What is behind the links between Al Jazeera and Islamist unions backed by Qatar

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On April 5, 2017, The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Kurdish political party in Iraqi Kurdistan held a meeting in Sulaimaniya, Iraq for the leaders and princes of the Kurdish "Sunni" groups and parties. The meeting led by Jalal Talabani, discussed two main issues; the referendum on their independence and secondly the Kurdish Islamic efforts to form joint forces and bring together viewpoints within a single political framework and reference.

Al Arabiya was among the various media outlets covering the meeting including Turkish, Iranian and Syrian channels. The event was highly significant within the existing political circumstances at the time, especially under the emergence of Islamic movements and varied Kurdish groups based on the geographical location and the territory.

There are three major groups who still impose their presence within the political scene in the region, after the squander of the Islamic movement of Kurdistan since 2001. These are, the "Islamic Union of Kurdistan," which is the Kurdish branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in Iraq, (close to Turkey), " The Islamic Group" (Sururi) represented by its Emir Ali Babir who has close connections with Iran, and the “Islamic Movement” with its general Murshid (leader) Osman Abdel Aziz.

Youssef al-Qaradawi arrives for an event marking the 10th anniversary of Al Jazeera's Arabic channel in Doha November 1, 2006. (Reuters)
Youssef al-Qaradawi arrives for an event marking the 10th anniversary of Al Jazeera's Arabic channel in Doha November 1, 2006. (Reuters)

Of course, Al Jazeera was among the media outlets that also covered the event. Initially, Al Jazeera’s presence was not dubious; especially that it has always specialized in covering all that is related to armed groups and radical Islamic movements.

It is not a coincidence that one of Al Jazeera journalists who was assigned the task of translating reports for its main correspondent, turned out to be also the director of the media office for Ali al-Qaradaghi, the Secretary-General of the World Union of Muslim Scholars. He was present at the union meeting, headed by Yusuf Al-Qaradawi which was established by Qatar and dedicated to the Kurdish parties and groups to open discussions related to the referendum.

This scene summarizes the nature of the work and coordination between Qatar, al-Qaradawi and Al Jazeera, which suggests that the media outlet is involved in so much more than news coverage.

The role of Qatar, headed by Qaradawi, becomes more evident with his establishment of a universal union of “Muslim” scholars, which is founded on the holistic view of Islam under the “caliphate" ideology inherited from the Muslim Brotherhood and the spiritual father of the movements the Indian national “Abul A'la Maududi."

In 2004, Yusuf al-Qaradawi announced the establishment of the World Federation of Muslim Scholars, based in Doha, Qatar. The main objective of the Union has also been announced: "To gather the scholars of the Islamic Ummah around the world and to kick start a movement, that is not governmental." He added: "The big problem is when the government intervenes in the work of Islamic scholars and directs them to serve the government, and this is a major disaster on the nations."

الاتحاد العالمي لعلماء المقاومة
الاتحاد العالمي لعلماء المقاومة

Hundreds of Islamist associations and federations branched out from this union targeting several Arab and Islamic countries including Sudan, Mauritania, Eritrea, Somalia, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine, North Asia and other countries.

They extended their reach to European countries with the establishment of the European Council for Fatwa and Research. The first meeting kicked of in London under the chairmanship of Qaradawi and his deputy, Ali Qara Daghi, Rashid Ghannouchi, head of the Tunisian Renaissance Party and Salman Auda in March 1997.

Other subcommittees branched out from the council to work in France, Germany and Britain. The Council also established a Research and Studies Committee offering courses by imams and preachers in a number of European countries, including France, Britain, Germany, Sweden, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Ireland.

In January 2010 the so-called Association of Muslim Scholars was established with the aim to create a "global reliable reference." The association held its founding meeting in Kuwait, headed by the Saudi national Nasser Al-Omar. However, this time the association worked to include the second wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, the "Sururi Salafist" movement to enable the group to spread in the Gulf.

These associations gave Qatar the means to nurture the Muslim Brotherhood's project which was primarily used against the official religious institutions such as Al-Azhar and the official Islamic Fatwa association.

This role has been manifested in the case of Syria as hundreds of associations started to get established mainly in Turkey while Qatar carried out from Doha a "harmonious duet" with the radical entities and their organizations granting them a ground for expansion and growth.

In April 2010, the Association of Syrian Scholars (a member of the International Union of Muslim Scholars) announced that it had obtained a government license from the Turkish authorities. It was established in Europe in 2006 and included a number of members of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Diaspora. The Qatari newspaper Al-Raya announced in February 2014, that a partnership agreement was signed between the Qatar Charity Association and the Association under the guise of providing assistance to Syrian refugees in Turkey in 2012 while Qatar announced the re-establishment of the Sham Scholars Association, established in Damascus 1938 with the aim of "supporting the Syrian revolution".

Mohammed Surur (who died in Qatar after settling in it 2013) was one of the founding members. He also included a large number of well-known scholars in the Muslim Brotherhood. The Association provided fatwas related to Jihad, boundaries, crimes, guidelines and testimonies.

In April 2014 he announced the establishment of the Syrian Islamic Council in Istanbul, with the blessing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. Mohammed Surur was also one of the members and founders of the Council, and according to its advocacy the Council is concerned with the establishment of the Sunni ideology.

In June 2017, the so-called "Coordinating Front of Muslim Scholars' Associations" was officially launched in the Turkish city of Istanbul, headed by the Saudi preacher of Syrian origin, "Muhammad Musa Al-Sharif."

The Front includes 16 associations and bodies in more than 15 countries, including the Association of Sunni Scholars (based in Istanbul), the Federation of Scholars of Turkey, the Union of East Turkistan Scholars, the Lebanese Scholars Association, the Scholars and Advocates of Germany, the Association of Imams and Scholars of Iraq, South Africa, and the Council of Scholars of the Islamic Union of Malaysia.

According to its statement, the Front operates: “As an umbrella organization of several active associations on issues of the Islamic Ummah (nations), especially in conflict areas, and countries facing multiple crises.”

The objectives of this front, headed by Sharif, is to establish an "Islamic Court" to resolve matters surrounding the various clashes between the armed factions, as well as handle Sharia related verdicts taken against the fighters and the captives.

اجتماع للاتحاد العالمي لعلماء المسلمين
اجتماع للاتحاد العالمي لعلماء المسلمين

All these associations and assemblies were held in Qatar, whether through the Brookings Center, which was established in Doha, 2008, for the Qatari Diplomatic Club, or through conferences and workshops organized by the groups and organizations in the 7-star Doha hotels.

In a conference of the Association of Muslim Scholars (Salafi), Saudi Nasser Al-Omar delivered his opening speech, saying: "The conference aims to bring together the views of legitimate scholars, after the emergence of differences that occurred during the Arab Spring, because it is subjected to interpretations."

In May, 25 2012, Abdullah Al-Muhaisni and Nasser Al-Omar were photographed in Doha with Al Jazeera reporter Tayseer Alouni, the photo was evidence of their friendship and connection.

There was also a panel discussion hosted by the Brookings Institution on October, 29 2014 about the future prospects of Jihadism in Iraq and Syria hosting Nusra Front-linked Bilal Abdul Kareem. Abdul Kareem was photographed visiting al-Muhaisni and checking on him after being injured in one of the clashes in Syria.

The Qatari role is not limited to holding meetings and enhancing the emergence of leaders of armed groups, but also to draw the parameters of the work and the path of the factions and groups. This was manifested through Al Jazeera’s coverage featuring illustrative aspects that details the dynamics of jihad and highlighting the line of the leading radical movements.

This has been evident through work done by Al Jazeera Center for Studies. In one of its articles, titled “Jihad: Mechanisms, expansion and continuity”, Al Jazeera renamed one of Nusra Front’s leading terrorist, Abu Mariah al-Qahtani as a “moderate in organized jihadism”. They also named Atiyyatullah al-Libi as the “founder of moderate jihadism”. The latter was killed in Pakistan by a CIA predator drone strike on August 22, 2011. It also referred to Osama bin Laden as the "founder of moderation of the organized jihadism" and Zawahri, the "head of the organized jihadist."

In Lebanon, Qatar tried to manipulate the Sunnis and Shiites situation when it launched the "Association of Muslim Scholars in Lebanon”. According to its charter, the association aims to "support the Syrian people and their blessed revolution", and was joined by Lebanese scholars from the Muslim Brotherhood as well as those with Sururi roots. They receive financial support from Qatar at an estimated $50,000 annually, in addition to the financial revenues of its members for their repeated participation in lectures in Qatar.

The association is chaired by two members; Ahmad al-Omari from the Muslim Brotherhood and Salem al-Rifai (expelled from Berlin on charges of extremism) who represents the Sururi line within the group. Both men are said to have close ties to Qatar.

In Lebanon as well, Qatar has had a hand in launching the Union of Resistance Ulama (scholars), announced of its establishment in Tehrain in 2014, and run by Mohsin Araki, the Secretary-General of the Iran-based World Forum for Proximity among Islamic Schools of Jurisprudence. The Union’s deputy is Mohammad-Ali Taskhiri, a supreme advisor to the Leader of the Islamic Revolution of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini.

رابطة العلماء السوريين
رابطة العلماء السوريين

Despite the fact that the established Ulama Association was meant to preserve the rights of Sunnis from the Shiite community in Lebanon, still the group remained silent about Iran.

Members of union include a number of members already belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, others identified on their official website included Saudi names of Hassan al-Saffar and Hashim al-Shakhs, in addition to Bahraini Ali al-Dakkak.

The first meeting of the Founding Assembly was held in Beirut to approve the rulings of the union, which was initially proclaimed in Tehran in 2014.

The union’s mission did not only focus on raising slogans for the Palestinian cause, but also to issue political statements about the events in Bahrain and the subsequent verdicts against those involved in the armed riots, in which a number of citizens and security men were killed. The union denounced the rioters’ execution by saying “Their death won’t be tolerated.”

They also intervened on the issue of Saudi Arabia handing out a death penalty on Nimr al-Nimr when their president, Maher Hammoud, denounced what the Saudi Mufti said about Iran, as well as opposing the Arab and Islamic Alliance in the war against Houthi militias in Yemen.

In Syria, the Union celebrated the return of the Assad regime in Aleppo by saying: “Today, Aleppo is liberated from terrorism and returned to the embrace of the Syrian homeland.”

The Sunni Muslim Scholars Association, which receives Qatari financial support, happens to be part of the Union of Resistance Scholars. Despite the fact that the members of these two sects are maintaining their external diverse identities, they are still aligned with regard to their political slogans and responses. Also, both have ties and connections to Hezbollah.

All these entities and unions meet in opposition to any of the Saudi, UAE and Bahraini policies. All of them agreed in their statements to denounce the Gulf countries’ decision to sever relations with Qatar.

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