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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 ...

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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