The death of Muslim Brotherhood spiritual leader Yusuf al-Qaradawi is an important, if symbolic, shift in the Middle East. He was 96 years old and his life seemed to mirror the last 100 years of tectonic shifts in the region. He was born in 1926 in Egypt and has been living in Qatar since 2013.
His legacy is complex and commentators range in their views on the man and his message. “Al-Qaradawi’s sermons offered a counterweight to the radical ideologies espoused by a-Qaeda and ISIS, while supporting militant movements in other parts of the region.
An Egyptian court sentenced him to death in absentia in 2015 alongside other Brotherhood leaders,” noted Al-Arabiya. Meanwhile, Arab News called him a “preacher of hate” and contextualized him amid other “extremist preachers from all religions, backgrounds and nationalities.”
This article notes that “the profile of Al-Qaradawi explained how he justified suicide bombings, especially in Palestine, repeatedly spoke out against Jews as a community, and issued fatwas that demeaned women.”
Al-Jazeera has a more sympathetic view. “His active association with the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest socio-political movement in the 1940s, whose leadership was often at loggerheads with Egypt’s rulers, meant that he was imprisoned repeatedly in the 1940s and 50s, experiencing torture at the hands of his jailers."
"Yet, unlike some of his fellow detainees, and likely due to his theological training, he opposed the emergence in prison of extreme offshoots from the mainstream Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed al-Qaradawi may have been one of the contributors to the Muslim Brotherhood leadership’s formal rebuttal of this tendency within their organization in the 1960s,” it said.
So which was it, was he a far-right religious conservative who tried to prevent his movement from becoming too extreme; or was he a preacher of hate? Or like many complex people; was he both?
Far-right religious conservative or preacher of hate?
Rather than trying to settle on a conclusion about a long life that spanned so many configurations in the region, it may be better to ask what his legacy will be and what this passing of an era means.
If we go back to the time when he was younger we can see a trend emerging in the region; between some who were influenced by ideas like Communism and Socialism, to others who were influenced by nationalism, to regimes that became monarchies and some that were still colonized by Europe.
In this complex Middle East the emergence of a religious Islamic “answer” to the problems of the region, became a calling for many. The realization of that answer often led to extremism.
It's worth recalling that the West was also involved in backing or quietly approving of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, seeing them as a balance to regimes in the region that were close to the Soviets.
In the 1980s and 1990s, these contradictions began to emerge as groups like Al Qaeda benefited from the end of Soviet rule in Afghanistan, establishing themselves as a strong regional base for extremist wars all around the world.
A generation or two were deeply influenced by this extremism and it led to the persecution of minorities all over the Middle East and Asia; including the bombing of churches, and the targeting of Sikhs, Hindus, Yazidis, Jews and Shi’ites.
From Indonesia and Thailand, the Philippines and India and Malaysia; all the way to Europe, extremists percolated to the surface, resulting in 9/11 and the rise of ISIS. Groups like Hamas emerged, and other parties like the AKP in Turkey took power.
Over time though a clear division in the region emerged. Saudi Arabia was able to defeat Al Qaeda and other extremist groups and began to push more tolerant policies. The UAE and other countries confronted the Brotherhood and recognition grew that ignoring extremism on the street and enabling hate speech by religious leaders was not helpful.
Qatar remained an exception in this paradigm, but even in Doha, there was recognition that inflaming the region and letting loose a plethora of “militant” groups would lead to chaos and instability.
In essence then, by the time of Qaradawi’s passing, the hateful ideas that seemed more mainstream in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, were rapidly fading. It’s not entirely clear if this is the case in Europe and the periphery, such as groups in Somalia, Nigeria and Mozambique.
Prosecution of innocent people for “blasphemy” in places like Pakistan or Indonesia seems to show that some ideas, linked to the Brotherhood’s brand of far-right religious views, continue. But there also appears less appeal for groups that seek to assert these views at the street level.
It's plausible that the passing of this era could lead to more peace and coexistence
The Abraham Accords and other symbolic shifts, such as welcoming rabbis and acknowledging Jewish holidays in the Gulf, mean that the intolerance of the 20th century may be passing.
Western countries have some responsibility for the fading of extremist views as well. They whitewashed groups like the Brotherhood and empowered extremists; often hoping to use them to “balance” either the Soviets, Iran, or others.
This didn’t work and it meant that western policymakers often ignored the open antisemitism and hate of groups like Hamas, excusing it or trying to make it seem moderate. The fact that the genocidal leader of ISIS was described as an “austere religious scholar” in Western media illustrates the trend.
The same western media that is rightfully horrified by slavery in western history, described a leader of ISIS, a group that genocided minorities and enslaved people, as a “scholar.” This shows that the West often enabled hatred in the Middle East by changing the terms, using terms like “armed struggle” for the mass murder of civilians, for instance. As such “suicide bombing” which was generally a form of targeted religious hatred, was also excused.
Rightfully horrified by KKK bombings, some in the West excused similar bombings in the Middle East. These excuses generally stopped when countries in the region stopped excusing antisemitism and suicide bombings, and western policymakers and media have followed along slowly.
This toxic embrace between the region and the West in excusing several generations of extremism could now be at an end. The romance of the “suicide bomber” and “armed struggle” may be ending.