By Ben Cohen/JNS
U.S. National Security Advisor Gen. H.R. McMaster underlined an important point this week that deserves a wider audience.
Speaking at a conference in Washington, D.C., McMaster highlighted two countries that he said were playing a key role in advancing radical Islamist ideology through the Muslim community’s “charities, madrassas and other social organizations.”
Not Pakistan. Not Libya. Not Shi’a Iran. The two countries named by McMaster have been regarded for most of the past century as stalwart allies of the West. One is a member of the NATO alliance and a candidate country for EU membership. The other hosts the most vital American military base in the Middle East, home to the headquarters of CENTCOM and the location of more than 9,000 U.S. troops.
These two countries are Turkey and Qatar. And the promotion of radical Islam, McMaster said, is “now done more by Qatar, and by Turkey.”
It’s not the first time that the Trump White House has linked Qatar with the promotion of terror. Trump himself said back in June—at the start of the blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and other Arab states—that “the nation of Qatar has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level.” The evidence of fundraising, money channeling and money laundering in Qatar on behalf of Islamist groups ranging from Islamic State to the Palestinian Hamas has been mounting for more than a decade.
There are no Arab countries where terrorism financing doesn’t have a footprint, which is why it would be self-defeating to portray Qatar as the only source of the problem. But because Qatar likes to portray itself as a country apart from the rest of the Gulf—blending Islam with enlightenment values; pursuing an independent foreign policy; and its status as a hugely powerful player in global real estate, financial and commodity markets—it becomes necessary to occasionally wipe the gloss from the thriving desert kingdom image the emirate projects outward.
Ditto with Turkey, although that task is made easier by the fact that the country is run by an authoritarian thug in the form of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. McMaster specifically identified Erdogan’s ruling AKP party with the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, remarking that “by operating through civil society, they consolidate power through one party, sadly it is a problem contributing to Turkey’s drift from the West.”
The word “drift” is something of an understatement; since the murky coup of last year, Erdogan has assumed near-dictatorial powers, used the war against Islamic State as an excuse to launch brutal air raids on Kurdish fighters in Syria and Turkey, colluded with Iran in the carve-up of Iraqi Kurdistan, and is now leading a renewed charge against Israel following President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. Rarely does the Turkish leader let up on the demonizing, anti-Semitic invective he seemingly revels in.
Dishonesty is a characteristic of nearly all governments, but there is a big difference between unauthorized corruption and willfully employing corruption as one’s point of departure. In the cases of Turkey and Qatar, at the level of public relations, this corruption takes the form of communicating in bare-faced lies, and sticking by them or dancing around them when these lies are unmasked as such.
Erdogan does this with many issues, particularly Israel—which he slanders as a “terrorist state,” while concocting or regurgitating Islamist conspiracy theories about the Jewish state’s “true” designs for Jerusalem. The Qataris do the same, first and foremost with their own record. In June, Sheik Saif bin Ahmed al Thani—another scion of the ruling family who serves as the director of government communications—told the Los Angeles Times editorial board that “Qatar does not fund terrorism whatsoever—no groups, no individuals. Not from afar or from a close distance.” (The editorial board did not challenge him on this claim.)
Those blatant lies persist—even as the numerous lobbyists and public relations teams employed by both countries try to divert our attention to, say, Qatar’s role in African regional development, or Turkey’s concern about anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe, or the supposed moderating influence of Doha and Ankara alike on radicals. That these conversations proceed on the basis of long-established, and largely true, assumptions about the historic alignment of both countries with the West only further blurs an understanding of the problem we are dealing with now.
If Turkey and Qatar do not change their behavior—and a guy whose security detail attacks demonstrators in the middle of Washington in full view of the world’s press is probably not going to change his behavior—terrorist outrages, attacks on Israel’s right to exist, persecution of religious minorities, the promotion of jihadi ideology and even regional war will remain as fixed anxieties of our political life. Put more simply, Qatar and Turkey may have been part of the solution, but they are now firmly a part of the problem.
There are those in the U.S. Jewish community who act as though the Islamist transformations of these two countries haven’t occurred, and who continue to respond to the outreach of Qatari and the Turkish representatives with flattered hearts and minds. One can concede that there are occasions when direct dialogue might be useful—but when there is such an imbalance of power as there is when it comes to our communal leaders, and when Qatar and Turkey established long ago their commitment to jihadi anti-Semitism, it is time to end the self-delusion.
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.