Hour of power with an Islamist superstar

“Saudi Arabia has Mecca and Medina. We have Qaradawi.” That’s how a former Qatari minister described the role of Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi in Qatar, where I spent a weekend last month, in a conference on U.S. relations with the Islamic world.

The sheikh, educated in Islamics at the Azhar university in Cairo, lives in Doha, where he has become a television preacher with a mass audience. His regular program on Al-Jazeera is the satellite television station’s most popular offering. It attracts 45 million viewers—so I was told at Al-Jazeera—and it’s the only program to which Al-Jazeera adds English subtitles. In Qatar, they think very highly of the sheikh, whose silky Arabic and effortless command of Qur’anic verses have made him a culture hero.

Not surprisingly, the Qatari government, co-sponsor of the conference (with the Saban Center at Brookings), was eager to have Qaradawi address the gathering. But Qaradawi is not without blemish in American eyes. While he has rejected the 9/11 attacks and has condemned the Bali bombing, he has hailed the suicide bombers who kill Israelis as “martyrs” whose acts are justifiable. Israel, he claims, is a militarized society that mobilizes men and women for service. They are all legitimate targets. (Children are a case of collateral damage, their deaths are not intentional.) Hamas leaders cite Qaradawi’s rulings when they justify suicide bombings and, presumably, when they recruit new bombers. Presumably, too, it is this endorsement of suicide bombings that led the United States to cancel his multi-entry visa and refuse him entry.

So it was decided by the conference organizers that Qaradawi’s appearance should take the form of a debate on suicide bombings, entitled “Killers or Martyrs?” The other principal: Khaled Abou El Fadl, an Egyptian-American professor of Islamic law at UCLA. We all looked forward to the encounter with immense anticipation.

How did it go? Perhaps I’ll just quote a new piece on Abou El Fadl, which Franklin Foer has done for The New Republic:

In a conference room at the Doha Ritz Carlton, Abou El Fadl pointed out the logical inconsistencies in al-Qaradawi’s defense of suicide bombing and cited pre-modern Islamic jurists on the ethics of revenge. But such details were of no interest to al-Qaradawi. According to Abou El Fadl, al-Qaradawi told the crowd of Muslim intellectuals and foreign journalists, “I don’t know why brother Abou El Fadl keeps needlessly complicating things; Islam is against such complications,” before going on to cite statistics about the murders of Palestinian children. By the end of the debate, Abou El Fadl felt that he’d been mocked, ignored, and rhetorically run over. Al-Qaradawi stopped addressing him by his proper title—sheikh—and, as he left the stage, refused to shake hands. “It wasn’t a fair fight,” one participant told me later.

And the response of the secular Muslim “intellectuals” who had been invited to this dialogue? Weak. Qaradawi had already blasted them in a radio interview before the conference. They didn’t represent Islam, he said. Who chose them? And it soon became clear that they weren’t going to get out further on a limb by contradicting the sheikh. To the contrary: one after another, they rationalized the suicide bombings as the inevitable outcome of the occupation. To listen to them, you would have thought that suicide bombings were instances of spontaneous combustion, without any guidance or strategy—no recruiters, no planners, no target selection.

So Qaradawi was home free. Nearly. In the Q&A I threw a small bolt at him. He himself had opened by saying that violence was permissible in Islam only after persuasion and proofs had failed. First means came first. But didn’t the bombings put the last means first—just as Osama bin Laden did? Had all means of persuasion been exhausted? Had all Israeli military targets been attacked? I said that such bombings had a place only in a strategy aimed at the destruction of Israel, and I accused Qaradawi of not speaking frankly about why he justified the killings: his own belief that Israel must be eliminated.

Qaradawi’s reply dodged the issue. He didn’t explain his own position; instead, he argued that the bombers themselves were reacting to the horrors of the occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, not to visions of liberating Haifa and Jaffa. (The next day’s newspapers cleaned up Qaradawi’s remarks. He was quoted as calling only for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza to allow creation of a Palestinian state; there’s no intention of throwing Israel into the sea, he was reported to have said. I’ve listened to the tape again, and there is no mention of a Palestinian state as a goal, and no pledge not to throw Israel into the sea. It may be usual in Qatar for the press to soften up Qaradawi’s stance on Israel for domestic consumption. After all, Qatar and Israel do have ties.)

The next day, Qatar’s major daily, Al-Sharq, ran this headline: “Marian Kramer [sic] says Qaradawi and those who follow him seek the destruction of Israel.” I was identified as a scholar from The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “known for its Zionist tendencies.” And our exchange was reported (in Arabic) on Qaradawi’s busy website. (Will I get a visa to visit Qatar again? Wait a minute, that was Marian Kramer, not me.)

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So that’s the story of an hour with Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi—probably one hour too many. You will hear more about him in the months ahead, in connection another matter: Iraq. This is Qaradawi’s take on a war to remove Saddam:

I stood against Saddam and the Baath when he invaded Kuwait. But I will never accept the attack on an Arab people, an Arab country, an Arab army. We will not appoint America to deal with Iraq and deal with Saddam. The Iraqi people are the ones capable of changing their government if they wish. America has starved this people, murdered its children, and is not satisfied with that. It wants to finish off what remains of this people. Where is brotherhood? Where is Arab dignity and their aid? I say to the brothers in Kuwait: The invasion of Kuwait is one matter, but the attack on Iraq now is another matter.

Qatar may soon have to choose between its national interests and its one-man Mecca.