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Qatar and protest: a difficult combination

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There is a marked difference however in the way khaleejis and especially in this case, Qataris expressed their anger and displeasure at the film, with very little anger outside the electronic sphere.

Michael Stephens
16 September 2012

Shocking recent developments in Libya, Egypt and Yemen that occurred following the publishing of an incendiary film on the life of the prophet Mohammed have been a cause for deep introspection in the Arab world. The offence caused has been deeply felt, and anger has spread across the region, the outlet for which has had fatal consequences for US diplomatic personnel in Bengazi.

This includes the Gulf, and there is little doubt that the local populations of the cluster of Kingdoms and Emirates have also felt this sense of anger and indeed frustration. Yet there is also widespread condemnation of the actions of the Libyans who overstepped their right to protest and turned to violence as their solution.

There is a marked difference however in the way khaleejis and especially in this case, Qataris expressed their anger and displeasure at the film. Very little anger outside the electronic sphere has been noticeable. Qataris for the most part have taken to chat forums, Blackberry messenger and twitter to express their outrage at the insult to their prophet.

Many Qataris are deeply connected to Islam, and see it as a cornerstone of their lives. Qatar has more mosques per person than any country in the world, and open devotion to the faith is certainly nothing to be ashamed of; indeed it is encouraged.

Similarly there is great hostility to the idea that there should be any criticism of the prophet. I remember clearly one conversation with a Qatari some months ago in which he argued that there was nothing wrong with those who insult the prophet being killed. This is not an unusual sentiment, though it varies as to the vehemence with which this opinion is expressed.

There has been a protest in Qatar, it was said to have numbered some 2000 persons, mostly of Indian, Pakistani, and Arab expatriate origins, though it is clear a small number of Qataris took part. The protest was sanctioned by Qatar’s Grand Mufti, Sheikh Yussuf al Qaradawi and presumably with the blessing of the Emir.

On the other hand, there appears not to have been much anti-American sentiment expressed, and no overt calls for violence. Indeed Qaradawi has been careful to call on followers to distinguish between Americans, and those who made the film. Qatar being a country that relies heavily on western expatriate labour cannot afford fear and division to spread through its small but tightly knit population.

In Qatar and the Gulf as a whole questions to do with political mobilisation on any issue are a cause for serious reflection and consideration. To express their displeasure in public ways, for Qataris, is not so much an insult to the ruling hierarchy as it is an action bringing shame on the family and the tribe. Qataris have a lot to lose by expressing their anger openly. The shame incurred by publicly protesting can hinder job prospects, marriage prospects and cause friction within families. Therefore for the most part Qataris shun the idea of protest: it is simply not part of their social DNA.

Anger of course exists. Qatar remains a devout Muslim country. Although many young men may err in their following of the faith, and engage in sometimes questionable social behaviours, they do not accept insults to their faith or their prophet. But anger is expressed here passionately but quietly, and without the desire to overhaul the social fabric of the nation, or to show disrespect in public to the ruling authorities, whose relationships to western nations are longstanding and well developed.

The Arab world is not uniform in its behaviours and thus while we see shocking scenes in Libya we see text messaging and BBM’ing in Qatar. But the root cause is the same, and the anger is no more or less felt here than it is in any other part of the Muslim world.

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