GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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Religion, international relations and ‘interfaith’ in Qatar
Paper Proposal Text :
As the 2022 World Cup looms, the small state of Qatar is struggling to control its image on the world stage. Probably best known globally for Al Jazeera, its stake in the London skyline or its controversial World Cup bid, Qatar has also been making headlines for its involvement in regional conflicts, its apparent links with terrorist organisations and its human rights violations at home. Given the central importance of image projection and perception in international relations, Qatar’s foreign policy agenda has often been framed in terms of ‘branding’. It is, in other words, packaging itself for the world stage.
One of Qatar’s principal strategies in this respect has been to fashion itself into an important hub of dialogue, diplomacy and mediation. While it has certainly proven itself a useful ally in several conflict negotiations, hostage releases and prisoner swaps, Qatar’s policy, as one observer put it, of ‘running with the hare and hunting with the hounds’ has come at a cost. Its support for Islamist groups in the region, coupled with its hosting the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, amongst others, has drawn much criticism from the West, in particular from the U.S. What Qatar understands as diplomacy, it seems, is often perceived in the West as duplicity.
Qatar’s relationship with the U.S. has not always been easy. Although an ally, and home to the U.S.’s largest military base in the Gulf, Qatar has on several occasions found itself on the receiving end of U.S. criticism. A leaked State Department cable from December 2009 revealed Qatar to be perceived as ‘the worst in the region’ in terms of its counterterrorism efforts. It was again chastised in 2014 for its ‘permissive’ attitude towards the funding of terrorist organisations. In response, Qatar quadrupled spending on outreach and congressional lobbying in Washington, hiring major PR firms to manage its public image in the West. Lobbying, however, is just one dimension of Qatar’s broader image management strategy.
Like several of its neighbours (most notably Saudi Arabia), and particularly in the wake of 9/11 and the rise of ISIS, Qatar has invested much energy in the sphere of religion and international relations. Within this sphere, Qatar has positioned itself as an important actor in the emerging global field of ‘interfaith dialogue’, where it has been able, through the state-sponsored Doha International Centre for Interfaith Dialogue (DICID), to offer its diplomatic credentials to broker important global conversations about the rise of extremism, the ‘clash of civilisations’ and the role of religion in international relations. Qatar’s interfaith efforts have often been cited in the U.S. State Department’s reports on religious freedom, for example, and have to some extent served to project to the world a favourable image of ‘moderate Islam’. Religion in general and interfaith dialogue in particular then have become deeply embedded in Qatar’s broader branding strategy.
This presents a range of interesting questions at the intersection of religion and international relations. How successful have Qatar’s interfaith initiatives been in terms of its international profile? How has DICID contributed to Qatar’s broader branding strategy and in what ways has it helped shape Qatar’s reputation in the West? In the face of highly-publicised accusations and alleged associations with terrorist groups, has Qatar’s foray into interfaith dialogue positively affected its image on the world stage? And has the field of interfaith dialogue helped Qatar to shed its label as ‘the other Wahhabi state’ (The Economist)? In the wider regional context of religion and international relations, this paper accounts for the emergence of interfaith on the world stage and situates Qatar’s interfaith initiative in the context of its broader branding strategy. It asks to what extent Qatar’s religious diplomacy has positively affected its image in the West.