Octogenarian Islamist cleric an unlikely revolutionary (THE GLOBE AND MAIL) SONIA VERMA DOHA, QATAR 04/05/12)
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At 86 years old, ghost-like, hard of hearing and dependent on eye
drops to blink, Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi is an unlikely revolutionary.
But his physical frailty belies his astonishing influence. As
Islamist parties vie for political power in the wake of the Arab
Spring, the elderly sheik plays a pivotal role as their unofficial
In the twilight of his life, the fundamentalist movement Sheik
Qaradawi nurtured in the shadows is at its zenith. Many of the
secular Arab leaders he denounced are exiled, jailed or dead.
Meanwhile, his old comrades in the Muslim Brotherhood and its
offshoots are poised to seize political power and turn to him for
advice, which he also doles out for the masses from a televised
pulpit – a weekly show broadcast on Al Jazeera where he promotes his
vision of how Islam can co-exist with democracy.
As people in many Arab countries grapple with how to govern
themselves in the wake of revolution, Sheik Qaradawi’s opinions are
suddenly sharply relevant. As the world’s most powerful and instantly
recognizable Sunni Muslim cleric, what he says has mattered for
years. His twice-weekly show, Shariah and Life, draws a staggering
audience of 60 million worldwide. That’s slightly more than the
number of people who tuned in to watched the final episode of Friends.
The uprisings that have swept the Middle East are the fulfilment of a
lifelong dream. “All my life I have been struggling, fighting for
this kind of revolution,” he says with a smile that is framed by a
carefully trimmed white beard.
He is hardly a model democrat in the eyes of Israel and its Western
allies, which despise him for his support of Palestinian suicide
bombers. During the 2009 war in Gaza, Sheik Qaradawi beseeched Allah
to exterminate Jews: “Oh Allah, count their numbers and kill them,
down to the very last one,” he said in a particularly odious
broadcast. He has been banned from entering an impressive list of
countries including the United States, Britain, France and the United
Arab Emirates. Some critics have described him as a modern-day
Ayatollah Khomaini, saying he is nothing more than a charlatan who
uses his vast network and television stardom to help elevate radical
Islamists to power.
Sitting in a plush chair behind an engraved desk, where books on
Islamic thought jostle for space with half-drained bottles of
designer cologne that range from Chanel to YSL, the Egyptian-born
cleric lives a life of privilege in Qatar, the world’s wealthiest
country, where he was exiled 50 years ago. His office walls are
adorned with luxurious gifts that attest to his connections to the
ruling al-Thani family, including a painting, labelled as “99 per
cent gold,” from the Qatar Foundation.
A lifelong member of the Brotherhood, his ties to the movement landed
him in jail time four times in Cairo before Qatar offered him refuge.
Here he exemplified the phenomenon of a “global mufti,” says Salah
Eddin Elzein, director of the Aljazeera Centre for Studies. “Qaradawi
living here gave him that exposure,” says Dr. Elzein, who grew up in
tiny Darfur and vividly recalled magazines featuring the sheik’s
teachings reaching his remote village, as if by some kind of miracle.
Sheik Qaradawi uses his platform to issue a dizzying number edicts to
his Sunni Muslim followers on everything from breast-milk banks in
the Muslim world (he supports them) to religious behaviour.
But it is his role as the voice of Islamist political thought that
has become especially critical now.
His return to Egypt in the wake of Hosni Mubarak’s ouster last year
marked a personal victory. Fifty years after he was exiled for his
association with the Brotherhood, he led a prayer in Tahrir Square,
addressing more than a million spellbound Egyptians who clambered to
catch a glimpse. “Don’t fight history,” he told them, adding, “You
can’t delay the day when it starts. The Arab world has changed.”
To his admirers, he is a moderate force whose teachings on democracy
have served as a blueprint for the Arab Spring. His support for a
NATO-led military intervention in Libya lent credibility to a mission
that could have just as easily been condemned as another Western
invasion of an Arab country. His early calls for Syrian President
Bashar al-Assad to step down were vital in persuading key Arab states
to ultimately denounce Damascus.
He says he has never rejected political pluralism and is comfortable
with the prospect of Islamist parties competing for power, not
monopolizing it. But Islamic law must reign supreme, in his view.
Certain rules, like a ban on alcohol, can never be compromised. Even
if a majority rejected such a ban, he says, it is the obligation of
an Islamic state to uphold it. The alternative, he adds, would be
chaos. In the past year, his musings have crossed the border from
theory to real time, reflecting crucial debates taking place in
countries like Tunisia, Egypt and Libya where the Muslim Brotherhood
As he has for years, Sheik Qaradawi argues that a marriage of Islam
and democracy is preferable to the “fake democracy” that thrived for
decades in the region.
“When a secular president announces 99.9 per cent of people have
voted for him, this is not democracy,” he says, an ironic reference
to the kinds of sham elections that locked leaders in power for
decades in some Arab countries. “Islam stands for real democracy.”
The octogenarian’s views resonate strongly with many of the young
Muslims who spearheaded the pro-democracy uprisings of the Arab
Spring. Ironically, it is the older Brotherhood establishment, which
came late to the revolution, that has benefited from the power vacuum
they left behind. Part of Sheik Qaradawi’s power is that he holds
sway with both demographics. Young people listen to him because of
his savvy use of television and social media. Older Islamists,
associated with the Brotherhood movement, view him as a sort of
father figure, who advises them on everything from writing
constitutions to the role of sharia law.
Sheik Qaradawi worries more about the older, ossified generation than
the young, leaderless one. He warns that as the Brotherhood ascends
to political office, it must change to reflect modern times or risk
becoming irrelevant: “It is imperative for the Brotherhood to open up
to all kinds of concepts, ideas and to try to get along with
different currents of thought. I convey this idea, whenever I can to
many people,” he says.
Are Islamists ready to listen to him when his advice interferes with
their quest for political power?
“I am trying to make them understand. I am dealing with them in a
soft and amicable way, trying to make them understand and hope they
will change their views,” Sheik Qaradawi answers.
But it’s unclear whether the Islamist movements, whose causes Sheik
Qaradawi championed for so long, will need him in the same way, with
political power finally within their grasp.
Two weeks after the sheik expressly instructed the Brotherhood not to
run for Egypt’s highest office, because it would lead to “tension” by
alienating non-Muslims, the movement ignored him and named a
“Qaradawi is part of the oldest generation, who perhaps fit in better
than the ones who are in power now,” says Salman Shaikh, director of
the Brookings Doha Center. “They don’t have the concerns about power
and leadership and so they are instinctively drawn to the modernizing
tendencies of the younger leadership that will emerge. I bet you he
was more at home in Tahrir because of that, than anywhere else.”
However, Sheik Qaradawi’s guidance on the application of Islamic law
continues to confound outside observers. He condones Palestinian
suicide attacks on Israeli civilians, because he considers them
soldiers. After the Sept. 11 terror attacks, he urged Muslims to
donate blood for its victims. He has said that wife-beating is
sometimes permissible. He also vociferously advocates education and
employment for women, and one of his daughters is an internationally
renowned nuclear scientist.
Age has not mellowed his tendency to court controversy. Dubai’s
police chief threatened on Twitter to arrest him for what he deemed
were seditious remarks by the sheik criticizing the United Arab
Emirates for revoking the visas of Syrians protesting against
President al-Assad. French President Nicolas Sarkozy barred him from
France last month where he’d been invited to an Islamic conference.
In the wake of last month’s killing spree in Toulouse, the sheik, it
seemed, was no longer welcome.
The sheik maintains he is simply misunderstood. Asked for his opinion
of Mohammed Merah, the Toulouse gunman who claimed to have killed
seven people in the name of “Allah,” he slams his fist on his desk.
“I totally reject this fellow’s stand. He has nothing to do with
Islam. It’s an inhuman act,” he says. Then he paraphrases a quote
from the Koran: “He who kills a soul without any cause, it is like
killing a whole nation. He who helps them survive, it is like he has
created a whole nation.”
Offering Turkish delight and freshly squeezed orange juice to
visitors, he offers a conciliatory message to his critics. “My
message to the West is they should accept me, and evolve a way of
getting along.” (© Copyright 2012 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc.
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