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Islamophobia Watch

Dialogue With a Man of Peace

Ken Livingstone

PETER TATCHELL has spent six months denouncing me for meeting a person, Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is described by the Muslim Council of Britain, the main Muslim umbrella group in this country, as "the most authoritative Islamic scholar in the world".

The fact that he has been so been vigorously supported in his campaign by newspapers like the Sun, the Star and the Daily Mail which have never distinguished themselves by anything other than bigotry in relation to lesbian and gay rights should have given Tatchell pause for thought.

As Mayor of London, I have a responsibility to meet the leaders of all of London's many faiths and communities, irrespective of the fact that I disagree with them on particular issues.

Tatchell wages an unrelenting campaign, most recently in the 7 January Tribune, to paint Islam as a uniquely homophobic and reactionary religion. Yet I find that I disagree not only with Muslim leaders, with whom Tatchell seems to be obsessed, but also with Jewish, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Evangelical and other religious leaders on this issue.

One Christian group, for example, tried to persuade the District Auditor to take action against the Greater London Authority, claiming that our support of lesbian and gay rights, with the launch of Britain's first partnership register, was a misuse of funds.

Other Christian groups and the Chief Rabbi objected to the government about their plans to repeal Section 28 on the grounds of their opposition to homosexuality.

The Old Testament and the Jewish Torah, but not the Qur'an, prescribe death as the punishment for gay sex (see Leviticus 20:13).

Tatchell uses mangled and distorted quotations to "prove", for example, that Dr al-Qaradawi supports terrorism, advocates wife-beating and the execution of gay men, and calls for the destruction of the Jews. All of these accusations are untrue.

Dr al-Qaradawi has fiercely condemned the atrocities carried out by Al-Qaeda and similar groups. He called upon Muslims to give blood to the victims of 9/11. He has denounced attacks on synagogues. He has repeatedly denounced hostage taking in Iraq and, as a consequence, has been publicly attacked by the terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

When he came to Britain in July, Qaradawi went out of his way explain his respect for Judaism and that the conflict in the Middle East is not about religion, but about Israel's seizure of Palestinian land and repression of Palestinian rights. He said: "In Islam, it is not permissible to despise any person because of his colour, creed, his nation or his race."

Qaradawi does not just preach religious tolerance; he acts on it for example, going to Afghanistan to try to stop the Taliban destroying Buddhist statues in that country.

He has also been one of the foremost Muslim scholars in combating socially regressive interpretations of Islam on issues like women's rights and relations with other religions.

On domestic violence, Qaradawi teaches that those who claim the Qur'an requires female circumcision or allows wife beating are wrong. He told Channel 4 News: "The ideal was for Muslim men never to beat their wives, and if husbands wrongly beat their wives, they have the right to fight back."

In the same interview he stated, in answer to a question about his views on homosexuality: "It is sufficient for a Muslim to object to it verbally or at least within his conscience. We are not required by our faith to declare a war against homosexuality and homosexuals."

In spite of these clear statements Tatchell persists in attributing positions to Qaradawi which simply are not true. Many of these are taken from a website set up by a former Colonel in Israel's intelligence service which has a record of distorting the views of Muslim leaders.

It is no accident that not a single Muslim group has supported Tatchell's coalition. Its dossier reads like the old anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, only in this case it is a supposed Islamic plot to take over the world. Just one quote produced in Tatchell's dossier without comment is enough to demonstrate its Islamophobia: "This fake Islamic Hijab is nothing but a political prop, a weapon of visual terrorism. It is the symbol of totalitarian ideology inspired more by Nazism and Communism than by Islam.... It is a sign of support for extremists who wish to impose their creed."

A typical comment on the website of the gay Muslim group Imaan states: "The intensive propaganda campaign against Qaradawi is a red herring used to obscure the fact that Qaradawi came here to defend a woman's right to wear the hijab a right that has been attacked. Outrage and the other anti-Muslim groups do not care about these rights.... As a gay Muslim, Outrage does not speak for me and a host of other people."

Supporters of Israel's current policies towards the Palestinians are hostile to Qaradawi, not because of his views on social issues, but because of his support for the Palestinians. They demand that I refuse to meet him because he justifies suicide bombing, but that I meet representatives of the Israeli government, which regularly blows apart Palestinian children with modern missiles, tanks and planes.

I have no intention of accepting such double standards. Dr al-Qaradawi has shared platforms with, or met, such prominent figures as former US President Bill Clinton, the French Foreign Minister, the Italian Foreign Minister and the Spanish royal family, in order to promote understanding between Islam and the West.

I believe that the only people who would be aided if I were to refuse a dialogue with so prominent a Muslim leader as Dr al-Qaradawi would be those like Al-Qaeda who argue that a dialogue between the Muslim communities and the European Left is impossible.

This article was published in Tribune, 21 January 2005