangular relationship between the Egyptian state, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Gulf countries. This relationship began in the 1950s, when many members of the Brotherhood left Egypt to escape Nasserist repression, and found refuge in the Gulf, and Saudi Arabia in particular. Until the beginning of the 1990s, the encounter between Islamists and Saudi Arabia came under a flag of cooperation: the Muslim Brotherhood was considered a natural ally against revolutionary Arab movements, and contributed towards increasing the pan-Islamic legitimacy of Riyadh. It was during this period that the hybridization between the Brotherhood’s ideas and the Wahhabi doctrines gave rise to the Sahwa islāmiyya (Islamic Awakening) movement. The partnership broke with the Gulf War of 1990-1991 when the Saudi monarchy allowed US troops to be deployed on its territory to liberate Kuwait from the Iraqi occupation, unleashing Islamist outrage.

The Arab revolutions of 2011 then further expanded the divide: while the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements, supported by Qatar and Turkey, were committed to creating a new political order in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates intervened to restore the status quo, especially by backing General al-Sisi's Egypt.


Criticisms and cross-accusations

After the 2017 rift between Qatar and the quartet, accusations, critical analyses, and counter-allegations from politicians, intellectuals and clerics of the two camps multiplied. The pro-Islamist and pro-Qatar front accused the opposite side of having betrayed Islam, and yielded to Western secularism. For example, in October 2017, the Moroccan Ahmad al-Raysūnī, the main ideologist behind the Unity and Reform Movement (MUR) and vice-president of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, rebuked Saudi Islam as having passed “from flowering to decadence.” Further in the autumn of 2017, from the columns of the daily Qatari newspaper Al-Watan, the al-Jazeera journalist Ahmad Mansūr accused the Emirates and Saudi Arabia of deliberately secularising Islamic societies. In a series of articles published on the Arabi21 pro-qatari digital daily newspaper, Soumaya Ghannouchi, the daughter of the founder and leader of the Tunisian Islamist party Ennahda, described the current conflict as a battle between a democratic and liberal Islam versus an authoritarian system that had previously used religion but has turned secularist.


For its part, the anti-Islamist front ascribes the violence and chaos that sweeps Muslim societies to the nefarious influence of the Muslim Brotherhood. For example, the Saudi crown prince, Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS), who promised to “bring back” Saudi Arabia to the “moderation” of the years before 1979, attributes the religious extremism present in the Kingdom to infiltration by the Brotherhood, particularly in the Saudi educational system.

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[Left: The emir of Qatar greets Yusef al-Qaradawi. Right: Abu Dhabi crown prince welcomes the Grand Imam of al-Azhar]


Emirati Islam: between tradition and critical thought

Beyond the questionable historical narrative proposed by MBS, his plan for reforming Islam remains very vague. Indeed, he is probably more concerned with a form of Islam that does not hamper modernization of the country, does not translate into political opposition and does not mar the international reputation of Saudi Arabia rather than with bringing about real religious reform for the country. Therefore, the real alternative to Islamist interpretations is not the “moderate Islam” that is allegedly supposed to arise in Saudi Arabia, but the model of Islam that is already being promoted by the Emirates. The latter state, unlike Saudi Arabia and Qatar, does not adhere to the Wahhabi doctrine, but the Malikite school. At the same time, however, the Emirates do not have traditional Islamic institutions through which they can convey their religious message. Their Islamic policy has therefore been translated into a patronage of new institutions, which are nominally independent, and chaired by eminent personalities from the Sunni world.


Amongst these new institutions the Muslim Council of Elders and the Forum for the Promotion of Peace in Muslim Societies stand out, and were both created in Abu Dhabi in 2014. The Council, which brings together ulama from all over the world, is presided over by the Grand Imam of al-Azhar Ahmad al-Tayyib, and represents a response to the International Union for Muslim Scholars (IUMS), a network of Islamist clerics and intellectuals, very close to Qatar, created and chaired by the “global mufti” Yūsif al-Qaradāwī. The Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies is guided by ‘Abdallāh Bin Bayyah, a sheikh of Mauritanian origin, which until 2013 was part of the IUMS. These two institutions are the expression of an Islam that is linked to traditional legal and theological schools and Sufi spirituality, that engages in inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogues and that is decidedly opposed to violent political interpretations.


However, the Emirati policy not only points in the direction of a neo-traditional religiosity: for some time now, a permanent guest at the Abu Dhabi TV channel has been Muhammad Shahrūr, a Syrian intellectual who is engaged in renewed exegesis of the Qur’an. When the debate on overcoming gender inequality in inheritance began in Tunisia, Shahrūr found himself on the opposite front to that of sheikh al-Tayyib. According to an article published in July 2017 on the al-Jazeera website, the Emirates have reportedly been the architect and main funder of Mu’minūn bilā Hudūd (“Believers Without Frontiers”), a foundation whose main office is in Rabat and where intellectuals from all over the Arab world participate. Through an impressive volume of publications and events, Mu’minūn bilā Hudūd promotes critical thinking on the Islamic tradition and the relationship between Islam and public space, giving voice to those “new thinkers” who for some decades have carried out a re-reading of revelation via the tools offered by modern textual criticism. They were responsible, for example, for publishing the complete works of the Egyptian scholar Nasr Hāmid Abū Zayd, who is well known for his historical hermeneutics of Islam’s Holy Book.


Two models for Sunni Islam

The Qatar of Emir Tamīm and the Emirates of the very active Abu Dhabi crown prince Muhammad Bin Zāyid are thus the emblem of two rivalling interpretations within the Sunni scene. On one side, a political reading of Islam, based on criticism of the existing order and authoritarian regimes, that is attentive to social justice, that advocates for a project for the re-Islamisation of societies and the establishment of “Islamic-democratic” regimes along the lines of the mostly unsuccessful projects attempted after the revolts of 2011 in Tunisia and Egypt. And on the other, an Islam that is focused on personal spirituality, is against violent interpretations, and which is present on the public scene but does not interfere with the political and economic choices of rulers, even at the cost of turning a blind eye to the abuses and injustices they commit.


Interestingly, although this alternative between two understandings of Islam has moved through many Muslim societies today, it is not necessarily destined to produce lacerating conflicts. Countries like Tunisia and Morocco, in which the process of democratic construction continues to advance, are those that have prevented Islamism from monopolizing the religious sphere, without banning it from either political or social spaces.