Analysis

Is Saudi Arabia Repaying Trump for Khashoggi by Attacking Linda Sarsour?

A Saudi-owned website considered close to the royal family claimed that Sarsour, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib are agents of Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood who declared a 'jihad' on Trump

Activist Linda Sarsour speaking ahead of the March for Racial Justice in the Brooklyn borough of New York, October 1, 2017.
Bloomberg

There is nothing earth-shattering about seeing Women’s March leader and Arab-American activist Linda Sarsour criticized as a dangerous Islamist by the conservative right and pro-Israel advocates in the United States. But the latest attack on the activist comes from a new and somewhat surprising source: Saudi Arabia.

Al Arabiya, a Saudi-owned, pan-Arab news channel closely linked to the country’s royal family and widely viewed as reflecting Saudi foreign policy, published an article Sunday strongly suggesting that Sarsour and two incoming Muslim congresswomen are puppets planted by the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar to undermine the Trump administration.

The feature, which profiles Sarsour, seems to cast her as the latest proxy figure in the kingdom’s bitter dispute with Qatar, and its bid to strengthen ties and curry favor with the White House.

It also focused on two Democratic politicians whom Sarsour actively campaigned for in the 2018 midterms: Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar and Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, who are set to be the first-ever Muslim congresswomen when the House reconvenes in January.

The Al Arabiya story on Linda Sarsour's links to the Muslim Brotherhood, December 9, 2018.
Screengrab

Headlined “Details of calls to attack Trump by US ‘Muslim Sisters’ allied to Brotherhood,” the article is light on actual details but heavy on insinuation.

Activists like Sarsour, and politicians like Tlaib and Omar, the Saudi publication wrote, are “mujahideen” (a term used to describe those involved in jihad) – fighting against “tyrants and opponents of Trump’s foreign policies.”

The story says the policies they are fighting include “the siege of Iran, the fight against political Islam groups, and [Trump’s] choice of Saudi Arabia under the leadership of King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as a strategic ally.”

Tlaib and Omar, Al Arabiya asserts, are agents designed to “restore” control of political Islamist movements on the U.S. government by attacking Trump. The article says this effort is being directed by Sarsour – who, it writes, is purportedly funded and controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood - a claim it fails to provide any clear basis for.

Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, Washington, says it should come as little surprise to those familiar with the region that “a state-owned Arabic news outlet would publish conspiracy theories about people whose views don’t accord with those of the government that funds it.”

Al Arabiya, based in Dubai, but Saudi-owned, was founded in 2002 as a counter to Qatar’s popular Al Jazeera TV station – which frequently runs material sharply critical of the Saudis – as well as other Arabic media outlets critical of Saudi influence and supportive of political Islam.

The article comes as rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Qatar has heated up in recent times, with Qatar’s emir skipping this weekend’s Gulf Cooperation Council summit hosted by Saudi Arabia, which has led a diplomatic war on its neighbor for the past 18 months.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and non-GCC member Egypt cut diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar in June 2017, charging that the country supports terrorism. Qatar denies the charges and says the Saudi boycott aims to curtail its sovereignty. Last week, the Gulf nation announced it was withdrawing from the OPEC oil cartel.

Islamists vs Islamists

“Democrats’ battle against the Republican control of the U.S. Congress led to an alliance with political Islamist movements in order to restore their control on government, pushing Muslim candidates and women activists of immigrant minorities onto the electoral scene,” the report states.

The “common ground” between Omar and Tlaib, the article adds, is to battle Trump’s foreign policy “starting from the sanctions on Iran to the isolation of the Muslim Brotherhood and all movements of political Islam. Those sponsoring and supporting the two Muslim women to reach the U.S. Congress adopted a tactic to infiltrate through their immigrant and black minority communities in general, and women’s groups in particular.

The article ties Sarsour to Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood through multiple associations with the Arab American Association of New York, which “was created by Palestinian Ahmed Jaber, a member of the Qatar International Foundation responsible for funding the association,” and also her attendance at an annual meeting of the International Network of Muslim Brotherhood in North America and Canada in 2016.

The article compares Sarsour’s rhetoric to that “used by Muslim Brotherhood teachings and in the views of Sayyid Qutb, a scholar and co-founder of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, as well as from Abul A’la Maududi’s books ‘Islam and Ignorance’ and ‘Fundamentals of Islam.’

“From all that is mentioned, we can touch the influence of Muslim Brotherhood in shaping the thoughts of American activist Linda Sarsour and consequently her declaring her ‘jihad’ against U.S. President Donald Trump, in addition to her call for the application of ‘Sharia,’ the rule of Islam in the United States of America,” the piece asserts.

No one knows for sure whether Al Arabiya received direct orders from the Saudi government to attack Sarsour, Tlaib, Omar and other politically active Muslim women on the American left.

Those familiar with Middle East media say conspiracy-minded attacks against figures in American politics aren’t particularly unusual in Arabic,
but what is unique about this article is the fact it appeared in English on the network's website.

It seems to be a highly creative attempt to somehow repay the Trump White House as it deals with the fallout from the Jamal Khashoggi assassination. As Trump continues to take heat for staying close to the Saudis, they, in turn, are demonstrating their loyalty with their willingness to vilify people who were President Barack Obama’s supporters and are now Trump’s political enemies – even if they wear a hijab.