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Islamophobia Watch

Tatchell’s Islamic Conspiracy Theory

Ken Livingstone

PETER TATCHELL’S slander that I seem "willing to sacrifice gay rights if it is politically expedient to do so" (Qaradawi not welcome, LLB, November 2004) shows the depths of the errors to which he has been dragged by his "Muslim-fundamentalist-plot-to-take-over-the-world" conspiracy theory.

Tatchell claims that we are threatened by a rise of what he calls "Islamo-fascism". He says this is more dangerous than the real fascists in organisations like the British National Party. He describes it as "the religious equivalent of the BNP – but more dangerous". He claims that I have issued an open invitation to the Muslim scholar, Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi, to return to London and that this "is part of a grand plan to promote fundamentalist Islam in Britain".

Clearly, Tatchell, whom I strongly defended against homophobia when he was selected as the Labour candidate in Bermondsey, has lost his political bearings and constructed a fantasy world in which the main threat we face, worse than the far right, is Islamic fundamentalist hordes.

It is not surprising that this approach takes him into a de facto alliance with the American neo-cons and Israeli intelligence services who want to present themselves as defending western "civilisation" against more "backward" civilisations in the Middle East and elsewhere. In reality, as with racism in the age of colonialism, this Islamophobic ideology serves to anaesthetise western audiences to the crimes being committed to justify the seizure of lands in occupied Palestine and the invasion of Iraq.

In a similar fashion to the notorious anti-Semitic fabrication, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, such conspiracy theories are designed to demonise entire peoples.

Every charge Tatchell makes to justify his demand that I should reject a dialogue with Dr al-Qaradawi and other mainstream Muslim groups, like the Muslim Council of Britain, is wildly inaccurate.

Dr al-Qaradawi visited London last July to attend a number of events, including a conference at City Hall to defend the right of Muslim women to choose whether or not to wear the Islamic headscarf.

Tatchell wrote an article about the conference, which he did not attend, for the New Statesman. In this he claimed that not a single speaker defended the right of Muslim women not to wear the headscarf. As with most of his other accusations this bore no relation to the truth.

One of the most prominent speakers, Professor Tariq Ramadan, said: "As Muslims we are against any kind of compulsion.... We are against anyone who is trying to force a woman to wear the hijab against her conscience or free will.... (applause). At the same time we are saying that it is against human rights to force a woman to take it off. Freedom of worship means if you want to wear it, wear it; if you don’t want, don’t wear it."

Dr al-Qaradawi is described by the Muslim Council of Britain, the moderate umbrella group representing the majority of Muslims in Britain, as "the most authoritative Islamic scholar in the world". Western academic experts on Islam agree with this.

There are more than a billion Muslims in the world today and they make up nearly 10 per cent of London’s population. As Mayor of London, I have a responsibility to engage with all of London’s faiths and communities. In the case of religious leaders, I disagree with many of them, including Dr al-Qaradawi, on lesbian and gay rights. That does not mean I will not maintain a dialogue with them.

Indeed to refuse a dialogue with mainstream Muslim leaders would play into the hands of those like Al-Qaeda who claim that such a dialogue with the western Left is impossible.

Tatchell says that there should be no dialogue with Qaradawi because he supports the execution of gay people, domestic violence against women, anti-Semitism, civilian hostage taking and terrorism. None of these charges are true.

Qaradawi 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 asked about anti-Semitism at City Hall in July, in front of TV cameras from all over the world, 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".

In in interview with the Guardian newspaper Qaradawi made clear his opposition to violence against lesbians and gay men: "Muslims have no right to punish homosexuals or mistreat them as individuals."

On Channel 4 News, he summed up his position 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."

Obviously I don’t agree with that, but I see little difference between his view and that of Christian and Jewish leaders who called upon the government not to repeal Section 28.

Far from being aligned with the fundamentalists, Qaradawi went 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 political rights. Qaradawi stated during his visit in July 2004: "The respectable and honest Muslim man does not beat his wife."

One "charge" which Tatchell makes against Qaradawi is true. He does, like most people in the Middle East, justify Palestinian suicide bombings on the basis that they have virtually no weapons against Israeli missiles, tanks and planes.

My own position is that neither the Israeli war machine nor Palestinian suicide bombings are a way forward. But I will never accept the moral hypocrisy of those who demand I reject a dialogue with supporters of the Palestinians like Qaradawi whilst talking to supporters of an Israeli government which kills and maims Palestinian civilians every day.

Tatchell claims to speak for moderate Muslims. Yet not a single Muslim group has associated itself with the dossier he has drawn up against Qaradawi’s visit. This is hardly surprising when it includes without comment rants like the following:

"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."

Tatchell accuses me of "ignoring pleas from the Muslim gay group, Imaan", over Dr al-Qaradawi’s visit. Imaan does not in fact support the campaign against Qaradawi. In a discussion on the Muslim gay and lesbian website, in which not a single participant agreed with Tatchell, one Imaan member wrote:

"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.... Outrage's campaign against Qaradawi is offensive.... As a gay Muslim, Outrage doesn't speak for me and a host of other people.... If Qaradawi comes to London again and Outrage ... form a campaign against him, I will be out there standing against them and I will defend him."

Published in Labour Left Briefing, February 2005.