Terror Watch: Preaching Violence

In a further sign of the dramatic erosion of U.S. support in the Arab world, a prominent Islamic cleric who once forcefully condemned the September 11 attacks is now openly counseling his followers to resist the U.S. military in Iraq and to provide weapons and funds to the insurgents.

The recent public comments of Egyptian cleric Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi illustrate just how difficult the U.S. struggle in Iraq has become in the face of an insurgency that all parties now agree is escalating week by week. "We believe that all Iraqis should stand together in one rank to resist the occupation," Qaradawi said in an interview last week on Al-Jazeera, the Arab-language television network that is widely watched throughout the Middle East.

The popular cleric called resistance to the United States "a religious duty." He also sanctioned attacks on Iraqi civilians who commit "the crime" of assisting "the enemy," and urged Muslims around the world to refuse to work for any companies that serve "the occupier."

"If a Muslim land is occupied, then its people should fight the occupier," Qaradawi continued. "Others should also help them with funds and weapons, in spirit through prayers and in any way possible."

Qaradawi's comments are especially noteworthy because he is, in the view of many analysts, one of the most influential voices in the Muslim world--a cleric whose public pronouncements are carefully monitored by governments around the globe. Based in Qatar, a strong U.S. ally where he has close relations with the ruling royal family, Qaradawi is a frequent guest on Al-Jazeera. In those appearances, he issues religious judgments on world events in tones that U.S. officials in the past have praised as moderate and constructive.

In the days after September 11, for example, Qaradawi denounced the murders of innocent civilians and encouraged Muslims to donate blood to the victims. "Our hearts bleed" for those who died in the attacks, Qaradawi said at the time.

But in recent months, Qaradawi has become one of a growing number of Muslim clerics outside Iraq who have sided ever more forcefully with resistance fighters the Bush administration has presented as indistinguishable from the terrorists of Al Qaeda. Just last month, Qaradawi was among more than 90 leading Islamic clerics who issued a proclamation--released by the offices of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood--calling on Muslims to opposed American forces in Iraq as well as the U.S.-appointed government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, a Washington-based advocacy group, says he's not surprised by the radicalization of moderates such as Qaradawi. Zogby noted that in a recent poll commissioned by his group, U.S. standing in the Arab world has slipped to alarmingly low levels--a decline that seems largely attributable to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In Egypt, for example, only 2 percent of respondents said they had a favorable impression of the United States (down from 15 percent in a similar poll taken in 2002) while an astounding 98 percent said they had an unfavorable view. In Saudi Arabia, the favorable impression number is 4 percent, in Morocco 11 percent, in the United Arab Emirates 14 percent and in Jordan 15 percent.

Qaradawi's comments seems to reflect "the anger level" toward the United States that is widely prevalent throughout the Arab world, Zogby says.

Still, others see Qaradawi as a problematic figure in his own right--a spiritual leader of the radical Muslim Brotherhood who is occasionally prone to violent rhetoric followed by more-nuanced clarifications that only seem to muddy the water. In a speech before the Egyptian Press Club in Cairo on Aug. 31, Qaradawi was reported in a number of press accounts to have sanctioned the murder of American civilians in Iraq. But in a subsequent interview reported on the Al-Jazeera Web site, he insisted that his words were taken out of context and that he was not calling for attacks on civilians. In his comments on Al-Jazeera last week, Qaradawi also appeared to condemn kidnapping of civilians in Iraq, saying that "resistance, as defined by Islam ... is not without controls."

But Qaradawi has not always been so careful in the past--at least when it comes to Israel. He has often sanctioned the use of suicide bombing as a legitimate tactic for Palestinians to use against Israel--a major reason a recent visit by Qaradawi to London (where he was formally greeted by the city's mayor) drew strong protests from Britain's Jewish community.

Qaradawi's connections with the Muslim Brotherhood have also put him on the radar of U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement officials. The Brotherhood is a secretive international movement founded in Egypt in the 1920s that, in the past, has been dedicated to overthrowing Arab governments throughout the Middle East. In fact, Qaradawi left his native Egypt years ago when the country was engaged in one of its periodic violent crackdowns against the Brotherhood.

Qaradawi's name has surfaced in investigations into alleged international terrorist finance networks. Documents obtained by NEWSWEEK, for example, show that Qaradawi was an early and significant shareholder in Al-Taqwa, a financial network based in Switzerland and the Bahamas whose assets were frozen by the Bush administration because of alleged ties to terrorism.