Millions of fans around the world follow his teachings and edicts on television and the Internet. But following the Toulouse attacks, controversial Egypt-born cleric Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi has been banned from entering France.
He’s been dubbed “the global mufti”, the Muslim televangelist who expounds on matters lofty and prosaic to millions of viewers across the globe every Sunday on his show “Shariah and Life”, on the Al Jazeera TV network. But in France, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi is not welcome, at least not right now.
In the aftermath of this month’s Toulouse attacks, when the al-Qaeda-inspired French gunman Mohamed Merah killed seven people, French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced that the Egyptian-born cleric would be barred from entering France.
Qaradawi had been invited to attend the 29th Annual Meeting of the Muslims of France, to be held 6-9 April in the Parisian suburb of Le Bourget.
But that was before the Toulouse attacks put the spotlight on France’s jihadist threat, particularly from “lone wolf” operators whose radicalisation process typically involves a staple diet of Islamist online content. Qaradawi is considered the chief religious scholar of the leading global Islamic website, IslamOnline.net, which provides services to Muslims and non-Muslims in several languages.
On Tuesday, Sarkozy reiterated his government’s decision to block the entry of extremists, specifically mentioning Qaradawi.
But Qaradawi is no ordinary extremist, and many of his followers vociferously argue that he is a moderate symbol of an enlightened Islam.
Currently based in Qatar, the imam holds a diplomatic passport and does not need a visa to enter France, a complication that has led Sarkozy to apply pressure on the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani.
"I indicated to the Emir of Qatar himself that this person was not welcome on the territory of the French republic," Sarkozy told reporters on Monday. "He will not come."
The move was promptly criticised by the Dublin-based International Union of Muslim Scholars. "We are surprised, and we admonish France for refusing to grant Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi a visa. He is a moderate scholar who contributed to combating extremism in Islamic thoughts," said Sheikh Ali al-Qaradaghi, the union's secretary general.
Early days in the Muslim Brotherhood
Whether Qaradawi is an extremist or a moderate is a matter of intense debate, but few dispute the fact that Qaradawi is a hypermarketed one-man Islamic advice machine.
Born in Egypt in 1926, Qaradawi was educated in Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, one of the world’s premier Islamic educational institutions, where he met Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.
During the 1950s, he was imprisoned by then Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime several times before going into exile in Qatar, where he still lives, in 1961.
Despite being considered as the voice of the Muslim Brotherhood, of which he is a former member, Qaradawi has turned down several offers to lead the Islamist group.
In February 2011, the telegenic imam returned to Egypt following the fall of Hosni Mubarak to lead the Friday prayers at Tahrir Sqauare in what many took as a sign of the growing political muscle of the Brotherhood in post-revolutionary Egypt.
On Jews, homosexuals and wife-beating
In his role as an online agony-aunt-meets-priest, Qaradawi is frequently called upon to help the faithful navigate the vagaries of modern life, from marking Mother’s Day to the permissibility of female masturbation.
But it’s his famously homophobic and anti-Semitic statements that have sparked controversy.
Qaradawi regularly publishes fatwas calling for jihad against Israel and Jews as he considers "all of Palestine" a Muslim territory, in accordance with the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.
He vehemently opposes the existence of the State of Israel and in 2004, he supported Hamas’ use of suicide bombings. In January 2009, he said on Al-Jazeera: "Throughout history, Allah has imposed upon [the Jews] people who would punish them for their corruption. The last punishment was carried out by [Adolf ] Hitler. By means of all the things he did to them – even though they exaggerated this issue – he managed to put them in their place. This was divine punishment for them...Allah willing, the next time will be at the hand of the believers.”
A prolific writer, Qaradawi is the author of hundreds of books, many of them translated into several languages. His best-selling book, “The Lawful and Prohibited in Islam,” was briefly banned in France in 1995, because of controversial passages about homosexuals ("these noxious beings") and marriage (the husband "is allowed to lightly beat [his wife] with his hands, taking care to avoid the face or other sensitive parts ").
His more moderate moments include his denunciation of the 9/11 attacks and his criticism of the Taliban’s destruction of the ancient Buddhas of Bamiyan statues in Afghanistan months before the 9/11 attacks.
But many Western governments have not been particularly convinced of his more moderate policies. Qaradawi was banned from entering Britain in 2008 and he has been banned from entering the United States since 1999.
When it comes to France, Qaradawi has made at least two visits to the country that is home to Europe’s largest Muslim population. In 1992, in the central French region of Nièvre, he chaired the first graduation ceremony at the European Institute of Human Sciences, a school for training imams. During a 2002 visit, he was greeted with great fanfare at a Paris conference.
But that was before the shootings in Toulouse and Montauban in southwest France, when Mohamed Merah gunned down seven people, including four Jews and three Muslims.
In the run-up to the first round of the French presidential election on 22 April, candidates have little appetite for the sort of controversy a Qaradawi visit incites. This time, it looks like Qaradawi might just have to cancel his French travel plans.