Most political upheavals in history are known to have thrown up a specific word or expression that defines the core values of that event. “Guillotine” characterised the French Revolution, while the American War of Independence had “representation” at its core, as Americans demanded to be represented in the British parliament that was taxing them. The 20th century rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, meanwhile, was the “Cold War”.
During the ongoing diplomatic crises in the Middle East, however, the word that has been bandied about most is “brotherly”. But is all this brotherly love genuine – or is it a case of keeping your enemies closer than your friends?
The ruling houses in the region describe their bilateral and multilateral relationships in the context of fraternity. So when Saudi Arabia cut all land, air and sea contacts with Qatar, it called upon “all brotherly countries and companies to do the same.”
A week into the diplomatic and economic isolation of Qatar, Saudi Arabia’s top diplomat – foreign minister Adel Al-Jubeir – said Qatar is a “brother state” and a “a partner” and that punitive steps against the emirate were “well-intentioned”. Interestingly, when Qatar defended its position and condemned its diplomatic isolation by fellow neighbouring nations, it also did so in the context of brotherhood. Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the blockade was “fabricated in order to take action against a brotherly GCC nation”.
So what was Qatar’s supreme error? It is alleged to have been providing financial and tactical support to the transnational Sunni Islamic political movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. And this move was at the cost of “other brotherly states” in the Middle East.
While the crisis was boiling, Qatari foreign minister Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Thani, told the news channel Al Jazeera in an interview:
We will not launch measures to escalate toward our brotherly nations.
At the same time, however, Doha was frantically in touch with Turkey to prepare a bulwark against this “brotherly assault”. Turkey used the occasion to its advantage while reaching out to a “brother” in need. It promptly convened a special session of parliament and committed a strong contingent of troops to its military base in Qatar.
In the meantime, to deescalate the growing tension between Qatar and its neighbours, the Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah, made a “brotherly visit” to Saudi Arabia.
Hot air and hypocrisy
So what does all this “brotherly” love mean in the context of contemporary political Islam? What exactly do they mean by “brotherly” when these states try to do business with each other? And why call a blatant encircling of a state’s sovereignty a “brotherly” act?
The use of the terms “brother” and “brotherly” is deeply problematic in Islamic realpolitik. While commonly used, it is a deeply ambiguous term. At one extreme, it can mean a genuine fraternal concern – but at the other it may be nothing more than a lot of hot air and outright hypocrisy. In the region’s contemporary diplomatic doublespeak, “brotherly” can mean shoving the dagger into your “brother” when you are at an advantage. Lest we forget, Middle Eastern statecraft has often dabbled in such Machiavellianism.
In the medieval Islamic world, “brotherly” implied fratricide. The Ottoman Turkish rulers were supreme in the art of bumping off their “blood brothers”. Interestingly, in the 15th century, Mehmed the Conqueror passed a Law of Fratricide that stipulated:
Whichever of my sons inherits the sultanate, it behooves him to kill his brothers in the interest of world order (nizam-i alem).
Following that principle, upon ascending the throne, one of Mehmed the Conqueror’s great grandsons, Mehmet III, killed 19 of his brothers and half-brothers and buried them next to his father.
In the semantics of current Middle Eastern diplomacy, one word that has not found any voice is unbrotherly. If being unbrotherly means conducting oneself in a way which is “not characteristic of or befitting a brother” then Qatar fits the bill (at least in the current climate of accusations). But it’s unlikely you will hear that from the lips of the sovereign states boycotting Qatar. To paraphrase Saudi foreign minister Adel Al-Jubeir: You have to be able to tell your friend or your brother when they are doing the right thing and when they are doing the wrong thing.
So in the dog-eat-dog world of contemporary Middle Eastern politics, the term “brotherly” has very little real meaning. It is a convenient cloak to mask hypocrisy. “Brotherly” in this landscape is all about carrying a big dagger. But most important of all, it is about being able to wield that dagger at the opportune moment.