Qatar is experiencing its greatest crisis since the emirate received its independence in 1971. The country is currently facing a blockade from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Yemen and the Maldives.
The crisis stems from fake news. Two weeks ago the rich, tiny petro-state of Qatar was the victim of a cyberattack in which hackers altered official government press releases to make it appear that ruling emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani was quoted making anti-Trump and anti-Israel statements, as well as apparent declarations in support of terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.
The comments appear to be fake. We don’t know who was behind the attack. It could have been the Iranians. It could have been the Emiratis. An FBI agent working with Qatar has revealed ties between the incident and Russian hackers.
The timing of the attack, days after President Trump’s visit to Riyadh, is suspicious. Qatar has tried to get some sympathy for its predicament. A government statement after the attack said that the country was the victim of a smear campaign.
For a smear campaign to work, its premise must be believable. The so-called fake statements reveal what many in the Gulf (and in the American policy community) believe are actually Qatar’s foreign policy goals — support for terrorism and a cozy relationship with Iran.
Qatar has done little to assuage those fears; Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Tamim, has sought support from Iran during the crisis. Qatar has received diplomatic support and assurances regarding food supplies from Tehran.
The fake news statements were believable because this is precisely the editorial line of Al Jazeera, the state-run media organization in Qatar.
Which is why it’s not surprising that the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt have joined in blocking access to the website for Al Jazeera. There was a time Al Jazeera could claim to be a legitimate media organization. However, the much-discussed Arab news network has become a steady stream of fake news, its editorial line closely adhering to Qatar’s vision of the world. Its editorial stands in recent years have been decided not by the editor’s desk, but by the Qatar foreign ministry. As an op-ed in the Emirati paper Gulf News put it, in light of the recent crisis:
The channel has become a mouthpiece for the Brotherhood and other terror groups such as Al Qaida and Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). It regularly hosts radical elements and jihadists who call for violence not only in the Arab world but also in other parts of the world.
Indeed, if the fake quotes from the Emir are believable, it is because Al Jazeera has spent years propagating such views in its Arabic-language programming. Additionally, Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, who has been described as a hate preacher for his comments in support of suicide bombers and attacks on Christians, has been given free air time on the network. Qaradawi is just the most egregious example, but Hamas, exiled members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and members of the Taliban all live in Doha and all are based in or have received support from Qatar.
Qatar responds that its media is meant to be a platform for debate and discussion. It is one thing to interview these extremists for an occasional news piece; it is another entirely to give them access to state-funded media to use as a soapbox. To put this in the American context, it’s one thing to allow white supremacist Richard Spencer to hold rallies as part of his First Amendment rights as a U.S. citizen; it is different to give him a weekly show on PBS or Voice of America where he can espouse hateful views.
Qatar has invested too much into Al Jazeera as a platform for the government to stop funding it, as the Gulf countries and Egypt might hope. Some still believe it is not too late to turn Al Jazeera into a legitimate news organization which reports fairly on the news, both in Qatar and in the region, not a soapbox for Salafi jihadists.
During the recent Riyadh Summit, the world’s Muslim leaders in concert with the United States pledged to end terrorism in the region. President Trump gave a long speech imploring the Muslim world to join the United States in fighting terrorism. More recently Trump appeared to take credit for the crisis with a series of tweets aimed at Qatar.
However, I believe former President George W. Bush may have said it best: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”