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Islamophobia Watch

The Odd Couple: Red Ken and the Conservative Cleric

Brett Lock

A FEW weeks ago, London had a visitor; a man who believes that women should have parts of their clitoris removed so that they aren’t tempted by sexual feelings. He believes that it is sometimes "permissible" for a husband to beat his wife. He believes women who are not modest in their behaviour or dress are to blame if they’re raped. He describes homosexuality as a "perverted act, a corruption, a shameless depravity and an aberration" worthy of the death penalty.

London Mayor, Ken Livingstone was outraged – not by his visitor but that Londoners dared to criticise his "guest of honour". He apologised on behalf of the city and invited Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi (a "moderate" Muslim scholar, according to the Mayor) to return in October.

Denouncing criticism of al-Qaradawi as a smear campaign motivated by Islamophobia, Livingstone insisted that his guest had been "very clear in condemning homophobia". Where? When? How?

In fact, al-Qaradawi said on Channel 4 News that homosexuality was an "unnatural and evil practice". He told the Guardian that homosexuality was "forbidden". While insisting that individual Muslims "have no right to punish homosexuals or mistreat them", he stressed that punishment was a matter for the state.

In other words, he was not denying that he supported the death penalty for homosexuality. All he said was that he opposed vigilantes taking the law into their own hands, which is a standard Sharia law stipulation.

This ruling does not, of course, preclude people turning homosexuals over to the police and courts for punishment. Perhaps the right-wing cleric might encourage them to do so. After all, in his book, The Lawful and Prohibited in Islam, he writes: "Muslim jurists hold different opinions concerning the punishment for this abominable practice. Should it be the same as the punishment for fornication, or should both the active and passive participants be put to death? While such punishments may seem cruel, they have been suggested to maintain the purity of the Islamic society and to keep it clean of perverted elements."

Apologists have defended this as merely "scholarly opinion". But the same people also describe Qaradawi as "a respected scholar". Doesn’t that mean that his scholarly opinions are also respected? Isn’t that why he is a leading writer, teacher and broadcaster on Sharia law? If no one is listening, why are there at least six Islamic countries which implement the death-penalty for homosexuality, and many more that punish the "crime" with lashings and imprisonment?

Even al-Qaradawi himself doesn’t believe his works are merely "scholarly". In the introduction to the book, he states that its purpose is "to guide us in all our affairs". Acting on this sort of scholarly guidance, gay people are persecuted throughout the Muslim world.

Ever since Lindsey German of the Respect Coalition declared that gay rights should not be a "shibboleth" in forming alliances with conservative religious groups, many on the Left have followed her cue. Left-wingers who believe in holding fast on issues of secularism, women’s and gay rights have been left out in the cold. The result has been to marginalise liberal and progressive Muslim voices, while giving a platform to reactionary and undemocratic religious views.

It’s ironic that al-Qaradawi was the keynote speaker at the conference on "A Woman’s Right to Choose" to wear the hijab, when he does not believe women should have a choice. He says that the hijab is obligatory and a husband has the right to force his wife to wear it.

Livingstone gave the thumbs-up to this faux human rights debate, even though it included none of the feminist and progressive Muslim groups who genuinely believe the hijab should be a choice.

The London Mayor insisted al-Qaradawi was also "very clear" in condemning wife-beating. To most, "very clear" would mean a statement against beating one’s wife under any circumstances. What the doctor actually told the Guardian was that wife-beating was neither "obligatory nor desirable", but conceded on Channel 4 that it was justifiable in certain circumstances.

More horrific is al-Qaradawi’s support for female genital mutilation. Although saying it is not "obligatory", in his book, Modern Fatwas, he adds: "I personally support this under the current circumstances in the modern world. Anyone who thinks that circumcision is the best way to protect his daughters should do it."

Female genital mutilation (or "circumcision", as he euphemistically calls it) has nothing, in common with male circumcision. It is performed to remove that part of the clitoris which provides sexual pleasure, usually before puberty, so that a woman will be disinterested in sex before, marriage and "faithful" afterwards.

To the sane and humane, female genital mutilation is a barbaric attack on the integrity of a woman’s body, her autonomy and her right to sexual self-determination. It is a bloody, violent assault on the bodies of children. Indeed, it is an extreme form of child abuse.

Nevertheless, al-Qaradawi says: "The moderate opinion is in favour of practicing circumcision to reduce temptation."

In his universe, women who are raped can be found guilty themselves, if they dress or behave "immodestly". A fatwa on the website IslamOnline, which he supervises to ensure "nothing violates the fixed principles of Islamic law", stipulates: "For a rape victim to be absolved from guilt, she must not be the one that opens her dignity for deflowering."

Is it any wonder that gay and women’s groups are appalled that the London Mayor invited this misogynist and homophobe to City Hall?

Ken’s Livingstone’s repetitive defence of Qaradawi is, in effect, an alliance with right-wing clericalism. Why isn’t he aligning himself with liberal and progressive Muslim opinion?

While we may object to the Mayor’s "red carpet" welcoming of Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi, we should not seek to silence the cleric. His own words damn him more than any alleged "smear campaign" ever could.

Brett Lock is a freelance journalist and campaigner with Outrage. This article was published in Tribune, 30 July 2004