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MEMO in conversation with Dr David H. Warren: The Gulf contest over the Arab Spring narrative is shaping regional geopolitics

Arguments presented by Dr Warren highlight the ongoing battle to control the narrative about the Arab Spring

February 17, 2021 at 12:05 pm

Dr David H Warren spoke to MEMO this week about his new book Rivals in the Gulf: Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Abdullah Bin Bayyah and the Qatar-UAE Contest Over the Arab Spring and the Gulf Crisis. His work details the relationships between the influential Egyptian-born cleric Al-Qaradawi and the Qatari royal house of Al-Thani, and the relationship between the equally influential Mauritanian cleric Abdullah Bin Bayyah and the UAE royal house of Al-Nahyan. The scholars adopted contrasting positions during the popular uprisings known as the Arab Spring, and both have developed very different theories about politics and governance that are likely to shape the region for years to come.

Warren is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Washington University in St Louis. He fielded questions about why the UAE and Qatar, despite having very similar compositions, took such contrasting positions; the role played by the two scholars in shaping the foreign policy of their respective patrons; the branch of Islamic Jurisprudence (a specialist legal discourse) devised by the scholars in response to the uprising; and broader questions related to the way in which democracy is being supressed in the Middle East.

The UAE and Qatar are very similar. Founded in 1971, they are small emirates with carbon-based economies. Nevertheless, they ended up in very different camps. Abu Dhabi viewed the popular uprising as an existential threat, whereas Doha in general sided with the Arab people calling for democratic transition. Both have hosted Muslim intellectuals and skilled labour.

Considering the reasons for such polarised positions, Warren said that many of the emigrants to the Gulf States were affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood at the time. One reason why Qatar didn’t feel threatened like the UAE, he explained, was because there was no local branch of the movement in Doha. The Brotherhood did, however, have a branch in the UAE, which during the early phase of the Arab Spring in 2011 began to campaign for democratic reform. In March 2011 a petition asking for mild reforms, democratic governance and accountability was sent to the UAE President, Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan. The ruling family saw the petition as a broad swathe of Emiratis coming together in a way that didn’t happen in Qatar. Warren added that the position of the two countries was more nuanced as they both took part in suppressing the uprising in Bahrain.

The discussion sketched the way that the two scholars in question cultivated their relationships with the royal families. Al-Qaradawi, for example, moved to Qatar from Egypt in 1961 and played a major role in developing its Islamic studies syllabus, and cultivated a strong bond with the ruling Al-Thani family. A similar story played out in the UAE, where Bin Bayyah also developed a strong bond with the ruling Al-Nahyans.

Outlining the position of the two scholars regarding the popular uprising, Warren summarised Al-Qaradawi’s development of the idea of “Jurisprudence of Revolution” (Fiqh Althawra) while Bin Bayyah developed a theory which he called the “Jurisprudence of Peace” (Fiqh Al-silm). This reflected their different conclusions about the Arab Spring.

“Al-Qaradawi saw it as an opportunity whereas Abdullah Bin Bayyah saw the chaos and violence in the region as something deeply concerning,” said Warren. “What the two branches do is that both of them start from the same place of the vast diversity of the classical legal tradition and the way classical scholars thought about rebellion in different ways. The scholars expand or contract different classical precedents. So, for example, there is a long held principal in classical thought that rebellion against a ruler is to be avoided. Al-Qaradawi contracts this principal in a very narrow way and argues that the only kind of rebellion that’s to be avoided is very violent rebellion against a ruler. He also expands the well-known principal of ‘commanding right and forbidding wrong’ from an individual obligation to a societal obligation. ‘Holding a ruler to account,’ as he puts it.” In contrast, “Bin Bayyah does the opposite. He expands the prohibition against rebellion to mean any and all protests and contracts the scope of the second Islamic principal of ‘commanding right and forbidding wrong’.”

Warren also addressed some of the more controversial aspects of Bin Bayyah’s theory. The Mauritanian scholar, for example, believes that people must choose to defer their right to justice and accountability for the sake of peace. His call for peace above all else relegates justice and accountability to the background. It was suggested that the idea of relegating justice is what US policy in the region has been for decades, postponing political freedoms and human rights for the sake of stability. Warren explained that Bin Bayyah would reject the idea that his theory endorses US foreign policy in the region.

For Bin Bayyah, it was the “chaos of the fatwa” and “chaos in religious discourse” that fuelled groups like Daesh and was the source of discontent in the Middle East. Asked if the scholars’ view on the reason for terrorism allows room for the many countless social science findings which conclude that the socio-economic context and political grievances also play an equal if not greater role in the rise of groups such as Daesh, Warren suggested that this issue needs to be seen in a broader context. It was an “act of claim-making” by the Muslim scholars, he said. “If the problem results from the (mis)interpretation of Islamic texts, then it follows that the solution to the problem falls within the purview of the Ulema. If the problem of terrorism is defined as a mis-interpretation of Islam then it’s up to Muslim scholars like him to offer solutions.” He added that this form of claim making is part of an ongoing struggle between traditional scholars and secular elites who are in competition for authority within the wider public discourse.

In the final segment of the discussion, Dr Warren was asked to comment on Bin Bayyah’s jurisprudence of peace and the many initiatives sponsored by the UAE. Where do they sit within the post 9/11 ecosystem which sees the Middle East and Muslim political participation across the world through the lens of security and with suspicion? “In a general sense these initiatives do sit within the ecosystem,” he claimed. “The way that the UAE created bodies such as the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies (FPPMS) in 2014, which was led by Bin Bayyah, fits into the narrative which sees Islam through the lens of security.”

He then traced the history of US attempts to reshape Islam. According to Warren, the US was initially very invested in reshaping Islam from within, but that meant promoting secularism. It saw the secularisation of Muslim societies as the solution to the problems of the Arab world.

Since 2014 there has been a shift, with the US seeking to promote a particular type of Muslim religiosity and the idea of “Abrahamic morality”. He explained that this was a conservative form of religiosity that unites conservative Jews, Christians and Muslims. The idea is to promote an apolitical version of Islam. Instead of promoting secularists the US is interested in supporting what they understand to be traditional Islam. This conservative form of Islam, Warren argued, has no interest in politics and the promotion of democracy. The UAE and the FPPMS fits into that trend because of state branding. The UAE, in that sense, has a brand of Islamic reform which fits into US foreign policy.

Arguments presented by Dr Warren highlight the ongoing battle to control the narrative about the Arab Spring. As he argues in his book, both Doha and Abu Dhabi have helped to cultivate ideas about politics and religion to rival other centres of learning in the Islamic world and, as a consequence, have a lasting impact on regional geopolitics.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.