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Islamophobia Watch

Left Must Resist Islamophobia

Ken Livingstone

THE WAR in Iraq has galvanised Britain’s Muslim communities into becoming substantially more organised in political terms over the last eighteen months, playing a key role in the anti-war movement and becoming highly active in elections.

There is plenty of evidence of the new political involvement of the Muslim communities. The decision of many Muslims to remove their support from Labour was decisive in helping the party to lose control of many cities in this year’s local elections.

At that time, some commentators argued that this was a protest vote that would return to Labour at the next election. But the vote of the Muslim community in Brent East, and the similar role played by Muslim voters in the recent by-elections in Leicester and Birmingham, demonstrates that the political galvanisation of Muslims is not a one-off.

The London Assembly and European elections saw a further expression of this new political involvement. The Respect coalition secured a strong showing in the City and East London Assembly constituency, where there is a strong Bangladeshi community, polling 15 per cent on June 10. Thus, the political engagement does not take the form of a blanket switch to the Liberal Democrats.

Likewise, there was backing for Green MEP Caroline Lucas in the South East region, support for Respect in the City and East London and in the London European elections, and support for my re-election as Mayor of London.

Each of these elections show that Muslim communities are asserting their right to be taken seriously. Last month’s defeat for Labour in a previously rock-solid ward in Stepney, Tower Hamlets, at the hands of Respect, merely reinforces this fact.

The recent visit to Britain of Islamic leader Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi demonstrates the choices facing political parties and politicians with regard to the Muslim community. His visit was, in part, a response from within the Muslim community here to the rise of Islamophobia, such as the recent "headscarf ban" in France which has stigmatised Islam and French Muslims.

There has long been a problem with Islamophobia in our society, but it is on the rise in the new international climate. Islamophobia is the battering ram through vhich Muslim communities are isolated by the rest of society. It is the weapon of choice of the far Right in Britain. The Left, in particular, has a responsibility to refuse to participate in Islamophobic hysteria and to work with the Muslim communities when they seek to overcome it.

I welcomed Dr al-Qaradawi to London just as I would the leader of any of the other great world religions to promote understanding between London’s communities. But there was an outpouring of lies and Islamophobia against al Qaradawi in the media.

Tory leader Michael Howard played a leading role in the witchhunt of al-Qaradawi, raising his visit at Prime Minister’s Questions, whilst the Right-wing media unleashed an onslaught, describing him as "a devil" and the "cleric of hate". Sun columnist Richard Littlejohn referred to him as "Dr al-Nailbomba", "Mohammed al-KillJews", "Mustapha al-Wifebeater", and so on. He lied to his readers that al-Qaradawi’s "view of the world" was "Kill Jews, kill homosexuals, kill infidels – you name it, he wants to kill it".

The Daily Telegraph attributed remarks to al-Qaradawi about the victims of rape, repeated on BBC Newsnight, which transpired to have nothing whatsoever to do with him.

Al-Qaradawi is not anti-Semitic, he does not call for the execution of homosexuals and he does not advocate domestic violence. He has actively intervened within Islam to argue against those who hold the view that it is a sin not to carry out female genital mutilation. Contrary to the assertions of some, al-Qaradawi does not advocate killing gay people. He said in The Guardian on July 13: "Muslims have no right to punish homosexuals or mistreat them as individuals."

The hysterical Islamophobia of the tabloids in their treatment of al-Qaradawi’s visit, and the Conservative Party’s active role in supporting this campaign, show there are clear choices facing Left and Left-of-Centre political forces in terms of their relationship with Britain’s Muslim communities. The Muslim communities are right to seek to overcome the Islamophobia that exists here and in the rest of Europe. The upsurge of hostility towards Muslims is one of the most reactionary trends in Western societies. It ought to be taken up and confronted by everyone on the Left and the Centre Left.

Published in Tribune, 6/13/20 August 2004