by Andreas Krieg
When I was contacted by the quite wordy “European Centre for Counterterrorism and Intelligence Studies, Germany & Netherlands” (E.C.C.I.) a few weeks ago, I was curious why an allegedly ‘European’ research center would use a logo in Arabic with a red-headed falcon on top—a symbol widely used in the Persian Gulf. At a closer look the ‘E.C.C.I’ had linkages to another research centre that had recently popped up in Europe, the ‘European Eye on Radicalisation’ (EER)—an outlet funded by Ali Rashid Al Nuaimi, a former Emirati intelligence officer, CEO of the Abu Dhabi-based Hedaya Forum and close confidant of UAE strongman Mohammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MbZ). Publications by both the ‘E.C.C.I.’ and the ‘EER’ follow the Emirati narrative, which takes a zero-tolerance approach to Islamism.
For Abu Dhabi, the demonization of Islamism is based on a deeply-rooted fear within the centre of power around MbZ—a fear of civil societal activism legitimized not by secular power but religious belief. Since the Arab Spring, UAE officials have been on the forefront of using their narrative of ‘anti-Islamism’ and ‘counter-terrorism’ as a means to clamp down on civil-society at home and across the region. To facilitate this effort, they have partnered with dubious allies in the West: right-wing groups that make a living out of Islamist fear mongering.
These groups rely on promoting bizarre and dangerous Islamophobic conspiracy theories, like the Eurabia myth and the Red-Green alliance, to suggest that Muslims are taking over the U.S. and Europe. The same extremist echo chambers have been responsible for spreading the idea that President Obama was secretly a Muslim Manchurian candidate, that Hillary Clinton adviser Huma Abedin was a covert Muslim Brotherhood plant in the State Department, and that the UK has been overtaken by shari’a-governed ‘no-go zones’. There has been a curious overlap, too, between the lines used by the foremost Islamophobic ideologues promoting these conspiracy theories and the official messaging of the UAE government as it insinuates itself into shaping the domestic security policy of European states.
The UAE’s disinformation network, headed by spin doctors at the Harbour Group and Camstoll in the U.S., has worked with bloggers and conspiracy theorists to feed these narratives into the Republican and conservative mainstream over the past eight years. Under the pretext of ‘countering extremism’, Emirati money has financed anti-Islamist and anti-Qatar events at the neo-conservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) and the Hudson Institute, the right-wing Middle East Forum, as well as the Counter Extremism Project, a sister organization of the neo-conservative pressure group United Against Nuclear Iran.
In the UK, the UAE’s lobbyists continue to poison public discourse by feeding right-wing journalists with a track record of spreading Islamophobic conspiracy theories. In France, the right-wing Front National just recently received campaign aid worth €8 million from a suspicious source in Abu Dhabi.
Successive U.S. administrations and British governments have seen through this ruse and recognised the dangers of such weaponized narratives.
Today’s proponents of the ‘Islamist menace’ are recycling very old bigotries. Their arguments are staggeringly reminiscent of those found in a 1913 essay entitled “The Pan-Islamist Menace”, which was published in the North American Review, then one of America’s most prestigious literary journals. The author, Arthur Bullard, draws on orientalist writing in colonialist Britain, painting a dark picture of a pan-Islamist conspiracy. Reading Bullard’s breathless fear mongering on ‘the militant rebirth of Mohammedanism’, secret fraternal orders of pan-Islamists who threatened European colonial hegemony in North Africa, and ‘holy war’, two things stand out today. Firstly, his conspiracism and racial slurs then had to be proffered under the pseudonym Albert Edwards. Today, Islamophobia is so often rewarded in polite society that his casual racism would be celebrated as contrarian and Bullard would find himself showered with op-ed commissions, prime-time interviews and blockbuster book deals. On both sides of the Atlantic, he would find fellow travellers in the New Atheist movement, with all of the attendant media puff. Secondly, arguments about ‘Islamism’ have always been rooted in a racism and irrational fear that conceives of the Muslim world as a flat surface to be treated as a threat—this hasn’t changed.
Islamism remains a contested catch-all concept, describing ideology, political movements, and forms of government that borrow Islamic references but are essentially presented as separate from Islam. Its orientalist use in 19th century colonial Britain or France did not explicitly differentiate between Islam and Islamism, like it would use Christianity and Christianism interchangeably. It was only after 1979 that the concept experienced a revival that would link Islamism to ‘extremism’ and ‘violence’ in a supposedly conspirative effort by Muslims to create a pan-Islamist entity to rule the world—a narrative very similar to the anti-Semitic canard of a Jewish world conspiracy.
Those who hawk the idea of ‘Islamism’ as a rubric for understanding political divisions are taking us all for a ride. They place the Islamic State (IS or ISIS) on the same political spectrum as groups like the Sahwa tribal movement or the Popular Mobilisation Forces in Iraq, who sacrificed everything in order to halt the march of the head-chopping fanatics. They want to claim that the multipolar, non-unitary Muslim Brotherhood, which won a majority in Egypt’s only free and fair elections in 2012, is of a piece with al-Qaeda. Bullard’s bogeyman was the Sanusiyya, a North African Sufi order resisting colonial oppression, which he professed was a ‘great secret order’ engaged in ‘idiotic mysticism’ and ‘war against the infidel’. For today’s Arab tyrants and their Islamophobic allies in Europe and the U.S., those who take inspiration from their faith occupy the same position, simultaneously derided and treated as a threat.
The UAE’s offensive to win Western hearts and minds against the many shades of grey in Islamism is an attempt to create a bogeyman that resonates with an audience merely waiting for a Muslim majority country like the Emirates to support their biases. The narrative is a façade, behind which the authoritarian counterrevolutionaries in the Arab world hide to legitimize repression, justify military interventions and make journalists and activists disappear. In the face of a potential Arab Spring 2.0 currently unfolding, the dichotomous narrative of ‘authoritarian stability’ versus ‘Islamist anarchy’ fails to account for growing grey area of liberal civil-society in the Arab world—one that is resilient enough not to view Islamism as a fundamental threat to building a more pluralist political future.
Andreas Krieg is an assistant professor at the School of Security and Institute for Middle Eastern Studies at King’s College London.