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.
Qaradawi’s controversial remarks fell at a Friday rally in Doha on May 31. In an emotional address about the plight of Sunnis in Syria, Qaradawi declared that “anyone who has the ability, who is trained to fight . . . has to go; I call on Muslims to go and support their brothers in Syria.” That’s a remarkable message, precisely because it is one that clerics of Qaradawi’s stature almost never make. Establishment Islamic clerics often declare that a given armed struggle is a legitimate jihad, but they rarely say that Muslims worldwide have a duty to join it. Radical clerics have been known to make this so-called individual duty argument,