Ever since Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi was welcomed to London’s City Hall by Ken Livingstone last July, Peter Tatchell and the gay rights organisation Outrage! have waged an obsessive campaign against this respected Muslim scholar. Unfortunately, their obsession is not matched by an equivalent concern for accuracy. The picture of Dr al-Qaradawi presented by Tatchell in the November issue of Labour Left Briefing (‘Qaradawi not welcome’) is nothing but an Islamophobic caricature which he uses as the basis for a more general attack on Muslims, their beliefs and their organisations.
To take one particularly crude misrepresentation, Tatchell claims that Dr al-Qaradawi “has justified the taking of civilian hostages”. Against the background of kidnappings and horrific murders of British and other civilians in Iraq, this is an extremely serious charge. In reality, as anyone who had followed these events will know, Qaradawi has worked closely with western governments in campaigning for the release of their citizens held hostage in Iraq.
After the two French journalists Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot were seized by a terrorist group demanding an end to the Chirac government’s ban on the hijab in schools, France’s foreign minister Michel Barnier arranged a meeting with Dr al-Qaradawi in Cairo to ask for his assistance. Despite being one of the fiercest critics of the hijab ban, Qaradawi broadcast a televised appeal for the journalists to be freed. Barnier later wrote to Qaradawi thanking him for his help and for his “vehement condemnation” of the kidnapping of the two journalists and other civilians in Iraq. “With such a clear condemnation of the abduction of the French hostages”, Barnier wrote, “you have sent a clear-cut message demonstrating respect for the tenets of Islam.”
When the Italian aid workers Simona Pari and Simona Torretta were later abducted, Italy’s foreign minister Franco Frattini visited Qaradawi’s home in Qatar to enlist his support. Qaradawi immediately denounced the kidnapping of the Italians, pointing out that they were engaged in humanitarian work and could not in any case be held responsible for the actions of their government, since “while Italy participated in the war on Iraq, millions of Italians took to the streets to demonstrate against the war”.
Earlier in the year this supposed representative of fundamentalist Islam, with whom Tatchell demands Ken Livingstone should break all relations, and ban from City Hall, was one of the main speakers alongside Bill Clinton and Richard Holbrooke, the former US ambassador to the UN, at the US-Islamic World Forum in Qatar. Although Dr al-Qaradawi sharply criticised US backing for the Israeli government, he used his speech to insist on the need to build bridges between the Muslim world and the United States.
Western politicians are keen to engage with Dr al-Qaradawi because they recognise his important role in combating extremist forms of Islamism. Qaradawi condemned the terrorist actions of September 2001 – “Our hearts bleed for the attacks that have targeted the World Trade Center” – and called on Muslims to donate blood to the victims. He branded the Bali bombing the following year as “no more than a total barbarism that is void of morality and human feeling”. Opposing the separatist prescriptions of fundamentalists, Qaradawi has called on Muslims to live together with non-Muslims in a spirit of tolerance and mutual respect.
In this context, Tatchell’s charge of anti-semitism against Dr al-Qaradawi is particularly disgraceful. Speaking at City Hall in July, Qaradawi reiterated his often stated view that “we do not hold any enmity towards the Jews” and that “Judaism is regarded as a message with a divine origin and a high status”. He has repeatedly emphasised that “we do not fight Israelis because they are Jews but because they took our land, killed our children and profaned our holy places”. Does this provide the slightest justification for Tatchell’s claim in his Briefing article that Dr al-Qaradawi’s message is “destroy the Jews – all of them”?
Through his hugely popular programme on al-Jazeera television Dr al-Qaradawi influences millions across the Middle East and throughout the Muslim world. Ziauddin Sardar, author of the bestseller Introducing Islam, has described these broadcasts:
“Each week, al-Qaradawi surprises his audience with the humanity and pragmatism of his fatwas. It is all right for women not to wear hijab, he declared recently, in certain circumstances, particularly if they live in a secular country…. How refreshingly different this is from the extremist pollution disseminated by the mullahs who grace television screens in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.”
Barbara Stowasser, author of the book Women in the Qur’an and a leading academic expert on Islam, argues that Qaradawi’s broadcasts have been crucial in overturning the conservative Islamic view that women should be restricted to domestic duties and play no part in politics and public life generally. She applauds his “vision of a new, more gender-equal Islamic society” and stresses “his role as both exponent and catalyst of a new groundswell of Muslim public opinion in favour of women’s Islamic political rights”.
In the course of researching his article Tatchell would certainly have come across such material, which entirely contradicted the picture he wished to present of Dr al-Qaradawi. Evidently he chose to ignore it. This is what we might anticipate from a right-wing hack performing a hatchet job for the Sun or the Mail – it was indeed the method used against Tatchell himself during the 1983 Bermondsey by-election – but we are entitled to expect better from a radical journalist contributing to a publication like Briefing.
Tatchell proposes that we should restrict ourselves to dialogue with “liberal Muslims who believe in human rights”. Leaving aside the fact that many would argue that Dr al-Qaradawi himself falls into this category (see for example Charles Kurzman’s anthology Liberal Islam, which devotes an entire chapter to Qaradawi), if there is anyone who belongs to the liberal wing of Islam it is the Swiss-based Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan. Yet, when Ramadan visited London recently for the European Social Forum, he too was denounced by a section of the Left as a homophobic fundamentalist.
It would, in fact, be difficult to find many Muslim scholars broad-minded enough to sign up to Peter Tatchell’s views on sexuality, which he apparently regards as the litmus test of liberalism. On such a narrow definition, Tatchell’s endorsement of “liberal” Islam serves in practice as a cover for an assault on the beliefs and practices of the majority of Muslims.
That Tatchell’s criticisms are directed against mainstream Islam rather than against a fundamentalist minority is quite clear from his article. Not only does he reject any co-operation with the Muslim Association of Britain, who have played such a positive role in the anti-war movement, but he even opposes relations with the Muslim Council of Britain, an umbrella body representing the majority of Islamic organisations in this country. For Tatchell, they are all “right wing Islamists” who open the door to “the global threat of ‘Islamo-fascism’”.
Anti-Muslim prejudice is currently being enthusiastically stoked up by the fascists of the British National Party and by Tory rags like the Daily Telegraph. Nor are such sentiments restricted to the Right. Under the impact of Islamophobia a section of progressive opinion, which would usually side with the victims of racism, has become disoriented. We have witnessed the sight of radicals and leftists not only failing to oppose the current right-wing campaign against Islam but in some cases even joining in. Tatchell and Outrage! have been an extreme example of this trend, attacking Muslims in terms which carry disturbing echoes of the racist demagogy of the late Dutch right-winger Pim Fortuyn.
Under these circumstances, as Tatchell’s fellow Green Party member Caroline Lucas MEP stated during the row over Dr al-Qaradawi’s visit in July, “it is more important than ever that our commitment to human rights and equality is not expressed in a way that can fan the flames of populist Islamophobia”. This quotation should be reproduced in poster form in block capital letters and pinned to the wall of the Outrage! office.
Published in an abbreviated form in Labour Left Briefing, December 2004