Outspoken cleric guides Arabs on revolution
By Roula Khalaf in London
The Arab spring is turning into the spring of the Islamists, as religious parties score the biggest gains in elections. And one man is drawing particular satisfaction – Youssef al-Qaradawi, the 86-year-old controversial cleric named by many Arabs as a spiritual guide for their revolutions.
From his base in Doha, the Egyptian-born Qatari citizen has long been one of the most influential religious authorities in Sunni Islam, an influence derived partly from an unlikely standing as a media celebrity. His weekly show on Qatar’s Al Jazeera draws millions of viewers from across the Muslim world.
Sheikh Qaradawi’s endorsement of Nato-led intervention in Libya lent legitimacy to a contentious mission. His call for the end of the Syrian regime helped galvanise Arab states’ pressure on Damascus. If Arab states cannot force an end to the slaughter of civilians, he now says, Syrians too will have the right to seek UN-backed intervention.
“We were among those who called for revolution,” says the sheikh in an interview with the Financial Times, acknowledging his important role “before, after and in the future”.
Sheikh Qaradawi works out of the expansive office of his Muslim foundation on the outskirts of the Qatari capital, past a dusty library stacked with books on Islamic thought and history. An aide asks visitors to raise their voice to accommodate the cleric’s poor hearing.
He speaks slowly, supporting his arguments with Koranic verses, but also makes more than one reference to the Tunisian poet Abou el-Kacem al-Chebbi, whose most famous words, “If, one day, a people desires to live, then fate will answer their call”, have been a rallying cry in a year of popular upheaval.
The specificity of the Arab revolutions is that they have been popular uprisings, leaderless and uncompromising in demanding total change, says Sheikh Qaradawi. “People have to change from inside and fate will respond.”
Sheikh Qaradawi is banned in the US and reviled in Israel for his support for Palestinian suicide attacks against the Jewish state. He condemned the September 11 attacks in the US and backed a religious edict allowing American Muslims to fight for their country even against a Muslim state, but also maintains that Palestinian suicide attacks are justified.
Within the Middle East and North Africa too, he has his detractors, many of them liberals who scoff at his reputation as an Islamist reformer and others who are suspicious of his motives, seeing him as a convenient tool of Qatari foreign policy.
He has been criticised for playing down the Shia revolt in Bahrain, where he supports Gulf Arab states’ line that the popular protests were sectarian and had links with Shia, non-Arab Iran.
But his supporters are numerous. After five decades in exile – he left Egypt in 1961 after spending time in jail for his ties to the Muslim Brotherhood – he returned to Cairo to pray in Tahrir square in February to the adulation of crowds. As Islamists emerge as the biggest political force in the Arab world, his pragmatic views on Islam and democracy could be a useful moderating guide for Arab societies.
Sheikh Qaradawi expresses a sense of inevitability about the Islamists’ rising power. “What’s forbidden is desired and we [Islamists] were always forbidden,” he says.
“Islamist movements and Islamic da’wa [preaching] were fought, repressed, they had no luck, no place … Now that the tyrants have been removed … nothing prevents Islamists from taking their rightful place in the heart of society.”
His advice to Islamist movements is to stick to a moderate, middle course and not seek to impose their will on society. He ridicules the suggestion that a country such as Tunisia, which relies on tourism, could force an Islamic dress code on visitors. “All there is to it is that people [visitors] should be considerate and not overdo things, and that is said to them only as a matter of advice.”
He says he has counselled Egypt’s Nour party, the Salafi newcomer to the political scene whose strict religious strand is alarming liberals, to adopt “new thinking”. “I told our Salafi brothers … you are in your first political experience and have to deal with people with moderation, and I hope they will.”
He expects a change in the foreign policy of the region and says western nations have to “think” about how to deal with Islam, while Israel cannot continue to base its policies on “force”.
“Countries that are going through this awakening and where Islamists rule will be very wise in their dealings with the west and Israel but they will not accept oppression,” he says.
Although he sees no perfect model of an Islamic state today, he is impressed by Turkey, citing it as an example of a peaceful comeback for Islam in an entrenched secular state. “It’s excellent,” he says of the Turkish government led by the AK party.
“Our brothers the Turks … were able to serve their country and produce an economic and social renaissance … they have won over secularism calmly.” Turkey is the model of moderation, he adds, “and it’s a model that Arab countries can benefit from”.