The Region: Islamism: Back to the sources

It’s easy to see why Qaradawi is the leading Sunni Islamist thinker in the world today.

Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)
Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)
To read Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s 1984 book Islamic Education and Hasan al-Bana is to get an Islamic education. Nobody should be allowed to talk about Islam or political Islamism without having read this or similar texts. Just as with Marx’s “Communist Manifesto,” the Islamists, too, disdain to conceal their aims. Yet those who don’t read their actual texts, speeches and debates but only their public relations misinformation know nothing.
It’s easy to see why Qaradawi is the leading Sunni Islamist thinker in the world today, the spiritual guide behind Egypt’s Islamist revolution. He knows how to express his ideas clearly and persuasively.
Here is his depiction of the Muslim world before the rise of revolutionary Islamism to power and prominence: “The condition of the Muslim nation was like a wasteland in the middle of the [mid-19th century]....
Blind imitation of self-made Western laws and appreciation of foreign values had set over the lives of Muslims... whose names were no doubt Islamic but [whose] brains were West-bred.”
Notice his different angle on what for the Western author would be a tale of Western imperialism and the technological and organizational backwardness of Muslim peoples. Qaradawi does not put the emphasis on Western strength or even injustice but on Muslim weakness. He does not flinch from facing the humiliations of the situation. He promises – as the Arab nationalists did 60 years ago – that his doctrine will bring rapid development and tremendous power. Like Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev once said, Qaradawi pledges to the West, “We will bury you.”
Islamism is a formula to turn inferiority into superiority, to make the Muslim world number one in the world. It uses religion and is formed by key themes in Islam, but ultimately has nothing to do with religion as such. This is a political movement.
Qaradawi is not upset by recent US policy, but by Western policy going back over a century. This bitterness is not going to be conciliated. The problem is not in Western actions – which anyway cannot be undone – but with the interpretation of these actions. They are seen as rooted in a desire to destroy Islam, as being based on a permanent enmity, and no gesture by contemporary Western leaders can lead to the end of this view. On the contrary, such things will be interpreted through the prism of this view, as a trick or a sign of retreat and weakness.
Moreover, Qaradawi does not talk about the need for urbanization, the equality of women, modern education, and greater freedom. Indeed, his view is totally contrary to that of leftist, liberal or nationalist Muslims, who would stress the need to borrow any ideas and methods other than purely technological ones, from the West in order to gain equality and even superiority.
Think of how Asia has succeeded – Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and now even China – through eagerness to blend borrowings, adaptation and its own historic culture. No, for Qaradawi the issue is completely one of the abandonment of Islam.
Equally, while defeat in World War II taught Japan to forget about military conquest and China’s decades of relative failure taught it to change course, Qaradawi favors blood and violence, revolution and totalitarianism.
Note, too, that Qaradawi is far more sophisticated than your run-of-the-mill demagogic firebrand. He does not criticize the Muslims who wanted to become Westernized. Rather he feels sorry for them, calling them “victims.” That’s how one builds a movement with a wider base of support, though the actual Islamists in the field rarely show such a tolerant pity.
Moreover, as a man of religion, Qaradawi feels no need – at least consciously – to create a new ideology.
Indeed, human action is not at all the fountainhead of his view of history: Nevertheless, Qaradawi refers to the movement as revolutionary. He knows that its goal is to seize state power and then use that position and the compulsion it offers to transform society.
“When circumstances reached this limit, God’s will came into action. He took over the responsibility of the protection of Islam.... To revive Islam, to put life in the dead spirit of the nation, and to carry it to the climax of success and development. He chose Hasan al-Banna, who laid the foundation of the [Muslim Brotherhood] movement.”
This passage is notable for its claim that Banna was divinely inspired, literally a prophet.
Western observers often take for granted or discount the seriousness of movements claiming they are a direct instrument of God’s will. They are used to subvert far weaker contemporary Western religious impulses or look at those from the past that crumbled in a test of wills with rationalism, modernism, material interests, and personal hypocrisy.
Yet the sincere and profoundly belief that one’s worldview is a product of divine will – an attitude shared by not a single leader or party in any industrialized state – has profound implications. It means that you don’t sell out, get seduced by materialistic lusts, or moderate your ideas and goals, except as a conscious, short-term tactical expedient that you reverse at the first possible opportunity.
The West has not dealt with such a situation of a sincerely held, radical ideology that motivates people for a long time. The suicide bomber has become the symbol of that characteristic, which used to be called “fanaticism” and can now merely be summarized as people who really believe what they say and intend to do what they declare, even unto death.
Qaradawi writes, “If discourse is but verbal and the characters of such persons are free from those principles which he is propagating, then such invitations [to support these ideas] dash against the ears and become empty echoes.”
Almost 30 years after Qaradawi explained the movement’s ideas clearly, the opponents of Islamism have barely begun their attempt to understand and educate others on this ideology.
The author is the director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center. His forthcoming book is Nazis, Islamists, and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Yale University Press). ( (