Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood is commonly portrayed as realpolitik, simply part of Gulf power politics. However, the personal history of Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi in Qatar, and his influence on Qatari society, is just one example of how the connection between the country and the social movement has a long history.
The diplomatic and economic embargo of Qatar, led by neighboring Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, shows no sign of letting up. To those familiar with the politics of the Gulf region, the root of the current crisis as proclaimed by the anti-Qatar bloc is a familiar one: Qatar’s economic relationship with Iran, its prominent television network al-Jazeera, and the country’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, Saudi Arabia and its allies’ issuance of a list of 13 demands to Qatar, with a deadline that expired on Monday July 3, suggests that the crisis may yet take a more serious turn. Taken as a whole, Qatar’s acceptance of its neighbors demands would render it effectively a client state.
Since the beginning of the crisis on June 5, analysts have published a number of articles emphasizing the marked differences between Qatar’s foreign policy and those of its neighbors in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). For example, Qatar has a comparatively close relationship with Iran, and they jointly exploit one of the world’s most lucrative natural gas fields. Qatar’s news network al-Jazeera encouraged the 2011 uprisings, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular have been at the forefront of the counter-revolutionary trend. The clearest difference between these divergent policies is in their approach to Egypt: Saudi Arabia and the UAE were strong supporters of the July 3, 2013 coup that ousted the then President Mohammad Morsi from power, while Qatar maintains its support for the Muslim Brotherhood.
Explaining Qatar’s Support to Muslim Brotherhood: The Qaradawi Factor
“Qatar’s support for the Brotherhood can appear counter-intuitive, after all, the Brotherhood’s support for democracy is at odds, potentially even a threat, to Qatar’s monarchical system.”It is this last point that I will discuss in more detail here. While much has been made of Qatar’s independent foreign policy and support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Gaza (through Hamas), as well as Brotherhood-affiliated militias in Libya and Syria, little has been said about why Qatar is so set upon this policy at such great cost. Many observers seem to take this support for granted, or attribute it to realpolitik: just part of the muscular power politics of the Middle East region. Indeed, on closer inspection, Qatar’s support for the Brotherhood can appear counter-intuitive. After all, the Brotherhood’s support for democracy is at odds, potentially even a threat, to Qatar’s monarchical system. Furthermore, Qatar shares with Saudi Arabia and the UAE many of the deeply conservative social values associated with Wahhabism, again making it seem unlikely that the country would be supportive of this activist social movement.
My point is that Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood has a long history, and dates back to the arrival of Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi in the country. Qaradawi is a household name across the Arab World, and is one of the region’s most recognizable Islamic
scholars, or ʿulamāʾ. He was born in Egypt in 1926 and, drawn to the preaching of Hasan al-Banna, was among the scholars who decided to eschew high-ranking positions at Egypt’s flagship Islamic education institution al-Azhar to instead join the Muslim Brotherhood. Qaradawi has been offered the post of General Guide of the Brotherhood twice, refusing both times, but has long been thought of as a spiritual guide to the movement. Qaradawi’s influence on Qatari society and the local religious scene is one element that demonstrates that Qatar’s broader support for the Brotherhood is not simply a question of power politics, but is personal, and social too.
Qaradawi left Egypt in 1961, going into exile during one of Gamal Abdul Nasser’s bouts of repression of the Brotherhood. Unlike many of his Brotherhood-affiliated scholarly peers who were leaving the country at a similar time for refuge in Saudi Arabia (where King Faisal (d.1975) was welcoming Brotherhood scholars as part of his “Islamic solidarity campaign” to counter the pan-Arab socialism supported by Nasser), Qaradawi was sent to Qatar. It was his first time on an airplane. At that time, Qatar was a backwater and still a British protectorate. Discovery of the vast natural gas fields that would propel Qatar to become the wealthiest country in the world in terms of $GDP per capita was still some way off. More importantly here, Qatar had no real religious educational institutions or local scholarly establishment to speak of. In his doctoral dissertation examining Qatari Islamic institutions, Hamed A. Hamed paints a dire picture of the quality of local Qatari imams during that period: “preachers in Qatar were not qualified to perform the duties expected of them. By and large the majority were only able to read and write and therefore lacked the ability to address topics pertaining to problems of Qatari society [… For their Friday sermons], they depended solely on an old book of fifty-two sermons, equal to the number of weeks in the year.” Qaradawi, who at the time was a respected Islamic legal scholar, recalls in his memoirs that he went to the country as a “loanee” to help address this situation.
“To the young Qaradawi, the dearth of religious-educational institutions in Qatar represented a unique opportunity to implement the educational reforms that he and others had been encouraging back in Egypt.”Brotherhood scholars going into exile in Saudi Arabia or other countries in the region had to negotiate a space among long-established institutions and local scholarly elites. Qatar, by contrast, represented a blank slate upon which Qaradawi could design institutions and curriculums almost as he saw fit. Shortly after he arrived, Qaradawi assumed the Directorship of the Qatar Education Ministry’s first Institute of Islamic instruction (maʿhad dīnī). The Institute had been founded only one year previously and was encountering a number of difficulties. To the young Qaradawi, the dearth of religious-educational institutions in Qatar represented a unique opportunity to implement the educational reforms that he and others had been encouraging back in Egypt. In his memoirs, Qaradawi relates how he redesigned the Institute’s curriculum, steering it away from its sole focus on Islamic law and the Islamic sciences of rhetoric, grammar and morphology to instead include an emphasis on foreign languages, science, and mathematics. In his recollections Qaradawi makes much of the local resistance he faced from his students when he tried to implement these reforms, but he says he pressed on, arguing that such changes were necessary to render a would-be Islamic scholar better equipped to engage with the challenges of the modern day. Qaradawi felt that studying these subjects would give his students “a deep and true understanding of the social reality,” which they would have to deal with as scholars, imams, and leaders in Qatari public life.
The changes that Qaradawi was implementing brought him to the attention of the then Emir of Qatar, Ahmad b. ʿAli Al Thani (d.1977, the cousin of the current Emir’s grandfather). Qaradawi developed a close relationship with the Emir, and became his personal religious teacher during the month of Ramadan. The Emir granted Qaradawi Qatari citizenship in 1969. The Qatari royal family became a key supporter of Qaradawi, and funded his trips across the world as he visited grassroots Brotherhood-affiliated organizations in Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Europe, North America, and even as far afield as Japan and South Korea.
Qaradawi and Institution building in Qatar
“In 1977 Qaradawi founded another Islamic institution, the Sharia Faculty of Qatar University, where he became the Dean. Alongside the Institute, these two centers produced a significant portion of all the religiously-educated figures in Qatari society today, and they were staffed by teachers sympathetic to Qaradawi’s project.”In 1977 Qaradawi founded another Islamic institution, the Sharia Faculty of Qatar University, where he became the Dean. Alongside the Institute, these two centers produced a significant portion of all the religiously-educated figures in Qatari society today, and they were staffed by teachers sympathetic to Qaradawi’s project. The impact and influence of some of these graduates has been substantial. To give one example, Maryam al-Hajari was a student of Qaradawi’s at the Sharia Faculty. After graduating she went on to found the enormously popularly fatwa website IslamOnline.net. At the height of its popularity, IslamOnline.net was the most frequently-searched Arabic language website. Hajari’s recollections of her time studying under Qaradawi show that sympathy for the Brotherhood among Qataris comes as a result of the Brotherhood’s activist vision for Islam, which seeks to render Islamic legal norms relevant to everyday life while also emphasizing the ethical underpinnings of Islamic legal injunctions. As Hajari recalled how studying with Qaradawi the ethical bases underpinning the Islamic law of alms-giving, or zakāt, she said: “How you suppose to dispose of your knowledge. That was a new concept to me. Before I thought zakāt was only for money. So, I thought, I have got a lot of knowledge, I was a top student, so, what am I going to do with it […] I thought about it a long time.” Her comments demonstrate that the Brotherhood vision of Islamic revival has many facets, and while its emphasis on democratic governance and pursuit of political power may not necessarily have taken root among ordinary Qataris, the broader effort to revive Islam and render Islamic law relevant and meaningful to believers’ everyday lives has been able to garner broader support.
Arab Spring, Qaradawi, al-Jazeera, and IUMS
It was with the founding of al-Jazeera in 1996 that Qaradawi would come to be referred to as “one of the most celebrated figures in the Arab world.” In choosing those words, the prominent journalist Anthony Shadid (d. 2012) had in mind al-Qaradawi’s regular guest-spot on al-Jazeera’s popular Islamic talk show Sharia and Life. Al-Jazeera also began to broadcast his Friday sermons from Doha’s Umar Ibn al-Khattab mosque. Qaradawi’s spot on Sharia and Life saw him addressing up to thirty-five million viewers on an almost weekly basis. The prestige this exposure offered led the Qatari Emir in 2004 to support the founding of The International Union of Muslim Scholars (al-Ittiḥād al-ʿĀlamī li-l-ʿUlamāʾ al-Muslimīn, IUMS), with Qaradawi as its President. At the time, this transnational network of scholars was a novel creation in that, a little like al-Jazeera, it had the appearance of being independent, while at the same time sharing subtle linkages with Qatar’s soft power and foreign policy goals.
During the Arab Spring of 2011, Qaradawi used his position on al-Jazeera and headship of the IUMS to provide legitimation from an Islamic legal perspective for the uprisings spreading across the region (with the marked exception of Bahrain, where he supported the ruling Sunni regime). However, in a precursor to the current crisis, in the aftermath of the July 3, 2013 coup in Egypt that saw the Brotherhood-led government violently removed from power, Qaradawi’s railing against the coup through al-Jazeera became a source of acute tension between Qatar and supporters of the new regime in Egypt, notably Saudi Arabia and the UAE. At that time, rumors circulated in Qatar that Qaradawi was to be stripped of his Qatari citizenship and expelled from the country.
“In August 2013, Sharia and Life was taken off air and Qaradawi’s Friday sermons were quietly ceased.”In August 2013, Sharia and Life was taken off air and his Friday sermons were quietly ceased. The signing of the 1st Riyadh Agreement on November 23, 2013 was meant to address the breakdown in relations among the GCC as it was intended to insulate the region from the impact of the Arab Spring, even if it meant encouraging counter-revolutions to reinstate former regimes. Tensions rumbled on however, and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar on March 5, 2014. The ambassadors returned to Doha on November 16, 2014 but, in a clear signal that the underlying tensions remained unresolved, on December 6, 2014 Egypt issued a warrant for Qaradawi’s arrest through Interpol on charges of incitement to commit murder (presumably for his opposition to the 2013 coup). The warrant went unheeded however, and Qaradawi’s Friday sermons at the mosque began again in 2014.
To conclude, the current crisis comes as a result of the failure to resolve the underlying tensions that led to the earlier 2014 breakdown in relations between Qatar and its neighbors. Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood is a key point of contention between Qatar and the other members of the GCC, which is evidenced most clearly by the divergent positions taken by Qatar and its neighbors over the 2013 coup in Egypt. However, Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood is not simply a result of power politics within the Gulf region. Rather, this support has a long history in the country, which is clear from Qaradawi’s personal history in Qatar. Qaradawi has been in Qatar since 1961, and became a citizen in 1969. He built Qatar’s religious education institutions from the ground up and his students, such as Maryam al-Hajari, have gone on to play influential roles.
“While the Brotherhood’s emphasis on democratic governance and pursuit of political power may not have taken root among ordinary Qataris, the broader effort to revive Islam and render Islamic law relevant and meaningful to believers’ everyday lives has garnered broader support.”
As such, alongside his close relationship with the royal family, through his post as Dean of the Sharia Faculty, position on al-Jazeera’s Sharia and Life, and heading of The International Union of Muslim Scholars, Qaradawi has had a marked influence on Qatari society as a whole. While only one element of the Brotherhood’s presence in Qatar, Qaradawi’s personal biography shows just how deeply rooted, and how long, the history of the Brotherhood is in Qatar. On June 9, 2017 Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, and the UAE issued Qatar with a list of names of Brotherhood leaders in exile in the country, including Qaradawi, demanding their expulsion. However, Qatari submission to this demand is unlikely to come easily. Qatari support for the Brotherhood is more than just realpolitik, and a decision to expel Qaradawi and his Brotherhood colleagues would be far more than simply a case of weighing up political pros and cons.
 Though Qaradawi does not detail in his memoirs precisely why he went to Qatar rather than elsewhere, it is likely this decision came about with the agreement of the Brotherhood’s General Guide, Hassan al-Hudaybi (d.1973).
 Hamed A. Hamed, “Islamic Religion in Qatar During the Twentieth Century: Personnel and Institutions” (Doctoral Dissertation, University of Manchester, 1993), 120. See also, Yūsuf al-ʿAbd Allāh, Taʾrīkh al-Taʿlīm fi al-Khalīj al-ʿArabī 1913-1971 (Doha: n.p., 2003), 305–80.
 Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Ibn al-Qarya wa-l-Kuttāb: Sīra wa-Masīra, vol. 2 (Cairo: Dār al-Shurūq, 2004) 234–5, 440–2.
 Maryam al-Hajari founded IslamOnline.net in 1999 alongside another Qatari-born colleague Hamid al-Ansari. Al-Ansari was a lecturer at the Sharia Faculty at the time. Bettina Gräf, “IslamOnline.net: Independent, Interactive, Popular.” Arab Media & Society, 2008, 1–21.
 Ibid., 3-4.