A further reply to George Readings

In a piece for the Guardian’s Comment is Free, George Readings of the Quilliam Foundation has finally got round to replying my Socialist Unity article (crossposted at Islamophobia Watch) in which I defended the noted Islamic scholar and Al-Jazeera TV star Yusuf al-Qaradawi against an attack from Readings.

Readings misrepresents my views – and more importantly those of Qaradawi himself – but at least he has attempted to rebut my criticisms with reasoned argument. This is certainly an improvement on Quilliam’s previous methods, which have involved trying to politically blackmail a London Assembly member for whom I worked into taking action against me, and then, after he told Ed Husain to take his threatening email and shove it, hiring libel lawyers in an attempt to shut me up.

The present exchange on Qaradawi began with Ken Livingstone’s entirely accurate observation during an interview by Ahmed Versi in the Muslim News that Qaradawi is “one of the leading progressive voices in the Muslim world”. This prompted Readings to post an article at Left Foot Forward in which he condemned Qaradawi on three counts: that he advocates the lashing or execution of gay men, defends the right of husbands to beat their wives and supports female genital mutilation.

My response at Socialist Unity started with a summary of Qaradawi’s actual role in the Muslim world, which Readings had completely ignored. I quoted Hugh Miles, the author of a well-informed study of Al-Jazeera, on how Qaradawi influenced hundreds of millions of Muslims through his weekly television programme, in which he has denounced Al-Qaeda and promoted democracy and women’s rights. I added that this positive view of Qaradawi was shared by many western specialists on Islam and the Middle East. One of the experts I mentioned was Karen Armstrong, who has written of Qaradawi:

“He believes in moderation, and is convinced that the bigotry that has recently appeared in the Muslim world will impoverish people by depriving them of the insights and visions of other human beings. The Prophet Muhammad said that he had come to bring a ‘Middle Way’ of religious life that shunned extremes, and Qaradawi thinks that the current extremism in some quarters of the Islamic world is alien to the Muslim spirit and will not last.” (Islam: A Short History, pp.157-8)

I asked whether Readings was simply ignorant of such studies (which is a definite possibility – after all, this is a man who thinks IslamOnline is “the Muslim Brotherhood’s website”) or whether he had decided to suppress this evidence on the grounds that it undermined his efforts to depict Qaradawi as an extremist bigot and smear Livingstone by association. So far, Readings has failed to respond to this point.

I then went on to deal with the three specific criticisms that Readings had made of Qaradawi.

With regard to the charge that Qaradawi advocates “wife-beating” I argued that the passage from his 1960 book The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam quoted by Readings was a reference to a ruling by early Islamic jurists who wanted to remain true to the letter of the Qur’an while depriving verse 4:34 of any authority to legitimise actual physical assaults. What Readings took to be a justification of domestic violence was in fact Qaradawi’s summary of a juridical ruling designed to prevent domestic violence. Again, Readings has failed to answer this point.

In connection with hudud punishments for gay sex, I pointed out that these were intended to symbolise extreme social disapproval and not to be applied in practice. I also quoted Qaradawi as saying more recently that “we don’t lock the doors before the homosexuals. No! They have committed sins, but it is within their ability to repent to God”. In a comment on the discussion thread at Socialist Unity, Readings claimed that just because Qaradawi was against excluding gay men from the Muslim community that didn’t necessarily mean he was opposed to killing them if they failed to repent!

In reply I pointed out that Qaradawi had not only stated that there was there no common position among early Islamic jurists on homosexuality, so present-day scholars were not bound by their rulings on this issue, but he also argued that “tribulations and sins being widespread is something in Islamic legal theory that causes things to be lightened” – which could hardly be construed as a call for the lashing or execution of homosexuals. On the contrary, Qaradawi was arguing that in the modern world hudud punishments didn’t apply to gay sex even in their symbolic form. Yet again, Readings has failed to come back on this.

In his Cif piece Readings restricts himself to defending his charges against Qaradawi over the issue of FGM, where he evidently feels he is on firmer ground, and he accuses Socialist Unity editor Andy Newman and myself of justifying “a direct, physical and brutal tool of patriarchal control” because we drew a parallel between male and female circumcision. Presumably Readings reasons that the words “female genital mutilation” will automatically generate such an outraged reaction among Cif readers that they won’t bother to check the accuracy of his claims. But once again he misrepresents Qaradawi.

Readings refers us to a World Health Organization report, Eliminating female genital mutilation, and asserts that Qaradawi advocates a form of FGM that is categorised in the report as Type IIa, defined (p.24) as “removal of the labia minora”. But the IslamOnline introduction to Qaradawi’s fatwa makes it quite clear that what he is discussing is “removing the prepuce of the clitoris”. Is Readings genuinely incapable of understanding that cutting the clitoral hood is not the same as excising the labia minora? As with the accusations about wife-beating and the execution of homosexuals, Readings has attributed to Qaradawi a position that he does not hold.

Regarding male circumcision, Readings quotes the WHO report as stating that it “has significant health benefits that outweigh the very low risk of complications”. But other informed commentators disagree. I previously cited an article from the BMJ, entitled “Is infant male circumcision an abuse of the rights of the child? Yes”. This is the relevant excerpt:

“Male genital mutilation is not a risk-free procedure. There are potential anaesthetic risks, and the short term risk of bleeding and infection associated with any surgical procedure. Longer term potential complications include pain on erection, penile disfigurement, and psychological problems. A recent report shows that the non-circumcised adult penis is more sensitive than the circumcised penis, largely because the five most sensitive areas, identified in the study, are removed during circumcision. This implies a reduction in future sexual sensitivity for circumcised adults. Far from being a harmless traditional practice, circumcision damages young boys.”

As I pointed out in my original defence of Qaradawi, such objections to male circumcision are comparable to the reasoned criticisms of female circumcision made by the US Muslim Women’s League in a passage that I quoted. Indeed, it was not myself or Andy Newman who described the hood of the clitoris as “the anatomical equivalent of the foreskin of the penis” but the MWL.

As for my own views on circumcision, male or female, I stated in the discussion on Socialist Unity: “I’m not only in favour of banning any form of FGM but in an ideal world I think all genital cutting for non-medical reasons would be abolished. But male circumcision is a religious requirement for both Jews and Muslims and I don’t see it disappearing any time soon.”

According to Readings, however, the removal of the foreskin from boy babies is completely unproblematic – indeed, despite his lack of any specialist medical knowledge he is convinced that it has uniformly beneficial effects – whereas he claims that the removal of the clitoral hood is “one of the most violently patriarchal acts imaginable”. Andy Newman can answer for himself, but when he wrote that we should not “regard the current state of social attitudes we have in Britain as self-evidently normative”, I think this is precisely the sort of cultural double standard that he had in mind.

It would be a mistake to think that Readings has simply made an honest misjudgement here. Rather, his distortion of Qaradawi’s views is quite intentional and forms part of the poisonous campaign waged by the Quilliam Foundation against all variants of “political Islam”, which involves systematically slandering anyone who takes their inspiration, however loosely, from tendencies like the Muslim Brotherhood.

Readings outlined Quilliam’s position in an earlier Cif piece, where he described political Islam in all its forms as “a totalitarian and supremacist ideology” and demanded: “would those advocating empowering ‘non-violent’ Islamists against violent Islamists really argue that the non-violent but racist BNP should be empowered against the violent racism of groups like Combat 18?” And he expressed indignation that “the non-violent but Islamist organisation the Muslim Association of Britain was empowered by the police to take over North London Central Mosque to oust Abu Hamza”.

If Readings really believes that the ousting of Abu Hamza al-Masri from the Finsbury Park mosque and his replacement by the present management was the political equivalent of transferring control from C18 to the BNP, I can only suggest that he approaches the MP for Islington North, Jeremy Corbyn, along with local councillors and the police, and tries to convince them that NLCM is currently in the hands of fascists. They wouldn’t just think Readings had lost all sense of political reality. They’d tell him he had taken leave of his tiny mind.

This irresponsible witch-hunting by Quilliam against proponents of a progressive, reformist interpretation of political Islam has real consequences, all of them negative. As I noted in my previous article, Quilliam’s leaked briefing paper “Preventing terrorism: where next for Britain?” was welcomed by the BNP because it backed up their own lying propaganda that mainstream Muslim organisations in the UK are in fact run by dangerous extremists.

By stoking the fires of hatred against politically engaged Islamic organisations, Quilliam’s witch-hunting also strengthens tendencies within the Muslim communities that argue against participation in mainstream politics on the grounds that Muslims can never get a fair hearing in a non-Islamic society. At best this encourages support for sectarian tendencies like Hizb ut-Tahrir. At worst it helps win recruits to Al-Qaeda-inspired terrorist groupuscules and increases the possibility that more innocent people will die in another atrocity like the 7/7 bombings.

But why should Readings and his colleagues care about that? They are doing very well out of their malicious campaign against Islamism. As far as the Quilliam Foundation is concerned, assisting fascist propaganda against Muslims and their representative organisations, encouraging sectarian trends within the Muslim community and increasing the prospect of more dead people on our streets or transport system are a small price to pay for their own plush offices, generous salaries and comfortable lifestyles.