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Islamic Militancy

Why Qatar’s links to Islamist groups worry Beijing

With China facing its own fight against extremism, Doha’s backing of a host of radical organisations is a source of unspoken concern for China’s leadership

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 June, 2017, 7:32am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 June, 2017, 11:03am

As Qatar’s diplomatic crisis continues to unfold, the tiny Gulf country’s intricate ties with Islamist groups have caused unease in China, which faces its own fight at home against extremism.

Beijing has long been concerned about the influence of Islamist extremism spreading from countries such as Syria and Afghanistan into China’s northwestern Muslim-majority region of Xinjiang.

Accusations by Qatar’s Arab neighbours that Doha is destabilising the region with its support for Islamist groups may echo Beijing’s unspoken concerns about Qatar, Chinese analysts said.

Doha’s repeated strong denials of such claims have been met with scepticism amid the perception that Qatar has been a key financial patron of a host of extremist groups, including an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS.

Qatar has also been home to exiled Hamas official Khaled Mashaal since 2012.

Pan Guang, a Middle East expert with the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said Qatar’s alleged links to these extremist groups has been a source of unease for Beijing.

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“Although the Qatari government has long opposed terrorism, the country’s mainstream society has been dominated by Salafist ideology, and therefore unavoidably share intricate connections with the radicalised Salafist groups,” Pan said.

Salafism is an ultra-conservative school of thought within Sunni Islam that advocates a return to the 6th-century traditions of the first three generations of Muslims, around the time when Prophet Mohammed was still alive.

Today, most of the world’s Salafis are from Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

About 46.87 per cent of Qataris, 44.8 per cent of Emiratis and 22.9 per cent of Saudis are Salafis, according to Columbia University research.

Salafist influence is also present among China’s Muslim community, mainly in the southern province of Yunnan and across the northwest in Gansu, Ningxia and Xinjiang.

Wang Lian, a research analyst on Middle East politics with Peking University, cautioned the need to prevent Salafi doctrine from being used by extremists in China.

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“We need to differentiate the devoted, conservative Muslims from the extremists who use [the Salafi doctrine] to achieve their political aim,” he said.

Wang said despite Qatar’s large Salafi population, there is no evidence to date of the country’s involvement in the radicalisation of China’s Uyghur population.

China’s chief concern is still the influence of extremist groups in Syria and Afghanistan, he said.

Pan, the Shanghai-based expert, said China and Qatar’s main differences are their respective positions on Middle East politics.

“China’s adherence to the principle of non-interference is in contrast to the active interference policy of Qatar in Libya and Syria,” he said.

On Monday, one of Libya’s three rival governments was among the six Arab nations that cut diplomatic relations with Qatar. Libyan army commander Gen. Khalifa Haftar last week accused Qatar of financially supporting terrorist groups in Libya.

China and Qatar also were split at one point over an influential Qatari state-funded broadcaster’s coverage of China’s policy and positions on some issues.

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China in 2012 expelled an Al Jazeera journalist after the news network produced a number of programs critical of China, including one that examined the alleged use of prison labour to make products sold in Western markets.

Beijing was particularly uneasy about the broadcaster’s coverage of human rights conditions in China, Pan said.

“After the Arab Spring, [Al Jazeera] was active in attacking other regimes in the region and promoting so-called human rights and democracy, and criticising China’s policy and positions on Libya and Syria,” he said.

The broadcaster’s China coverage has improved since the Qatari government adjusted its policy, but Beijing remains wary about its “interference” in the country’s internal affairs, Pan said.