Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Islamophobia

by Ken Livingstone,
Mayor of London

LAST week, I welcomed Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, president of the European Council of Fatwa and Research, to London. Professor Qaradawi is widely respected as one of the most eminent Muslim scholars in the world.

I welcomed him to London, just as I would the leader of any of the other great world religions, to promote understanding between London's diverse communities. I welcome dialogue with all religious leaders in London without necessarily agreeing with their views.

But I was appalled by the outpouring of lies and Islamophobia against Professor Qaradawi in the tabloid media.

Michael Howard objected to the visit during Prime Minister's questions and the right-wing media went to town, describing the visitor as "a devil" and the "cleric of hate".

The Sun was the absolute pits of this disgusting display, with columnist Richard Littlejohn's rant describing Dr Qaradawi as "Dr al-Nailbomba, Mohammed al-KillJews, Mustapha al-Wifebeater" and so on.

He falsely and disgracefully lied to his readers that Dr Qaradawi's "view of the world" was "Kill Jews, kill homosexuals, kill infidels - you name it, he wants to kill it".

This is a national newspaper quite happy to wind up lies and prejudice that will encourage yet more racism towards Muslims in Britain.

The professor visited Britain at least five times during Michael Howard's time as Home Secretary and the current Tory leader never before raised any objections to his visits. Al-Qaradawi made at least 17 visits to Britain under the last Conservative government and, again, no questions were raised by that government.

The hysterical outburst of racism and Islamophobia was generated by the tabloid media, with cowardly politicians, who had spent previous weeks courting Muslim voters, falling over themselves to echo the Sun and the Mail without taking the trouble to ask Dr Qaradawi himself for his real views.

It was a bizarre spectacle to watch newspapers such as the Mail and the Sun, which have churned out homophobia and intolerance for decades, using those very issues in order to condemn Dr Qaradawi in a vile display of Islamophobia.

That is how the right seeks to maintain hegemony in our society.

Virtually everything printed about the professor by the tabloids was a lie.

The Daily Telegraph, for example, attributed remarks about the victims of rape, repeated on BBC Newsnight, which it turned out had nothing whatsoever to do with Dr Qaradawi.

My staff have looked at the various websites, including those in Arabic, spoken to the Arab experts at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and monitored all of Dr Qaradawi's statements while he was in Britain.

The conclusion is that he is not anti-semitic, he does not call for the execution of homosexuals and he does not advocate domestic violence.

In fact, within Islam, al-Qaradawi is known for his moderate views.

He is of particular importance to many Muslims in Britain because of his interest in discussing how Muslims should practise their faith in a non-Muslim society.

As Sohaib Saeed of the Muslim Association of Britain argued in the Guardian on July 9, the Islamophobia poured on Dr al-Qaradawi by the press and sections of the left caused distress among Muslims. "It was a sharp tug at the rug under the feet of moderate Muslims because, if he is an extremist, who is there left to be moderate?"

To paraphrase others, if we cannot talk to Muslim leaders such as Professor Qaradawi, then many Muslims will be asking just who there is left to talk to.

He made it absolutely clear when he spoke at City Hall that he is totally opposed to anti-semitism. Al-Qaradawi said that he regards Judaism as one of the world's great religions and that Jewish and Muslim people lived together in peace in the Middle East for hundreds of years. His difference is not with Jews, but with Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.

It is unfortunate that the media chose not to report his support for friendship between Jews and Muslims.

At his press conference, al-Qaradawi said: "There is nothing wrong between us and the Jews. The Jews lived with the Muslims for centuries and even when they were persecuted in Europe, they found no safe refuge except for in the land of Islam where they lived protected, honoured and many of them prospered."

Contrary to the lies of the press, al-Qaradawi is opposed to terrorism. He immediately condemned the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States and has totally condemned subsequent terrorist atrocities. In the case of the attacks in New York and Washington, he encouraged Muslims to donate blood to help with the rescue effort.

Professor al-Qaradawi has made it clear that he is opposed to domestic violence. He is quoted in the Guardian as saying: "The respectable and honest Muslim does not beat his wife."

Contrary to the arguments of some, al-Qaradawi does not advocate killing gay people.

Leaders of Islam, the Roman Catholic Church, Evangelical Christian groups, Judaism and other major religions in the main take negative attitudes to same-sex relationships. I don't agree with any of them on this issue.

I note that the leaders of the other main religions are not hounded by the leader of the opposition for these views. That he reserves his opprobrium for Islamic leaders underlines just how reactionary and unpleasant the Tory Party really is.

In fact, the sheikh summarised his view to the Guardian on July 13. "Muslims have no right to punish homosexuals or mistreat them as individuals."

On the question of Israel and Palestine, Professor al-Qaradawi takes the view that, if one side is attacking with planes, tanks and missiles while the other has no such hardware, then they will exercise the right to use their bodies as bombs.

I take the view that the cycle of violence in the Middle East has to be broken - neither Israeli attacks on civilian areas with tanks and missiles nor suicide bombings are a way forward.

What is necessary is a just peace settlement which implements the United Nations resolutions demanding that Israel withdraws from the occupied territories and recognises the rights of the Palestinians and Israel to their own states within secure borders.

As the dust settles following Dr Qaradawi's visit, the response of the British tabloid media and some broadcasters will be more fully understood for what it really was - a revolting outburst of Islamophobia based on lies.

Muslims in our society have often been the target of racism and racist attacks, as we saw in the early 1990s with the election of the British National Party's Derek Beacon to Tower Hamlets council.

Since then, it has been Muslims, in particular, who have been singled out by the far-right as the target of their racist campaigns and violence - it is the racism towards Muslim Asians that has fuelled the activities of the BNP in towns like Burnley and Oldham.

Underlining this fact, the fascist BNP singled out Muslims in their broadcast for the elections on June 10.

After September 11 and the war on Iraq, we have to be particularly aware of the danger of giving ground to Islamophobia.

The BBC documentary exposing BNP fascism this week revealed that the party's leader Nick Griffin uses crude Islamophobia as his main weapon in his war against Asian people in this country.

Islamophobia is the weapon of choice for the far-right in this country and the left must take it up and confront it openly.


Published in the Morning Star,UK 17 July 2002


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