By David Lepeska
Doha// During a recent Friday sermon, Sheikh Yusef al-Qaradawi, arguably the world’s leading scholar of Sunni Islam, uttered a few lines that drew little notice internationally but could have big implications for future relations between Christians and Muslims.
“I was for the possibility of bridging the gap between the east and the west but recently I have changed my mind on this issue, especially since the west wants to impose its values and traditions on us,” Mr Qaradawi told his congregation at Doha’s Omar bin Al Khattab Mosque in a televised sermon in October.
“West is west and east is east. They do not recognise or follow our traditions and customs, so we should not follow theirs,” Mr Qaradawi said, echoing Rudyard Kipling, the British author.
Mr Qaradawi, 84, emigrated to Qatar in 1961 to avoid persecution in his native Egypt. His many fatwas, or religious decisions, are passed on to millions of Muslims worldwide via his long-running Al Jazeera talk show and Islam Online, a website. In 2008, Foreign Policy magazine ranked him the world’s third most influential intellectual.
In his first book, published in 1960, Mr Qaradawi instructed Muslims on how to maintain their religion while living in the US. But he has subsequently denounced secularism, capitalism and Zionism, and these statements mark a further hardening of attitude, observers say.
“He has never been one to build bridges with the west but this marks a great change,” says Bettina Gräf, author of Global Mufti, a 2009 book on Mr Qaradawi. “It is highly significant ... because it makes a difference if a very popular figure calls for divisions between Islam and the west and therefore manifests a dichotomy which is not there in reality. He considers himself a moderate in the many different meanings of the word, but being moderate would – in my opinion – include not to call for such divisions these days.”
As Qatar looks to burnish its Islamic credentials, the views of Mr Qaradawi are also increasingly at odds with the emirate’s growing reputation for progressiveness and engagement.
Aside from diplomatic initiatives in Lebanon and Darfur, Qatar is home to the US al-Udaid airbase and has hosted an Israeli trade mission.
“This sort of thing could begin to eat away at the carefully constructed brand that Qatar has been forging in recent years,” says David Roberts, who is writing a dissertation on Qatari foreign policy. “Qatar certainly wouldn’t want any kind of ‘Islamist’ stigma.”
To enhance its status as an international centre, the Qatar Foundation, which is run by the emir’s wife Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Misned, manages a campus on the outskirts of Doha that hosts branches of six US universities.
Last year, the foundation opened the Qaradawi Center for Islamic Moderation and Renewal at an Islamic graduate school on the same campus. And this autumn the foundation brought in Tariq Ramadan, a prominent Muslim intellectual based in Europe, to teach a course on civil society and democracy in Islam.
Prof Ramadan, 48, is perhaps more in keeping with the image that Qatar is trying to build. He was raised in Switzerland and came to prominence thanks to his writing on Islam and the west and an Oxford professorship.
“This will enhance Qatar’s role as a leading centre of Muslim discussion and knowledge,” says Mr Roberts. Qatar may also be trying to gain on its neighbour Saudi Arabia, home to the two holiest mosques in Islam, he says. “Reaching for Islamic legitimacy is a tactic that has a long history in the Middle East.”
But even Prof Ramadan has not escaped controversy. From 2004 to 2010, he was not allowed to travel to the US on “ideological grounds”, according to the US State Department.
Today, his books focus on how to be Muslim in western society. “We need to shift the mindset of what we can do,” Prof Ramadan said in a talk in Doha to promote his latest book, Radical Reform. “We should be critical while remaining faithful.”
He has called for a new international economic system and in a televised 2003 debate with the then future French president Nicolas Sarkozy he called for a moratorium on stoning in order to debate the merits of the punishment.
Such sentiments are unlikely to appeal to Mr Qaradawi. This year, Islam Online, the website with which he is associated, took a more conservative turn. Its Qatar-based management dismissed most of its Egyptian employees, who had gone on strike. Observers say that latterly Mr Qaradawi had little hand in day-to-day operations.
Where Mr Qaradawi has particularly riled his critics is in ruling that suicide bombing is acceptable for Palestinians because, he says, all Israelis are soldiers. A few weeks ago, he boycotted a Doha interfaith conference because he opposes discourse with Jews. As a result of his views on suicide bombing, Mr Qaradawi is barred from travelling to the US and the UK.
But he can also be pragmatic. He has said Islam supports democracy and last week called for more women in politics. Shortly after September 11 2001, he declared it legal for Muslims serving in the US army to fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Yet if Qaradawi repeated his “west is west” statements on his weekly Al Jazeera show they would reach up to 40m people. Many millions more would get the message by word-of-mouth, online video and other means.
Ms Gräf says Mr Qaradawi’s new perspective could have a significant impact on young Muslims in Europe. “The majority would be more reflective,” she says. “But, of course, there is a minority that may become more radical.”
originally ran in the Dec 2 Financial Times,