Keeping Our Eye on the Ball: The Problem with the UAE Summit

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Public debates on matters of importance can be noisy and disorganized. From Ad Hominem to Appeal to Extremes, argumentative fallacies fly through cyberspace like so many ethereal cream pies. I offer this short essay as what I hope is a productive contribution to the current debate over the ‘UAE summit,’ in particular the question of participating in it and how that relates to dangerous aspects of UAE foreign policy. Because this is only one aspect of a knot of interrelated issues that must be understood as a whole, this essay covers a good deal of ground. First, I address the immediate question of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies (henceforth the Forum), held annually in Abu Dhabi since 2014. Second, I lay out the three main problems with what I term Agenda MBZ, or the political and social vision shared by the current governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia but shaped by Muhammad Bin Zayed (MBZ), the crown prince and de facto ruler of the UAE. Finally, I discuss the issue of ulama and Muslim leaders cooperating with these governments or this agenda.

I. ‘Moi ou le chaos’: Placing a Ceiling on Muslims’ Political Expectations

During the winter of 2012 and the spring of 2013, Egypt was rocked by progressively worse protests against the government of the elected president Mohamed Morsi, including anarchic attacks by a shadowy mob of hoodlums known as ‘Black Block.’ In May and June of 2013 the Egyptian army made it clear that it would only intervene if protests against President Morsi descended into chaos. What could (wrongly) be read as a mild affirmation of civilian rule was, in fact, a subtle hint at what lay ahead: if anyone could plunge the country in chaos, then they’d get the army takeover they wanted. Sure enough, the country descended further into chaos, protests grew, and the army deposed the president. The message was clear from Sisi as it was from Bashar al-Asad: it’s me or chaos, even if I have to make the chaos myself. Black Block has not been heard from since.

One of the most prominent themes in Sunni political thought is what we might call the No Rebellion Principle: that, as the Prophet (s) commanded, Muslims should not take up arms in rebellion against their ruler unless he displayed ‘egregious kufr (kufr bawāḥ).’[1] Why? Because as al-Ghazali (d. 1111) reports, ‘A tyrannical ruler is better than endless strife (imām ghashūm khayr min fitna tadūm).’ There is certainly much wisdom in this line of thinking, as the conditions in Iraq after 2003 and Syria today suggest. But it does not come close to addressing all the concerns around governance today. In the pre-modern period, the No Rebellion Principle morphed into a rule of total quietism – that there should be no opposition to or pushback against the ruler (this transformation seems to have solidified in the Mamluk period). This conflation was relatively unremarkable in the context of pre-modern states; governance was small-scale and states were thin on the ground even at the best of times. Subjects and citizens did not ask much from their governments because the state did little more than provide basic law and order in return for the collection of taxes. Civil society, charity, and social networks provided key social services and even mundane legal infrastructure.

In modern times, however, the conflation of the No Rebellion Principle with total quietism, combined with the immense and pervasive role of the modern state, has proven disastrous. The state no longer simply provides law and order. It often provides whole areas of crucial welfare and services, controls everything from education to how we raise our children, and it surveils, in some cases or on some subjects, even what we say to each other in private.

As a result, in recent decades the claim that the Sunna ordered total quietism has been used to prevent any efforts to hold kleptocratic and/or autocratic governments accountable or to demand better or more transparent governance. The Egyptians who gathered to protest peacefully in Tahrir Square in January 2011 were told by pro-government ulama that God would curse those who fomented civil strife; those who gathered in Rab’a square in 2013 for a peaceful sit-in protesting the military coup were called Kharijites whose blood was licit. Some extreme quietist Sunni scholars today have even prohibited any public display of discontent with the ruler, calling it ‘rebellion with the tongue (al-khurūj bi’l-lisān)’ (as opposed to the normal phrase ‘rebellion with the sword’). According to this school of thought, the only acceptable opposition to the policies of the ruler is to offer advice in private.[2]

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Of course, not only is it totally fallacious to conflate a duty not to take up arms against the state with a prohibition on any public display of discontent, this was not the only school of political thought in Sunni Islam. Indeed, there remains a minority strand of Sunni political thought that allows deposing an unjust ruler if the decision-making elite (ahl al-ḥall wa’l-ʿaqd) of the society supports this, a strand that stretches back to Imam Abū Ḥanīfa (d. 767).[3]

Ultimately, what parroting the misreading of No Rebellion as quietism leaves Muslims with today is the idea that we have no right to make public demands for better government. Every other country, nation or religious community can demand that their governments do a better job using the only means that ever convince the powerful to change, namely some public display of displeasure by sufficiently large numbers or sufficiently influential individuals. But not for Muslims. For us, there can be no calls for accountability, transparency, less corruption, better provision of services, etc. because any display of discontent is allegedly a slippery slope to chaos. Whether the activities of opposition parties, civil society, the press or peaceful public protests, any expression that could actually put pressure on a government to change is by definition a threat to the precious and allegedly so very fragile order that government allegedly provides.

In March 2014 I attended the first Forum in Abu Dhabi as an observer, not a speaker. The speeches I saw (and I saw most) ranged from the lunatic conspiratorial (the UN was behind all the current conflict in the Middle East) to the erudite and specific. But by far the most consistent and dominant theme was the absolute duty of all Muslims to bend to the will of the state. By ‘the state’ no one meant some idealized caliphate or benevolent government. They meant the status quo holders of power, in particular, the governments of the Muslim world that shared a common anxiety over ‘extremism.’ And here we must refresh our understanding of when this conference occurred. It was organized not in the wake of ISIS’s massive conquest of territory, its declaration of a caliphate and its ultra-violence, all of which took place only months later in the summer of 2014. This conference was convened to address what had happened in Egypt and Libya in 2013-14. So by ‘extremism’ the participants in the conference did not mean just groups who called to or employed violence against civilian or even military targets. They meant Muslim organizations or movements that did not see the status quo holders of power and the systems by which they ruled as the end-all and be-all of legitimate government.

If all this was not totally clear in listening to the speakers over two days, it was crystal in the draft declaration that I (and I’m sure many others) was sent days later to review. In what struck me as the only non-anodyne language of the declaration and the only section to address current political events, the draft asserted that democracy is a not an end in and of itself, and that people should not sacralize it and make it into a cause for civil war. Responding to the draft, I wrote the following comments to the organizers:

This is clearly a reference to Egypt and the coup against Morsi.  I do not think it’s appropriate to suggest very strongly that the conflict in Egypt has been protracted by people who are obsessed with democracy and are thus causing a civil war without mentioning 1) the injustice and harms of a corrupt and kleptocratic regime that tortured and killed people while failing in its basic duties to its people; 2) that the current regime in Egypt has killed innocent men, women, and children (many, many more than those killed by those who are insisting on ‘democracy’), and imprisoned and tortured thousands more, in the name of fighting “terrorism” or “khawarij.” These two [threats] are used to excuse violence and civil war much more than democracy is. The presence of that clause (#5) would be enough for me, at least, not to sign the document.

In light of the current debate among Western Muslims, it’s ironic that, among the presentations I saw, by far the most conscientious were those by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, Mufti Taqi Usmani and the host, Shaykh Abdallah Bin Bayyah. Shaykh Hamza urged that injustice (ẓulm) to be called out wherever it is found. Mufti Usmani reminded the audience that many of the youth who turn to violence do so because they are sincerely pious Muslims who find no possibility to improve their societies among the ranks of crony and cowardly Muslim leadership, ulema included. And Shaykh Bin Bayyah included the subtle but – to my mind even at the time –extremely important reminder that for reconciliation (ṣulḥ) to be achieved – as it must be – compromise must be made on both sides. (I was not able to attend Dr. Sherman Jackson’s speech, so I cannot comment on its content).

I note the above exceptions not to detract from the heavy criticism that the Forum is due but only to be fair to the occasional notes of divergence from what was a clear message: that contesting governance – even peacefully – was to contest the notion of law and order itself and to invite chaos.

Beyond what I consider to be this insidious ideological message, the Forum has also clearly been a tool of the narrow and extremist UAE political agenda. Within 48 hours of the announcement of the Saudi-UAE led boycott of Qatar in June 2017, the Forum issued a statement condemning Qatar’s alleged role in supporting terrorism, stoking the fires of sectarianism and undermining stability I the region (see for a full translation). As Usaama Al-Azaami notes in his article on this, however, the announcement did not appear on the personal social media accounts of Shaykh Bin Bayyah (more on this below).

II. A Trail of Bloodshed and Famine: The Agenda MBZ Abroad

Since 2013, the features of Agenda MBZ have been clear. All the calls of the Arab Spring must be silenced categorically and with unprecedented ruthlessness. There can be no acceptable challenge or even public corrective to the status quo of authoritarian government by established elites (the military in Egypt, the Alawi-industrial alliance in Syria, the royal families in the Gulf). For the Gulf monarchs, gone are the days of ruling by balancing interests, forging consensus amongst stakeholders and avoiding rifts that risk upsetting the whole system. Confident in their capacities of suppression and social control, made possible by new surveillance technology and monopolies on the media, governments need no longer tolerate dissident voices. Now they can be silenced for good.

A major feature of Agenda MBZ has been its ambitiousness. By financial support or lobbying, it is promoted wherever and whenever possible. A second major feature is a total disregard for the Agenda’s human cost. A few points make this clear:

  • The UAE government was responsible for partial funding of the 2013 coup in Egypt that unseated a democratically elected president, and the UAE paid millions of dollars to cover DC lobbying efforts on behalf of the Sisi government to make itself more palatable to the American government. The Sisi regime not only engaged in the shocking massacre of civilians at the Rab’a square, but since 2013 well over 60,000 Egyptians have been arrested, with the systematic torture and rape of prisoners and hundreds of death sentences handed down after absurd show-trials.
  • The UAE and Egypt have been intimately involved in continuing the civil war in Libya, in particular supporting the warlord Khalifa Haftar against the internationally recognized Libyan government in Tripoli.
  • The Saudi and UAE governments launched and have led a bloody military intervention in Yemen that has plunged the country into humanitarian disaster. This trauma has been so severe that even the US Senate has come around to condemning it and it has passed a bill to end US military support for the Saudi-led coalition.
  • In 2013, the previous king of Saudi Arabia (whose chief adviser, Khaled al-Tuwaijri, had a vision similar to Agenda MBZ) authorized the transfer of $681 million the bank account of the now disgraced but then Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak to help him win the general election that year, as the Saudi government was worried about the potential victory of the reformist Pakatan Rakyat party, which it saw as an expression of political Islam.

III. Agenda MBZ Hits Home: The Islamophobic Attempt to Criminalize Muslim Life in the West

In 2014, the UAE issued a list of organizations it designated as terrorist organizations. It included major US and European Muslim organizations, such as CAIR, Islamic Relief, Muslim American Society (MAS) and the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB). Its efforts to push this list have continued since then. Even as recently as this summer (2018), the UAE state publication The National ran an article trying to drum up global support to condemn Islamic Relief as “a cog” in a dangerous terrorism machine.

The significance of all this cannot be over-emphasized: The government of the UAE has been trying —and is continuing to try— to convince the US and other Western governments to declare Muslim organizations – organizations that Muslims in the West engage with often on a daily basis – terrorist organizations.

This is not because the governments of the UAE or Egypt or Saudi Arabia harbor some hatred for Muslims in the West. Rather, it is a direct and inevitable result of the disastrous mixture of clumsiness and extremism that characterizes Agenda MBZ. That Islamophobes like Frank Gaffney and Andrew McCarthy have long dreamt of the US government designating ‘The Muslim Brotherhood’ (whatever that means) as a terrorist organization is no secret. This would be the key to holding the threat of criminal prosecution over any Muslim who manifested even a shed of activist energy: ‘The Muslim Brotherhood’ and ‘Islamism’ more broadly are terms so amorphous and contested that they could be applied one way or another to almost every Muslim leader or organization in the world. Fortunately for Muslims in the US and for the semantic integrity of the English language itself, these Islamophobe efforts have so far failed. As Ben Wittes, no dove or serial defender of political Islam by any means wrote, to designate ‘The Muslim Brotherhood’ as a terrorist group would be to stretch the language of US law and conceptions of what the Brotherhood is beyond the breaking point: 

… the Brotherhood is not in a meaningful sense a single organization at all; elements of it can be designated [as terrorist organizations] and have been designated, and other elements certainly cannot be. As a whole, it is simply too diffuse and diverse to characterize. And it certainly cannot be said as a whole to engage in terrorism that threatens the United States.

What is simply stunning is that, while even US foreign policy hawks acknowledge the absurdity of the Agenda MBZ demands on criminalizing Muslim organizations, American Muslim acolytes of that agenda have worked alongside Islamophobes to advance it. In testimony given before Congress in 2016, a well-known young American Muslim scholar affirmed Republican Congressmen’s worst fears that the Muslim Brotherhood is “on the spectrum” with ISIS (see 1:44 on the C-SPAN video).

The overlap of Agenda MBZ and the Islamophobia industry has been demonstrated again and again in increasingly shocking ways. In the immediate wake of the 2017 decision by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain to boycott Qatar, the head of the US branch of the CVE-dollar-suckling Quilliam Foundation penned a Newsweek article calling Qatar a “pariah” and a “destabilizing force” in the Muslim world and urging President Trump to designate the country as a sponsor of terrorism. Just recently, the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya news outlet featured an unconscionable and generally absurd attack on newly elected US congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib as well as the well-known Muslim social justice activist Linda Sarsour. All are, according to the article, part of a Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy to hobble President Trump’s noble policy agenda in the Middle East. Again, we need to restate this with emphasis:

1) the head of an allegedly Muslim organization (one that has worked with numerous people who promote anti-Muslim views) is writing in support of the Qatar boycott, an Agenda MBZ item that even adults in the Trump administration saw as pointlessly destructive.

2) The type of Islamophobic talking points that the likes of Pamela Geller employ to prevent American Muslims from participating in public life are now propagated in exaggerated form in a Saudi media source.

In summary, Agenda MBZ is an unequivocal and devoted ally of extreme Islamophobes in the US and other Western countries. And Agenda MBZ is not just vilifying Muslims. It is advocating for the criminalization of their organizations and the destruction of many innocent lives. This cannot be ignored by Muslims in the West. Any Muslim who works to advance this agenda in the West should be privately alerted to what they are doing, and if they continue to do so they should be publicly called out.

Muslim Scholars and Agenda MBZ

And this brings us to our last question: How should we react to Western Muslim scholars who participated in the Forum? Debates over this have lapsed into hyperbole on both sides. Extreme critics lambaste these scholars as unsalvageable stooges of oppression who must be uniformly condemned. Staunch defenders accuse critics of ‘making war on the awliya’ of God’ and trying to tear down scholars who have done so much to build up Islam in America.

Neither of these extreme claims is valid and both distract us. This debate is not about denying people’s value or contributions or consigning them the dustbin of the damned. But it is about accountability and calling for better consideration of how Muslim leaders undertake engagement. I offer what advice I can here:

  1. Be Cautious and Accept Responsibility: As I wrote two years ago on this site, Muslims need to agree on and adhere to certain guidelines on engagement with government. One that I proposed was: ‘There is nothing wrong with proximity to power (sultan) if it is presented with the truth and if the general good expected outweighs any expected harm.’ In the recent debate around the Forum, many have cited the strong tradition of Muslim scholars avoiding any entanglement and even contact with government. This is certainly true, but as great scholars like al-Shawkānī (d. 1834) noted, since the time of the Companions, scholars have also served as judges and even as viziers. “It is not possible,” he wrote, “to fix the number of scholars who had dealings with the rulers of just one century, let alone in several centuries across the world.”[4]

But there is one clear rule. As an earlier giant of scholarship in Yemen, Ibn al-Amīr al-Ṣanʿānī (d. 1768), concluded, “The only thing prohibited by agreement and consensus is mixing with oppressors in order to assist them in their oppression,” whether this is done by the tongue, the pen or merely by the scholar’s silent affirmation of the ruler’s misdeeds.[5]  Whatever we disagree on, Muslim leaders and scholars should not facilitate oppression or become its tools. That Shaykh Abdallah Bin Bayyah is one of the most learned and insightful scholars of Islamic law today is beyond doubt to me. But he has allowed himself to be used as a legitimizing symbol to bolster Agenda MBZ’s Islamic credentials and has publicly endorsed the ‘anti-extremist’ policies of Saudi Arabia. He may or may not agree with some, all or none of the actions carried out by these states, but he has not made this clear and his public positions can be publicly criticized.

  1. So Make Your Involvement and Position Clear: Some defenders of the ulama who participated in the Forum have argued that the UAE’s policies would be even worse if those scholars hadn’t been there to ameliorate them. I have talked to almost all the American scholars who have spoken at the Forum, and I have no doubt that they condemn unjust policies like the war in Yemen and recognize the immense danger of Agenda MBZ for Muslims in the West. I have no doubt that they have done their best to advise decisions makers in the UAE to alter their course.

But absent any public statements by these scholars about how they view different aspects of Agenda MBZ, an agenda that directly touches on Muslims in the West, it is not surprising that their involvement in the Forum will be seen as an endorsement. The Forum is not a workshop on interpretive dance being organized by Dubai’s ministry of culture. Someone who attended that event could be excused from questions about their views on UAE foreign policy. But the Forum is devoted to a core element of Agenda MBZ (the problem of ‘extremism’ and political Islam vs. the role of state authority) and to shoring it up. And the Forum has already been instrumentalized to support feeble planks of its policy (the Qatar boycott). Scholars are certainly free to attend the Forum, but they should not allow themselves to be pictured or quoted in support of a political agenda they do not support. Instead, they should make clear their positions for all to know. Earlier I proposed a guideline that ‘The presumption is that mere attendance does not entail approval unless it is preceded by a specific claim or announcement.’ I would add that, in the case of an event like the Forum, which so clearly serves a political agenda, participation entails approval unless the participant makes it clear otherwise.

  1. We Need to Keep Perspective… as Hard as that Is: This is one of the hardest things for me to write because it runs so much against my own sensibilities. As deep and all-consuming as they are, even the fiercest of political or cultural conflicts do not transcend a common belonging to the umma of Muhammad (s). I wrote what follows in the preface for my book Hadith (2017) in an attempt to make sense of what often seemed to me beyond all sensibility. It is the best thing I can offer on a painful topic:

It has been almost ten years since I wrote the preface to the first edition of this book, sitting in an upper-floor room in a house in Sana, the red and orange light bathing the battered furniture through colored glass. How much the world has changed, how much people have suffered, and how many of the pillars of my own world have fallen. Sana is bombed and besieged. Its already impoverished people starve. Syria lies in ruins beyond tragedy. Egypt, the place I felt most at home, has mutated from the warm and open world of deep knowledge that drew me in, to a kitschy-dark caricature of mid-twentieth-century fascism. Those Egyptian scholars from whom I had benefited and learned so much have either died or become loyal servants of a dictatorship that only fools and the myopically vicious could embrace.

So then either my teachers were fools, in which case, does the knowledge they imparted to so many have any value? Or they were vicious, in which case, can such a vessel truly carry ‘this knowledge, which is religion,’ without sullying it? How does one make sense of things when one’s exemplars make choices that seem so profoundly wrong? I’ve long pondered this, and the answer I’m led to again and again is both comforting and supremely disturbing.

The political sphere appears of supreme import. Men triumph or are humiliated or killed; innocent women and children suffer unspeakable abuse; war is fought, peace is made, prosperity nurtured or squandered. But in the vaulted chamber of ideas, of knowledge, this sphere occupies just a portion of one of many shelves. Some who have brought great misery in human history have aimed only at satisfying themselves, but far more have been pursuing the same abstract goods as their righteous, often martyred, opponents. Bond villains are often very well intentioned. Political trauma, as total as it is, is created less by ideas than by their interpretation and implementation. Like all those who have reflected on human polity, my teachers valued both justice and order. But order had priority for them. Others would put justice first. This is a question of priority, and it has consequences. But, phrased like this in the abstract, reasonable people can disagree. And in that small space of disagreement the dimensions of our world are warped in inversion, and endless wrongs and suffering are inflicted. All on part of one shelf in the great library of our human heritage and its divine inspiration.

As impossible as it seems, as impossible as it is for me, we must keep our political disagreements in perspective. A report in Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī describes how, as Islam’s first, bloody civil war erupted, there was a diplomatic meeting. On one side was ʿAmmār bin Yāsir, who would soon die in the war, and on the other Abū Mūsā and Abū Masʿūd. The two men said to ʿAmmār, ‘In all the time since you’ve been Muslim, we haven’t seen you undertake anything more distasteful to us than your haste in this matter.’ ʿAmmār replied, ‘And I haven’t seen from you two, since the time you became Muslims, anything more distasteful to me than your hesitation on this matter.’ Then Abū Masʿūd dressed each of the other two in robes, and they all headed off to the mosque for prayer.[6]

God knows best.

[1] Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī: kitāb al-fitan, bāb qawl al-nabī ṣ sa-tarawn baʿdī umūran tunkirūnahā.

[2] Ayman Diyāb al-ʿĀbidīnī, Manhaj al-salaf al-qawīm fī al-ʿalāqa bayn al-ḥukkām wa al-maḥkūmīn, 3rd ed. (Cairo: Mu’assasat Sabīl al-Mu’minīn, 2009, first edition 2008), 38-45.

[3] Muḥammad b. Aḥmad al-Qurtubī, al-Jāmiʿ li-aḥkām al-Qur’ān, ed. Muḥammad Ibrāhīm al-Ḥifnāwī and Maḥmūd Ḥamīd ʿUthmān, 20 vols. (Cairo: Dār al-Ḥadīth, 1994), 1:520; Abū Bakr al-Jassās, Aḥkām al-Qur’ān, 3 vols. (Beirut: Dār al-Kitāb al-ʿArabī, n.d., reprint of Istanbul: Maṭbaʿat al-Awqāf al-Islāmiyya, 1917), 1:85-87.

[4] Muḥammad b. ʿAlī al-Shawkānī, “Rafʿ al-asāṭīn fī ḥukm al-ittiṣāl bi’l-salāṭīn,” in Majmūʿ fīhi sabaʿ rasā’il li’l-imām al-muḥaqqiq Muḥammad b. Ismāʿīl al-Amīr al-Ṣanʿānī, ed. Muḥammad al-Ṣaghīr Muqaṭṭirī (Beirut: Dār Ibn Ḥazm, 2004), 451.

[5] Muḥammad b. al-Amīr al-Ṣanʿānī, “Izālat al-tuhama mā yajūzu wa yaḥrumu min mukhālaṭat al-ẓalama,” in Majmūʿ fīhi sabaʿ rasā’il, 201-203; al-Shawkānī, 439-40.

[6] Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī: kitāb al-fitan, bāb 19.

5 / View Comments

5 responses to “Keeping Our Eye on the Ball: The Problem with the UAE Summit”

  1. Avatar Abubakr says:

    A fair critique, ending with a timely and poignant reminder. Thank you, Jonathan

  2. Avatar Umm Al-Ameen says:

    Great piece. We ask Allah for His guidance and protection in these difficult times. Truly, only Allah knows what every soul conceals. And we take solace in the knowledge that we shall be called to account for all our actions.

  3. Avatar ASA says:

    A refreshing well researched piece Alhamdulillah. The conclusion however is a little disappointing – the example used is of 2 Muslim groups who had sincere political differences however neither party sided with blatant anti Muslim oppressors as is the case today. We can’t treat their actions as a legitimate political difference, thereby legitimising their major wrongdoings.

  4. Avatar DI says:

    Salam,
    LOL. The pot calling the kettle black. Jonathan Brown you’ve criticized sahabas in your books and have some pretty strange views yourself. And you are promoting your own books in this post. So sure, I’d like to agree with many of your fair points, but I don’t see your hands being very clean…

    For those unaware Google: Book Review of Jonathan Brown’s book “Misquoting Muhammed” By Abd al-Nur ibn Ahmed 02/01/2017

    If you have changed your views, alhamdulillah. If not, may Allah guide you.

  5. Avatar Fritz says:

    Good article. This is how a mature adult writes.

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