05/06/2013 07:09 BST | Updated 04/08/2013 06:12 BST

Qardawi's Blunder


Last Friday evening, Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, the leading Sunni religious scholar, declared jihad on Bashar Al-Assad's forces and Hezbollah. He called on Sunni Muslims with military training to support the Syrian uprising against Assad. Qaradawi's pronouncement is nothing new in the region: such declarations are found in medieval Islamic history, as well as in the last few decades. Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, a highly influential Palestinian Sunni scholar, made a similar call in his short treatise, Join the Caravan, calling on Muslims to join the jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

He is popular both throughout the region and further afield, so his pronouncement carries immense weight. The sheikh hosts a religious television program on Al-Jazeera that attracts a huge following, he is also closely affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, and is considered a legal authority in much of the Muslim world.

The Egyptian-born sheikh has urged Syrians to rise up against the Assad government previously, too. His rationale was framed in terms of oppression and injustice. He was one of a group of 107 Sunni scholars all over the Middle East who called on Syrians to fight Assad whilst respecting the rights of minorities. Until this weekend, Qaradawi had tempered his words and refrained from turning the Syrian uprising into a sectarian one.

When Hezbollah was fighting Israeli incursions into Lebanon, Qaradawi supported them; however, with Hezbollah openly declaring their support for the Assad government, Qaradawi has made a complete volte-face. This change of heart could have a significant impact on those who regard him as a legal authority.

The sheikh's reputation has suffered several knocks of late due to his affiliation with the Egyptian Brotherhood, as well as his controversial public pronouncements that irk his secular opponents. His suggestion on Al-Jazeera Arabic that it was justified to kill pro-government Syrian clerics did not help matters, especially as it came before the killing of Sheikh Ramadan Buti, a prominent Syrian scholar.

Qaradawi's involvement and influence over public life should not be underestimated. Religious scholars have long served as mediators between people and power in the Middle East: historically, religious leaders have acted as official government spokesmen, and at times as opponents to the ruling authorities. Muhammad Al-Yaqoubi, one of Syria's top religious scholars, is a good example of how a religious leader can influence politics after he defected to the opposition in mid-2011. Western policy, therefore, cannot ignore the role that the likes of Qaradawi play in the region.

But in terms of the Syrian uprising, Qaradawi has made a strategic blunder. By using overtly sectarian language, he has undermined the whole argument of the revolution's original aims: that this uprising is not a Sunni uprising, but a national one. Qaradawi's position has dented these aspirations.

His language feeds the Syrian government's narrative that the uprising will turn into a sectarian conflict, and that only Assad, the bastion of secularism, could protect everyone--especially the minorities. It also feeds into the exact fears that help prop up Assad, and accounts for much of his government's support among the Alawite community. Bashar Al-Assad, and his father before him, propagated the idea that if the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood came to power they would drive the Alawites into the sea.

Qardawi comes from a Brotherhood background, and thus confirms those fears exactly. He has effectively given the Syrian government a huge propaganda victory. Moreover, he has strengthened Russia and Iran's position, and given those who are reluctant to intervene another excuse to stay out. He has contributed to the nightmare scenario of Shi'ites and Sunnis pitting themselves against each other in a region that is increasingly escalating out of control. Perhaps most importantly, his pronouncement helps confirm fears that the Arab Spring is going horribly wrong, and may justify Western support for authoritarian leaders.

His call for jihad completely ignores the world as it is today: a world of nation-states. In order for there to be any progress in the Syrian conflict, Islamists of all colors and sectarian persuasions must throw out sectarian rhetoric. They must reconcile themselves with the idea that all Syrians are citizens and should not take the sectarian bait.

This article has been cross posted from the Majalla