The United Arab Emirates is working to influence the narrative on Islam in the West, leaked emails sent by UAE Ambassador to the US Yousef Al-Otaiba, have revealed, according to MEM which obtained a copy of the leaked emails.
Whilst the UAE has made no secret of its distaste for political Islam in the Arab world, with its frequent denunciations of the Muslim Brotherhood, its blockade of Qatar and its banning of political parties, it is also attempting to reshape the narrative on Islam in the US and beyond.
Several emails between Al-Otaiba and his associates in America indicate that the UAE is promoting what it considers to be “moderate” Islam, whilst simultaneously directing US officials towards individuals who have endorsed the banning of the Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Otaiba is also revealed to have spoken at an event endorsing the US government’s countering violent extremism initiative, a strategy implemented under different names in many Western countries, and a source of much contention in Muslim communities.
“Defeat the voices of Islamism”
An email thread from the beginning of May 2017 makes clear the UAE’s stance with regard to perceived Islamist activity in the West, after Al-Otaiba was sent a memo by Mokhtar Awad, a Research Fellow in the Programme on Extremism at George Washington University. The institution produces policy advice for the US government on tackling not only extremist groups such as Daesh, but also Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
After reading the document attached to the email, Al-Otaiba promptly forwarded it to the UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs, Abdullah Bin Zayed, describing it as “a paper on empowering the moderate voice of Islam in the US in order to balance and eventually defeat the voices of Islamism.”
The ambassador then arranged a time to take the authors of the paper, Awad and his colleague Lorenzo Vidino, to meet with the minister in person and discuss the issue further.
Vidino is the director of the Programme on Extremism, and is known to be highly critical of Islamist movements, which he views as a stepping stone to radicalisation. His works include a paper entitled “The Role of Non-Violent Islamists in Europe” and a book “The New Muslim Brotherhood in the West”. Awad, who features prominently in other emails with Al-Otaiba, has also written extensively on the transition from Islamism to violent extremism, particularly with regard to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
An email thread dated 23 May this year revealed a second conversation between the UAE ambassador and Awad. In it, Al-Otaiba expresses his desire to hold an interfaith dinner during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and asks Awad for names of Islamic scholars to invite, specifying the need to have those “who are clean and have been vetted”.
Awad suggested people who are known to endorse the US government’s counter extremism agenda, including Imam Khalid Latif, Imam Waleed Mossad and Imam Talal Eid. He also mentioned Sudanese Imam Mohamed Magid, saying that whilst he used to have ties to the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), he had “shifted away from MB [Muslim Brotherhood]/may be reconcilable”. Magid is known to work with the FBI to tackle issues in the Muslim community, and served as an advisor to former US President Barack Obama.
Another individual whose name was put forward was Nasser Weddady, a civil rights activist in Boston. Whilst he is not religiously educated, Awad claimed that he has achieved prominence by countering the alleged “strong Islamist network” in the city.
“Are you confident Weddady is not connected, or even perceived to be connected to any shady groups?” asked Al-Otaiba.
“He’s a private consultant and the most dedicated anti-Islamist operator I’ve known in the US,” Awad replied.
Weddady describes himself as “an expert in Muslim reform”, has stated that he is involved with law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, and has advised on “radicalisation” activities.
The UAE has long adopted a strategy that ensures the support of its resident scholars for the country’s counter extremism strategy and regularly calls on Islamic clerics to condemn all radical activity and support Arab monarchies. The leaked emails suggest that the UAE is hoping to export such a message to a wider audience in the West.
Countering violent extremism alongside Tony Blair
Ambassador Al-Otaiba is also being sought to offer his insight on the broader fight against violent extremism in the US. An email thread from June 2016 specified an invitation that he received from Robert Danin of the Council of Foreign Relations to speak at a commission on the issue co-chaired by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
The commission, founded by Blair and former US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta early in 2016, aims to shape policy in regards to the US government’s programme of countering violent extremism (CVE). Known as PVE (prevention of violent extremism) in Britain, such initiatives have been met with criticism in the West for restricting Muslims’ freedom of speech on certain issues and labelling some mainstream Islamic practices as extreme.
Al-Otaiba confirmed his attendance at the event, highlighting that whilst he is “not an expert on CVE per se” he is happy to discuss some of his “personal views”.
Danin specified the issues that Al-Otaiba would speak on: the use of military force to prevent radicalisation; the relationship of Islam to violent extremism; and how to build enduring relationships with Muslim majority countries to tackle the issue effectively.
Ex-security and defence officials, including former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, former Deputy National Security Advisor for Combating Terrorism Juan Zarate and former German Minister of Defence Karl-Theordo zu Guttenberg, are said to be attending the program.
Some Muslim speakers were also scheduled to attend, including Sherman Jackson and the aforementioned Magid. Another invitee was Ed Husain, a co-founder and former director of Britain’s controversial Quilliam Foundation. Whilst the organisation posits itself as a counter-terrorism think tank, it has been the subject of much criticism in the UK due to its affiliations to right wing institutions such as the Henry Jackson Society.
Ambassador Al-Otaiba’s contribution to such events suggests that the UAE is eager to use any opportunities available to stress the need to restrict certain discussions in Muslim communities, as it has done at home, and reinforce its narrative that Islamism leads to violent extremism.
Promoting the designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terror group
Al-Otaiba can also be seen to be promoting the UAE’s opinion of the Muslim Brotherhood in the US. The leaked emails reveal a conversation in February of this year with President Donald Trump’s Middle East Peace Envoy, Jason Greenblatt. Ambassador Al-Otaiba recommended an event entitled “Designating the Muslim Brotherhood? A Discussion with Sir John Jenkins” as one to attend.
Jenkins is a former British ambassador who led a review of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2014 for the British government. The commission’s controversial findings, namely that the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood was at odds with Islamic jurisprudence and was contrary to Britain’s national security and interests, among other issues, were challenged by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in Westminster. MPs argued that Jenkins’s time as ambassador to Saudi Arabia had ensured a bias in his understanding of the movement.
Earlier this year, at the time that the emails from Al-Otaiba were sent, the US witnessed a similar debate, as the Trump Administration discussed an order to label the Brotherhood as a terror organisation. “Jason. Given the debate on the MB designation, I thought you or some colleagues might be interested in this talk. Jenkins is very impressive. He did the review of MB in the UK,” wrote the UAE ambassador.
The event was also to feature close associates of Al-Otaiba; step forward Awad and Vidino of the Programme on Extremism at George Washington University.
After Greenblatt sent his regrets that he could not attend the event due to the arrival of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Al-Otaiba accepted his offer to brief him at a later date. “…Jenkins is a true professional. He’s been British ambassador to Libya, Syria, Iraq and Saudi. He knows our region and culture better than most people I’ve come across.”
Greenblatt, whose promotion to the role of Middle East Peace Envoy was controversial, given his strong pro-Israel stance, has substantial influence over negotiations in the Arab world, particularly surrounding issues of extremism. The targeting of senior individuals in the US government indicates that the UAE is determined for its own understanding of extremism and how it should be tackled to be mirrored by Western governments and civil society.
At a time when Muslim communities in the West are faced with increased scrutiny and targeted policies, the revelation that the UAE is furthering such suspicions in order to support its own domestic and foreign policy ambitions is a concern for many. The Emirates’ desire to propagate its self-certified version of acceptable Islam at some of the highest levels of the US government is not only beyond its remit as a state authority, but also indicative of the lengths to which it will go in order to prevent any kind of opposition at home or abroad to its leaders’ absolute rule.