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Could Qatar and Al Jazeera's satellite channel located there be secretly manipulated by the Muslim Brotherhood? 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.
The Brotherhood exerted a profound influence on the conservative Beduin society of Qatar, which numbered less than 100,000 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.
The creed that the Brotherhood was teaching was that of its founder, Hassan al-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 Shari'a, 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 QATAR, the Brotherhood 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).
One of his first steps was to establish Al Jazeera 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, 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 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-Shi'a 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 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 Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran to their yearly summit without asking them, and in violation of the rules since only Arab nations can participate.
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 US 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 US military bases in Qatar.
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, it is still a small country populated by Beduin, with no history to speak of, no developed economy and no army. It does enjoy handsome revenues from the export of gas. 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.
THIS IS where Al Jazeera comes into play. The influential satellite channel brings to Qatar what it lacks to be a serious player. 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 Web site updated constantly with the latest news from all over the world. Its latest endeavor is a shortwave 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 US at the time of the Afghanistan conflict and later over Iraq. It was well received by audiences in the Middle East and among Arab communities in Europe. Its reports appeared truthful and factual to its 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 socioeconomic issues and radical Islam. Though some progressive and liberal views are expressed, 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.
The meteoric rise of the network and its increasing popularity have led many political and media commentators in the Arab world to wonder exactly who or what 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 US and Israel and extolling the values of conservative - and sometimes extremist - Islam. It did not take long for one name to emerge: the Muslim Brotherhood.
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 Yusuf al-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 Qaradawi is the visible tip of the iceberg. In an article published in 2003 in the London-based Arabic daily Asharq al-Awsat, Maamun Fendi, a well-known Egyptian liberal thinker today living in the US, wrote that some 50 percent of the network's personnel belong to the Muslim Brotherhood. He added that their influence in Qatar was rising both in the network and among government circles. According to him, the Brotherhood had intended to hold its world summit in Qatar in 2003 but had to scuttle its 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.
Fendi believes that Qatar, by embracing the Brotherhood, 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-Qaida.
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 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.
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 Brotherhood. 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 broadcast all Hizbullah communiquÃ©s 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.
Al Jazeera has evaded all attempts to curb it and its broadcasts respect no boundaries. 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, 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 Web site, goes a step further and links Qatar with the Muslim Brotherhood: "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 is trying to assume the mantle of a great power, aided and abetted by the Muslim Brotherhood - 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 Brotherhood. Indeed, with the Muslim Brotherhood 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 Teheran and its effort to undermine their internal stability.
The writer has served as ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden. He currently directs the Jerusalem Center's Arabic-language Web site - infoelarab.org.