CATF Reports Apr. 26, 2016, 8:33am


Just like mosques and Islamic institutes, universities illustrate equally well the evolving trajectory of the increasing competition between Gulf monarchies to win spheres of influence in Europe. Universities, as well, are contended as privileged arenas for a number of reasons: from their recognizable brands to their immense impact on the minds of generations of students, to their inclination to turn a blind eye to ethical dilemmas that come with conspicuous funding they often so desperately need. As previously highlighted on CATF, by financing mosques and Islamic institutes, Gulf monarchies not only secure political and cultural influence in the beneficiary country, but also channels of indoctrination, propaganda, and recruitment. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are in the lead in the race for influence over Europe. The former, sponsor of Sunni Salafism across the globe, has devoted billions of dollars to build mosques on European soil and staff them with imams sympathetic with the Saudi rulers’ Wahhabi spirit since the 1970s. The latter, the Wahhabi patron of the international movement of the Muslim Brotherhood, has more recently engaged in similar efforts across the continent.

 Last week, Le Monde brought to public attention the case of Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss academic appointed Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University in 2009, and allegedly one of the most influential Islamic intellectuals of our time, appreciated for his fine scholarship and efforts at “bridge-building” yet looked upon with skepticism for his suspiciously ambiguous political stances. The grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood Hasan al-Banna, Ramadan has always eschewed any voluntary affiliation with the international movement besides his family legacy and his early research interests. Yet his recent record of professional appointments seems to challenge his professed ideological stances. In fact, the timing and context of his appointment at Oxford may suggest that Ramadan directly benefited from Qatar’s growing spending on “land grabbing” in Europe.

Interviewed by Le Monde, Haoues Seninger, professor at the French research and higher education institution Science Po, posited that Ramadan’s tenure at Oxford in 2009 was in part ascribable to the influence in the institution of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the highly controversial Doha-based Sunni preacher who has served as a trustee of the Oxford Center for Islamic Studies since 2004. Qaradawi’s solid ties with the Muslim Brotherhood trace back to his youth and stretch throughout his life; and although the preacher twice rejected offers to serve as the Brotherhood’s supreme leader, he is still reputed “a primary inspiration for the Brotherhood.”

Not coincidentally, Qaradawi contributes to the activities of the Research Center for Islamic Legislation and Ethics at the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Doha, a center currently directed by Tariq Ramadan, who has divided his time between Europe and Doha since his appointment in 2012. Moreover, at Oxford University, Ramadan serves as “H.H. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani Professor of Theology and Religion”, a position created after Qatar donated two million books to Oxford University’s Center for Islamic Studies.

In an interview with the French daily newspaper Libération, Ramadan himself admitted that Qatar had certainly funded his chair at Oxford University, although he stressed it is the university that administers faculty selection. Interestingly, in 2015 only, Qatar donated £11 million (over $15 million) for the renovation of one of the buildings of Saint Anthony’s College, where Ramadan currently teaches.

Ultimately, Ramadan’s resume points to a larger trend: Qatar’s presence in the education system of the UK is growing increasingly pervasive, a dynamic that mirrors Qatar’s strategic penetration in France through military contracts, public awards, cultural initiatives but also through financial support to mosques and cultural institutes. In a 2013 article, Libération noted that the funding for the construction or renovation of mosques on French soil tended to flow through established channels often related to the Muslim Brotherhood in France, and especially through organizations affiliated with the Union of the Islamic Organizations of France (Union des Organisations Islamiques de France), widely reputed to be the representative of the Muslim Brotherhood’s conspicuous interests in the country.

The Qatari presence in the UK is already significant, capitalized through massive investments in real estate and finance. In 2013 Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, estimated that total Qatari investments in the UK amounted to $30.6 billion and were concentrated in the London area. Last month, The Independent announced that Qatari investors own over 4,300 residential properties worth £1 billion in the London neighborhood of Mayfair. Only few weeks ago, Qatar, celebrated by the British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon as one of the UK’s “most important regional partners”, committed to a new 10-year pact that will generate additional military contracts, high-level visits, and joint exercises. The alleged strategic similarity of Qatar’s penetration in France and in the UK strikes especially because the UK is already considered one of the major bases of the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe. The Westgate House in West London, in particular, has been shown to be a major European hub for the Muslim Brotherhood.

Qatar is traditionally regarded as an opportunistic investor, and investments in education may also express Qatar’s willingness to diversify bilateral relations previously focused on energy and defense and now centered on real estate and finance. No matter the strategy, Qatar’s grip over both France and the UK is tightening.  It is often contended that Qatar is buying its way to Western powers’ acquiescence. Education, however, is a different story, and has deeper and more dramatic implications than military contracts and political leverage. Through sponsored educational opportunities and through the teachings of sympathetic professors, Qatar will buy its way into European culture and minds. The stakes are now higher than ever.

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