Qatar — one of the world’s very richest nations per capita — aspires to be an entrepôt for international commerce, both in goods and in ideas like interreligious understanding. For over a decade, the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue (DICID), a quasi-governmental entity, has hosted an annual conference on interreligious dialogue, a recent one of which brought in 300 participants from over 70 countries.
But what is going on outside the conference hall?
It’s not so tolerant. Qatar boasts that its law recognizes Christians and Jews – “people of the book” – and allows them to worship freely. This, though, takes place in a strongly Islamist atmosphere. Even people of the book must keep their worship private; religious ideas contrary to those of Islam (Sunni or Shia) have no place in public forums like the media. Proselytism is strictly outlawed, as is conversion away from Islam, which is a capital offense (through never enforced since the country’s independence in 1971). The government exercises heavy censorship of the media. It does not legally recognize – meaning that it does not authorize worship facilities for – religions other than Judaism and Christianity, despite the fact that Hindus are 30% of the population of noncitizens and Buddhists are 7%. The government strongly regulates Islam as well as other faiths.
An article in yesterday’s New York Times details Qatar’s support for militant groups around the region.
Sheikh Ajmi and at least a half-dozen others identified by the United States as private fund-raisers for Al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise operate freely in Doha, often speaking at state-owned mosques and even occasionally appearing on Al Jazeera. The state itself has provided at least some form of assistance — whether sanctuary, media, money or weapons — to the Taliban of Afghanistan, Hamas of Gaza, rebels from Syria, militias in Libya and allies of the Muslim Brotherhood across the region.
Lately, Qatar has been coming under criticism for these ties from rival states in the region like the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel, many of whom, admittedly, are on the other side of many of the rivalries in which Qatar is involved. And to clear up the air on one issue, there is no evidence that Qatar is supporting the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL).
Still, foreign conference-goers would do well to look beyond Doha’s glass towers.