How a tiny oil monarchy is stretching a strategic network of influence in the US
By: Sarah Stern and Hussein Aboubakr Mansour
Earlier this year, IMPACT, a research, policy, and advocacy organization that monitors and analyzes education, published an extensive report on the educational content of school textbooks in the country of Qatar. The report uncovered pervasive amounts of anti-Semitism, anti-Western propaganda, Islamist rhetoric, and clear sympathy to Islamist causes. In the books, it is possible to discern a clear Muslim Brotherhood influence and even a celebration of jihadism. The books scrutinized in the report were books of Arabic, religion, history, and social sciences. The Qataris seemed to be adamant about passing ideological content to their young in every class possible. What is worrying us, is not that the Qataris are teaching this to their children, this has been known for some time, but they are now trying to buy their way in into the American public education system. With a record like this in education, Americans should be concerned.
The attempts to control the narrative on Middle Eastern culture and history goes back several decades. The lavish K-12 Arabic language and culture program sponsored by the Qatar Foundation to influence curriculum in American public schools is not the first time a Middle Eastern country attempts to do so. Through funding to higher education institutions, Saudi Arabia was able to support programs to train teachers on specific content they wished to sponsor through Title VI of the Higher Education Act. This act gives a grant to certain universities for regional studies, including Latin Studies, Post-Soviet Studies, Middle Eastern Studies, etc. In order to get the grant, the professors in these departments are required to have teacher-training workshops for teachers of kindergarten through 12th grade, or for librarians.
The curriculum guide that they most frequently use is Audrey Shabbas’ “The Arab World Studies Notebook”. It is funded by AWAIR (Arab World Islamic Resources and School Services). AWAIR receives its funding from ARAMCO and the Middle East Policy Council, both of which receive their funding directly from the Saudi government.
The book professes educational, and even noble, goals of addressing a lack of basic knowledge of Arab culture and Islam. No one should oppose an educational mission that aims at adding to the knowledge of Americans of the world. Yet, upon closer examination, we find that the book veers away from the mission of transmitting impartial facts into the territory of clear propaganda, Islamic apologetics, and anti-Western rhetoric. There is nothing wrong with teaching students about what Islam and the Quran say in quotation marks, but with the simple act of removing those quotation marks and the qualifier which should precede them, the message becomes entirely different. It stops being teaching about religion and it becomes teaching religion, which runs against American tradition, practice, and law that seeks to prohibit the teaching of religious curricula in public schools. Do Americans oppose the teaching of Christianity in schools only to permit the teaching of a different religion? Why should we contest the teaching of Biblical creationism while allowing the teaching of Quranic revelation? While the Department of Education allows the Bible to be taught only as literature, the Notebook is teaching Quran as empirical knowledge.
Veering from religion to politics, the Notebook has a clear pro-Palestinian agenda. To educate students about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one thing, but to offer them only one side of the conflict as educational facts is another. Once an educator stops sharing dispassionate facts of history and starts sharing passionate opinions as facts, education simply becomes indoctrination. The book is candidly anti-Israel, offering an Arab condemnation of Israel as a crime against humanity and against truth. An American student whose learning is facilitated by the Notebook is not going to learn that Arabs contest the identity of Jerusalem, but that Jerusalem is an Arab city through and through. The poetry of the national Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, including his poem “Identity Card” is taught with absolutely no attempt at balance. The poem, about a fictitious man whose land “was stolen from him by the Israelis,” evokes feelings of anger and resentment towards Israel and empathy and identification with the Palestinians. Here is just one stanza:
I am an Arab
You have stolen the orchards
Of my ancestors
And the land
Which I cultivated
Along with my children
And you left us with these rocks
So will the State take them
As has been said?
The book systematically and methodologically produces propaganda disguised as knowledge through the presentation of opinion as fact, myth as history, the omission of facts, whitewashing, and presenting a historical narrative shared by Arab nationalism and Islamism. The ideological nature of the Notebook’s content is completely different than its innocuous educational outlook. To say that the average American teacher is significantly ill-equipped to deal with such an ideological challenge, not to mention the students, is an understatement. Thus, the actual mission of the book clearly becomes not addressing a severe lack of knowledge about the Arab and Muslim world, but to manipulate such a lack of knowledge in favor of pushing ideological content serving long-term political interests of certain Middle Eastern political factions through the creation of an American public opinion sympathetic to its world view.
The book first came out in 1998, and since then, Ms. Shabbas says she has “reached the hearts and minds of millions of American children.”
The Saudi financial crusade to spread its doctrines, dogmas, and political stances all across the world is well known to many. It is responsible for decades of Salafist radicalization among Muslim communities globally. But while the Saudis pioneered the mass-purchase of influence, they seem to be shifting gears from such policy. In an interview to Washington Post, Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman made a startling confession saying that the spread of Wahhabism, the most radical form of puritan Islamic conservativism, was spread by Saudi Arabia with encouragement from the West in a bid to prevent the Soviet Union from gaining influence in the Muslim world. The State Department estimates that Saudi Arabia spent around $10 billion in promoting Wahhabism in the last four decades. The admission came as Saudi Arabia today is signaling a change of position on religious, as well as political, matters with not-so-secret talks about normalization with Israel.
However, what the Saudis have been doing for decades, pales in comparison to what the Qataris have been doing in recent years. The Qataris have been pouring billions of dollars into American institutions, forging ties with major American universities, think tanks, media companies, sports teams, and even school districts in sums exceeding those even paid by America’s primary rival, China. Foreign states do not spend top dollar on American institutions out of charitable intentions. Foreign states endure such high costs because they know it is a successful long-term policy of purchasing influence in the US. As the wealthiest country in the world, no other nation can afford the amount of influence Qatar buys. Qatari petro-dollars are attempting to buy influence among both liberals and conservatives, democrats and republicans and can get American politicians, such as Pam Bondi, the former Attorney General of Florida, to register as their foreign agent.
Based on GNI per capita, the Qatari petro monarchy rules over the wealthiest nation on earth and home to one of the world’s largest reserves of oil. The temptations of power that came with such great wealth, pushed the peninsular Arab country to match and even surpass the Saudi’s in funding their political agenda regionally and globally. Qatar, currently suffering from an embargo by its Arab neighbors in protest of its pro-Islamist policy is the world’s largest financer of Islamist groups, either Sunni or Shiite. Qatar also is the official sponsor of Aljazeera, one of the world’s largest and most sophisticated news networks known for its ties with Islamism and anti-establishment groups. Since its inception, Aljazeera acted as the primary outlet for Islamist, Arab nationalist, anti-American, and anti-Israeli pundits from all over the Middle East.
Growing up in Egypt, one of the authors watched daily the inciteful content of Aljazeera describing the American conspiracies on Arab and Muslim dignity, the Western assault on the lives of Iraqi and Afghani innocent Muslims, and the Israeli destruction of innocent Palestinian lives. Through Aljazeera, Qatar acquired extremely sophisticated skills capable of shaping public opinion, inspiring political actions, and political mobilization.
Some of Qatar’s actions are covert, but many are not. Qatar is known to be the chief financier of Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and is strongly suspected by the US Treasury to have had ties with Al-Qaeda, and ISIS. Playing the role of the ultimate power broker, Qatar also has strong ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran, while being home to the biggest American military base in the region. Following the Arab crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar became the refuge of Muslim Brotherhood members. Along with Turkey and the global umbrella of the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar forms the axis of revisionist Sunni Islamism.
Qatari’s money trails extend beyond the Middle East and run through the networks of European banks and to America. From London, charitable Qatar donors used Al-Rayan bank to finance Al-Nusra Front, the Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate, and other jihadist groups. This was not unprecedented, for it is known that several senior-level financers of the Al-Qaeda used to be employed by the Central Bank of Qatar. According to the 9/11 Commission, Bin Laden himself told his business agent that Qatar was one of his main sources of funding.
Following the rise of ISIS, many of the investigations of the US Treasury into the finance network of the apocalyptic group often led to Qatari connections. Qatari money, however, does not only make its way to the pockets of Middle Eastern jihadi terrorists and Aljazeera propagandists. It also makes its way, indeed in billions of dollars, to the US. The same Qatar which funds Islamism also funds prominent US thinktanks, major US universities, and finally “Arabic language and culture” programs directly to American public schools. Knowing the record of Qatar, its connections, and its Islamist sympathies, Qatari money deserves special attention.
Domestically, human rights in Qatar are as bad as its neighbors. The ultra-orthodox monarchy is not as woke as its media agents in the US urging Americans to be. The Qatar civil law heavily discriminates against women in areas of family and inheritance law, and the countries penal code is yet to punish men for domestic abuse or marital rape. The countries disregard of women’s rights came to full display in Oct 2nd, 2020 when several women, many were Australian citizens, were forced to undergo an intimate medical exam at Doha Airport after a newborn baby was found in the airport. The incident resulted in a diplomatic crisis between Qatar and Australia, but it also highlights Qatar’s disregard of the basic dignity of women.
In LGBT rights, Qatar isn’t any better than any of its neighbors, criminalizing homosexuality and offering sharia-based penalties for it. Qataris go to the extra length not just to persecute homosexuals, but to also ban any public discussions of the issue. The Qatari Press and Publications Law heavily regulates content in circulation and forces publishers, includes the local partner of the New York Times, to censor the content which deals with LGBT rights.
In Qatar, foreign workers have few, if any, rights. The issue of slavery-like conditions for foreign labor, primarily from South Asia, received global attention after the horrific working conditions related to the FIFA’s 2022 World Cup to be hosted in Qatar was exposed in numerous media exposes. Not just do workers suffer from sub-optimal conditions, but they even lack the ability to leave if they so choose. Despite Qatar’s many promises to reform the situation, Human Rights Watch found that Qatar failed to uphold her promises. Qatar formally abolished the kefala system, yet exploitation and human rights violations remain rampant according to the findings of the International Observatory for Human Rights.
In all of this Qatar might not be worse than its neighbors, indeed its human rights violations might be less severe than those of Saudi Arabia and Iran. Yet, it seems that somehow Qatar is able to receive almost no attention compared to other human rights violators in the Middle East. It could be the case that the small size of the Qatari population, 300,000, as well as the countries relative wealth causes attention to focus on the much larger human tragedies in the region, yet this should not allow Qatar, and its ties to global terrorism, to pass in the international community as a normal state. Indeed, some of those bigger tragedies in neighboring countries are only worse because of Qatar’s own influence in the region.
The Qatari government might be ruling over only 300,000 people, but the terrorists they finance rule over millions and terrorize millions more, not to mention the significant damage that Aljazeera does daily broadcasting propaganda to hundreds of millions. Could it be that Qatar’s generally favorable position among Western academics, journalists, and politicians in anyways related to the billions of dollars they have been pouring in donations into Western institutions?
Any person following Qatari ties to the US can clearly see how Qatar managed to create a wide strategic network of agents and partners capable of shaping public opinion in a way no other Arab nation would allow in the Middle East. Most of the Qatari ties are not aimed at the corridors of power in our foreign policy-making institutions, but at the corridors of information at our thought making institutions, think tanks, research centers, universities, public schools, and media. In other words, Qataris are not interested in what Americans do, but in what Americans know and how they know it.
Seven-year research conducted by ISGAP, the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy, revealed that the tiny nation of Qatar has been the most generous Middle Eastern nation in terms of donations to American higher education institutions standing at 75% of all funding from the Middle East. The research revealed that between 1986 and 2018, Qatar donated $5 billion dollars to US universities of which less than $2 billion were properly reported to the US government. Virtually all Qatar donations originate from the Qatar Foundation ran by the Qatari royal family. In other words, the Qatar royal family is responsible for 75% of all funding to US universities from the Middle East. The research also found a correlation between anti-Israel and anti-Semitic campus environment and funding from Qatar. If we add this to the funding received by think tanks, journalistic institutions, and political foreign agents, we discover that Qatar is the largest Middle Eastern buyer of soft-power influence in the US.
Qatar is certainly not the only country that is trying to buy American opinion. China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and even the poverty-claiming Palestinian Authority, donate large sums of money to American institutions in pursuit of influence. However, Qatar significantly outspends every other state seeking to do the same. On the other hand, American universities seem eager to embrace foreign funding not just due to the clear financial incentives, but also to acquire status and prestige. In a 2016 Washington Post interview with Jonathan Holloway, former dean of Yale College, about the foreign presence in American universities he said, “If we want to train the next generation of global leaders, we better have the globe here.”
The latest and the most alarming move by Qatar is that which is seeking to give Qatar a direct influence on education in American public schools. Since 1995, the Doha-based Qatar Foundation, founded by members of the royal family, has been their principal arm into the world of education. Registered as a foreign agent since 2005, the QF has been a particularly generous donor to many US higher education institutions. But with the expansion of the work of the foundation through its agent, the Qatar Foundation International, they started extending their programs to K-12 public education offering public schools well-funded programs of Arabic language and culture. While it is easy for Qatar to claim the institutional independence of QFI, such a claim is laughable at best from a non-democratic absolute monarchy. All the tools created and funded by the Qatari royal family operate as a consortium of strategic assets. The CEO of the Qatar foundation is no other than Shikha Moza bint Nasser the mother of the current emir.
Qatar seemed to be working with an extremely clever strategy. The US Department of Education provides regional studies instruction to schools, carefully selected, in order to provide cultural and area studies training pivotal to American security and economic interests. Beneficiaries of these programs are schoolteachers, librarians, and non-profit professionals. One of the areas of interest of course is the Middle East, and the DoE ensures America has the qualified experts it needs in Middle Eastern languages and cultures. Qatar, through its agent the Qatar Foundation International, was able to buy its way into these programs in order to ensure they have a say in the content they offer. Through donations to gain leverage over the teacher-training program, QFI oversees the selection process of the participant teachers, pay for all expenses, and provide the training after teachers commit to creating a curriculum using the content provided.
But aside from tapping into already existing and federally funded teacher-training programs, Qatar is also making its own. QFI launched its own programs of grants to students, teachers, and schools to support teaching the Arabic language and culture. The program constitutes providing teacher-training, curriculum, teaching materials, and even paid trips to Qatar. In a QFI film, one of the teachers, who has been taken to an all-expense paid conference by the foundation says, “Meaningful connections to the Arab world has to happen now. It has to happen when the students are young, and if they happen the students then have a personal experience that they can, then, take with them.”
One can well imagine the eagerness with which local public-school districts embrace the free offer of teaching Arabic and Islamic culture. However, beneath the surface, it appears to be an influence game. There is, after all, no such a thing as a free lunch.
This meaningful engagement includes lessons about the suffering of poor Palestinians at the hands of brutish Israeli teenager soldiers in an hour-long documentary titled “Occupied Minds.” Another lesson about how dangerous the secret tunnels from the Gaza Strip are, not for Israelis targeted for terrorism, but by the Qatari-funded terrorist organization Hamas, depicting the poor Palestinians who use the tunnels to merely acquire food and medicine while Israelis and Egyptians attempt to destroy them.
This could be as well a propagandistic episode of Aljazeera, except that it isn’t. This is a curriculum made for American public schools to teach to their students.
The Qatari Foundation International has a dedicated website called Al-Masdar. On the website, they claim that “Al-Masdar provides Arabic language and Arab teaching materials, opportunities, news and events relevant to both teachers and students.” It describes itself as “an open-ended resource library, that features a wealth of materials and resources for educators, including lesson plans, units, authentic materials and more.”
When looking at the website, one soon realizes that this seemingly innocent program aims to have a great influence on the minds of our youth. Many of the lessons, such as the one on Iranian-American relations actually run contrary to America’s political objectives and reflect the views of the al Thani family. Another one celebrates Qatari Independence Day and asks students to demonstrate their loyalty to Qatar. Many of the lessons focus on America’s mistakes in the region, such as the War in Iraq, and America’s handling of the Arab spring. Another, entitled “Déjà vu” draws comparisons between the Holocaust and the Syrian refugee crisis.
The subtlety of the lessons is remarkable and while no lesson is designed around an ideological message, it is no coincidence that facilitative substance of the lessons directly conforms to the ideologically charged narratives of the Muslim Brotherhood. The students may not be taught such narratives up-front, but the lessons make sure they accidentally learn them. For example, a lesson titled “Plural Identities,” which revolved around the beloved liberal concept of pluralism and diversity focuses on how the Jerusalem under the Ottoman empire, a beloved Islamist memory, was a city of remarkable plurality and diversity which was only destroyed by the establishment of Israel as a nation-state. Of course in Ottoman Jerusalem, Jews were subject to dhimmi laws, and to the variable whims of the current Sultan.
Indeed, the lesson only in part targets Israel, but it rails against the very idea of the modern nation-state itself, maintaining that Ottoman imperialism was much more diverse than today’s states. In the modern world where diversity is considered the epitome of political and social virtues, there is no doubt the students taking this lesson will grow to cherish the memory of the late Muslim empire just like a pan-Islamist sympathizer would.
Why do Americans let Middle Eastern countries, a region with an abysmal record in human rights, democracy, freedom of speech, education, research, and development, get involved in the education of American students?
Given the nature of public education in Qatar itself with its heavy Islamist content, Americans should not be allowing Qatar or any of its affiliates to influence the education of American children. In the IMPACT report referenced above, one could see many examples of lessons built on the vile anti-Semitic claims of the Protocols of Zion that Jews have plans for domination and the Jews control the world. Other lessons celebrate Palestinian terrorists and accuse Zionism of being a plan to destroy the world. The authors of such textbooks should be kept away from our schools.
The extensive efforts by Qatar to gain influence in the mind-shaping institutions are not limited to ties to education. Through Aljazeera, Qatar was able to carve for itself an important place in the English-speaking media world. The work of Aljazeera indicates an impeccable strategic thinking, unmatched by any Western government. One could only wonder about the quality of the consultants, analysts, strategic planners, and aids the Qatari royal family undoubtedly hires from among savvy Western-educated elites. In a moment of great social unrest, a culture of robust youth activism, social-media influence, and social justice fervor, Aljazeera was able to strategically insert itself into the rising progressive movement.
In 2014, Aljazeera, the mouthpiece of a terrorist funding, Arab ultra-conservative, absolute monarchy in which slavery-like conditions persist for foreign labor and patriarchal medieval conditions persist for women, started its progressive English speaking online platform AJ+ from an office in America’s Mecca for progressivism, San Francisco. AJ+ panders to the progressive wave. It produces hip and sleek-looking content about police-brutality, LGBT rights, climate change, and Islamophobia. This is a work of genius. Capitalizing on the growing energy of a climate of social activism, Aljazeera, the primary sponsor of Islamism and Islamic traditionalism is its Arabic platforms, is able to insert its own political agenda to young and unsuspecting Americans.
It should be an American national embarrassment that despite the Qatari record of supporting terrorism, spreading Islamist propaganda, and indoctrinating Arab youth, Qatar can still find alleys in the US. In 2018, Alan Dershowitz published an op-ed defending Qatar and portraying it to be the victim of isolation and blockade by other Arab states. Of course, Mr. Dershowitz wrote this after he came back from a visit to Qatar sponsored and paid for by the Emir. There is no doubt Mr. Dershowitz received truly royal treatment, and it paid off for the Qataris. This is the reason Qatar does what it does because Qatar knows it works and that after pouring millions of dollars in aid to those who are terrorizing Syrians and inhabitants of southern Israel, they will be able to get a prominent lawyer such as Alan Dershwitz to defend them. Qatari royal seduction and bribery target even leaders of the American Jewish community. Regularly, Qatari officials host extravagant dinner parties in posh DC restaurants for government officials, diplomats, and journalists. In 2019, along with the Washington Diplomat, the D.C United soccer team, and Long and Foster Real Estate, Qatar hosted an event celebrating freedom of the press. The joke of course is that Qatar does not have a free press.
As with any person’s relationships, the Qatari’s most immediate problems are with those closest to them. It is extremely likely that the current Qatari efforts are focused on the Qatari rivalry with Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Egypt. The Qataris are likely to be more focused on creating American anti-Saudi and anti-Egyptian sentiments than on passing any Islamist agendas. A clear sign of this can be observed in the response of many Qatari funded parties in the US to the Abraham Accords, as they sought to scrutinize Emirati and Saudi human rights record more than celebrate Arab Israeli peace. It is also more than likely that those countries are also engaged in balancing efforts trying to fund their own highly paid lobbyists and influence peddlers in America. All of this might be true. However, the minds of Americans should not be used in games of power between Arab countries.
On October 20th, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos hosted a conference entitled “No Strings Attached” involving foreign funding of American higher education universities. Farnez F. Thompson, Deputy General Counsel of the Department of Education, said that section 117 of the HEA of 1965 requires that US colleges and universities publicly disclose each year foreign gifts and contracts worth $250,000 or more, a federal law that has, up until now, been grossly overlooked and ignored by many of our nation’s universities. She said, “Whoever controls the funding of colleges and universities may influence or even control, the faculty, the curriculum, and ultimately the market place of ideas that is exchanged at those colleges and universities. Lack of transparency around foreign funding and influence at these institutions may have dangerous consequences for academic integrity, national security, and human rights.”
We applaud Secretary DeVos’ effort. However, the younger the child, the greater the Impact on the student’s worldview and his psyche.
In conclusion, the situation is clear. Arab power struggles are now being fought not just in Baghdad, Aleppo, Sana, or Beirut, but also in the halls of American institutions and weaponizing American minds to take sides in conflicts thousands of miles away. The Qataris and their Saudi and Emirati cousins are fighting each other for power, not just through bullets in other Arab countries, but through dollars in America. There are only two ways to deal with this: The first is to gluttonously take advantage of the situation, as most university administrators currently do. They accept the generosity of the donors and rationalize it as an opportunity to raise funds for our cash-eager institutions, (such as Harvard, which sits on top of the largest endowment in the world, numbered at $40.9 billion as of 2019.) The money after all goes to our universities, schools, and think tanks. Practically speaking, those Middle Eastern power competitions are pouring billions of dollars into our economy, creating jobs, and funding research. This seems to be the prevalent rationalizations of university administrators and school district officials.
This thinking, however, no doubt economically beneficial in the short-term, overlooks the risks we run in the long term. By allowing foreign entities, especially ones that are known to be undemocratic, illiberal, and with ties to extremist terrorism, to purchase wholesale our cognitive independence is to undo the entire idea that is America. What standing, beyond money, gives illiberal monarchies the right to have an influence on the marketplace of ideas? To sacrifice the ability to impart our Western values to our children for money is to sell one’s soul to the devil.
In the 16th century popular tragedy, Dr. Faust commits the most reprehensible sin of all, for after he tasted the heavenly gift of spiritual liberty, he decided to reject it, selling it to the devil in exchange for the illusion of more knowledge and more power. At the end of the tragedy, Dr. Faust learns that he gained nothing from his bargain indeed but eternal damnation, a damnation living on every time his story is told.
If we want our civilization to survive way into the 21st century and beyond, we must be careful to impart our values and beliefs onto the next generation. The minds of our children should not be for sale to the highest bidder.
A False Sense of Security
Palestinian Elections are in Sight, but Prospects for Reform Remain Slim
Help us work to ensure that our policymakers and the public receive the EMET- the Truth.