Crackdown on Islamists in the UAE

Jenifer Fenton writes in about the mass arrests of Islamists in the UAE, whose spiraling campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood regionally and domestic dissidents (Islamists from Islah and others, including non-Islamists) at home continues apace. One question I have about these arrests is, how do they play out in the inter-family politics of the Emirates? Notable in all this is the public absence of the Nahyan family, often thought to be the most anti-Islamist, and of course the most powerful in the UAE. The ruler of Sharjah, who might be thought to be in a position where he has to make more public concessions to Islamists (and social conservatives more generally) within his own emirate, has taken the lead in justifying the crackdown — albeit in that typically paternalistic/tribalist manner of the Gulf.

At least 50 people are now detained in the United Arab Emirates.  The arrests amount to one of the biggest crackdown on Islamists in years, after mounting nervousness by the authorities in the wake of the Arab uprisings.

Many, but not all, of those held are members of the Reform and Social Guidance Association (al-Islah), which calls for reform but also for “adhering to Islamic principles”.  

Al-Islah was founded many years ago with the approval of the late ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum. The stated purpose of the group was to be a religious and educational body. The government feels that it has moved away from these goals and has developed a political agenda.

On July 15, Salem Saeed Kubaish, the Abu Dhabi Attorney General, ordered the arrest of a group of people “for establishing and managing an organization with the aim of committing crimes that harm state security,” according to the state news agency WAM. The group is accused of  “opposing the constitution and the basic principles of the UAE ruling system, in addition to having links and affiliations to organizations with foreign agendas.”

Amnesty International has voiced their concerns that the detained men “are thought to be at risk of torture or other ill-treatment.”

The round-up the next day included two prominent human rights lawyers, Mohammed al-Roken and Mohammed Mansoori. Al-Roken had been defending high profile activists in the Emirates including the “UAE 5” — as the five people who were found guilty in 2011 of “publicly insulting” the country’s leadership and were subsequently were pardoned are known. Al-Roken also fought in court for the “UAE 7”, a group of seven men who were stripped of their UAE nationality. It is not believed he is a member of al Islah.

An Omani, a bidoon (stateless) and an Emirati journalist are also among those detained.

Rights groups have said the arrests are a suppression of dissenting voices in the UAE. “The only conspiracy that Emiratis should worry about is that of the government to stamp out any and every semblance of dissent,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East Director at Human Rights Watch, in a press release. “Just how many Emiratis does the government intend to jail for expressing political opinions?”

Al-Islah is said to have ideological affinities with the Muslim Brotherhood, although the two groups are not officially linked (it would be illegal under UAE law for the group to have direct affiliation with the Brotherhood). The Emirates does not allow political bodies affiliated with, or ones that take instructions from external, organizations. However, the government believes links between al-Islah and the Muslim Brotherhood are strong. And perhaps as many as 20,000 people living in the Emirates are believed by the authorities to be associated with the Islamist group.   As prominent Emirati commentator Sultan al-Qassemi has noted, political Islamists have raised suspicions in the UAE due to concern that they are attempting "to take advantage of the rise of Islamist parties across the Middle East in order to advance their own agendas. As elsewhere, these Emirati Islamists are allying themselves with liberals and non-liberals alike demanding reform as they plan for the post-reform period in which liberals would ultimately be sidelined.”   For the UAE, home to more than 200 nationalities including many non-Muslims, promoting a “fundamentalist interpretation of Islam in the UAE’s political arena represents a direct challenge to the philosophy of inter-faith harmony and tolerance that is fundamental to the nature of the state,” said one official close to government thinking. The UAE will not allow religion to be used as a political tool or allow for groups that are responsive to politico-religious guidance from abroad “or seek to promote allegiance to external authority, whether religious or otherwise,” he added. 

However, as noted, some of those targeted were not Islamists like Ahmed Abdul Khaleq — one of the UAE5. Abdul Khaleq, a stateless resident or bidoon, was stripped of his right to reside in the UAE and deported to Thailand in mid-July. The chairman of al-Islah, Sultan bin Kayed al-Qassemi, who is also the cousin of the ruler of the northern emirate Ras al Khaimah, is among those held. His case may be more complicated as his detention may also have been at the request of other tribe or family members who felt he was engaging in activities that could cause dishonor. It is possible that al Qassemi was taken into “protective custody” by the head of the tribe, in this case the Ruler, because he did not adhere to the family’s wishes. 

Sheikh Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qassemi the Ruler of Sharjah recently said, “We have a duty to protect this country through advice, and when a son commits a mistake, you advise him… If the state has taken measures, it is out of interest to protect those sons. Even those who are in jail, they are dear to us… We are not causing him harm but we are dealing with the matter because the person committed a mistake. And hopefully they will become good people in the future.” [More on Sheikh Sultan’s speech here.]

On Sunday, al-Islah issued a statement on its website urging for the release of the prisoners, adding that the party “has sought to support (the UAE) since its foundation… then we see that they incorrectly accuse Islah figures of harming state security!?” The activists were all “known for being patriotic,” al Islah added.

But in the UAE, patriotism may not be up for interpretation.