Middle Eastern governments have forged alliances with right-wing groups in the West dedicated to anti-Islam bigotry.
By Ola Salem, Hassan Hassan, 2019-03-29
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Arab regimes spend millions of dollars on think tanks, academic institutions, and lobbying firms in part to shape the thinking in Western capitals about domestic political activists opposed to their rule, many of whom happen to be religious. The field of counterextremism has been the ideal front for the regional governments’ preferred narrative: They elicit sympathy from the West by claiming to also suffer from the perfidies of radical jihadis and offer to work together to stem the ideological roots of the Islamist threat.
Based on dozens of conversations conducted over several years, we found that autocratic regimes in the region carefully cultivate conservative and far-right circles in the West that they believe lean toward their own anti-Islamist agendas.
Arab propagandists claim there is an inherent connection between so-called political correctness and a tendency to downplay ideologies that lead to terrorism—claims that are seized on by Western conservatives to legitimize their own arguments.
Such campaigns by Arab governments go beyond an effort to simply explain the precise threats posed by Islamists—which do indeed exist. Instead, they often involve scare tactics to play up the threat and create an atmosphere in which an alternative to these regimes becomes unthinkable from a Western policy standpoint. Such an environment also enables these regimes to clamp down on dissent at home with impunity. Terrorism becomes a catchall term to justify repression. In Saudi Arabia, even atheists are defined as terrorists under existing anti-terrorism laws.
These patterns played out for more than a decade but intensified in recent years, and they proved to be effective instruments to win friends and influence enemies.
David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader who visited Damascus in 2005 to show solidarity with the Syrian regime against Zionism and imperialism, frequently expressed support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad despite the dictator’s vicious campaign against his own people. In a 2017 tweet, he wrote, “Assad is a modern day hero standing up to demonic forces seeking to destroy his people and nation – GOD BLESS ASSAD!” Similar Assad-friendly sentiments have been expressed by far-right figures in Europe.
As European countries increasingly became critical of Saudi Arabia last year after the growing casualties in the Yemen war, the imprisonment of women activists, and the murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, Riyadh turned to the right wing for support. Among other efforts, a delegation of Saudi women was dispatched to meet with the far-right bloc of the European Parliament. According to Eldar Mamedov, an advisor to the European Parliament’s social democrats, Saudi Arabia subsequently became a divisive issue in Brussels, as left-of-center forces pushed for resolutions against the kingdom while right-wing forces opposed them.
After the military coup in Egypt in 2013, the regime in Cairo and its regional backers were in full gear to exaggerate the risks of extremism and promote Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as the strongman who was willing to take on not just the extremists but also Islamic thought. A statement he made in 2015 about the need for an Islamic reformation to review, and presumably discard, centuries-old Islamic traditions became heavily cited by his defenders in Washington and other capitals as evidence of his anti-Islamist credentials.