Supporting Moderate Islam in Qatar as a Strategic Imperative
By Monte Palmer and John Castellaw
When Qatar rejected the recent series of Saudi demands, the United States was placed in the difficult position of having to choose between the moderate Islam of Qatar and the extremist, anti-American Islam of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies. The future stability and security of the Gulf region could well depend upon the decision that the United States makes.
The authors of this article, each with more than forty years of experience in dealing with the problems of the Middle East, believe that the U.S. has far more to gain from supporting the moderate Islam of Qatar than continued attempts to pressure the Saudi Monarchy to make the Kingdom’s Wahhabi faith less hostile to the United States.
Dr. Monte Palmer is a Professor Emeritus at the Florida State University, the author of fifteen books on the Middle East, a former Director of the Center for Arab and Middle East Studies at the American University of Beirut, and a consultant for diverse American and Middle Eastern countries. LtGen John Castellaw, USMC (Retired) held key positions with the United States Central Command helping to formulate and execute military strategy in the Middle East.
Our argument begins with the observation that Islam is and will remain a major factor in shaping the affairs of the Middle East. We would also note that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world, is rapidly becoming the dominant religion in much of Africa, and is projected to become the majority religion in Europe within the next two decades. These facts alone should compel the United States to favor a forward-looking vision of Islam that is hostile to Salafi-jihadist terrorism, promotes humanitarian values, and facilitates American strategic interests in the region. Supporting the Saudi alliance against Qatar offers none of these advantages.
Within the alliance, the Saudi Wahhabi Islam is manifestly anti-American while Egypt’s government-controlled clerics, headed by the Minister of Religious Endowments (Wafq), are being forced to support the increasingly oppressive and exploitive policies of the Sisi regime. These government policies are pushing younger Egyptians toward extremism because the harsh measures under the Sisi regime offer no promise for a brighter future. With free expression repressed and without hope, the dispossessed Egyptians are turning away from Sisi. Perhaps this also explains why the billions of dollars spent on Egypt by the Saudi alliance have failed to crush the Muslim Brotherhood.
This said, we second Qatar’s support of moderate Islam precisely because they offer Muslims hope for a future that meets their spiritual and material needs in a just and non-violent framework. A moderate Islam in the Gulf region can also play a key role in easing the mounting tensions between the Abrahamic faiths that are soaring in the Middle East and beyond. Moderates can work things out. For Islamic extremists, it’s all or nothing.
The same logic justifies America’s support for Qatar’s refusal to break its diplomatic and economic relationship with Iran, a policy also being pursued by Kuwait. Delaying a showdown between Saudi Arabia and Iran is in America’s best interests helping, among other things, avoid the additional potential for U.S. and Russian troops to be drawn into a military confrontation. Whatever the case, the decision and timeline for intensified conflict in the Gulf should not be determined by the Saudi monarchy.
A decision by the United States to support Qatar and, their moderate approach to Islam, would be a visible symbol of our commitment to the peace and prosperity of the region. That support is an essential element of our strategic presence and will enhance U.S. security throughout the region.
Dr. Monte Palmer is Professor Emeritus at Florida State University and a former Director of the Center for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies at the American University of Beirut. His recent books include The Politics of the Middle East, Islamic Extremism (with Princess Palmer,) and Egypt and the Game of Terror (a novel).
LtGen John Castellaw USMC (Retired) lives near Crockett Mills, TN and is the 3d generation on his family farm. He served in the Marines for 36 years including tours as the Deputy Commanding General, Marine Forces Central Command and as the Chief of Staff, Central Command. He remains involved in national security issues.