In 2017, Abu Dhabi’s Foreign Minister, Abdullah Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan told a forum that, “There will come a day that we will see far more radicals, extremists and terrorists coming out of Europe because of a lack of decision-making, trying to be politically correct, or assuming that they know the Middle East, that they know Islam, and they know the others far better than we do… that’s pure ignorance.” Apart from being a sweeping and ambiguous statement shared widely by Islamophobes, it signalled to many a significant shift in UAE regional and foreign policy priorities.
It has long been a trend in secular Arab states to wage war against any form of political Islam wherever it has emerged. The results have included Egypt’s execution of Sayyid Qutb in 1966; Syria’s massacre in Hama in 1982; and the current demonisation of the Muslim Brotherhood by despots and tyrants across the region. The very existence of entities such as the Brotherhood — which is a myriad of organisations rather than the transnational single master-movement that its opponents claim it to be — poses a threat to those dictators who give themselves the omnipotence of the God that they seek to consign to personal prayer and occasion public utterances in the name of their state-approved religion. It is an age-old power struggle.
Throughout the past decade, however, that ever-present need for those states to enforce their will on the people by any means necessary has taken hold in the UAE, which had until then largely kept neutral — in public, at least — on the issue. When the threat to Gulf thrones became apparent in the 2011 “Arab Spring” and the subsequent re-emergence of “Islamist” parties in North Africa, it was no surprise that their sensitivity about any expression of political opinions or calls for reform was very obvious. What followed was a war against Islamism led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, on a larger and more international scale than similar efforts once made by Baathist parties in the Middle East.
Reports earlier this year that Saudi Arabia and the UAE had significantly funded US President Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign; revelations that they have been fuelling Islamophobia in the West; and the sight of far-right parties in Europe appealing to the UAE for funding all serve as examples of their influence in the battle against Islamists. In the geopolitical sphere, they have been tackling Islamist elements by undermining the Syrian opposition and the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya, as well as the Turkish government led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, all of whom they view as Islamist or Brotherhood-backed.
This anti-Islamist coalition is not so noble, however, for it tends to overlook the fact that its allies cooperate with – and even incorporate – their very own Islamist militias. This is seen most clearly in the GNA’s rival, the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by the coalition’s ally Khalifa Haftar, which has been proven to be neither fully Libyan nor, indeed, composed entirely of professional soldiers.
Around half of the LNA is, in fact, made up of an assortment of militias, including regional tribal groups; foreign forces such as the Sudanese rapid Support Forces and Russian and Syrian mercenaries; and, most prominently, radical Islamist militias. The Subul Al-Salam militia, Al-Wadi Brigade, the Tawhid Battalion and the Tariq Ibn Ziyad Brigade, for example, all identify as Salafi-Madkhali Muslims, a branch of Islam originating in Saudi Arabia with Rabee’ Ibn Hadi Al-Madkhali and espousing orthodox Salafism, which is considered to be at the extreme end of the spectrum albeit believing that its followers should not enter the political sphere.
The Saudi-UAE coalition and sympathisers of these militias justify their presence and support by citing the fact that Madkhali’s followers separate religion from politics – making them practically secular in outlook by refusing to rebel against the governing entity in question – while viewing the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates as the real threat because they participate in the political process.
Regardless of the truth in such distinctions, Haftar and the Gulf States which back him use this as an excuse to maintain and expand the LNA’s offensive to capture territory held by the GNA, particularly its desperate assault on Tripoli that has, so far, held firm with the help of Turkey. The great irony is that Haftar’s narrative insists that he is trying to clear Libya of any Islamist or extremist elements in his quest to usher in his vision of the future for the war-ravaged state. This narrative has been particularly useful in gaining the silence of Western and European nations despite their outward support for the GNA. Strong evidence has surfaced suggesting that they supported Haftar with air strikes following the launch of his 2014 “Operation Dignity”.
This is not to assert that he is ideologically-aligned with the militias or that any future regime led by Haftar will tolerate them; rather that he has accepted and incorporated them into his self-styled LNA for purely selfish reasons as he seeks to take control of Libya. His ambition has been curbed lately, though, with a GNA counteroffensive in which dozens of LNA fighters have been killed, hundreds more have been captured, and several key areas have been liberated.
If Haftar does eventually oust the GNA and capture Tripoli, though, we can be almost certain that he will crush and dissolve the Islamist militias which are fighting for him. That tends to be the fate of all rebel sub-groups which help a budding government to gain power, as they are seen forever as a potential threat.
A clampdown on the mosques and centres of the Salafi religious establishment in Libya will then be enforced, with Imams being forced to preach support for Haftar; according to reports, this is already happening in LNA-held territory. Like his ally Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in Egypt, who has cracked down on the famed Al-Azhar University and sought to enforce a more “moderate” Islam, Haftar will do the same by ensuring that religious institutions within Libya comply fully with the diktats of a newly secularised state. This is already true across most of the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region.
With the Libyan civil war in its ninth year and the conflict far from being resolved, the Gulf States’ fake war against Islamism is being conducted not to protect ordinary people, but to shore up their own thrones, which have been shaken by the upsurge in popular political activism. Backed by Western countries whose lip-service to the spread of democracy doesn’t extend to the oil-rich monarchies and strategic partners kept in power to protect Israel, the hypocrisy of the Gulf States is exposed by their use of Islamist militias to eradicate Islamism and, indeed, Islam itself. It also exposes the naivety of the militias, which are being used to eradicate the faith which they and their paymasters claim to espouse.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.