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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. 

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images

Marc Lynch

The War for the Arab World

Sunni-Shiite hatreds are the least of the Middle East's problems -- it's the struggle within the Sunni world that will define the region for years to come.

A video of a rebel commander eating the lung of an enemy fighter and the horrific scenes of children massacred by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad are only a few of Syria's ever-growing catalog of atrocities. This stuff of nightmares has raised fears that Syria's civil war is spreading Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict across the Middle East -- fears galvanized by the escalating body count in Iraq, the dismal standoff in Bahrain, and the seemingly uncontainable tensions in Lebanon.

Many now see this sectarianism as the new master narrative rewriting regional politics, with Syria the frontline of a sectarian cold war permeating every corner of public life. The Sunni-Shiite divide, argues Brookings Institution fellow Geneive Abdo in a report released last month, "is well on its way to displacing the broader conflict between Muslims and the West ... and likely to supplant the Palestinian occupation as the central mobilizing factor for Arab political life."

Perhaps. But think about how little deep Arab sympathy for the Palestinian cause has actually produced effective or unified Arab official action in its support. Will Sunni solidarity be any more effective?

The sectarian master narrative obscures rather than reveals the most important lines of conflict in the emerging Middle East. The coming era will be defined by competition between (mostly Sunni) domestic contenders for power in radically uncertain transitional countries, and (mostly Sunni) pretenders to the mantle of regional Arab leadership. Anti-Shiism no more guarantees Sunni unity than pan-Arabism delivered Arab unity in the 1950s. Indeed, if the vicious infighting among Arab regimes during Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's years is any guide, the competition between "Sunni" regimes and political movements is likely to grow even more intense as the sectarian narrative takes hold.

That certainly seems to be the story thus far. Sunni identity is hardly unifying Egypt, Libya, or Tunisia -- just look at the raucous political debates occurring in each of these countries. The rise of Islamist movements since the Arab uprisings, especially the public emergence of Salafi trends with noxiously anti-Shiite prejudices, has certainly introduced a new edge to the region's sectarianism. But that's nothing compared to how it has affected intra-Sunni politics. Muslim Brothers and Salafis are at each other's throats in Egypt, while Tunisia's Ennahda Party has just cracked down hard on its own Salafi challengers.

Islamist governments in Egypt and Tunisia have also divided the Arab Sunni world more profoundly than they have united it, antagonizing Saudis and Emiratis rather than unifying them around a Sunni identity. Newly open political arenas, like the war in Syria, have provided new opportunities for the region's would-be leaders to compete with each other. Qatar similarly faces a fierce Saudi and Emirati-driven backlash despite their common Sunni identity, partly because of its alleged support for the Brotherhood, but mostly due to the long-standing competition for power between these Arab Gulf states.

The sectarian narrative radically exaggerates both the coherence of the "Sunni" side of the conflict and the novelty of a long-standing power struggle with Iran. It is better understood as a justification for domestic repression and regional power plays than as an explanation for Middle Eastern regimes' behavior. Arab autocrats, particularly those in the Gulf with significant Shia populations, find Sunni-Shiite tensions a useful way to delegitimize the political demands of their Shiite citizens. Shiite citizens of Saudi Arabia in the kingdom's Eastern Province and the Shiite majority of Bahrain who attempt to protest their systematic dispossession are demonized as an Iranian fifth column because this is useful to the ruling regimes.

Similarly, Arab leaders (and Washington) often found labeling their rivals as "Shiite" a valuable way to undermine the popular appeal of the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah "Resistance Axis." This isn't to say that some leaders don't genuinely dislike Shiites -- Saudi King Abdullah famously distrusted Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki as an Iranian agent -- but their personal beliefs aren't really necessary to explain their behavior.

For this reason, a "Sunni" conquest of Syria is unlikely to turn the country into a reliable ally of other Sunni regimes in the region unless such alliances happen to serve the self-interest of the new leaders. The traditional rivalry between Qatar and Saudi Arabia has reasserted itself in Syria -- competition between their networks of rebel groups has been one of the major factors hindering the unification of the Syrian opposition. Should a Sunni coalition of some sort take power in Syria, it will likely be the object of similarly fierce battles for influence among ambitious external players.

Remember, we've been here before -- and recently. Today's sectarianism looks very much like that of the mid-2000s, when Iran and Hezbollah seemed ascendant, Vali Nasr warned of the "rise of the Shia," Jordan's King Abdullah fretted about a Shiite Crescent, and the sectarian cast of the execution of Saddam Hussein infuriated even those Sunnis who felt no love for the fallen dictator. Particularly during George W. Bush's administration, Washington appeared to view such sectarianism as useful to policy goals such as containing Iran, undermining Hezbollah, and cementing its alliance of "moderate" Sunni dictatorships.

The sectarian rages of the mid-2000s had faded by the end of the decade, however, along with the worst days of the Iraqi inferno. But the anger, resentment, and political identities which were forged during those days didn't disappear entirely, and proved all too easy to mobilize when Syria's conflict escalated. The great mass of Syrians or Iraqis may have rejected sectarianism at first, but such restraint grows harder in the face of massacres and massive displacement based on the victims' Sunni or Shiite identities. Local horrors travel quickly in the new Arab media environment, as images of sectarian massacres and the rhythms of sectarian rhetoric too often go viral online and satellite television stations too eagerly adopt sectarian frames. Arab regimes then happily use the horrors of Syria to justify their refusal to reform -- "look how bad it could get!" -- and deploy sectarian language to demonize any political mobilization by their Shia citizens.

The fact that sectarianism is being ginned up for political ends does not mean that the hatreds won't be internalized over time -- to deadly effect. The shift toward a sectarian worldview among Arab publics, evident not only in Syria's bloodbaths but in bigoted banners in Egypt and the burning down of a Shiite residence in southern Jordan merits more attention than power politics dressed up in sectarian drag. The cultivation of these sectarian animosities could consolidate dangerous fault lines constantly available to ambitious, unscrupulous elites that would prove very difficult to reverse.

Preventing the conditions for pogroms against Shiite in Sunni majority countries, not cultivating another Axis of Sunni Moderates against Iran, should be at the top of the agenda. And the key to that may be accepting an imperfect political solution in Syria and de-escalating its horrific violence.

John Cantlie/AFP/Getty Images