A moderate "sheikh of death"?

We've written at length about our frustration with the overuse of political terminology to describe religious groups. The labels "conservative" and "progressive" might mean something in politics, but they have their limits when it comes to discussion of faith. I thought of this issue when I began reading this Associated Press story headlined "Moderates forced out of top Islam Web site":

CAIRO -- The Qatari government has forced out the moderate leadership of a popular Islamic Web site and plans to reshape it into a more religiously conservative outlet, former employees of the site said Thursday.

In the first paragraphs, we learn that Sheik Youssef al-Qaradawi was widely respected and "a relative moderate" who put "diverse content" on IslamOnline. A few paragraphs later the reporter editorializes by saying that al-Qaradawi used a "realistic approach to the questions of Islam in the modern age." But I wasn't sure either what those things meant in practice or what a new conservative version would look like either.

But at least one side of that equation was answered with some nice specifics:

Al-Qaradawi is one of most influential voices in Sunni Islam, and has been criticized by more conservative scholars for allowing things like men and women to study together, encouraging Western Muslims to participate in their democracies, and condemning al-Qaida attacks such as Sept. 11.

Besides content on Islam, the site, which used to received of hits 350,000 hits a day, is known for covering interfaith dialogue, the arts, sciences and health. It has a fatwa section, where people can receive religious decrees on everything from banking questions to female masturbation.

Later we learn that the "conservative" leadership didn't like the web site's discussions on "women's health, homosexuality, and films." It's helpful information but what would be even more helpful is understanding why they didn't like it. Was it just that the discussions were permitted or that the answers were heterodox? It seems like this story would be a great avenue for exploring and explaining some of the divides in Islam. Even in a short story, a bit more information would do wonders.

But there's another issue that confuses me. Isn't Youssef al-Qaradawi a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood? Didn't he end up supporting the Taliban's destruction of the Buddha statues in Afghanistan? Why did 2,500 Muslims condemn him as a "sheik of death"? From a 2004 story:

The signatories describe those who use religion for inciting violence as "the sheikhs of death". Among those mentioned by name is Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian preacher working in Qatar. The signatories accuse him of "providing a religious cover for terrorism."

Last year Qaradawi raised a storm when he issued a fatwa allowing the killing of Israeli pregnant women and their unborn babies on the ground that the babies could grow up to join the Israeli Army. Last September, Qaradawi in a fatwa in response to a question from the Egyptian Union of Journalists said killing "all Americans, civilian or military" in Iraq was allowed.

Why is he not allowed to enter the United States? Here's the BBC why he's not allowed to enter the United Kingdom:

During his last visit in 2004, Dr Al-Qaradawi defended suicide attacks on Israelis as "martyrdom in the name of God", during a BBC interview.

So while the term "moderate" is relative, it would help to understand more about why Al-Qaradawi is described as one by the Associated Press.

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