Yusuf al-Qaradawi is in the news these days, denounced on a daily basis on Saudi, Palestinian and Egyptian op-ed pages, forums and TV over his stances on Gaza, on Hamas and Abu Mazen, on Yemen, and more. Following those controversies is an excellent window into what divides and arouses passion in Arab politics today. Hate him or love him, the man has a keen sense of Arab opinion -- whether he's following or leading it -- and has a proven track record of driving the debate. The fury of his adversaries on the other side of the so-called "new Arab cold war" is a pretty direct function of the fact that his opinions, aired on al-Jazeera and spread through multiple online and real-world networks, matter.
Such controversies are nothing new -- indeed, it would be hard to find any point in the last decade where Qaradawi wasn't at the center of some political controversy. The Qatar-based Islamist is many things -- a leading Islamist intellectual, a key figure in a wide set of interlocking global Islamist networks, a television star on al-Jazeera, a prolific author, a defender of Hamas, an Islamic internet pioneer (for more, you might check out this new book about The Global Mufti). I've written about him often, most recently in the context of his latest book, Fiqh al-Jihad, which endorsed resistance against occupation while denouncing al-Qaeda's "mad declaration of war on the whole world". His finely-tuned finger to the wind remains one of the most useful barometers of Arab public opinion. So which of his populist stances are attracting the most attention and the fiercest backlash today?
First, the blockade of Gaza. Qaradawi has declared the Egyptian construction of a new wall to enforce the blockade of Gaza to be illegal and against sharia -- sparking a furious backlash from the Egyptian government and (widely mocked) counter-fatwas from official Egyptian Islamic institutions such as al-Azhar. Israeli pundits sometimes claim that Egypt's role in the blockade of Gaza is ignored, but at least in the Arab world this is completely false. The Arab media has hammered Egypt over its enforcement of the blockade for years, and has been especially exercised over the reported construction of a new metal barrier. Egypt has tried to rally nationalist anger against external "incitement", but the criticism has clearly bitten. This skirmish is one of a myriad of indicators that Gaza matters, and matters deeply, to Arab public opinion even if the United States would prefer to forget that it exists.
Second, Yemen. Qaradawi is leading a delegation of Islamist figures, including influential Saudis such as Salman Awda, on a mission to try to mediate the war between the Yemeni government and the Houthi movement. This flies in the face of a concerted, massive, months-long Saudi propaganda campaign portraying the Houthis as an Iranian proxy and a terrorist movement (propaganda for which even well-known Yemen experts such as Fred Kagan appear to have fallen). For Qaradawi (and Saudi Islamists like Awda) to publicly intervene in favor of mediation with the Houthis rather than war suggests that important strands of the Arab public reject the official Saudi-Yemeni position. Americans keen on intervening in Yemen should pay careful attention to how their actions might be viewed in the region.
Third, Palestinian politics. Qaradawi's calls to defend Jerusalem and criticisms of the Palestinian Authority leadership have led to a torrent of attacks from supporters of Abu Mazen and the Ramallah government -- including attacks on him in the official khutbas in West Bank mosques last week. This controversy points once again to the intensity and salience of the Hamas-Fatah divide not just in Palestinian politics but across the region -- and how the failure to find a workable political accommodation between the two sides will complicate any effort to push for peace negotiations.
Fourth, the Muslim Brotherhood. Qaradawi has largely declined comment on the recent selection of Mohammed Badie as the new Supreme Guide for the Muslim Brotherhood. That selection process drew phenomenal interest across the Arab media, from sympathizers and critics of the Brotherhood alike -- demonstrating in itself the MB's importance in Arab politics. The selection process outraged many reformers and pragmatists within the Brotherhood, as leading figures such as Abd al-Moneim Abou el-Fattouh and Mohammed Habib were sidelined and the relatively unknown but conservative Badie emerged as the new Guide. Conventional wisdom is that Badie will steer the Brotherhood away from the political realm and refocus on religious outreach and social services. Qaradawi, who has inspired many of the reformists within the movement, might have been expected to have an opinion on this. But to this point, at least in public, he seems to be keeping it to himself.
Qaradawi is being predictably hammered by those on the other side of these contentious issues. Mahmoud Abbas and sympathizers with the PA are blasting him for taking sides in Palestinian politics. The Saudi newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat has run multiple recent op-eds denouncing him as a political rather than religious figure (I always find it amusing when Saudi pundits and officials denounce religious figures getting involved in politics, since it's always groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Qaradawi who draw their ire and not, say, the religious establishment in the Saudi state). The Egyptian press is full of spluttering rage over his "incitement". Gaza, intra-Palestinian politics, and Yemen --- with the Saudis, Egyptians, and the Palestinian Authority on one side and Qaradawi's public on the other. Does the U.S. have a political or engagement strategy to deal with those lines of contention?
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Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.