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Sunni scholar Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi photographed at the university in Qatar. (Emre Rende for The Globe and Mail/Emre Rende for The Globe and Mail)
Sunni scholar Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi photographed at the university in Qatar. (Emre Rende for The Globe and Mail/Emre Rende for The Globe and Mail)

Arab Spring

Octogenarian Islamist cleric an unlikely revolutionary Add to ...

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.

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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 is ascendant.

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 presidential candidate.

“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.”

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