Yusuf al-Qaradawi is a name you’ve probably never heard of before. But it’s a name officials struggling to understand the implications of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political rise abroad cannot afford to ignore. For if the vitriol espoused by Brotherhood ideologues like al-Qaradawi offers any indications of what awaits in the post-Arab Spring era, the so-called mainstreaming of radical, even jihadist movements in the Middle East may be at hand.
According to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ian Johnson, whose 2010 book "A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA, and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West" delivers an unprecedented unclassified examination of the Brotherhood’s interactions with Western governments, Yusuf al-Qaradawi is the most influential Muslim religious figure alive today.
A firebrand cleric whose sermons and moral guidance for Muslims are broadcast to millions of his followers the world over by Al Jazeera, al-Qaradawi is an Egyptian-born resident of Qatar. In addition to being one of the most high-profile figures in the global Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaradawi is known as the spiritual guide of Hamas.
The militant offshoot of the Brotherhood that today governs the Gaza Strip, Hamas is designated a foreign terrorist organization by the US. After moving its headquarters from Damascus to Qatar, Hamas literally became a neighbor of al-Qaradawi.
While his known ties to an entity like Hamas should sound alarms, it is the institution that al-Qaradawi himself has become as a top Brotherhood thought leader which should be of chief concern for security analysts. Even though he passed on the opportunity to serve as the Brotherhood’s “General Guide” following the death of its former leader, and has passed on that opportunity numerous times.
Aside from his influence on the Muslim Brotherhood — whose slogan is “Allah is our objective; the Prophet is our Leader; the Quran is our law; Jihad is our way; dying in the path of Allah is our highest hope” — it is conceivable al-Qaradawi has influenced more jihadis to take up arms against the US and Israel than most top Al Qaeda officials.
So what might internationally-broadcast commentary by Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who explicitly called on Muslims to fight Americans in the “occupied” lands of Iraq entail?
Here are some memorable excerpts:
When asked whether Sharia (Islamic law) permits foreign insurgents to enter Iraq to fight Coalition forces, during his September 2004 appearance on Al Jazeera Television, al-Qaradawi asserted: “If a Muslim land is occupied, then its people should fight the occupier. Others should also help them with funds and weapons, in spirit, through prayers, and in any way possible. The Muslims are one nation.”
During a January 2009 appearance on Al Jazeera, al-Qaradawi proclaimed: “Throughout history, Allah has imposed upon the [Jews] people who would punish them for their corruption. The last punishment was carried out by Hitler. By means of all the things he did to them — even though they exaggerated this issue — he managed to put them in their place. This was divine punishment for them. Allah willing, the next time will be at the hand of the believers.”
Al-Qaradawi is known for issuing fatwas. And he endorsed the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie by Iran’s former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini.
Unlike many Muslim clerics, al-Qaradawi has openly endorsed suicide bombings. He even ruled it permissible for Palestinian women to carry out such attacks, or “martyrdom operations.”
In 2004 he explained: “A clear distinction has to be made here between martyrdom and suicide. Suicide is an act or instance of killing oneself intentionally out of despair ... On the other hand, martyrdom is a heroic act of choosing to suffer death in the cause of Allah, and that’s why it’s considered by most Muslim scholars as one of the greatest forms of jihad.”
Indeed, if the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideals are to be considered “moderate,” it is most intriguing that prominent Brotherhood thought leaders’ views would promptly raise red flags for law enforcement officials if preached here in the West. This may be why the US and more recently Britain and France have refused to issue al-Qaradawi travel visas to participate in conferences as a representative of his influential Union of Islamic Scholars.
Clearly, what constitutes a “moderate” philosophy in the Middle East today might easily be pegged as extremist if presented to Western audiences. Yet somehow, many elected officials in Washington insist on branding al-Qaradawi and other like-minded influential members of the Muslim Brotherhood as moderates. And somehow, it remains axiomatic that members of the liberal Ivy League establishment who wield tremendous influence on the American foreign policy process will dogmatically decry criticism of the Brotherhood as tantamount to calling Labrador puppies ugly.
Much has been said about the Muslim Brotherhood. But what do we really know?
We know the Muslim Brotherhood is an Islamist movement. We know its early thought leaders like Sayyid Qutb, the so-called architect of the “modern jihad,” heavily influenced Al Qaeda leaders like Usama bin Laden, along with the founders of Hamas, which makes Al Qaeda look operationally impish. We know its current slogan expresses “Jihad is our way,” and “dying in the path of Allah is our highest hope.” We know Brotherhood thought leaders like Yusuf al-Qaradawi have encouraged Muslims in the Middle East to wage violent, albeit “defensive” jihad against the US and Israel.
We know the movement’s current functional leader, Mohammed al-Badie, himself considered a “Qutbist,” has done little to deter high-profile members of his organization from proselytizing anti-Semitic and anti-American views. Nor has he discouraged them from promoting confrontation with the US and Israel.
We know the Brotherhood is increasingly focused on currying direct political influence over an oil-rich region that is central to US national security interests. We know newly elected Brotherhood members in Egypt have demanded the US release known terrorists and terror plot co-conspirators like the so-called Blind Sheikh, jailed for his involvement in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center.
We also know that in the post-9/11 era Americans expect their government to exercise more caution when engaging foreign officials affiliated with a movement whose slogan incorporates the term jihad, and whose agenda remains as “opaque” as that of the Muslim Brotherhood. Particularly if those officials may be influenced by the rants of clerics like Yusuf al-Qaradawi, and may thus be inclined to permit growths in jihadist movements to counter US and allied interests in their neighborhood.
In the case of drone strikes, for the Obama administration proximity to an Al Qaeda member is enough to establish association, and thus guilt that warrants the use of lethal force. Curiously, in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood, association does not pass the smell test for ascribing guilt for encouraging attacks on US military personnel, or confrontation with the US and our allies like Israel. Nor has the Brotherhood’s political rise become a reason for the US to officially forecast more problems emanating from a region that is a wellspring for terrorist groups that target Americans and our allies globally.
For national security managers tasked with shaping strategies for America’s engagement of thee Arab world in the post-Arab Spring era, the following pearls of wisdom should be heeded: Where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire. And even if the office of the president wants you to deny it, denying this fact won’t help you prevent the rest of us from getting burned.
Michael S. Smith II is a principal and co-founder of Kronos Advisory, counter-terrorism adviser to members of the United States Congress, and a senior analyst with Wikistrat Ltd. Follow him on Twitter@MichaelSSmithII.