In the early 1950s a group of Syrian youth studying at the Al Azhar University petitioned their MPs in the Syrian Parliament, lobbying to prevent the erection of a statue in downtown Damascus of General Yousuf Al Azma, a former war minister who was killed confronting the invading French army at the young age of 36, back in 1920.
Statues were pagan habits from the jahiliya era that should never be allowed in an Islamic country, they argued, taking their cue from a young Egyptian classmate at Al Azhar named Yousuf Al Qaradawi, who had recently positioned himself as a student leader in Cairo. Al Qaradawi corresponded with Syrian Islamists, asking them to spare no effort to prevent the creation of more statues in Syria — and to tear down the one of Yousuf Al Azma.
Members of that generation grew up to become leaders of the Syrian Brotherhood in the 1960s and 1970s. They always looked up to Al Qaradawi for leadership and advice, after the Egyptian cleric set up base in Qatar in 1961. Twice, they took up arms against the Baathist state in Syria, in 1964 and 1979-1982, and when they failed on both accounts, headed briefly to Iraq and then to Kabul and Peshawar, where they joined the mujahideen who were fighting the US-backed invasion of Afghanistan.
In 1989, they coalesced to form the Syrian contingent of Al Qaida, and seven years later, stood firmly behind the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which was supported by men like Al Qaradawi and Osama Bin Laden. When the Taliban destroyed the ancient statues of Buddha, carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamyan valley in Hazarajat, central Afghanistan, in March 2001, Al Qaradawi did not lift a finger to stop them and of course, nor did any of his Qatari sponsors, who were friends with the Taliban and still operate an embassy for the terrorist group in Doha 16 years after its fall in Kabul.
He only travelled to Afghanistan from Doha after the damage had been done, meeting whom he described as “scholars” from the Taliban, engaging in a “theological debate”. The statues received passing mention in the talks, which according to Al Qaradawi, were instead focused on how Qatar could help in “education, media and economics” of the Taliban regime. He did not say that such an assault on world heritage sites was un-Islamic, but noted: “The brethren in Afghanistan are uncomfortable with the position of Islamic organisations worldwide regarding the statues, and they consider it a domestic issue.”
More recently Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), and Jabhat Al Nusra, the Al Qaida branch in Syria, have carried out a similar destruction campaign in the Syrian battlefield, beheading a statue of the Abbasid-era poet and philosopher Abu Alaa Al Maari in Muarret Al Nouman in north-western Syria in 2013. In February 2015, Daesh released a five-minute video of its warriors smashing ancient statues into tiny fragments at the Mosul Museum. The destroyed statues were thousands of years old, dating back to the Assyrian and Akkadian Empires. In March 2015, Daesh leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi called for the destruction of both the Great Sphinx and the Pyramids of Egypt.
Unchanging in nature
When Jabhat Al Nusra overran Idlib in early 2015 they beheaded the statue of Ebrahim Hananu, a celebrated anti-colonial leader from the 1920s. When they occupied the ancient city of Palmyra in mid-2015, Daesh warriors destroyed two of its great temples, parts of its famed amphitheatre, the Arch of Triumph, and the Palmyra Museum. More than 200 museum artefacts were smashed with hard tools and sledgehammers, while the statues were decapitated and their hands chopped off. In all of these instances, Yousuf Al Qaradawi was silent — refusing to utter a word of condemnation — and so were his allies in the Brotherhood and patrons in Qatar, who knew that they could have easily avoided such malice if Al Qaradawi spoke out against it, given his influence in extremist circles worldwide.
Many years later, he spoke out against the demolishing of statues, but only after all of them had been destroyed. It was too little too late. Proving that age had not changed him, however, the 91-year old Al Qaradawi came out with a statement last April, when 27 Egyptians were killed in an explosion inside a Coptic church in the Egyptian Nile Delta city of Tanta, and another blast killed 16 at a church in Alexandria. Both were claimed by Daesh. From Doha, he tweeted: “During its history, only under authoritarian eras has Egypt seen bombings that target its civilians — under regimes that deny people security or freedom.”
He did not say a bad word about Daesh, indirectly endorsing the attack, and instead, chose to blame the Egyptian state that was fighting terrorism.
A few days ago, at his residence in Doha, Al Qaradawi hosted Khaled Mesha’al, the leader of Hamas — the Palestine branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. It was Qatar’s way of throwing sand in the eyes of the international community — telling the world that it was happy with its terror network and unwilling to expel — let alone silence — notorious figures who have used its capital for spewing sectarian venom and plotting terror attacks.
A country that created the splendid Museum of Islamic Art and whose people contributed to the heart and soul of the Muslim world ought to never be associated with terrorists like Al Qaradawi and the Brotherhood who hijacked Islam and distorted its true meaning — transforming it from a religion of compassion and love into a movement linked with chopping off heads, attacking civilians, and destroying statues.
Sami Moubayed is a senior fellow at St Andrews University in Scotland and author of Under the Black Flag.