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 spiritual guide.
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.