October 3, 2022 | Insight

Islamist cleric who called for fighting America, suicide bombings, dies in Qatar

October 3, 2022 | Insight

Islamist cleric who called for fighting America, suicide bombings, dies in Qatar

An Egyptian cleric who, only five days after 9/11, called on Muslims to “fight the American military” and “fight the U.S. economically and politically,” has died at age 96. Yusuf al-Qaradawi had been living in Doha, where he enjoyed the sponsorship and largesse of gas-rich Qatar. He claimed to oppose autocracies and wanted them replaced by a special brand of “Islamist democracy,” leading many to mistakenly think of him as a moderate and a supporter of liberalization. Qaradawi also argued that Islam sanctioned suicide bombings.

Upon his death, Qatar used its Al-Jazeera network to eulogize Qaradawi, depicting the late cleric as a “scholar, and the founder of a school of moderation based on coupling the teaching of Sharia with the requirements of modern times.”

But, if modernization meant tolerating secular influence, especially from the West, there is no indication that Qaradawi ever supported it. On the contrary, Qaradawi wished to isolate the Muslim world from Western influence. Three days before he died, Qaradawi tweeted (in Arabic) that “a Muslim should not forget that Islam is complete, that we are not slaves of Western civilization, that we have our religion and the West has its religion.” Qaradawi viewed the world as monolithic blocs. He did not seem to imagine that Muslims lived in the West, or that native Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians had been living in Muslim countries long before Islam.

As a leading figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, the organization that assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981 for signing a peace deal with Israel, Qaradawi was forced to live in Qatar, to which he had migrated in 1961. While in exile, he was vocal in his opposition to Egyptian autocracy, advocating for elections. Many Western scholars mistook Qaradawi’s instrumental use of democratic ideas for commitment to liberalism. After the cleric’s death, a UK-based professor of Middle Eastern studies praised Qaradawi for being a voice for “political liberalization of the Islamic world.”

But the democracy that Qaradawi called for was the one imagined by the Muslim Brotherhood and endorsed by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Qaradawi argued that “democracy stipulated that the religion of the state is Islam, that Sharia is the source of legislation.” He also said that democracy mandated the creation of morality police that would “promote virtue and prevent vice.”

In the 1990s, the Muslim Brotherhood’s understanding of democracy as a “one man, one vote, one time,” led to a veritable civil war in Algeria. In Iran, Islamist “democracy” has resulted in at least two popular uprisings against the ruling clerics since 2009, which they put down with extreme violence. Over the past two weeks, Tehran has been busy suppressing a third one.

Qatar was not alone in expressing sadness for Qaradawi’s death. The “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” the name the Taliban chooses for its ruling regime, issued a statement lamenting his passing. In Gaza, Hamas eulogized Qaradawi, saying “it had always been his wish to join [Palestinians] in their jihad,” and promising to continue the fight “until the liberation of Palestine,” that is, the destruction of Israel. Qaradawi endorsed Hamas’ suicide bombings against Israelis, even if they killed non-combatant women and children.

Unlike Qatar, the Taliban and Hamas, many Arabs on social media were not impressed by the late Egyptian cleric and accused him of “rejecting the pillars of Islam, as illustrated by his claim that the Hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca, is not mandatory.”

Media outlets associated with Qatar’s Arab rivals — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt — such as the Saudi channel Al-Arabiya, succinctly reported Qaradawi’s death without much commentary. Given that Al-Arabiya had in the past described Qaradawi as “the top advocate of suicide bombings,” it seems that Qatar’s rivals decided to hold back on their criticism of Qaradawi, perhaps to avoid tension with Doha.

Qaradawi was controversial, radical, and an Islamist firebrand. In life, as in death, Muslims and Arabs have been divided over his legacy. What is certain is that the man left behind a vast archive of statements in which he called for violence and the establishment of a radical theology in the image of Iran’s Islamist republic, a troublemaking regime that has been destabilizing the Middle East and Gulf region for decades.

Perhaps Qaradawi did not have Iran’s ability to deploy militias, but he commanded a sophisticated soft power that Qatar had put at his disposal, one that has done a considerable amount of damage to the region and the world.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Follow Hussain on Twitter @hahussain.


Arab Politics Egypt Gulf States Israel Jihadism Palestinian Politics