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How Syria's Civil War Became a Holy Crusade
One of the World's Most Influential Clerics Declares War
Thomas Hegghammer is the Zuckerman Fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation and the author of Jihad in Saudi Arabia. Aaron Y. Zelin is the Richard Borow Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the founding editor of the website www.jihadology.net.See more by Thomas HegghammerSee more by Aaron Y. Zelin
A Pandora’s box was opened in the Middle East in late May. That was when Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Egyptian theologian who is perhaps the world’s most influential Sunni cleric, called on Sunni Muslims worldwide to fight against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah in Syria. In the weeks and months ahead, Qaradawi’s statement will surely quicken the stream of foreign fighters into Syria. Before long, Syria’s civil war could turn into an all-out sectarian conflict involving the entire region.
The 86-year-old Qaradawi is a religious cleric who left Egypt for Qatar in 1961 and has since become something of a celebrity among Islamic religious leaders. He has authored more than 100 books that are sold across the Muslim world, and his weekly TV show on al Jazeera has tens of millions of viewers. Qaradawi owes much of his influence to his careful balancing of populism and political conservatism. He manages to combine, for example, hard-line views on Israel with vigorous condemnation of al Qaeda. He has built a reputation as someone who speaks truth to power, all the while retaining the privileges -- such as a TV program and a professorship -- that come with being close to the establishment. In some sense, he is the closest thing that the Sunni Muslim world has to a pope.