WASHINGTON -- An Egyptian cleric who is widely seen as one of the world's leading Islamist scholars -- and, at times, a polarizing figure-- two years ago called for Muslim nations to acquire nuclear weapons (see GSN, Feb. 18).
Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who left Egypt 40 years ago amid a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood -- the opposition group with which he was associated -- reportedly underscored the deterrent value of nuclear weapons during a 2009 sermon.
Muslim nations "must possess such weapons in order to strike terror in our enemies," but "not use them," he is reported to have said. "If we had nuclear weapons, they would be afraid to attack us, as was the case between the Soviet Union and the Americans, and between India and Pakistan. This is armed peace."
The Muslim Brotherhood recently re-emerged in Egypt to play a supporting role in this year's popular revolution. Qaradawi, though, has de-emphasized his earlier ties to the once-outlawed opposition group, and is said to have turned down an offer a few years ago to serve as its leader, or "general guide."
Based in Qatar, Qaradawi is well known in the Muslim world for his relatively progressive views on a number of issues relating to Islamic thought, ranging from the rights of women to the role of democracy to concepts for societal reform.
Shortly after the September 11 attacks against New York and Washington, Qaradawi was cited by a Muslim-American organization as denouncing al-Qaeda and terrorism, saying, "Our hearts bleed for the attacks that [have] targeted the World Trade Center, as well as other institutions in the United States, despite our strong oppositions to the American biased policy towards Israel on the military, political and economic fronts."
"Yusuf al-Qaradawi is not an important Islamist thinker in the world; he is the most important Islamist thinker in world alive today, the most influential, one of the most highly respected," said Samer Shehata, an assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University.
At the same time, the cleric has occasionally made remarks that have proven highly controversial.
Qaradawi has voiced support for suicide bombing when the tactic is used to resist U.S. or Israeli occupation -- views that led to a ban on his travel to the United States. The cleric has called for Muslims to attack U.S. troops occupying Iraq, but has denied reports that an edict he issued in 2004 justified the abduction or murder of U.S. civilians in the Persian Gulf nation.
In 2002, both Israel and the United States designated the Union of Good -- an umbrella group established by Qaradawi -- as a terrorist organization for its work in raising funds around the world for Hamas.
A cottage industry of dire warnings has recently developed online arguing that if the popular sheik proves influential on Egypt's emerging government, the threat to Israel is almost certain to escalate. That view is highly contested by some experts.
A Potential Role for Nuclear Weapons
Whether Qaradawi's role in the Muslim world will have any impact on a new Egyptian government's determinations about developing a nuclear arsenal is also anyone's guess. The nuclear issue has never been a major focus for Qaradawi and is not a priority for the Egyptian people as they form a new government.
Still, in the wake of Egypt's popular uprising, there is heated debate in some quarters over the prospects for growth in Qaradawi's influence on the nation's politics. Should his role expand considerably, the cleric's views on the utility of nuclear weapons could prove important to Egypt and the region.
Egypt currently has a military-controlled transitional government that has embarked on a number of institutional reforms, as it plans for national elections.
Qaradawi has disavowed any interest in taking political office following last month's political upheaval. Some Egypt experts imagine he might serve instead as an influence on public opinion and perhaps as an adviser to the nation's political leaders.
Virtually any attempt to weigh Qaradawi's potential impact on Egyptian security matters quickly becomes mired in the polarizing details of Middle Eastern politics. Tracking down unbiased information about the cleric or objective English-language documentation of his remarks, made in Arabic, is a challenge.
When it comes to Qaradawi's views about nuclear weapons, very little can be found in the public record. However, experts say there is scant doubt that the 84-year-old theologian sees a potentially useful role for such arms on the part of Muslim nations in the Middle East and North Africa.
He is not alone in that view. Many in Egypt, in particular, have voiced interest in exploring Cairo's nuclear options, for a number of reasons: Some are wary of neighboring Israel's long-held but secret nuclear stockpile; others are more concerned about the potential emergence of an atomic capability in Iran.
Some believe nuclear weapons might also effectively ward off any serious contemplation of armed intervention sometime down the road by Washington or another global power, according to a number of Egyptian thinkers.
In Qaradawi's fleeting references to nuclear weapons, he has not elaborated much about his assumptions or reasoning, but one expert on the Egyptian political opposition says the cleric's views on the subject appear to reflect a widely held perspective.
"Lots of nationalistic Egyptians -- and people from Third World nations more generally -- believe that their country should acquire nuclear weapons and the other trappings of great power," said Tarek Masoud, a Middle East scholar at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "In Egypt this desire is intensified by the fact that Israel has nuclear weapons, and Egyptians feel this constitutes an existential threat."
Shibley Telhami, a University of Maryland professor who has done extensive polling in the region, agreed, but added an important caveat: Denuclearization of Egypt's broader neighborhood also remains a goal.
Egyptian "public opinion would support an Arab nuclear power, so long as Israel has nuclear weapons, but most would support a Middle East free of nuclear weapons," he told Global Security Newswire.
Cairo is believed to have explored its nuclear weapon development options in the 1960s but now lacks the technical capabilities needed to generate atomic fuel, according to proliferation experts.
Former President Hosni Mubarak's regime appeared to signal in recent years that it would seek to expand its nuclear sector, providing a potential opening to develop a clandestine weapons program (see GSN, Sept. 20, 2006).
At the time, Muslim Brotherhood deputies were calling on the Egyptian government to develop nuclear weapons as a counterweight to Israel's stockpile, currently estimated at roughly 100 weapons, a U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency-sponsored publication reported in 2006.
A top Egyptian diplomat last year told GSN that even as his nation pushed to establish the Middle East as a special WMD-free zone, Cairo would not rule out building its own nuclear arsenal someday if its neighbors retained them (see GSN, June 10, 2010).
In Tahrir Square
Immediately after Mubarak's regime was toppled last month, Qaradawi returned to Cairo briefly to deliver a sermon in Tahrir Square that drew more than 200,000 participants.
In his speech, he was reported to have encouraged unity between Muslims and Christians, and praised the Egyptian army for facilitating the people's expression of freedom and democracy. The politically astute cleric also voiced staunch support for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
Qaradawi's appearance was warmly received by the mammoth crowd, touching off debate as to whether the cleric had any intention of claiming the mantle of revolution and, if he did, how the Egyptian public might react.
"It is hard to say how much following Qaradawi has in Egypt, but it is obviously significant enough given the reception he had a [few] weeks ago," Telhami said.
The sheik was reported to have returned a few days later to his home in Qatar, where he has a popular show on al-Jazeera called "Sharia and Life" and co-founded a website, IslamOnline, which features his opinions and religious edicts. His advanced age notwithstanding, Qaradawi has demonstrated appeal with young Muslims. More than 271,000 viewers have "liked" his Facebook page.
"Al-Jazeera has given him a prominent platform that most Egyptians watch, raising his profile even more" inside his home nation, Telhami said. Estimates are that tens of millions of Muslims across the Arab world have viewed "Sharia and Life."
Given his sometimes-controversial remarks, the huge February 18 turnout in the same city square that became the focus of the Egyptian protests elicited a level of alarm on the part of some Israel analysts.
"There is no doubt," declared Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center, in a commentary published last month in the Jerusalem Post. "Qaradawi, not [Osama] bin Laden, is the most dangerous revolutionary Islamist in the world, and he is about to unleash the full force of his persuasion in Egypt."
In the piece, titled "Egypt Gets Its Khomeini," Rubin depicted last month's prayers in Cairo as "the massing of hundreds of thousands in the square to hear a sermon by a radical Islamist." He interpreted the event as "the thanking of Qaradawi for his support of the revolution -- an implication that he is somehow its spiritual father."
Following Qaradawi's appearance, one Israeli security-analysis organization published a profile of the cleric, citing allusions he has made to the objective of establishing a global Islamist caliphate, beginning in Europe.
The religious scholar has also, on occasion, salted his sermons with anti-Semitic remarks and calls for violence against Jews -- words that all of the Egypt experts interviewed for this article deplored. These Qaradawi comments have proven disturbing even to many of his admirers, while some of the sheik's critics fear his incendiary rhetoric could ultimately lead to an expansion in violence.
Several worry that his influence could move the emerging Egyptian state toward Islamic law and into a wartime footing. As a case in point, a number of Middle East-watchers cite a passage in the cleric's Tahrir Square sermon, in which he specifically advocated opening Egypt's Rafah crossing into Gaza, according to news reports. Such a move would almost certainly instigate an Israeli military response, according to these observers.
However, skeptics say that concerns about Qaradawi are overblown and seem to be based on cherry-picking quotes from his vast library of sermons, a practice that fails to accurately account for context and that risks inciting anti-Arab views among Westerners and Israelis.
"I don't think that Mr. al-Qaradawi is a crazed or fringe or lunatic or dangerous or radical individual. In fact, I think quite the opposite," Shehata said. "There are some who would want to portray him that way, because of course not all his views are in line with American foreign policy."
Masoud said it is almost impossible to believe that even Qaradawi's supporters in Egypt or the broader Middle East would, in any significant number, endorse provocative action against Israel.
Egyptians are "unlikely [to] take him up on his call for war with Israel, which would be very costly," the political scholar told GSN.
Meanwhile, any future decision by Egypt on whether to develop a nuclear-weapon capacity is simply not a priority for Qaradawi, evidenced by how few comments he has offered about the matter over the years, Shehata said.
The sheik's popularity in the Middle East has virtually nothing to do with his views on nuclear matters, he noted. Atomic weapons are "certainly not the most important thing that Mr. Qaradawi speaks about," Shehata said in an interview.
In a similar vein, Telhami suggested it would be a mistake to read into the cleric's occasionally bigoted remarks any substantial implications for Egypt's post-Mubarak national security policies.
"While there are anti-Semitic voices in the Middle East and they rise particularly would the conflict between Israel and the Arabs intensify, I do not believe that to be a dominant view in the Arab world," Telhami said. "Over two-thirds of Arabs in 2010 supported a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders."
Writing in early March on the "Real Clear Politics" website, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen cautioned against what he sees as wishful thinking, calling Qaradawi a "Muslim Brotherhood figure whose anti-Semitic credentials are unimpeachable."
"I have read the assurances of scholars and journalists alike that the Muslim Brotherhood has mutated into the Common Cause of Egypt (Jordan, too) and that its anti-Semitism is merely an odd and archaic quirk, like the anti-fluoride positions of some American conservatives," Cohen wrote. "If they are right, wonderful. If not, we all have something to worry about."
A Budding Democracy
For his part, though, Shehata advised against over-interpreting Qaradawi's role in last month's event.
The huge turnout last month for his sermon in Tahrir square was more a celebration of the opposition's success than an expression of support for the cleric himself, according to Shehata. A large crowd was expected for the first Friday prayers following Mubarak's ouster regardless of who was speaking, he said.
In fact, Qaradawi's "role as the principal speaker on Revolution Celebration Day had many of the young activists, many of whom are liberal, a bit concerned -- not so much about him, but about an Islamist symbol of the revolution," Telhami said. "That's why I think we see a little energizing of the demonstrations since as a way of 'reclaiming' the driver" of the uprising, he said.
Qaradawi's ability to affect Egyptian political or military policies is not at all a given, several experts insisted.
"His show on al-Jazeera, which is currently his primary means of reaching people, probably does not penetrate very far into the Egyptian countryside or among the poor," Masoud said.
In terms of national security matters, the sheik "will probably have little influence on the [Egyptian] military, except as a symbol when they want to use him," Telhami said.
The view that Qaradawi might be more dangerous than bin Laden is also simply not supported by facts, according to several of those immersed in the Egyptian political scene.
"He's advanced in years, and few think of him as a candidate to run the country," Masoud said. "I imagine him working his influence as a sort of Muslim Billy Graham, instead of as a second Ayatollah Khomeini."
Like Graham, Qaradawi has considerable religious standing in his home nation and that "certainly means he'll have influence over the public discourse, should he choose to exercise it," Masoud said.
"But we shouldn't assume that he has any kind of unquestioned hold over any important group in Egyptian society," he said. "Egyptian democracy means there's going to be a lot of debate over any opinion that anyone, including Qaradawi, puts forth."