To some he is a pre-eminent Muslim scholar who has visited London for many years without fuss. To others he’s nothing but trouble, a man who uses religion to justify suicide bombings and who should be banned from Britain as he is banned from the United States.
Sheikh Yusef al-Qaradawi is an Egyptian cleric who greeted his audience in London with the words “peace – the message of Islam.” But in an exclusive interview with Newsnight he spoke of suicide bombings by Palestinians as “martyrdom in the name of God.”
The row over his visit has overshadowed the Home Secretary David Blunkett’s attempts to re-introduce a measure to outlaw incitement to religious hatred.
Watch the report. The transcript continues in full:
PETER MARSHALL: He’s been to London many times, but suddenly his presence has stirred a political storm. Sheikh Yusuf Al- Qaradawi was all bemusement as he arrived to address Muslim scholars. The press had welcomed him as “evil”, a devil who supports child bombers. The politicians were none too keen when he was topic A in the Commons.
MICHAEL HOWARD MP: (Leader, Conservative Party) Does the Prime Minister agree with me that someone who backs child suicide bombings and is banned from the United States because of his alleged terrorist Links, should not be allowed into this country?
TONY BLAIR: Let me make it clear. We want nothing to do with people who support suicide bombers in Palestine or elsewhere, or support terrorists, so my Right Honourable Friend has to take his decision according to the relevant criteria, he will do that. I am not going to comment further on the case.
MARSHALL: It was odd then to see the Sheikh, centre stage, honorary speaker at a conference devoted to modernising Islam. The Sheikh was eager to talk of Islam’s links to and regard for Christians and Jews, so he asked why all the fuss?
SHEIKH YUSEF AL-QARADAWI (Qatar University) TRANSLATION: It is not strange for me to visit London and London is an open city, it welcomes everybody so why is this row when I visit London today?
MARSHALL: The arrival of Dr Qaradawi provides a perfect if rather worrying opportunity to examine the state of Muslim/non- Muslim relations, for this is a scholar who was one of the first to condemn the September 11th attacks on America. Yet he’s also condoned suicide bombings in the Middle East. It’s over the likes of Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi that the politics of theology meet the morality of guerilla warfare, or if you like, terrorism. This is where the word of God is interpreted in the mind of man. The Sheikh is one of the Muslim world’s pre-eminent theologians so researching suicide bombings, last month Newsnight went to his home in Qatar to ask why he had formed the view that Islam permitted such attacks in Israel.
SHEIKH YUSEF AL-QARADAWI (Qatar University) TRANSLATION: It’s not suicide, it is martyrdom in the name of God, Islamic theologians and jurisprudents have debated this issue. Referring to it as a form of jihad, under the title of jeopardising the life of the mujahideen. It is allowed to jeopardise your soul and cross the path of the enemy and be killed.
MARSHALL: In the mind of Sheikh Yusuf Al- Qaradawi, that view prevails even though women and children are often the innocent victims.
SHEIKH YUSEF AL-QARADAWI TRANSLATION: Israeli women are not like women in our society because Israeli women are militarised. Secondly, I consider this type of martyrdom operation as indication of justice of Allah almighty. Allah is just. Through his infinite wisdom he has given the weak what the strong do not possess and that is the ability to turn their bodies into bombs like the Palestinians do.
MARSHALL: Of course not every Muslim thinker agrees with the Sheikh, Mufti Barkatullah is a senior Imam at the North Finchley Mosque.
MUFTI BARKATULLAH: (Senior Imam, North Finchley Mosque) Any act of violence which makes innocent people victim is not allowed. This position has been and always will be throughout Islam for the last 1,500 years. No new person or a scholar can ever change this position.
MARSHALL: Back to the Sheikh, and the Middle East, what does he think of suicide attacks in Iraq?
SHEIKH YUSEF AL-QARADAWI TRANSLATION: If the Iraqis can confront the enemy, there is no need for these acts of martyrdom. If they don’t have the means, acts of martyrdom are allowed. I didn’t say that the Iraqis cannot, it depends on their need.
MARSHALL: If most UK politicians were running from Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, the London Mayor was not.
KEN LIVINGSTONE: (Mayor of London) You are truly welcome, welcome to London, a city of all faiths.
MARSHALL: And others at the Conference were similarly supportive.
YUSRA KHREEGI: (Research student) I think people will it find that very strange he is seen as an extremist. He is well-known for his moderate and balanced views. Many times he has condemned terrorism. In Europe, he is known to promote integration and positive participation in society.
SYED TOHEL AHMED (Islamic Forum Europe) He is a mainstream scholar, that is respected throughout the world and he is not an extreme and doesn’t express any extreme views or interpret text in an extreme way.
MARSHALL: So we went back to the Sheikh for clarification of his views, was suicide bombing legitimate in Iraq?
SHEIKH YUSEF AL-QARADAWI TRANSLATION: In Palestine the need is there, in Iraq today the need is not there.
REPORTER: Who decides if the need is there? Who makes that decision?
SHEIKH YUSEF AL-QARADAWI TRANSLATION: The influential figures within a given community, the leaders and the scholars, they meet and decide.
REPORTER: Who decides who is the leader? Is it Osama Bin Laden who makes the decisions, or is it the Sheikh who makes the decision?
SHEIKH YUSEF AL-QARADAWI TRANSLATION: He is talking about the community in the given location, so in Iraq it is the Iraqis who decide.
REPORTER: Which Iraqis?
SHEIKH YUSEF AL-QARADAWI TRANSLATION: As in the case of Palestine, factions, or groups, like Hamas, when they considered this method, they went to the people of knowledge and asked them whether Islamically that was lawful or not lawful, when the case was explained to them, they were told that there is a necessity and therefore in their situation, it is permissable.
REPORTER: These ideas of people of knowledge do not translate very easily to western society. People are elected. People of knowledge is a bit loose.
SHEIKH YUSEF AL-QARADAWI TRANSLATION: It is a different form of democracy. How do you expect in a war situation where people have their land occupied, where they are homeless, how do you expect they will be able to set up democratic institutions in order to take decisions?
MARSHALL: It is, as the Sheikh would doubtless agree, all a matter of interpretation, of the Koran, and of his view of the Koran. But Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi is, it’s worth reiterating, deemed an authority on these matters, generally seen, we’re assured and reassured, as mainstream.
This transcript was produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.