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.

Just Before Midnight at Al-Jazeera

I’m back from a long weekend in Doha, Qatar, an Arab Gulf country that’s best known in the West as the host of the Al-Jazeera satellite television station. The occasion: a conference on “U.S. Relations with the Islamic World,” sponsored by the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution and the government of Qatar.

On Sunday night, a producer from Al-Jazeera asked me to come down and appear on the 11:00 o’clock evening news program, “Harvest of the Day” (Hasad al-Yawm), which I did. (My bow to 35 million Arab viewers.) The subject: the American pursuit of UN resolutions on Iraq. I didn’t have any especially interesting insights on the subject, but I found plenty of interest in watching the famous Al-Jazeera in action. My host, a Jordanian senior producer, took me into just about every room in the place, and I learned a lot.

Al-Jazeera became famous during and after 9/11, and it’s had mountains of press since then. (Most notably, Fouad Ajami wrote a critical piece about it for the New York Times Magazine.) The U.S. government has been particularly peeved that Al-Jazeera provides a platform for every kind of anti-American extremist, including Osama bin Laden. “Al-Jazeera’s virulent anti-American bias undercuts all of its virtues,” wrote Ajami. “It is, in the final analysis, a dangerous force.” I confess that I’m not a daily viewer of Al-Jazeera, so I won’t venture my own comment on its content. But here are a few observations on the look and feel of the operation.

Al-Jazeera operates out of a matchbox of a building, within the compound of Qatari state broadcasting. Qatar is a place of monumental architecture—the shining white palace of the Emir, brash glass hotels, big shopping malls. Al-Jazeera, in contrast, is located in a modest, low-slung white building, surrounded by a dirt parking lot and a bank of satellite dishes. The newsroom and studios are small and cramped. There must be hundreds of local American television stations with more spacious quarters than Al-Jazeera. (And there isn’t much in the way of facilities for in-studio guests. For example, no one bothered to make me up—standard procedure in any television studio. Of course, very few people are interviewed in Doha, especially as Al-Jazeera doesn’t cover Qatar. The vast majority of interviews are feeds from the station’s bureaus elsewhere.)

There is talk of a new and larger building, which would take years to build. In the meantime, as someone pointed out to me, the whole thing could be taken down in a day. As long as it remains that way, one imagines that under the wrong circumstances, that might happen.

But the station is marvelously appointed with the best equipment. They’ve got everything they need to produce the tightly edited segments and the slick graphics that give the final product a professional look. The newsroom is like a trading room of information. It’s dominated by a wall of screens displaying the output of all possible competitors, and computer work centers feeding every kind of media via the web.

After my segment, I hung around the newsroom, chatting with various journalists, presenters, and producers. Even at midnight, the newsroom was hopping—it’s a round-the-clock operation, and many of the staff pull twelve-hour shifts. They shared with me various bits of Al-Jazeera lore, some of it with an Israeli angle. For instance, just before the Israeli elections in February 2001, Ehud Barak called Al-Jazeera and asked to be interviewed. He wanted another shot at addressing the Israeli Arab voter. Ariel Sharon balked on a scheduled interview last March, because he insisted that it be conducted face-to-face, and not through an earpiece. And so on. The bottom line of all the stories is that Al-Jazeera, despite its dimunitive quarters, is too big to be ignored—or manipulated.

It’s no surprise that the station has an aura of new-style pan-Arabism. The staff comes from everywhere in the Arab world. I met journalists from Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Lebanon, even Mauritania. (There is only one Qatari journalist.) They’re a young crowd, who seem to thoroughly enjoy their notoriety. As one of them put it, the strategy of Al-Jazeera is to provoke people, and they revel in their roles as journalistic gadflies.

As I went briskly through the offices of this boutique operation, I remembered the last time I visited an Arab newsroom—in Cairo a couple of years back, when an editor of Al-Ahram took me through the vast, cavernous, densely populated and peeling halls of Egypt’s great press empire. Al-Ahram operates out of a ministry-sized building. The VIP dining room there is bigger than the newsroom of Al-Jazeera. I don’t pretend to know whether the future of the Arab media belongs to lean upstarts like Al-Jazeera, but there is every reason for the established media to feel threatened. I was told that Husni Mubarak also visited Al-Jazeera on a visit to Qatar, and I can’t imagine that he didn’t head home and ask his media bureaucrats why he’s getting less for more.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the United States government found itself compelled to deal with Al-Jazeera, in order to get its message across to the Arab world. Christopher Ross, a former U.S. ambassador and Arabic-speaker, made several appearances on the station, to mixed reviews. But my hosts told me quite explicitly that their audiences are eager to hear people like Ross explain U.S. policy, even if the Arabic isn’t perfect, or the interviewee has to be translated. Just as important, they were completely dismissive of Arab-Americans as spokespersons for U.S. policy. The Arab viewer, they claim, immediately discounts the Arab-American. They want what they regard as the “real article.”

That’s something to ponder as the United States builds up its public diplomacy reserves for the next big crisis. It completely contradicts the notion, expounded by a Council on Foreign Relations task force, that Arab-Americans should be preferred as messengers for U.S. policy. If the pros at Al-Jazeera are right, it’s just not so. One of them pointed out that when Al-Jazeera’s Moscow bureau needs someone to explain Russian policy, they have a list of several hundred fluent Russian Arabic-speakers. When the Arab viewer sees an Igor or an Ivan, he’s sure that he’s getting the inside story. If the United States is serious about public diplomacy, it will need a lot more people with names like Chris who are willing and able to do Al-Jazeera, and to do it well.

Could the United States ever create its own alternative to Al-Jazeera? I somehow doubt it, and in any case, it won’t be done before any prospective American move against Saddam. Al-Jazeera will have seven correspondents scattered around Iraq, in the hope of glimpsing the first American troops. It’s going to be Al-Jazeera’s war—again.