Ratcheting up the rhetoric on Syria

Late last week, Marc Lynch at Foreign Policy wrote an interesting piece about Yusuf al-Qaradhawi, a highly influential Sunni theologian/pundit from Egypt, and his open call for a Sunni jihad against Bashar al-Assad and Hizbullah (which he has cleverly renamed hizb al-shaytan, or “Party of Satan”) in Syria. Qaradhawi has the backing of the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar, where he built his reputation as an academic after fleeing Egypt, and Nasser’s government, in the 1960s, which makes him a fairly important figure, but what really ups his Q score is his TV show on al-Jazeera, al-Shari’ah wa-al-Hayah, or “The Shariah and Life,” which the Wikipedia tells me “has an estimated audience of 60 million worldwide,” although I don’t know what “estimated audience” means; is he pulling in 60 million viewers a night? Because that would be impressive, I think, wouldn’t it?

It’s hard to pin Qaradhawi down as just a strict Sunni jihadi preacher, because while he’s made some public pronouncements and taken some actions that fit that bill, he’s also said and done some things that don’t. For example, he’s generally been outspoken in calling Shi’ites “heretics,” but he also vocally opposed Sunni attacks against Shi’a targets in Iraq during the 2006-8 “civil war” period. Right now he’s denouncing Hizbullah, who are Shi’a, but in the past he’s argued against clerics who decreed that Sunnis could not support Hizbullah’s ongoing conflict with Israel. During the 2011 protests in Bahrain, where the Shi’ite majority was seeking an end to its mistreatment by Bahrain’s Sunni rulers, he wouldn’t support the protests but did acknowledge that Bahrain’s Shi’a population had legitimate grievances, which for a hardline Sunni cleric is pretty open-minded. He’s had something of a war of words with conservative theologians in Saudi Arabia over his relative openness to Hizbullah and Shi’ites in general, but after his latest remarks those same Saudi theologians can’t say enough nice things about him.

It’s Qaradhawi’s history of occasionally tacking toward a more reasonable position on sectarian issues that seems to concern Prof. Lynch with respect to his comments on Syria. Qaradhawi’s influence seems to be declining alongside al-Jazeera’s, which has lost some of its formerly massive influence in the Arab World as a) more competitors have emerged and b) its own editorial viewpoint has shifted into much greater alignment with official Qatari policy at a time when Qatar is increasingly a target for criticism in the region (pushback against his Muslim Brotherhood supporters hasn’t helped his influence either). Either Qaradhawi is pushing the view that what’s happening in Syria demands a Sunni jihad against Assad and Hizbullah (which also can/does mean Iran and Iraq), which is a bad sign for regional stability, or he’s seen which way the regional winds are blowing and he’s jumping on board the bandwagon to maintain his respectability, which is also a bad (worse?) sign for regional stability. Either way, this kind of talk doesn’t bode well for keeping this conflict contained.


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