Al-Jazeera Star Mixes Tough Talk With Calls for Tolerance
Washington Post, Feb. 14, 2003
By Anthony Shadid, Washington Post Foreign Service
DOHA, Qatar — His head draped in a white scarf in the tradition of the prophet Muhammad and his body made soft by years of religious study, Sheik Osama bin Laden, perhaps a thousand Osama bin Ladens. Palestinian suicide bombings — martyrdom operations, he insisted — are the weapon of the weak, their toll justified as a defense of sacred land.
Moments later, he seamlessly shifted to words more welcome in the West. Women must be given greater rights, he said, and autocratic Arab states must turn to democracy. Islam must reform and celebrate tolerance. Terrorism like the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks must be denounced. “By God, I was sympathetic with the Americans from the beginning,” the 76-year-old sheik explained in an interview. “But truthfully, I didn’t imagine then that America would go on to declare a war against the world.”
The views espoused by Qaradawi — part religious scholar, part television star and part enigma — have made him one of the most celebrated figures in the Arab world. His teachings are carried on what many contend is the most popular weekly show on Institute of Islamic Political Thought in London. “If Sheik Qaradawi gives a fatwa,” he said, using the term for a religious ruling, “that fatwa will be heeded tomorrow in hundreds of places around the world.”
Qaradawi is among a prestigious and relatively small group of Arabic-speaking religious leaders who emerged over the past decade at the intersection of technology and faith, using modern communications to deliver blunt and often provocative messages. At the same time, these people have maintained independence from governments, enhancing their reputations as straight talkers.
Qaradawi has the added reputation of being a reformer, a voice not afraid to defy 1,300 years of sometimes sclerotic religious study. It is a measure of attitudes in the Middle East that his critics chastise him not for his support of Palestinian suicide attacks or his opposition to war in Iraq, but for his demand that Christians and Jews be respected as “people of the book” who share the God of Abraham.
Among those in the most militant strands of Islam, his fondness for movies and music is scandalous. Qaradawi is said to enjoy listening to Um Kalthoum, an Egyptian singer who is still a giant more than 25 years after her death. His call for dialogue with non-Muslims, some contend, is naive. They see in his embrace of democracy and his call for greater women’s rights a slavish imitation of the West. In elections last year in Bahrain, he wrote a fatwa sanctioning women, especially those past their child-bearing years, as candidates in municipal elections. A Saudi cleric quickly weighed in: Not permitted, he ruled.
“The sheik is a one-and-only kind of guy,” said Maher Abdullah, 43, the host of “Sharia and Life,” the 90-minute program on al-Jazeera that carries Qaradawi across the Arab world and beyond. “He is a cast of his own.”
Abdullah recalled that Qaradawi traveled with a delegation of religious scholars to Afghanistan in 2001 to appeal to the Taliban to save the towering, almost 2,000-year-old statues of Buddha in Bamian. More conservative voices accused him of supporting idol worship and paganism. “It’s like they were talking about [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon,” Abdullah said.
Far more controversial was Qaradawi’s consent to a fatwa in October 2001 that legitimized American Muslims fighting in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. Caller after caller lambasted Qaradawi, Abdullah recalled, but the Egyptian cleric held his ground. “I had faxes saying, okay, Sheik Qaradawi, Afghan orphans will put slogans on their chests saying our fathers were killed by American Muslims because Sheik Qaradawi said they could do so,” Abdullah said.
And then there was the show still gossiped about more than four years later. The topic was sex in marriage and, by the standards of a deeply conservative Arab world, the talk about what was sanctioned under Islam was graphic. Qaradawi was decidedly liberal. The crux of his message: The bottom line is consent of both partners.
Qaradawi made clear in the interview that he was seeking to create a new, moderate current in Muslim thinking, one that “seeks balance between intellect and the heart, between religion and the world, between spirituality and materialism and between individualism and the group.” To do so, Qaradawi is fighting tradition that, Abdullah said, “takes a bulldozer to shift just a little.” Some colleagues and family members point to a past that fostered what they see as his independent path.
Qaradawi was born in 1926 in Saft Turab, an Egyptian village in the Nile delta crisscrossed by irrigated cotton farms. His father died before his birth. His mother followed before he was a year old. Raised by aunts and uncles, Qaradawi was urged to choose a way to make a living — running a grocery or perhaps learning carpentry, said his son, Mohamed Qaradawi.
Instead, he memorized the Koran before his 10th birthday and embraced religion as a course of study at Al-Azhar University, the preeminent seat for Sunni Muslim scholarship in Cairo. From there, he was swept up by the seismic events shaping Egypt after World War II. Like thousands of other Egyptians, he embraced the teachings of Hassan Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, who enunciated a message not unfamiliar today: religious renewal, a fierce nationalism wrapped in faith and hostility to what was perceived as an imperial West. Throughout was a subtle critique of the weakness and corruption of the Arab world’s own leadership.
The Brotherhood ran afoul of Egypt’s rulers. Qaradawi was imprisoned first under the monarchy in 1949, then three times after the revolution that brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power in 1952. He was tortured, but says little about the experience. By 1961, he had left Egypt, settling in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar and eventually distancing himself from the Brotherhood’s politics.
“His objective was never to satisfy anyone. He always had his own way of thinking,” said Mohamed Qaradawi, 35, a professor of mechanical engineering at Qatar University. “He does feel it, the pressure. I believe he’s a moderate. He believes he’s a moderate, yet there’s all this pressure on him from both sides to change his thinking. The Americans believe he’s an extremist; the [Muslim] extremists in places like London think he’s sold out.”
During the interview, Qaradawi sat somewhat feebly in his home, which is adorned with East Asian art and gold Koranic inscriptions set on black. But he became impassioned when he spoke of the Palestinian uprising and suicide bombings — a term he rejects.
“God gave the weak weapons that enable them to resist the powerful,” he said, mixing the formal Arabic of scholarship with the colloquial Egyptian Arabic. “With these weapons they can sacrifice their lives for the sake of their countries and their people. These weapons are the only ones that others cannot wrest away from them.”
That view — widespread in the region — has wrecked Qaradawi’s reputation among some in the West. Soon after he issued a fatwa sanctioning such attacks, he said, Qatari officials passed on a message to him from the U.S. Embassy that his 10-year U.S. visa had been revoked.
The passion of his anti-U.S. statements has deepened since. He has denounced the prospect of a U.S.-led attack on Iraq. While not calling for attacks on U.S. soldiers, he said those killed trying to expel them should be considered martyrs. He said he is not opposed to a U.S. presence in the region, but that the latest buildup has evolved into an occupation laying the groundwork for an illegitimate strike against an Arab and Muslim country.
“My position is against this war, which has no justification. In my view, the death, ruin and destruction it will bring will bequeath hatred between West and East, between Americans and Arabs and Muslims,” he said. “It’s not necessary.”
He also lamented U.S. support for Arab governments in a region populated by what he called “democracies of 99.99 percent.”
Unlike many Muslim scholars, he said he believes that Israel and a Palestinian state can coexist. In a region where bin Laden is often declared innocent of the Sept. 11 attacks, he was forthright in assigning blame and called on Arabs to give blood for the victims. In the interview, he praised Western ideals, if not the way they are carried out in the Middle East.
Three of his four daughters have PhDs from British universities — in nuclear physics, organic chemistry and botany. The fourth has a master’s degree in biology from the University of Texas. His son Mohamed earned his PhD from the University of Central Florida in Orlando. One of his two other sons is working toward a master’s degree in business administration at the American University in Cairo.
“In the modern age, Muslims and Arabs considered America a friend to them, the closest to them,” Qaradawi said after demanding his guest drink the carrot juice he had offered. “America had not occupied Arab nations or Islamic nations. It didn’t have the historical baggage that the British, French, Spanish, Italians, even the Dutch, who colonized Indonesia, had. Its history was unblemished.”
There is still room for dialogue and respect, he insisted, despite the prospect of war, and coexistence, even now, is a better goal than a clash of civilizations. “We’re all the sons of Adam,” he said.