Is Qatar guilty of sectarianism in Syria?

Let’s be clear here, Qatar lost in Qusair. It is embarrassing and undermines two years and $3bn of financial support to the rebel movement. And it is time that Qatar began to take some responsibility for things Qaradawi has said, and is saying with regards to Syria.

Much has been made of the increasing sectarian dynamic in the Syrian conflict. The entry of Hezbollah to defend Shia in Syria and the use of Shia fighters to aid the Army of Bashar al Assad in taking the town of Qusair has brought this particular angle under the spotlight. Increasingly we are beginning to think of this conflict as an all-out sectarian death match in which Islam’s two sects fight a zero sum game.

Whilst the extent of sectarian motivations held by Syrians themselves is still reasonably up for question, there can be no doubt that external fighters lack the nuance of the vast majority of their coreligionists inside Syria. Hezbollah and Shia fight to defend Shia shrines and villages from being destroyed by Sunni extremists: Sunnis fight to prevent Sunni civilians and towns from being destroyed by an Allawi Iran-backed Army.

Behind these Sunni fighters stand Saudi Arabia, Turkey and of course Qatar. Qatar especially has become increasingly associated as promoters of Sunni interests in the region directly at the expense of Shia, which has caused a rift between itself and its once strong ally, Hezbollah.

In an interesting piece about Qatar’s break in relations with Hezbollah Emirati commentator Sultan al Qassemi notes ‘a media war is in full swing between Hezbollah and its allies in Iran and Syria against Qatar, which is returning the punches via Al Jazeera Arabic which reflects the spiralling of relations between both parties’. True, Qatar’s relationship with Hezbollah is irreparably damaged as a result of its actions in Syria, and Hezbollah’s response. Likewise there is undoubted tension between Qatar and Iran, which is only alleviated by both sides’ need to maintain cordial relations over the maritime enormous gas field they both share.

But the break with Hezbollah is not just reflected by television stations. Qatar plays host to an icon of the Muslim world, Sheikh Yussuf Qaradawi the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, and an immensely influential force across the Sunni Muslim world.

Qaradawi has struggled to maintain coherence since the outbreak of the Arab Spring. His more recent sermons have rambled into incoherent self-contradictory tirades against whomever he has deemed worthy of finding fault with that week. His knee-jerk rejection of protests in neighbouring Bahrain as simply being a sectarian attempt by Iranian backed Shia to harm Sunnis first got me wondering whether he was really seeing events in the Arab world outside of sectarian parameters. Those who follow Bahrain closely will know that it is a far more complex conundrum than a simple Sunni-Shia paradigm.

Last week Qaradawi revealed his true colours when he called Hezbollah the party of Satan and urged "a jihad in Syria against Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah, which are killing Sunnis and Christians and Kurds." One hardly expects that Kurds and Christians will run to the Sheikh’s call, and so it is Sunnis alone who will be spurred into action to defend Syria, something the garrulous Sheikh of course intended. Unsurprisingly Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Abdulaziz Al sheikh has backed Qaradawi to the hilt.

In true fashion the rhetoric of these Sunni clerics is designed to paint Hezbollah as the sectarian actor, and their position as merely that of standing up against a “repulsive” movement. They are of course correct, Hezbollah’s motivations in Syria are clearly sectarian, but being correct about Hezbollah does not vindicate Qaradawi’s view as moral or just. Both Al Sheikh and Qaradawi see Syria as a war between Sunni and Shia, they stand firmly on the Sunni side and would rejoice in the defeat of Bashar, Hezbollah and Iran and the crippling of the Shia axis.

Qatar’s relations with its own Shia population, estimated at being between 7-10% of the population, are fairly good. Issues to do with the distribution of Shia literature and vetting of clerics have arisen in the past, but as I have previously written Shia can worship, gather, and celebrate their religious festivals without interference. That is not to say some Qataris do not possess anti-Shia views, some certainly do, and many are deeply distrustful of Iran and its intentions for Shia across the region. However Qatar itself is not a country riven with sectarianism, and the leadership has never supported any action that would divide Qataris along sectarian lines.

Given this fact it is important to understand that Qatar’s actions in Syria are not part of some elaborate strategy to destroy Shia or Allawis. Their goal is to remove Bashar and for better or worse this has been the only major driver behind their actions in Syria, dealing a bloody nose to Iran is merely an added bonus.

Yes, it is absolutely the case that Qatar, through a mixture of over-exuberance, lack of foresight, and shoddy vetting, has aided in the arming and financing of groups who hold extremely sectarian views and have acted in sectarian ways. But it would be wrong to assume that Doha picks up the phone to Jabhat al Nusra and orders them to burn down a Shia mosque; they do not and have never supported the sectarian aims held by extremist Sunni fighters.

But let’s be clear here, Qatar lost in Qusair. It is embarrassing and undermines two years and $3bn of financial support to the rebel movement.  We are at a crossroads now, the Shia world has played its trump card and the stakes have increased. Qatar’s decision makers will be anxiously wondering what they can do to respond and stop their side from losing, all the while their most famous guest has begun whipping up the Sunni world and inciting it to Jihad.

The question is whether Qatar stands behind this man and his call for Sunni Jihad. Qaradawi is not the Emir of Qatar, and there is no explicit support for his views from the ruling elite. However the linkage between the elite and Qaradawi is not clear, leading Middle East commentator Marc Lynch has claimed that ‘Like Al Jazeera Qaradawi's stances now seem to more closely follow Qatari foreign policy’.

It is time that Qatar began to take some responsibility for things Qaradawi has said, and is saying with regards to Syria. Qatar has repeatedly insisted in discussions with international diplomats that it abhors sectarianism, and is deeply troubled by the sectarian drift in Syria. But remaining silent as Qaradawi spews fire from his pulpit hardly instils much confidence.

If Qaradawi continues to urge Jihad we can only assume that Qatar tacitly supports this as a tactic for turning the tide back in favour of the rebels.  Qatar’s leadership needs to understand that whilst there are internal and external complications associated with rebuking Qaradawi; continually allowing him to pontificate from Doha will mean they become tarred by his naked sectarianism

About the author

Michael Stephens is a Researcher at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Qatar, follow him on Twitter @MStephensGulf

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