If the Muslim Brotherhood's "spiritual leader" returns to Egypt from Qatar, look out

Assertions that the Muslim Brotherhood and its leadership are too disorganized and uncharismatic to gain a hold on power in Egypt unaccountably ignore the world’s most popular and authoritative Sunni cleric—an Egyptian by birth and member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood whose son currently lives in Egypt. Where the Ayatollah Ali Khomeini, who led the Iranian revolution, made radio broadcasts in exile from Paris, Qaradawi hosts one of the region’s most famous talk-shows on Al Jazeera, Sharia and Life. Qaradawi has cultivated among some American analysts a reputation for moderation with his fatwas, permitting masturbation and condemning Sept. 11 (while supporting suicide bombers in Israel). But in the Middle East his popularity resides in his stringent criticism of Arab regimes. His public support for violence, combined with the fact that he is a principal shareholder in and adviser to the al-Qaida-associated Bank al-Taqwa in Switzerland, led to him being banned from entering the United States in 1999 and from Great Britain in 2008.

What makes Qaradawi most worth watching is the fact that the Egyptian party system is badly decayed, and no credible opposition figures have stepped up to fill the gap. Mohammed ElBaradei is entirely a creation of Western opinion leaders and has no constituency in Egypt. Amr Moussa has some popular appeal, but his job as general secretary of the Arab League is not a position that showcases an ability to get things done. Moreover, as Mubarak’s former foreign minister he has deep ties to the old regime. The local Muslim Brotherhood was slow out of the gate, and its 68-year-old leader, Muhammad Badie, is not exactly charismatic.

As a media personality with a presence on TV and the Internet—and who is far out of reach of Egyptian internal security and free from Egyptian censors—Qaradawi is perfectly positioned to play the role of Muslim Brotherhood publicist or even kingmaker over the coming months. Nor is there any particular reason to think that Qaradawi’s willingness to embrace facets of modernity while promoting violence and hatred makes him less than dangerous to the dream of a future liberal society in Egypt and to Western interests in the region. The idea that Qaradawi is a moderate because he favors a relatively liberal interpretation of the status of women within Islam, for example, disregards his belief that homosexuality is a crime that should be punished by death and his embrace of the Holocaust as a divine punishment of the Jews that will hopefully be repeated soon.