- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 16, 2004

This week marks the anniversary of the independence of Qatar, a trailblazer for reform and one of America’s strongest allies in the troubled Middle East. Qataris sometimes refer to their small nation as a “little speck” in the universe. After replacing his father in a bloodless coup seven years ago, Sheikh Hamad, the amir of Qatar, courageously transformed this “little speck” into a laboratory for socio-economic, political and educational reform. And, as the only other state in the world adhering to the Wahhabi doctrine besides Saudi Arabia, this transformation is all the more remarkable and is nothing short of a Wahhabi revolution. Al-Jazeera, Qatar’s television station, is the first non state-censored Arab news station within the Arab world and has challenged the hegemony of U.S. and European stations reporting on Middle Eastern events. Furthermore, Qataris have welcomed the U.S. Central Command as a base from which to combat the global war on terrorism. The cost of such an ambitious transformation will initially be paid for primarily by the sale of natural gas. Qatar has the world’s second-largest reserves of natural gas and, through exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG), it is positioning itself to supply American consumers with clean burning natural gas.

However, Qatar’s transformation of its Wahhabi identity by its maverick leader is what truly distinguishes this country from its neighbors. Sheikh Hamad has instituted a deliberate policy of internal reform that is resulting in a renaissance which should be used as a model for reform throughout the Middle East. Qatar is demonstrating on a daily basis that the traditional values of Islam can be integrated harmoniously with political and individual freedoms. The United States should highlight Qatar’s renaissance, urging other sovereign states to adopt similar platforms of reform designed to empower their populations with a political voice, free thought and equality. The spread of this renaissance throughout the Persian Gulf would have a very positive effect on U.S. national security.

Extremist Islam is today’s engine of international terror. The war on terrorism is, therefore, primarily a war on extremist and terrorist doctrines and groups in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iraq. For example, the Department of State’s Commission on International Religious Freedom recently announced that Saudi Arabia’s continued funding of Wahhabism worldwide is making the kingdom a ”strategic threat” to the United States. The solution to restoring Saudi Arabia to a moderate majority rests with its smaller neighbor.

While this emphasis on Qatar’s Wahhabi revolution should not be at the expense of America’s 50-year friendship with Saudi Arabia, Washington would be well advised to listen carefully to what His Highness Sheikh Hamad is saying in order to understand how to fight this war. His fundamental premise is that Islam and the West are not facing a “clash of civilizations” as so many proclaim. Rather, what we are facing is a clash of ideas and values. The amir argues, rightly, that the world should focus on democratic pluralism — as opposed to the Western notion of Jeffersonian democracy — in Muslim countries because the absence of pluralism denies people peaceful avenues for expressing dissent, thus driving them toward violent alternatives. He makes the point that the United States must insist on reform and support more open and plural societies in the Middle East.

And, according to Sheikh Hamad, the most important arena in which this war will be won or lost is education. Educational inclusiveness must be the starting point for any and all political and social reform. The amir’s personal crusade and commitment to educational reform is based on the philosophy that the youth are the most valuable asset of a nation. The amir firmly believes that in order for the Arab-Muslim world to protect Islam from being hijacked by Shiite or Sunni extremists a major investment in and commitment to education is essential. The underlying premise of Qatar’s Wahhabi revolution is that education and its commitment to free thinking and thought cannot be the sole domain of the Muslim clergy — whether they be in Tehran, Qom, Najaf, Riyadh or Cairo. Rather, education will give individuals the wherewithal to decide for themselves and not be brainwashed by ignorant clerics in far off madrassas on the border of Pakistan-Afghanistan.

This is truly a revolutionary concept that the United States must welcome and highlight. The amir’s objective is for Qatar to take a leading role among Arab nations by dedicating a significant portion of its gross domestic product to education. If Arab countries like Qatar embrace Western educational values, the amir reasons, then Arabs can preserve their core religious, historic and cultural values while simultaneously stimulating economic progress and political reform. This ally of the United States in the global war on terrorism believes that if democracy is to take root in the Arab world then a long-term investment in the people of the region must be the starting point.

Whether President Bush is re-elected or Sen. John Kerry wins the election in November, the United States should forge a deep-seated long-term alliance with Qatar based on the dedication of this small nation to a shared vision for peace, prosperity, freedom and stability in the Middle East.

S. Rob Sobhani is president of Caspian Energy Consulting and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.

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