Marc Lynch

Welcome to the Syrian Jihad

The Arab world's most popular theologian stokes the flames of a Sunni-Shia war.


In a sermon on Friday, Islamist superstar theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi called on all Muslims to launch "a jihad in Syria against Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah, which are killing Sunnis and Christians and Kurds."

Qaradawi declared that participation in a Syrian jihad was an individual obligation on every Muslim. He denounced Hezbollah, referring to it as "the party of Satan" and saying that it "want[s] continued massacres to kill Sunnis." And he pushed deeper into sectarian hatred, labeling the Alawite sect, to which Assad belongs, as "worse infidels than Jews or Christians."

What makes Qaradawi’s sectarian diatribe so disturbing is not that it represents some radical, new expression of extremism. It is that in today’s Arab world, there is nothing particularly distinctive about his comments at all. For many months, Arab and Muslim figures of all stripes have been loudly calling for support to the predominantly Sunni Syrian rebels, as have many Arab governments (and the United States and its allies, of course). The Muslim Brotherhood’s branches have strongly supported the Syrian opposition — acquiring too much power along the way, in the minds of some. Egyptian Salafis have described providing arms and funds to the Syrian rebels as "a form of worship" and killing Assad as a religious obligation. As the killing and destruction has escalated, such support for Syria’s rebels has rapidly morphed into extreme anti-Shiite and anti-Alawi rhetoric.

That’s the real problem with Qaradawi’s sectarian-inflected calls for a Syrian jihad. It reflects his well-honed calculation that, given the current Arab public mood, he will do better by joining the herd rather than trying to steer or stop its momentum. That hasn’t always been Qaradawi’s calling card: In January 2007, for example, he tried to use his influence to rein in spiraling sectarian rage following the execution of Saddam Hussein. At that time, Qaradawi was only weeks past a controversial appearance at a Doha conference on Sunni-Shiite relations, in which he had made a number of controversial remarks viewed by many as overly provocative toward the Shiite. But at that crucial moment, Qaradawi invited former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani on al-Jazeera to push back against the rabid sectarianism then roiling the Middle East.

That’s just one example of how Qaradawi has tacked back and forth amidst the major Sunni-Shiite controversies of the last decade. He has provoked controversy — but also played a mediating role when tensions reached dangerous levels. In the mid-2000s, for instance, he strongly supported the Iraqi resistance to American occupation, but then sharply denounced al Qaeda in Iraq chief Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s attacks on Iraqi Shia.

In September 2008, he sparked a major firestorm when he warned against Shiite proselytization in Sunni areas. It was not only Tehran that hotly criticized him; leaders of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, usually supportive Islamist intellectuals, and those who feared that sectarian attacks might weaken Hezbollah’s appeal and the "resistance" axis also objected. By the next month, Qaradawi took a more moderate tone: He described his warnings against the spread of Shiism as "a kind of preemptive action to prevent war taking place in the future among the followers of the same religion." He then spearheaded a statement that denounced sectarian killing and calling for the protection of minorities, which attracted the signatures of both leading Saudi Islamists and Shiite figures. This time, however, he shows no signs of being prepared to hit the brakes.

Qaradawi has long been described as among the most influential clerics in the Sunni world. A savvy political opportunist, he has long been one of the best barometers for the mood of a major swathe of the Arab mainstream, uncannily attuned to shifts in the political mood. He cleverly triangulated Arab politics, adopting populist positions on foreign policy while pushing for democratic reforms across the region and advancing a "centrist" Islamist ideology. In recent years, the Egyptian-born cleric has strongly supported most of the Arab uprisings, including a controversial late February 2011 appeal to Libya’s army to kill Muammar al-Qaddafi.  In Egypt, he was welcomed the Friday following Mubarak’s fall to lead prayer and deliver a pro-revolutionary speech in Tahrir. But he disappointed many observers by describing Bahrain’s uprising as "sectarian," in line with the Arab Gulf country’s collective stance intended to delegitimize it.

Qaradawi’s influence and political stances naturally brought him intense criticism, not only from anti-Islamist opponents and the West, but also from rivals for Islamic authority and influence. The Saudi media has been particularly critical over the years, delighting in attacking him for "political fraud or exploitation of religion," using him as a proxy for Riyadh’s complaints with Qatar or the Muslim Brotherhood.

Team Saudi is now celebrating Qaradawi’s capitulation to their own anti-Hezbollah, anti-Shiite prejudices. No words could have been sweeter to Qaradawi’s Saudi critics than his recent reversal on Hezbollah: "I defended the so-called Nasrallah and his party, the party of tyranny… in front of clerics in Saudi Arabia. It seems that the clerics of Saudi Arabia were more mature than me."

But Qaradawi’s alignment with the Saudi position has less to do with his theology or his personal views on the Shiites than with his calculation of regional political trends. The Western debate over whether or not he was "moderate" always missed the point: Qaradawi’s strategy and thought have always been about defining and shaping the mainstream. His core doctrine of wasatiyya was always better understood as "centrism" than as "moderation" (whatever that might mean). Before the uprisings, Qaradawi’s perch
on al-Jazeera and his pioneering Internet presence gave him a massively influential public presence, while his association with the broad Muslim Brotherhood trend gave some degree of organizational weight behind his opinions. And like it or not, his broad themes — such as support for "resistance" from Palestine to Iraq, criticism of al Qaeda, calls for democracy, denunciations of most Arab regimes, and conservative social values — generally seemed to reflect mainstream Arab political views.

But many of the factors that once made him so influential have now lost some of their luster. Like al-Jazeera, Qaradawi’s stances now seem to more closely follow Qatari foreign policy, and his influence has waned along with his host station and Qatar itself, which has experienced a regional backlash. The Muslim Brotherhood has become a far more polarizing actor throughout the region, particularly due to its dismal performance in Egypt’s transition. And the Arab mainstream has divided dramatically not only over Syria — but also over democracy, internal politics, and so much more.

Qaradawi now finds himself speaking to a narrower, more partisan audience. What does it say about his influence that his preferred candidate in Egypt’s presidential election, the former Muslim Brotherhood leader and Islamist reformist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, won less than 20 percent of the vote?

Qaradawi can no longer claim to speak to a broadly unified Arab public because such a creature no longer exists. Indeed, it is worth asking whether anyone will again occupy his previously central position: The proliferation of media outlets and assertive new voices that define the new Arab public sphere tend to undermine any efforts to claim the center ground. So does the political polarization and the increasingly fierce power struggles which dominate regional politics. It just may be that nobody can fill Qaradawi’s old shoes — not even Qaradawi.

All of this makes the Islamist cleric’s latest intervention even more profoundly depressing. Qaradawi has opted to join the bandwagon rather than try to pull Sunni-Shiite relations back toward coexistence. He clearly calculates that anti-Shiite sectarianism in support of the Syrian insurgency is both strategically useful and a political winner.  And those in the Gulf and in the West eager for any opportunity to hurt Iran seem happy to go along.

With the decentralization of political authority and the likelihood of a long Syrian civil war, expect the competition among "Sunnis" to adopt the most extreme stances to accelerate. By the time more responsible figures realize the destructive forces they’ve unleashed — or Qaradawi attempts his standard pivot towards reconciliation — it may be too late. 

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark