Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen, a professor in the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, lectured in the School of Social Work on Tuesday about the life and significance of Egyptian Islamic activist and author Yusuf al-Qaradawi.
Hosted by the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies, Skovgaard-Petersen evaluated al-Qaradawi’s public and political role in Egypt, particularly after the Egyptian revolution in 2011. Al-Qaradawi is a widely known figure in the Islamic world, with a television program, books and a website that reach millions of people.
According to Skovgaard-Petersen, the “apex” of al-Qaradawi’s power followed 2011 revolution — a time that both accentuated the activist’s advocacy of democracy. However, many of his views are controversial in the west, and he has been banned from entering the U.S. since 1999.
“To him, what matters is politics,” Skovgaard-Petersen said, adding that al-Qaradawi is a personal proponent of authoritarian government despite his push for democracy.
Skovgaard-Petersen split al-Qaradawi’s life into three different stages of activism: movement activism, institutional activism and solutionist activism.
Al-Qaradawi, who was born in the Nile Delta in 1926, became involved in activism in the late 1940s, joining the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist religious, political and social movement. Skovgaard-Petersen said al-Qaradawi became a prominent youth activist leader after graduating from college in 1953.
1961, Skovgaard-Petersen said, was the year al-Qaradawi embarked into an era of movement activism, travelling with the Muslim Brotherhood, speaking and proselytizing the organization’s mission.
Skovgaard-Petersen added that one of al-Qaradawi’s main teachings invoked Islam as a “simple” concept not meant to be overcomplicated and erroneously applied. Skovgaard-Petersen further noted that al-Qaradawi was known for his style of frank speech.
“That idea of making Islam simple … is something that he specializes in,” Skovgaard-Petersen said. “He speaks not a very convoluted Arabic, generally. He knows how to communicate.”
During the 1960s, Skovgaard-Petersen said, al-Qaradawi moved into a period of “institutional activism” when he strayed away from his involvement in Muslim Brotherhood after the organization was banned in Egypt. During this period, al-Qaradawi also did not take severe public stances on political issues.
During this era, according to Skovgaard-Petersen, al-Qaradawi declined to become the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood when offered the role — instead taking on a paternal role in influencing Muslim youth to steer them on the right path.
“We have new generations of Muslims who are much more devout than we have seen before, but they are also much more prone to error, and they need the guidance of men like him,” he said.
Skovgaard-Petersen said al-Qaradawi, moving into the 1970s, became involved with issues of Islamic finance and medicine through “solutionist activism,” wherein Islam could be viewed as a “solution” to political issues. This period of time is also known as the Islamic revival of the 1970s.
Skovgaard-Petersen said al-Qaradawi was a well-known figure by 1990, and had acquired a large global following. Despite a language barrier, al-Qaradawi joined the European Council for Fatwah and Research and began to develop an interest in how Muslims should survive in Europe and the West.
Though seemingly quite sudden, al-Qaradawi became a “national mediator of some significance,” Skovgaard-Petersen said.
Eventually, al-Qaradawi defended parliamentary democracy as an Islamically correct form of governance.
Al-Qaradawi is still concerned with Jihadism today, and addressed his rebuttal of Jihadist thinkers in one of his books.
“He is becoming inspiring and sometimes pushing Islamic movements to move in a more democratic direction,” Skovgaard-Petersen said.
Skovgaard-Petersen argued that the Arab revolutions, the formation of the Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt and the party’s 2012 electoral victory marked the climax of al-Qaradawi’s influence over the Islamist movement. That said, Skovgaard-Petersen noted that al-Qaradawi remains a controversial figure in contemporary politics.
“Many of his statements are probably more controversial in Western context than they are in a Middle Eastern context,” Skovgaard-Petersen said. “In the Middle East, he would hardly be considered an extremist.”
Now 89 years old, al-Qaradawi considers himself an activist and is not yet a “spent force,” according to Skovgaard-Petersen. “It is very difficult to see who will fill his shoes the day when he dies.”
Skovgaard-Petersen said he did not lecture to pass a moral judgment of al-Qaradawi, but rather to make an assessment of his political significance. Skovgaard-Petersen said he uses al-Qaradawi’s unfinished memoirs, as well as numerous books written by al-Qaradawi’s own students and colleagues, to collect information on the Muslim activist.
Al-Qaradawi was sentenced to death in June of this year in Egypt, but continues to update social media, tweeting about events as current as the Egyptian elections earlier this month.
Nevertheless, Skovgaard-Petersen said, al-Qaradawi continues to make lasting contributions to contemporary Islamic and political thinking.