Islam's Spiritual 'Dear Abby' The Voice of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood
He is a hypermarket of dogma, dispensing advice on subjects ranging from mother's milk to suicide bombing. But few have as much influence on Sunni Muslims as the Muslim televangelist Youssef al-Qaradawi. He says what the Muslim Brotherhood in Egpyt thinks -- and he provides clues to how they might act.
This man is a word machine, a one-man talk show that leaves no subject unexamined. Youssef al-Qaradawi has to talk: about former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, about mothers' milk banks, and about the right of Palestinian women to blow themselves up.
He is a driven man. There are so many decisions to be made in this godforsaken modern age, and yet there is only one mufti, only one Islamic scholar like Qaradawi, who knew the Koran by heart by the time he was 10, only one man who can help the faithful understand the world.
Qaradawi is the father figure of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, the country's best-organized opposition group. The Brotherhood is sure to play a part in deciding what path Egypt will now take.
The Islamist group asked Qaradawi to be their leader in 2002, but he turned them down. Such a position would have been too limiting. He has a different mission. He feels compelled to talk.
The Al-Jazeera television network has been broadcasting Qaradawi's program "Shariah and Life" every Sunday for the past 15 years. Some 60 million Muslims watch him as he talks imploringly about the genocide in Gaza or the unique dangers of female masturbation ("the hymen is very sensitive and could tear").
'Every Last One of Them'
Qaradawi advocates establishing a "United Muslim Nations" as a contemporary form of the caliphate and the only alternative to the hegemony of the West. He hates Israel and would love to take up arms himself. In one of his sermons, he asked God "to kill the Jewish Zionists, every last one of them."
In January 2009, he said: "Throughout history, Allah has imposed upon the [Jews] people who would punish them for their corruption. The last punishment was carried out by [Adolf] Hitler."
Will this man encourage his brothers in Cairo to uphold the peace treaty with Israel, should the Muslim Brotherhood become part of a government now that Mubarak has resigned?
The 84-year-old is the president of the International Association of Muslim Scholars and the European Council for Fatwa and Research. He has written more than 120 books and penned countless doctrines, which he distributes internationally via his website IslamOnline.net.
He is a blend of pope and service hotline, a spiritual "Dear Abby" for all instances of doubt in Muslim life.
Should a mothers' milk bank be established? Especially since the Koran forbids marriage between two people who were nursed by the same woman? "Yes," says Qaradawi, pointing out that the Koran's prohibition of incest applies only to the mother's breast, not its contents.
Hypermarket of Dogmas
He talks about everything, which makes him exhibit A for anyone seeking to demonize Islam. A justification for every stupidity can be found in Qaradawi's words, as long as one searches long enough. On the other hand, Muslims refer to the search for the appropriate dogma as "fatwa shopping." To them, Qaradawi is a hypermarket of dogmas.
During a visit to London, then Mayor Ken Livingstone asked the sheikh how he felt about the rights of homosexuals. "He told me that he was against attacks on homosexuals," Livingstone recalls. But the mufti isn't opposed to 100 lashes for gays and lesbians if that is the punishment imposed by a Sharia judge, at least according to statements he has made on his program.
It is the responsibility of any scholar to lead the faithful, and only the scholar can interpret the scriptures correctly. This is Qaradawi's mission.
He attended Al-Azhar University in Cairo, where he met Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. Banna offered an Islamic alternative to the alleged ills of modern life: corruption and gambling, insolent women and provocative writings, alcohol and the neglect of the poorest members of society. In a word: godlessness.
Former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser imprisoned the sheikh three times because of his Islamist activities. In 1961, Qaradawi went into exile in Qatar, where he still lives today. With the protection of the Emir of Qatar, Qaradawi was able to build his fatwa empire, a realm of schools and various forms of media. "We too are modern," he said in a SPIEGEL interview, "and we too benefit from the great inventions of the West, from the revolution of the information age."
The title of a study recently published about Qaradawi in Denmark refers to him as the first "global mufti." Qaradawi specialist Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen believes that the TV imam was behind the protests following the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper -- unrest which led to the Danish embassy in Beirut being set on fire. The sheikh has been barred from entering the United States since 1999.
The imam has also developed a reputation for himself as a moderate. Many see him as a symbol of an enlightened Islam. When speaking to the Western media, in particular, Qaradawi likes to point to Muslims' tolerance of non-Muslims and condemns the attacks of al-Qaida.
He also speaks out against the systematic castigation of wives. He calls the practice unwise, saying: "Blows are not effective with every woman, but they are helpful with some." In other cases, the sheikh insists on equal rights. For example, he says, a woman does not have to ask her husband's permission to blow herself up in an Israeli café.
Compared with this guardian of the faith, Pope Benedict XVI is positively enlightened.
Otherwise, however, the two elderly men have a few things in common. Qaradawi and the pope were born within the same six months from each other, both in rural areas, one in Lower Egypt and the other in Upper Bavaria. Both feel that the Western world is godforsaken. Both have written enough to fill an entire theological library. And both are determined not to be what they are perceived to be: stern teachers. Qaradawi says that he merely wants to offer "alleviation" in a world of confusion. Benedict XVI says more or less the same thing.
Both Devout and Modern
But many feel that the TV imam is more dangerous than those like the Taliban who teach the Koran to the letter. Qaradawi does not demand anything impossible from his contemporaries. Instead, he stresses that his followers can be devout and modern at the same time.
Critics see Qaradawi's caution as nothing but a ruse. In the German blog "Die Achse des Guten" ("The Axis of Good"), Christoph Spielberger writes about the "Islamic principle of Taqiyya, or misrepresentation to achieve a higher goal." According to Islamic tradition, concealing one's faith is permissible, but only in the face of a massive threat.
The TV imam's followers in Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood share his intangibility. For some, they are the dyed-in-the-wool Islamists, while others see them as champions of democracy on the Nile.
"There is no question that true democracy must gain the upper hand," Mohammed Mursi, a Muslim Brotherhood spokesman, wrote recently. "The Brotherhood adheres to its roots in Islamic thought. It refuses to accept any attempt to impose any ideological line on the Egyptian people."
This sounds good. But as an underground organization, the Muslim Brothers had no opportunity to try out their religious principles on everyday political life, and on tolerance and the balance of interests. They experienced the meaning of human rights firsthand during the years of repression. It changed them.
"Caution is the watchword," writes Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan, referring to the tactics of the Muslim Brotherhood. According to Ramadan, its leaders know that "now is not the time to expose itself."
Now everyone wants to know who the Muslim Brothers really are. The question is as pointless as asking whether Yusuf al-Qaradawi is moderate or not. He is both himself and the opposite of himself, depending on one's perspective -- and the circumstances.
But what is acceptable in quantum physics can be extremely dangerous in the business of politics.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan