Kyle Orton, Syria and terrorism analyst
In the wake of the horrific bombings by the Islamic State (ISIS) in Sri Lanka on Eastern Sunday, which killed 250 people, an image has circulated purporting to show a terrorist connected to the attack in the company of the Qatar-based cleric of the Muslim Brotherhood, Yusuf al-Qaradawi. In fact, the image shows no such thing. But Al-Qaradawi’s influence in creating the ideology that motivates Islamist terrorists cannot be doubted.
The photograph being passed around on social media in the days after the Sri Lankan attacks claimed to show Al-Qaradawi meeting with Zahran Hashim. Hashim is believed to be the ringleader of the carnage in Colombo; he was a member of the ISIS-loyal National Tawheed Jama’ath (NJT), known in Arabic as Jama’at al-Tawheed al-Wataniya, which translates as the “National Monotheism Group”.
What the photograph actually shows is Al-Qaradawi meeting with Salman al-Husayni al-Nadwi, an Indian Islamist cleric. The picture is from September 2017, and came to attention when Al-Nadwi was deported from Oman to Qatar because of his incendiary sermons, held to violate the spirit of Gulf unity and cooperation, the offences that had triggered the Quartet of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt to institute a boycott against Doha three months earlier.
Though not implicated directly in the Sri Lankan incident, Al-Qaradawi, one of the most influential Sunni preachers in the world, has disseminated extremist ideas for many decades that form key parts of the ideological foundations for Salafi-jihadism, the proper name for the doctrine of violent Islamist militancy practiced by ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and similar groups. And Al-Qaradawi has had a regular perch to preach these ideas on Qatar’s state-controlled Al-Jazeera satellite channel. The late scholar Fouad Ajami once wrote of Al-Jazeera that while it “may not officially be the Osama bin Laden Channel … he is clearly its star”.
Al-Qaradawi, the curator of IslamOnline and the long-time leader of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, was once regarded as a mainstream or even modernist voice in Islam, and for the simple reason that this had been the character of his religious vision. The issue arose over his political advocacy.
A devoted member of the Muslim Brotherhood, committed to the doctrine of the group’s founder, Hassan al-Banna, and the effort to promote a “jihadi spirit” among the young, Al-Qaradawi has taken stances on current issues that provide religious cover for practices and ideas that were often then taken in unpredictable and dangerous directions.
The most obvious instance is Al-Qaradawi’s view of suicide bombing. In classical Islam, the prohibition on suicide is very clear. The punishment is to eternally repeat the act of suicide in hell. Even the Nizari Ismailis (“The Assassins”), whose deviation from Islam was extreme, and whose ritualistic acts of targeted murder almost invariably ended with the assailant being killed, never actually committed suicide, regarding such a thing as sinful. Yet in the 1990s, Al-Qaradawi endorsed suicide attacks.
There were caveats. When Al-Qaradawi revoked his fatwa (religious ruling) licensing suicide-attacks in 2015, some thought this showed “moderation” since Al-Qaradawi noted that his ruling had only ever authorized suicide bombing as a defensive measure for the Palestinians in the extraordinary circumstances of their unequal struggle with Israel. But there were two major problems with this.
First, Al-Qaradawi’s view remained troublesome on its own terms. Al-Qaradawi withdrew his support on the basis that by 2015 the Palestinians were able to hit Israel with rockets and other weapons, so suicide bombing was no longer necessary. And there is no sign that Al-Qaradawi has changed his decision, which he clarified after the 9/11 attacks when even many Islamists were reconsidering the scope of their terrorist activities, that there are no “innocent civilians” in Israel; all are legitimate targets for murder. To the contrary, as late as 2009 Al-Qaradawi issued a book that somewhat softened various of his positions, but on the core matters of jihad and the legitimacy of violence for the sake of religion, he remained unchanged, and the same year Al-Qaradawi called on God to “take this oppressive, Jewish, Zionist band of people … and kill them, down to the very last one.”
Second, despite Al-Qaradawi’s efforts to limit what he had ever signed-up for by saying his ruling was only applicable in the narrow circumstances of the Palestinians resisting attack from a much more powerful Israel, the damage was done. Suicide bombing had been religiously permitted and normalized by a cleric regarded as mainstream. Salafi-jihadists had picked up Al-Qaradawi’s warrant and vastly expanded the circumstances where these attacks were legitimate. It was only a matter of time before the suicide bombers were turned on Muslims.
It should be added that Al-Qaradawi’s protests about the limited nature of his fatwa are rather deceptive. At nearly the exact moment he was disavowing the 1990s fatwa, he issued another ruling permitting suicide attacks in Syria — a ruling that still stands — adding only one condition: such attacks must be “within the planning of a group” and “the group must have a specific need for this”. “An individual is not allowed to do it,” said Al-Qaradawi. “You are not allowed to act on your own.”
Another instance: in June 2013, a week after Iran’s proxy force, the Lebanon-based Shi’a militia, Hizballah, had openly attacked the (largely Sunni) Syrian opposition at Qusayr, Al-Qaradawi called on “all those able to undertake jihad and fighting to head to Syria to stand by the Syrian people”. Al-Qaradawi framed this call defensively, but in unmistakably sectarian terms. It was at this moment that the trickle of foreign Sunni jihadists into Syria became a torrent, with many of these newcomers later joining ISIS. That Al-Qaradawi was a vociferous critic of ISIS and its caliphate project did not matter; the genie was out of the bottle and a sectarian jihad was able to overtake the secular revolution that erupted in 2011.
What Al-Qaradawi did with Syria in 2013 was in many ways a repeat of what he had done a decade earlier with Iraq. In January 2003, as American-led forces surrounded Iraq preparing for the invasion, Al-Qaradawi issued a fatwa, declaring: “Those killed fighting the American forces are martyrs … [T]hose defending against attempts to control Islamic countries have the intention of jihad and bear a spirit of the defense of their homeland.”
Al-Qaradawi can hardly take all the blame for Iraq devolving into chaos and bloodshed. There were plenty of internal dynamics that did that — and plenty of other high-profile clerics from the outside, like Harith al-Dhari of the Association of Muslim Scholars, who inflamed sectarian passions and worse, helping pave the way for the forerunners of ISIS, who dragged the Sunni community into a war with the larger Shi’a population. But Al-Qaradawi had then, as he does now, considerable theological weight, which he exerted on the side those who sowed mayhem and destruction, rather than those trying for moderation and tolerance in the aftermath of a savage dictatorship.
Hassan Hassan, the co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, one of the most informative books about the terror group, has explained that while ISIS clearly takes some doctrinal aspects of its ideology from the Wahhabi/Salafi tradition, it is when this is mixed with the political-revolutionary methods of the Muslim Brotherhood that it becomes truly dangerous. “In this sense,” says Hassan, “revolutionary religious ideas derived from political Islam are as central to Islamic State ideology as fundamentalist ones.”
Bin Laden’s diary, released by the U.S. in 2017, offers further evidence of this. The late Al-Qaeda leader states that he was “committed” to the Muslim Brotherhood, and they shaped his early ideas. “No side was guiding me in the way the Brotherhood do,” Bin Laden wrote. Unexpectedly, Bin Laden also reveals that a major influence on him was Necmettin Erbakan, the effective godfather of modern Turkish Islamism, who was toppled as Prime Minister in a “post-modern military coup” in 1997. It was Erbakan who imported Brotherhood-like ideas from the Arab world into Turkey. Turkey’s current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, began his political life as a devotee of Erbakan’s, though he later had some tactical differences with his mentor.
Al-Qaradawi’s fatwas and presence on Al-Jazeera is also specifically cited in Bin Laden’s journal as helpful to the jihadists. “[I]f [Al-Qaradawi] talks, that will help and boost popular confidence”, says Al-Qaeda’s founder, who went on to refer to Al-Jazeera as “carr[ying] the banner of [‘Arab spring’] revolutions”. Al-Jazeera hosted Ahmad al-Shara (Abu Muhammad al-Jolani), the leader of then-Al-Qaeda in Syria, for his first interview, and continued to allow Al-Shara to spread his message on the channel afterwards.
Though Al-Qaeda — and even more so ISIS — have hostile relations with the Brotherhood as an organization, they are in its debt ideologically, and occasionally this breaks through.
As the Muslim Brotherhood was gaining ground after the Arab revolutions in 2011, Bin Laden wrote of his satisfaction at this outcome in a memo to the current leader of Al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri. The success of “half-solutions like the Brotherhood” in post-revolutionary Arab states has allowed the “spread of the proper ideology,” wrote Bin Laden, since the younger Brotherhood members in particular have been gravitating towards the jihadi worldview. “So the return of the Brotherhood and those like them to the true Islam is a matter of time,” Bin Laden added, warning his followers not to get into confrontations with the Brothers.
For the Brotherhood’s part, it was sorry to see Bin Laden go.