Consortium Against Terrorist Finance Aug. 19, 2016, 11:12am

Over the past several weeks Qatar Charity has made headlines in Italian media with unprecedented frequency. In an increasingly militarized country dealing both culturally and factually with a growing terrorist threat, the charity and its controversial past and present operations has become a symbol of a greatly feared scenario: foreign funding coming with ideological constraints and nurturing further radicalization in the country. Qatar’s grand plan for long term investments in Italy as well as in the rest of Europe points to much needed legal reform that could reduce the political and cultural impact of countries sponsoring Islam from abroad.

France has witnessed an intense debate over the potential halting of foreign funding. In an interview with Le Monde on July 29, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced that France is considering temporarily banning foreign financing of construction of mosques within the national borders. The reality of the thousands of mosques and Islamic cultural institutions sponsored for decades primarily by Saudi Arabia and Qatar has been brought to public attention in the context of France’s increased efforts to cope with extremism and radicalization after a fresh wave of terrorist attacks this year. Of the 2500 mosques and prayer rooms currently active in France, 120 are reputed to be hotbeds of Islamic fundamentalism. Just like the rest of Europe, France is now paying the price for decades of accepting poorly screened funds disbursed primarily by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Those funds have played a decisive role in the diffusion of Salafism, one of the most conservative interpretations of the Islamic teachings, across European schools and religious institutions.

The Italian press is sending important signals in the same direction. Italian newspapers are following with unprecedented attention Qatar Charity’s investment plan in the country. As discussed previously by CATF, over the past three years Qatar Charity has disbursed €25 million (about $28.5 million) for Islamic centers and mosques spread across the national territory and seemingly intends to remain committed to its role as one of the major benefactors of the Islamic communities in the country. However, the nefarious aura of the Qatari emissary, nurtured by a long track record of controversial associations with extremist and terrorist organizations – especially al-Qaeda – is sparking new criticism as the charity’s presence grows in parallel with public pressure over new counterterrorism strategies. Senator Giacomo Stucchi, who serves as President of the Parliamentary Committee for the Security of the Republic (COPASIR), went as far as to petition the Italian government to investigate the sources of the funds channeled through Qatar Charity for a project in the North of Italy due to Qatar Charity’s proximity to representatives of radical Islamists and in light of the U.S.’ acknowledgement of the charity’s financial ties with al-Qaeda.

Italy makes an important case study primarily because of its outdated regulations of the State’s relations with religious communities. Italian legislation prescribes that only those religious communities who have a codified agreement with the Italian state may benefit from public donations and state support. With 1.6 million Muslims on Italian soil, Islam is the largest religious community who still lacks an institutional agreement with the Italian state in spite of its long history of failed attempts. Inevitably, Italian Muslims highly rely on private donations and foreign funds mostly from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Turkey.

Most recent reports on potential terrorist attacks on Italian soil, along with recently detected radical and terrorist cells crossing the peninsula towards other destinations, have exacerbated a newfound awareness of factors potentially fostering radicalization in the country. Italian media is more and more often reporting about the country’s counterterrorism measures in place and awaiting implementation, especially those concerning terrorism financing. The large information sharing network cultivated after 9/11 by law enforcement authorities and deeply entrenched in local Muslim communities is certainly paying back. The number of digital financial transactions to be scrutinized for suspicion of support for terrorism is growing exponentially, a phenomenon due in large part to an assimilated culture of cooperation with authorities that encourages communities to flag suspicious cases. The growing phenomenon has compelled the establishment of new specialized units within the Guardia di Finanza – a Military Police under the authority of the Minister of the Economy and Finance – working in cooperation with Italy’s central bank, Banca d’Italia. Who is funding religious communities from abroad has thereby suddenly become a matter of the utmost importance, and Qatar Charity is finally getting the negative attention it deserves.

Even beyond its highly controversial ties, Qatar Charity and its grand plan for a continuing, pervasive presence and role in the country is fostering widespread concern for the price that Italy will pay in the long run. A major legislative reform that could alter funding mechanisms in favor of religious communities who do not have a codified agreement with the Italian state may constitute a first, important step. Until that moment, Qatar remains a most desirable, vital investor. Unfortunately, the indiscriminate banning of all foreign funding to Muslim communities suggested by French authorities should be regarded as a non-viable option. The ban would harm primarily Islamic schools and institutions without addressing the systemic problem, and would not ultimately reverse long standing efforts to spread Salafism across the old continent. Whilst awaiting a major legislative reform and in the context of reinforced counterterrorism polices, a stronger vetting of donors and conduits must be implemented to prevent funds destined to preserve religious freedom to be manipulated for opportunistic reasons. Removing Qatar Charity from the picture may be a good way to start.


See also:

Qatar: From Oxford Classrooms to Europe’s Hearts and Minds

Qatari Donors Are Buying a Say in Italy’s Islam

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