John Duke Anthony, the Hamas-apologist founder of the National Council on US-Arab Relations. (Image source: National Council on US-Arab Relations/Flickr)
Qatar Foreign Affairs Ministry spokeswoman Lolwah Rashid Al-Khater used intellectual relativism to assuage fears of Islamic absolutism while speaking last month at Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS). "There are always narratives and counter-narratives" and "multiple versions of the truth. That's why we have different religions," she proclaimed in a clever bid to mask Qatar's role as a Muslim Brotherhood (MB) bastion.
Packed into a conference room, the mostly student audience of about fifty people included John Duke Anthony, the Hamas-apologist founder of the National Council on US-Arab Relations, and Yahya Hendi, a Georgetown Muslim chaplain and former CCAS professor. CCAS Director Rochelle Davis, who supports an academic boycott of Israel, introduced Khater's lecture on "Defining the Narrative: Media and Politics in the Middle East." Davis pointed out that Khater is a board member at the Institute for Palestine Studies, an anti-Israel outfit based in Washington, D.C.
Khater's talk, delivered by a lacky for Qatar's Islamist regime, resembled a Western academic's analysis of modern media – a sad commentary on contemporary academe. Discussing the "public sphere" theories of German sociologist Jürgen Habermas, she noted that modern technology, such as smartphones, allows for "excessive access to information" and means that "all of us can be producers of knowledge." But "who verifies; who does the fact-checking?" she asked, although she warned not to make combating "hate speech" a tradeoff between preserving free speech and fighting prejudice.
Accordingly, Khater's slides asked, "Who controls the media?" and "Can neutrality exist in media?" Tellingly, she did not direct such questions at Qatar's manifold effort to promote Islamism, as with its state-owned, anti-Western, anti-Semitic Al-Jazeera television network and its massive financing of American academe. It took an audience member, answering one of Khater's questions mid-presentation, to point out that he would watch Al-Jazeera if he wanted MB perspectives.
Khater touted Qatar as a beacon of liberty despite its poor grades for press freedom from the watchdog group Freedom House, thereby echoing the aforementioned John Duke Anthony, who similarly whitewashed Qatar in an Encyclopedia Britannica entry. He claimed, against all evidence, that Qatar's "rulers have sought to enhance civil liberties," the "press is among the freest in the region," and "Qataris pride themselves on their tolerance." With equal mendacity, Anthony asserted that Al-Jazeera is an "outspoken news channel," indeed, "one of the most important sources of news in a region where there is little toleration for a free press."
Likewise, Khater praised the 2011 "Arab Spring" that empowered Islamists, hardly allies of a free press. Initially in these upheavals the "youth were inspiring everyone," she gushed. Maintaining that participants had an "unprecedented universal consensus on the mechanisms of mediating differences" in free societies, she came to the absurd conclusion that they created an "inclusive public sphere."
One of Khater's slides claimed that, in the "Arab Spring," "Islamists had to enter a public reasoning process subjecting their own 'religiously deliberative' premises to be negotiated within a 'national framework.'" She alleged that Egyptian Islamists had argued that democratic majorities should resolve legal questions, such as those concerning women's dress codes. This raised the specter of majorities led by the MB dictating these matters and abolishing the "public reasoning process altogether." However, in an interview that appeared the same day as her Georgetown presentation, Khater argued that MB groups in the "normal process of democracy . . . will lose a lot of their popularity."
In fact, the MB's brief 2012-2013 rule of Egypt suggested the party was going to take Egypt the way of theocratic Iran after its 1979 "Islamic revolution." More realistic was the warning Khater cited from an Egyptian thinker who had stated that "we almost don't have Arab liberals in the Arab region." The Egyptian Copt and Hudson Institute expert Samuel Tadros has concurred that Egypt lacks a popular basis for a liberal democracy.
Even Khater acknowledged Egypt's illiberal history, inadvertently providing further reason to doubt her confidence in an indigenous liberalism. She noted that early twentieth-century Egypt—under British imperial domination, she failed to add—had over 100 Arabic publications and over sixty English publications. In contrast, after the 1952 nationalist Egyptian revolution, "we went from 100-plus to three newspapers that would say the same thing" in a "confiscation of the public sphere. There was no public debate."
The fluent English-speaking Khater lends Qatar a patina of progressive respectability. Yet the Middle East Forum's February conference on Qatar demonstrated that such double-talk is the standard operating procedure for a regime that exports Islamism worldwide, supports Palestinian terrorism, aligns with radical Middle Eastern states, propagandizes through Al-Jazeera, and runs well-funded influence campaigns in Washington. Her appearance at CCAS provides a clear example of using academic allies to spread Qatar's malign designs. Unless America's Middle East studies establishment rejects Islamist funding and the insidious leverage that necessarily accompanies it, such dangerous spectacles will remain commonplace on American campuses.
Andrew E. Harrod is a Campus Watch Fellow, freelance researcher, and writer who holds a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a J.D. from George Washington University Law School. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project. Follow him on Twitter at @AEHarrod.