‘Ken Livingstone defends his extremist backer’

Ken with QaradawiKen Livingstone defended his decision to share a platform with a homophobic Islamic preacher as he and his challenger, Boris Johnson, were neck and neck in the race for the capital yesterday.

Yusuf al-Qaradawi has described homosexuality as an “unnatural and evil practice” and said the Koran permitted wife-beating in certain circumstances. The Qatar-based Egyptian cleric has also advocated the use of Palestinian children as suicide bombers and once claimed that Asian tsunami victims were punished by Allah because their countries were centres of perversion.

But speaking on BBC1’s Politics Show yesterday, the London Mayor insisted he was right to welcome the cleric to City Hall as an “honoured guest” in July 2004. He said that while he did not agree with some of his views, al-Qaradawi did not support terrorism against the West. “He is a man who is prepared to say al-Qa’eda is wrong and to be very strong in that condemnation,” he said.

Mr Livingstone’s liberal approach to controversial figures such as al-Qaradawi has won him a friend in Azzam Tamimi, a Palestinian supporter of Hamas, which is dedicated to the destruction of Israel. Mr Tamimi is part of a group called Muslims 4 Ken, which is aiming to mobilise Muslim voters to help re-elect Mr Livingstone for a third term on May 1. The group has accused Mr Johnson of being an Islamophobe and a racist. One article, written after the July 7 London bombings and entitled “Islam is the problem”, has drawn particular criticism.

But Mr Johnson insisted yesterday that he believed Islam was a “religion of peace” and the problem was extremists taking the words of the Koran out of context. “The problem is people who wrench out of context quotes from the holy book of Islam, the Koran, and use it to inspire evil in men’s hearts,” he said, during the Politics Show debate between the mayoral candidates. Mr Johnson also used the opportunity to raise concerns about uncontrolled immigration to the capital.

Daily Telegraph, 21 April 2008

See also the Telegraph editorial “Ken and his contortions“.

The programme’s presenter, Jon Sopel, produced a list of quotations from Qaradawi to show he was a dangerous extremist, some of which Sopel read out. “These quotes are absolutely out there”, he told Livingstone. Let us go through some of the quotations and demonstrate how Qaradawi’s views have been misrepresented.

Qaradawi and suicide bombings

Sopel quoted Qaradawi as saying in connection with the Israeli victims of suicide bombings: “We cannot say that the casualties were innocent civilians. They are not civilians or innocent.” This quotation, from an interview in Asharq Al-Awsat in April 2002, was used to “prove” that Qaradawi advocates the Palestinian resistance directing suicide bombings against non-combatants.

However, the full quote reveals that Qaradawi was in fact talking about attacks on members of the Israeli armed forces. It reads: “Some children, old people, and women may get hurt in such operations. This is not deliberate. However, we must all realize that the Israeli society is a military society, men and women. We cannot say that the casualties were innocent civilians…” (emphasis added). So Qaradawi evidently does distinguish between combatants and non-combatants, and his enemies truncated the quotation in order to attribute to him a position that he does not hold.

In a Guardian interview with Madeleine Bunting in October 2005, Qaradawi stated in relation to Palestinian suicide bombers: “Sometimes they kill a child or a woman. Provided they don’t mean to, that’s OK, but they shouldn’t aim to kill them. In every war, mistakes are made and non-combatants get killed and usually military commanders come forward (as in the case of the US) and apologise – why can’t they accept others do the same?” (emphasis added)

So Qaradawi’s position on suicide bombings seems fairly clear. His argument that there is no definite dividing line between civilians and non-civilians in Israel is not in fact presented as a justification for deliberately targeting non-combatants. The deaths of the latter, he argues, are justifiable only if they are a side-effect of attacks on members of the Israeli military.

This position is not a million miles removed from that of other religious leaders – for example, the Chief Rabbi. In July 2006, during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the Board of Deputies organised a mass “Stand with Israel” rally at Kenton where Sir Jonathan Sacks was one of the main speakers.

As we know, the Israeli armed forces targeted Lebanese civilian areas where they had identified the presence of Hezbollah fighters, despite the fact that large numbers of non-combatants would inevitably be killed in such attacks. Indeed, hundreds of women and children did die as a result of the Israeli bombardment. Yet at the Kenton rally the Chief Rabbi didn’t offer a word of criticism of the IDF’s actions, but instead expressed his solidarity with the state that was responsible for killing these innocent people.

However, if Jonathan Sacks attended a conference at City Hall, would Livingstone’s opponents denounce this and demand that Sacks should be excluded on the grounds that he justified the deaths of civilians at the hands of Israeli state terrorism? Of course they wouldn’t.

Qaradawi and “child suicide bombers”

Sopel quoted Qaradawi as supposedly advocating the use of Palestinian children as suicide bombers – mistakenly presenting this as though it came from the same source as the quote about Israeli civilian casualties.

This accusation is in fact based on another interview from April 2002, with Al-Jazeera, where Qaradawi stated: “The Israelis have the nuclear bomb and we have the population bomb.” BBC Monitoring translated the sentence as: “The Israelis might have nuclear bombs but we have the children bomb.” And a sub-editor who obviously hadn’t read the report very carefully captioned it: “Al-Jazeera programme debates Arab stand on intifada, suicide bombers.”

But the interview didn’t touch on the subject of suicide bombings at all, by children or anyone else. Qaradawi was answering a question about “unarmed Palestinian minors taking it upon themselves to attack Jewish settlements” and getting themselves shot dead by trigger-happy Israeli settlers.

This is the origin of the nonsense about Qaradawi and “child suicide bombers”.

Qaradawi and the “death penalty for homosexuals”

Although Sopel didn’t actually quote it, the accusation that Qaradawi advocates the execution of gay men is based on a passage from Qaradawi’s book, The Lawful and Prohibited in Islam, which reads:

“Muslim jurists hold different opinions concerning the punishment for this abominable practice. Should it be the same as the punishment for fornication, or should both the active and passive participants be put to death? While such punishments may seem cruel, they have been suggested to maintain the purity of the Islamic society and to keep it clean of perverted elements.”

As can be seen, Qaradawi didn’t express a personal view, but merely summarised the rulings of early Muslim jurists. Furthermore, The Lawful and Prohibited in Islam was published back in 1960, and therefore presumably written in the late 1950s. If Qaradawi does indeed support the execution of gay men, wouldn’t he have said so some time in the half-century since then? He never has.

The position of sharia law on adultery – of which homosexuality is treated as a subdivision – evolved during the centuries following the Prophet’s death. The Muslim jurists who developed it were trying to put a stop to some of the barbaric practices associated with tribal society which did lead to individuals (predominantly women) being killed in order to defend the “honour” of the family or community.

The “middle way” that Muslim jurists found was to rule that it wasn’t adultery (or homosexuality) that was a crime but the sexual act itself – and, moreover, that four independent witnesses to the sexual act were required for a conviction. The result was to preserve the draconian punishments as a symbol of extreme social disapproval while raising the evidentiary requirements so high that in practice it was impossible to sentence anyone to those punishments.

So when Qaradawi was discussing the penalties for gay sex in his 1960 book we have to understand that it was these symbolic punishments he was referring to.

In a 2006 interview on Al-Jazeera Qaradawi stated, concerning the appropriate punishment for gay sex: “There is disagreement, so it is possible for us to choose from them in our era what is most appropriate, and what is lightest, recognising how widespread the tribulation is: because tribulations and sins being widespread is something in Islamic legal theory that causes things to be lightened.”

Doesn’t exactly sound like a call for the execution of gay men does it?

He also said: “we don’t lock the doors before the homosexuals. No! They have committed sins, but it is within their ability to repent to God.”

Which is much the sort of thing you might hear from the Pope, or Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, or the Chief Rabbi.

Qaradawi and “wife-beating”

Sopel quoted Qaradawi as supporting the right of husbands to beat their wives: “If this approach fails, it is permissible for him to beat her lightly with his hands, avoiding her face and other sensitive parts.”

Here Qaradawi was in fact summarising a fourteen-centuries-old interpretation of verse 4:34 of the Qur’an – which urges husbands to be patient with their wives but does concede that, if all else fails, a husband may strike his wife. This evidently caused problems very early on, because men could go through the motions of conciliation with their wives and then administer a severe beating while claiming that it was permitted in the Qur’an. So Muslim jurists had to find a way of preventing this.

The difficulty lay in the fact that from the standpoint of Islamic orthodoxy the Qur’an is the word of God, and jurists could hardly rule that God had made a mistake in this particular case. However, it was not just the text of the Qur’an that provided the basis for Islamic jurisprudence but also the sunnah – the example set by the Prophet as detailed in reports of his words and actions in the Hadith.

From the latter, these early jurists determined that the Prophet had stated clearly that a good Muslim does not hit his wife, that the Prophet did not hit his own wives but rather treated them with the utmost respect, and that the only example of the Prophet referring to the use of violence in a domestic dispute was when he was so furious with a woman servant that he stated he had struggled to restrain himself from striking her with a “siwak” – a small twig used for cleaning teeth. Therefore, the jurists ruled, when the Qur’an stated that a man might strike his wife, this was what God had in mind.

As Qaradawi recently explained in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, the sort of blow permitted under this interpretation of 4:34 “was meant to be symbolic – like the saying: if it were not for fear of God on the Day of Judgment, I would have hit you with this ‘siwak’ – toothbrush”.

By these means, the jurists remained true to the letter of the Qur’an while depriving 4:34 of the authority to justify actual physical violence.

In short, what Sopel was quoting in support of the accusation that Qaradawi is in favour of domestic violence was Qaradawi’s exposition of a ruling that was directed precisely against domestic violence.