Religious leaders and thinkers frequently portray themselves as being beyond politics, with obligations only to the truth as they see it. Often, Western media figures eagerly accept this narrative when it suits them, particularly when the religious figure in question makes a convenient rebuttal to political views those media figures dislike. Such is the case with Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss-born Muslim thinker and Oxford academic, who was widely held up as an influential religious moderate before his 2017 arrest for rape.
Perhaps it is this image of sage disinterestedness that makes it all the more shocking when a prominent religious voice is found to be on someone's payroll. But with Ramadan, it should come as less of a surprise. The grandson of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ramadan has long been accused of a pro-Brotherhood agenda by researchers and anti-Brotherhood activists. Now, new research has revealed that Ramadan was being lavishly funded by Qatar, the Brotherhood's chief patron. Qatar's powerful state-development organization, the Qatar Foundation, was paying Ramadan for "consulting" to the tune of 35,000 euros a month.
The latest scandal implicating the Islamist ideologue was revealed by a new book, Qatar Papers, by French investigative journalists Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot. Based on extensive bank records the authors received on a USB stick from a whistleblower, the book revealed that Ramadan was on the payroll of the Qatari regime for years. Qatari money would fund his purchase of two swanky apartments in Paris, among other things.
Ramadan's ties to Qatar are extensive; he was visiting professor at the Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Doha, and director of the Qatar Foundation-backed Research Centre for Islamic Legislation and Ethics (CILE) in Doha, Qatar. He was also president of the pro-Qatari think tank European Muslim Network (EMN) in Brussels. Furthermore, Ramadan was a member of the Qatari-funded and Muslim-Brotherhood-run International Union of Muslim Scholars, which until recently was headed by the Muslim Brotherhood's "spiritual leader" Yusuf al-Qaradawi.
Qatar had continued to back Ramadan even after the first series of allegations were made against him, starting in October 2017 (more accusers have emerged on a regular basis since then). Ramadan's Islamists defenders indignantly pointed to his many videos about the importance of sexual modesty and morals, and claimed that he was being falsely persecuted out of "Islamophobia." But in February 2018, Ramadan was formally charged with rape by French officials, at which point Qatar loudly declared him persona non grata. His public relationship with the Qatar Foundation ended at this point; and yet, he subsequently received 19,000 Euros from the Qatari-funded Swiss Muslim League to help with his defense. (The Swiss Muslim League is operated by two Muslim Brotherhood members, Naceur Ghomrachi and Mansour Ben Yahya.)
But Qatar's relationship with Ramadan is only a small detail in a larger story. Qatar Papers also revealed the deep involvement of the Qatari regime with the Islamist network in Europe. Much of this was done by Qatar Charity, a regime-linked organization that has been accused of funneling billions of dollars to Islamist insurgent groups in Syria, Libya, and elsewhere. In Europe, Qatar Papers showed, Qatar Charity provided some 71 million euro to fund the construction of 140 mosques, Islamic centers, and Islamic museums.
In an interview, author George Malbrunot said, "The Muslim Brotherhood philosophy is to encompass people's lives from birth to death. All of the Qatar-financed projects tried to do just that, surrounding mosques with schools, swimming pools, restaurants, and even morgues." According to Malbrunot, that goal explains the huge spending on European projects, meant to propagate Muslim-Brotherhood Islamism—to the extent of funding a mosque in the tiny Isle of Jersey (which has few Muslims) to facilitate proselytizing.
According to Malbrunot, while the operators of these projects deny any affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, the libraries at these schools and centers are filled with Islamist literature written by the likes of radical cleric Yusuf Al Qardawi (one of Tariq Ramadan's mentors) and the terror-justifying thinker Sayyid Qutb, a founding ideologue of 20th century Islamism.
Qatar's opulent sponsorship of Tariq Ramadan's career served a dual purpose—at once spreading Brotherhood ideology among the Muslim youth of Europe, and presenting a soothing message of moderation to Western observers. This same two-pronged approach is at work in the many mosques, professorships, and libraries that Qatari money funds across Europe. Qatar would loudly deny that its aim is radicalization; but such denials are hard to square with the extremist literature that Qatari institutions promulgate. We may find that sexual assault is not the worst crime that Qatari money made possible.
Hany Ghoraba is a writer for Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum. He writes for Al Ahram Weekly and is the author of Egypt's Arab Spring: The Long and Winding Road to Democracy.