Andy Newman responds to another Islamophobic report from the anti-Muslim ‘One Law for All’ organisation
One of the characteristics of Islamophobia is to see the Islamic faith as being incompatible with western liberalism, and therefore by definition to see the extremist jihadis or salafist literalists as being somehow more true to Islam than those who happily enjoy both western and Muslim identities. This also means that there is an Islamophobic tendency to see any expressions of organised lobbying or political activity by Muslims as somehow sinister and akin to jihadism.
Furthermore, there has been a sustained campaign of vilification against those on the left and centre-left who have sought to stand against Islamophobia, an example of which is a new document issued by the anti-Muslim organisation, “One Law for All”, which has been unsurprisingly praised by their co-thinkers at the the website Harry’s Place.
It is worth recalling the critique of Harry’s Place from the Eustonite, Marko Atilla Hoare.
Harry’s Place is a blog in which comments have been posted and left undeleted by the moderators, calling for ships carrying illegal immigrants to Britain to be torpedoed, or equating ordinary Muslims with Nazis, or calling for all Palestinians to be expelled from the West Bank. Leaving such comments undeleted may be justified on the grounds of freedom of speech, but I have come reluctantly to believe that one or two of the HP bloggers are somewhat unwilling to fall out with the far-right commenters who frequent the blog – and by ‘far right’ I don’t mean the actual BNP, but the Muslim-hating, immigrant-hating bigots who are one step away from it.
Hoare’s observation of a new synthesis between some parts of the former “Decent left” with the new “counter-jihad” right is significant, as an insider’s judgement:
Harry’s Place bloggers are Eustonite or ‘Decent’ left-wingers, and focus in particular on exposing and opposing radical Islam and human rights abuses in the Islamic world (and elsewhere), and their western left-wing apologists. However, the comments boxes of this blog attract members of both groups opposing the liberal mainstream: the Decent Left and the new far right. And although the two groups are in principle antithetical, there is a very real danger that this will be forgotten and that a synthesis will be formed, in which case Harry’s Place will have acted as incubator for a monster.
Rising tide of Islamophobia
For the record, I do not agree with Hoare’s judgement on the nature of “Decentism” and secularism, which I have critiqued here, but he himself does appreciate the danger that a rising tide of Islamophobia represents:
It is on the basis of hostility to Islam and to immigration that the new far-right is mounting its assault on liberal values and the western liberal world.
With these reservations in mind about Harry’s Place, we should note the endorsement by their contributor, Sarah AB, of the “One Law for All” document:
Siding with the Oppressor: The Pro-Islamist Left (pdf) was flagged over on Maryam Namazie’s blog yesterday. It brings together criticisms of many of Harry’s Place own favourite targets: Stop the War Coalition, Respect, George Galloway and UAF for example.
I start with a discussion of Harry’s Place, because it is a characteristic of the method of those who subscribe to what we could describe as “left islamophobia” to create a circle of self-referential support for each other. The document from One Law for All presents itself as a “report”, and is professionally formatted, and given an ISBN and is even nominally for sale at £4 per copy. However, there is no indication of either the qualifications or authority of the previously unheard of author, John Miller, and it reads like under-graduate doggeral.
The sources of information in the document are almost all from insubstantial Internet scribblings, or newspaper or BBC online reports, and the references include 5 from One Law for All, 3 from Harry’s Place, 6 from the IslamophobicTrotskyite cult the Alliance for Workers Liberty, 3 from One law for All’s own director Maryam Namazie, 3 from Peter Tatchell, 5 from the Henry Jackson society, and no less than 15 references from Andrew Gilligan.
The lack of reference to real authoritative sources means that there is no serious discussion of either the facts, or the politics. Instead there are only dubious assertions.
I recently highlighted how One Law for All spokesperson, the anti-Muslim campaigner, Anne Marie Waters is seeking nomination to be Labour candidate for Brighton Pavillion. One of the dangers of Anne Marie Waters becoming a Labour candidate is that any resulting election campaign would be hijacked by her controversial obsession. She is seeking to stand against well respected Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas, and the following from her website illustrates the danger:
This week, I read a very interesting tweet from the journalist Julie Bindel. She wrote (among other things): “Caroline Lucas panders to extreme Islamists”. As someone who campaigns against Islamic extremism and the accompanying misogyny and brutal human rights abuses, this tweet very much caught my attention. … Throughout my years of campaigning against religious misogyny, including Islamic, I have found the likes of Lucas depressingly common. They’re full of feminist credentials yet stand with those who enslave women. They’re full of concern for gay rights unless those gays happen to be an Islamic state – these gay people should accept their torture and murder: “it’s their culshure innit?”
This is worth unpacking, because we see examples of a number of traits of the anti-Islamic “left” here. In the example I quote from Anne Marie Waters, a dubious amalgamation of guilt by association is used to smear Caroline Lucas, in the One Law for All document (OLFA) by John Miller, an association with Muslim thinkers like Yusuf Al Qaradawi and Azzam Tamimi is used to seek to discredit Ken Livingstone and others.
There is a trap here for those who defend multi-culturism to avoid, we must not simply adopt a symmetrical narrative, and pretend that sometimes deeply conservative thinkers are unproblematic. For example, Azzam Tamimi and Al Qaradawi have both adopted positions over Syria, sympathetic to Sunni militias in the civil war. Qaradawi seems to have made statements that are anti-Semitic, and the distinction he makes between his general opposition to terrorism, and his specific support of the tactic of terror against Israelis is a highly questionable distinction. Sadly the legacy of half a century of war has left wounds, distrust and hatred as part of the mainstream ideological fabric in both Israel and the Arab countries that neighbour it: a cause for reflection for those on either side who promote easy answers.
Socially liberal west
However, we can strongly oppose, for example, expressions of anti-Semitism, and recognise that someone like Al Qaradawi is a political conservative, without concluding that anti-Semitism is inherent to Islam; or that Islam is incompatible with modern western society. Al Qaradawi is an important religious thinker, and his approach to the interpretation of Islam is useful in seeing how a variation of Islam atuned to the pluralist and socially liberal west can develop.
There is too much ground superficially covered in the One Law for All document for me to address all of it, so let us focus on the judgement from the document, that Al Qaradawi is an “extreme Islamist”.
John L Esposito has been described as “America’s leading scholar of Islamic politics” and the estimable Afghan liberal writer, Ahmed Rashid says “There is no one better to explain the phenomenon of the origins and exposition of global jihad than Esposito”
In Esposito’s 2010 book, the excellent “The Future of Islam” he includes a very illuminating discussion of Al Qarawadi, who far from being an extreme “Islamist” is an influential traditionalist trained scholar, who encourages a distinction between mandatory religious obligations (like zakat, almsgiving), and those areas of Islamic law which might be open to re-interpretation due to changing social realities and certainties.
According to Esposito, Qaradawi, although associated with the Muslim Brotherhood criticises its militant ideology and advocates that Muslims should “see the various shades of gray rather than a black-and-white world and embrace a “balanced” and moderate version of Islam” Qarawadi condemned the 9/11 attacks on New York, has issued a fatwa against Bin Laden, and has said that “Islam, the religion of tolerance, holds the soul in high esteem, and considers the attack against inocent human beings a grave sin … … I categorically go against a committed Muslim embarking on such attacks”
Yusuf Qaradawi also espouses womens’ rights. He affirms the rights of women to function in public spaces, to be educated and employed, and to vote and run for public office. He has been a fierce critic of the Taliban’s treatment of women. On a personal level he often notes his pride that three of his daughter’s have PhD’s from English Universities, and a fourth has a Masters degree from the University of Texas. One daughter is the dean of Qatar University.
Qaradawi argues that women has an unequivocal right to choose her own spouse, and he has argued that a woman has a right to be head of state.
So let us consider the accusations against Qaradawi in the OLFA document, starting with the claim that he advocates the execution of gays. Firstly let us consider the benchmark of the Christian Bible, which calls for the death penalty for same gender sexual activity: Leviticus 18:22, 20:13; Romans 1:24-32. From the New Testament:
For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature:
And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet.
Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.
For the religiously observant, there is a necessity to acknowledge that the recording and interpretation of Divine will is a human activity, and therefore susceptible to social influence and error. The great religions, including Islam and Christianity, have developed in contexts where they are the dominant ideology, and have codified what is considered desired social practice, deriving from the cultural and social context in which they originated. Islamic scholars such as Nurcholish Madjid and Yusuf Qaradawi are cognisant of the dilemma for the faithful in distinguishing between the laws which they believe derive from God, and those which reflect human interpretation or originating context.
Qaradawi argues a socially permissive doctrine that, according to Esposito “everything is acceptable (halal) unless proven forbidden (haram) by an explicitly Quranic or Prophetic text.” Moreover, Qaradawi argues that the least severe, not the most severe sanctions should be applied for contraventions of the penal code, and that repentence is sufficient to avoid punishment (hadd).
Same gender sexual activities are considered sinful on Quranic authority and due to the revelation of the natural world (al Kitab al Manshur) by most Muslims, as they are by many Christians due to scripture, and doctrines of Lex Naturalis. While these religious views are broadly inconsistent with the consensus views of modern liberal civic society, people are nevertheless entitled to believe what they want, and religions are entitled to proselytise their views.
Traditional Islamic social rules
In his early but widely distributed work “The Lawful and Prohibited in Islam“, written in the 1950s when he was a young man (and when, we should remember, gay sex was illegal in the UK and USA and punishable by imprisonment), Qaradawi provides a comprehensive guide to traditional Islamic social rules, but interprets them in a reformist way.
Under the various schools of sharia law homosexuality is treated as a sub-section of adultery. The Islamic jurists who formulated the legal position on this issue were trying to put a stop to the barbaric practices in a backward tribal society which did lead to individuals (mainly women) being killed in order to defend the “honour” of the family or community.
These early jurists ruled that it wasn’t adultery, and by extension homosexuality, that was a crime but rather the sexual act itself, and further that four independent witnesses to the sexual act were required for a conviction. The result was to preserve the draconian punishments – stoning etc – as a symbol of extreme social disapproval while raising the evidential 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 The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam we have to bear in mind that it was these symbolic punishments he was referring to.
In a 2006 interview on Al-Jazeera, when asked about the Islamic position on homosexuality, Qaradawi argued that there was disagreement among the early Islamic jurists over the issue of gay sex and that in the modern world the (symbolic) draconian punishments should no longer apply. He continued: “Therefore we don’t lock the doors before the homosexuals. No! They have committed sins, but it is within their ability to repent to God.”
So exactly contrary to the claims in the One Law for All document, that Qaradawi calls for the death penalty for gays, Qaradawi actually calls for the “doors to be open” to homosexuals; a position which in the social context of the Middle East is relatively permissive. This is not to deny Qaradawi is a traditionalist, nor that his views are inconsistent with the liberal views of modern Britain; but he is clearly being misrepresented by Islamophobes. Moreover, the approach is broadly consistent with mainstream Anglican and Catholic thinking, in regarding same gender sexual acts as sinful but not extending opprobrium to the people who do them. There is ground here for mutual respect, understanding and tolerance; as long as we all meet each other half way.
Broadly progressive view
As described above, Qaradawi takes a broadly progressive view towards women in Islamic society, and is vehemently opposed to the Taliban, and the oppressive treatment of women by salafists. So what of his expressed view of female genital mutilation (FGM)?
FGM is a cultural practice that arose millennia ago in an arc across north Africa, broadly the same cultural milieau that male circumcision arose in. My own view is that non medically necessary surgical procedures should only be legally permitted upon consenting adults; and that both FGM and male circumcision of minors should ideally be crimes under English law. My belief is that religious freedom is a question of choice and consent, and that both male and female children (who cannot consent), need to be protected.
There are different forms of FGM, ranging from the most extreme and barabaric form common in Somalia, where not only the clitoris but also the lips of the labia are removed, and the vagina sewn up; to the least intrusive form more common in the Maghreb, of only removing the hood of the clitoris which is (and I choose my words carefully here) anatomically analogous to male circumcision.
The practice of FGM therefore was a pre-existing one when Islam entered that part of the world. We need to understand the nature of Islamic authority to see how FGM became absorbed into Islam in those parts of the world where it was already practised.
As I have explained before, a universality that embraced cultural differences was always necessary for the social role played by the Islamic faith:
The social context within which Islam arose and spread was one which required it to act as a shared codex of values to mediate the interactions between different societies, and those different societies exhibited diversity.
As the liberal Islamic theorist, Tariq Ramadan, argues in “Western Muslims and the Future of Islam“: “in the area of social affairs (al-muamalat) all the ways and means – the traditions, arts, clothes – that do not, either in themselves or in the use to which they are put, conflict with Islamic precepts become not only acceptable but Islamic by definition”
Coming from a society where FGM is widespread, Qaradawi has not transcended the cultural limits of his experience, and he extends to the custom Islamic significance, but FGM is not an intrinsic or universal part of Islam; and Qaradawi is not egregiously conservative on this issue within the society from which he comes.
Recognising this fact does not involve cultural relativism, because it is both possible to oppose FGM, and maintain a dialogue with those from cultures where FGM is still considered acceptable, seeking to move them in our direction.
A real example of cultural relativism over the issue of FGM, and how it is used by “left” Islamophobes is well illustrated by an outrageous article from the Guardian’s Comment is Free, by George Readings of the Quilliam Foundation. Although both Bob Pit and myself had argued against FGM, Readings sought to imply that we supported it. Again, Bob Pit ably demolishes this.
In his Cif piece Readings … 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.
… According to Readings, …, 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”.
George Readings finds it unproblematic to argue that there are “health benefits” for the mutilation of the penis of a male infant, despite the fact that the belief in such “health benefits” is a socially constructed one, mainly promoted by cranks, and is hotly contested within the medical profession; indeed non-religious circumcision is almost unknown in many European and Asian cultures. He however argues that a broadly analogous and equally unnecessary but culturally sanctioned procedure for women, commonly subscribed to in north Africa is “a direct, physical and brutal tool of patriarchal control”. This really is double standards and cultural relativism.
Tim Winters (Abdal-Hakim Murad) argues the vital point that “As Muslims, of course, we believe that every culture, including the culture of modern consumer liberalism, stands accountable before the claims of revelation. There must, therefore, be a mode of behaviour that modernity can adopt that can be meaningfully termed Islamic, without entailing its transformation into a monochrome Arabness. … The current agreement between zealots on both sides – Islamic and unbelieving – that Islam and western modernity can have no conversation, and cannot inhabit each other, seems difficult given traditional Islamic assurances about the universal potential of revelation. The increasing number of individuals who identify themselves as entirely western, and entirely Muslim, demonstrate that the arguments against the continued ability of Islam to be inclusively universal are simply false.”
So Islam is inherently adaptable and capable of interpenetration both with political democracy, and also with western liberalism and the social mores of modern Europe. As Abdal-Hakim Murad observes “Islamic universalism is represented by the great bulk of ordinary mosque-going Muslims who around the world live out different degrees of accommodation with the local and global reality. One could argue … that Muslim communities are far more open to the west than vice-versa, and know far more about it. Muslims return from the mosques in Cairo in time for the latest American soaps. There is no equivalent desire in the west to learn from and integrate into other cultures. On the ground, the west is keener to export than to import, to shape, rather than be shaped. As such, its universalism can seem imperial and hierarchical, driven by corporations and strategic imperatives that owe nothing whatsoever to non-western cultures, and acknowledge their existence only where they might turn out to be obstacles.”
Islam is no different from any other major religion, or indeed political ideology. It bears with it the marks of its long heritage, and there are aspects that are challenging, as well as aspects that are inspiring. Islam has a strong tradition of social responsibility, and for example, it is better at respecting the need to care for the elderly and infirm than our modern individualist Western society.
Western Europe has been enriched by the encounter with Islam, and immigration by Muslims. The outcome of the resulting cultural social and ideological synthesis is not pre-ordained, but as long as we treat one another with respect and tolerance, and empower people through meaningful and informed choices, then Islam can and does coexist with and strengthen the socially liberal consensus.