Consortium Against Terrorist Finance Jun. 9, 2016, 3:00pm

It has been an eventful couple of weeks for the Italy-Qatar relationship. On June 4, Sheikha Moza bint Nasser al-Missned, the second wife of former Qatari emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani and mother of the current Emir Tamim, was officially received by Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and by Pope Francis. In her presence, Qatar Foundation for Education’s chairperson Hamad al-Kuwari and the director of the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Mons. Cesare Pasini sealed an agreement for the Qatar National Library to digitize and release to the public antique Arab and Islamic manuscripts currently held by the Vatican library. At the end of May, sources close to the Petroleum Ministry in Qatar revealed that the Qatari government launched negotiations with the Italian company ENI (and a French company) to import 60,000,000 tonnes lac tonne Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) annually, as a part of Qatar’s general efforts to differentiate business dealings and partners to control the impact of the energy crisis.

The Italian Trade Agency in Doha, the Italian Embassy, and the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Qatar are regularly cooperating to promote business meetings between Qatari and Italian companies with the ultimate goal of increasing investment opportunities between the two countries. They have been extremely successful so far, and bilateral trade is set to increase. But, as the past couple of weeks have confirmed, the Italy-Qatar relations trespass business dealings and embrace increasingly solid cultural bonds, consolidated over time mostly though Qatar Charity’s apparently inexhaustible contribution to the cause. In a country in which “mosques are forced to finance themselves” through private donations or through foreign financial support, Qatar Charity has been a game changer for the Italian Muslim communities.

Starting on May 24 in Brescia, a fully-fledged Qatar Charity delegation traveled across the northwest of Italy to inaugurate several new or restructured Islamic Centers recently funded – in full or in part – by the Qatari NGO. The unusually high-profile delegation included Qatar Charity chairman Hamad bin Nasser al-Thani and CEO Yussef bin Ahmed al-Kawari, former director of AMAL in Mulhouse (France) and now chair of Qatar Charity’s UK branch (QCUK) Ayyoub Abouliaqin, QCUK Vice President Salah al-Hammadi, and QCUK officer Khalid Aaunallah. From Brescia, on May 25 Qatar Charity officers moved to Mirandola to launch the al-Ikhas Islamic Center and later headed to Piacenza, where they met with the local representatives of the Muslim communities and of major local businesses. They opened the doors of the Ettawba Islamic Cultural Center in Vicenza on May 26, and solemnly inaugurated the Islamic Cultural Center in Saronno two days later.

Invariably, representatives of the Unione delle Comunita’ Islamiche Italiane (UCOII) joined the QC officials’ tour, applauded by local authorities and by delegates of the local communities. UCOII is, in fact, Qatar Charity’s traditional interlocutor and partner on Italian soil for investments channeled under QC’s Ghaith Initiative, a project officially launched in 2014 but informally active for the past 15 years to sponsor Islamic religion, culture, and education to the benefit of Muslim communities especially among Western countries.

Interviewed by the Italian newspaper La Stampa, UCOII President Izzedin Elzir declared that over the past three years Qatar Charity disbursed €25 million (about $28.5 million) and actively supported UCOII’s fundraising efforts. Yet La Bussola columnist Valentina Colombo rightly pointed out that the May tour inaugurations and past three years’ investments it stems from are only a fraction of Qatar Charity’s plans for Italy.

In 2013, Qatar Charity had already announced a planned €2.4 million ($2.7 million) investment in Sicily-based mosques and Islamic centers in addition to €4 million ($4.5 million) to be devolved in support of Islamic centers based in Mazara del Vallo, Palermo, Modica, Barcellona, Donnalucata, Scicli, and Vittoria. About a year ago, the list of the Italy-based religious and cultural centers beneficiating from Qatar Charity’s donations appeared on the QC website and included mosques and schools scattered throughout the whole peninsula in about a dozen locations including Milan, Turin, Rome, and Verona.

Recently, UCOII’s President bluntly declared to La Stampa’s microphones: “I’ll accept funding from whomever”. Yet, even in countries where the Islamic communities are left alone to sustain the cost of building, administering, and maintaining their own cult sites, foreign funding cannot be accepted indiscriminately. In a separate interview Ezir cared to emphasize that Qatar’s money supposedly comes from “the people”, not the government, in that Qatar Charity – not Qatar Investment Authority – was the ultimate financier of new opportunities for Italian Islam. Yet, even beyond its proprietary structure heavily permeated by al-Thani members and their investments, Qatar Charity has often acted as the semi-official expression of Qatar’s humanitarian efforts across the globe. Qatar Charity’s controversial presence on the European scenario comes with a whole set of problematic implications.

At one level, funds that the Qatari NGO has profusely destined to support UCOII needs over the past several years have empowered the latter as the most authoritative representative of Islam in Italy in spite of the organization’s ideological – and in a few cases personal – affiliation with the European circles of the Muslim Brotherhood. Ezzir suggested that, currently, only a few UCOII members formally adhere to the Muslim Brotherhood international movement, although it is undeniable that UCOII’s old guard had solid ties to the Syrian and Palestinian ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood. Established in 1990, UCOII has always been a dynamic actor who has sought institutional representation for Islam in Italy. Significantly strengthened by Qatar Charity’s financial support, UCOII’s increased contractual power risks to degenerate into a substantial monopoly of Islam’s representation before Italian institutions. Tones and themes dear to the Muslim Brotherhood’s tradition as well as to UCOII’s leadership and supporters may gain new resonance and visibility through the plethora of schools and mosques sponsored by Qatar Charity.

At another level, Qatar Charity has often proved instrumental in Qatar’s ability to leverage its financial investments to consolidate cultural and political influence on foreign territory. Italy is just another frontier for the Wahhabi country, which has striven for decades to buy its way into European hearts and minds through sponsored educational opportunities and generous humanitarian efforts. However, the lack of alternate reliable sources of funding cannot downplay the nefarious aura of Qatar Charity expanding over Europe with virtually no obstacle. As discussed in a previous piece, Qatar Charity has proved, long-standing ties to al-Qaeda’s top echelons and has often been accused of masking activities sympathetic to terrorist and extremist groups through humanitarian aid contributions. In the late 1990s, Qatar Charity made headlines for its reported donations to Chechen extremists, and its Azerbaijani branch was closed down in 2001 upon allegations that Qatar Charity was cooperating with terrorist groups.

What” Islam will be taught in Qatar-paid schools and mosques?, asks Valentina Colombo. Countries in which religious communities do not receive state support are especially vulnerable to the ongoing race for influence between Wahhabi patrons that over the past three decades have funded schools and mosques to secure a pied-à-terre and privileged channels for propaganda and recruitment. A state-level solution, enforcing a more serious screening of foreign funding flow from private and state donors and/or rethinking state’s agreements with and support for religious minorities, may be the first step to address the long-term implications of the growing Qatari presence in Italy and in Europe.

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