4 min

The curse of Qaradawi

Mayor's embrace of antigay cleric prompts national debate

Despite his solid track record on gay rights, Ken Livingstone has managed to alienate a sizable chunk of his queer constituency in one fell swoop.

Two years ago, Livingstone invited a visiting Muslim cleric, Sheik Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, to be the keynote speaker at a city hall conference about the wearing of the hijab.

Qaradawi, an Egyptian scholar and imam who resides in Qatar, has described Palestinian suicide bombers as martyrs and has drawn criticism for comments seen to justify wife-beating and the death penalty for homosexuals.

During his London visit, Qaradawi clarified some of his opinions, saying that wife-beating was “not obligatory or desirable,” and that punishment for homosexuality was a matter for the state. “Muslims have no right to punish homosexuals or mistreat them as individuals,” he told The Guardian newspaper.

The gay activist group Outrage joined others in protest outside of city hall, but that wasn’t the end of it. Livingstone has loudly and repeatedly defended his hosting of Qaradawi, and the controversy endures.

Livingstone invited the cleric to return to London for a subsequent forum, but it was Qaradawi’s rumoured visit to Manchester shortly after the London subway bombings that put Livingstone and Qaradawi at the centre of a public debate about Muslims and integration.

“The Muslim world is not where the West is on these issues,” Livinsgstone tells me. “But I remember when being gay in Britain was illegal, when people went to prison. Thirty years ago, a man was sent to prison for writing a poem saying Christ was homosexual. So we’re not really in a position where we can lord it over the Muslim world.

“You aren’t going to change the Muslim world from outside screaming at it. It will be changed by Muslims from inside. Women who demand power, lesbians and gays who fight for change. And therefore, you need to ally yourself with the most progressive elements of the Islamic world.”

Livingstone’s critics counter that his choice of Qaradawi has alienated progressive Muslims. Activist Peter Tatchell tells me, “Ken Livingstone has made a major political and moral blunder in backing an Islamic fundamentalist cleric who says that lesbian and gay people should be executed, together with women who are unchaste.

“You know, the views of this man are straight out of the dark ages. Yet the mayor of London fetes him at city hall as his, quote, honoured guest. Nothing can justify that unholy embrace. It’s a slap in the face to all liberal and progressive Muslims, as well as the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans] community.”

But where Tatchell sees a fundamentalist, Livingstone insists he sees a moderate. “We will not have sheik Qaradawi on the next gay Pride march,” he admits. “But whereas you’ve got the more extreme fundamentalists saying homosexuals must be executed, he is actually saying ? and I met him, and he said it, in my presence ? nobody should attack a gay man.”

Livingstone tries to put Qaradawi’s views in perspective. “He’s not going to come out and say being gay is alright, but then if you go to Jerusalem, the chief rabbi is opposed to homosexuality as well,” he says. “For those of us who’ve been spared religion and grown up in a nonreligious environment, life’s a lot easier than if you’ve grown up with bigotry and retrograde attitudes, whichever religion it is.

“I mean, what’s George Bush?s view on this? I know the vice-president’s got a lesbian daughter and that’s wonderful. But I mean, George isn’t going to come out and say, ‘We’re going to, you know, legalize all this around all of America.’ ”

His attempts to equate these disparate responses to homosexuality may be a stretch even for moral relativists. Certainly, he has harsher words for some of these other homophobes than he has for the sheik. At the city hall Pride launch, he refers to a Christian evangelist as a “nasty little bigot.” During his Trafalgar Square Pride speech, he accuses Bush of practising “bigotry and intolerance” ? predictably, to huge cheers.

After the London subway bombings, the Qaradawi debate grew more serious, as it was revealed that the British government considered banning the sheik from the UK. The mayor continued to defend Qaradawi, telling a Commons committee last fall, “Of all the Muslim leaders in the world today, sheik Qaradawi is the most powerfully progressive force for change and for engaging Islam with Western values.”

On the street, many gay people ? gay Muslims among them ? still cannot comprehend the mayor’s choice of Qaradawi as an ally. Some see it as simple opportunism, with Livingstone wooing the Muslim vote for the 2008 mayoral election. A report released by the mayor last month indicates that one in 12 Londoners is Muslim.

Vicky Powell, the longtime Gay Times editor who recently took a new job with the activist group Stonewall, says the gay community never wanted to see Qaradawi banned. The whole debacle, she tells me, is really about the mayor.

“What infuriated the gay community was not so much that he was brought to London,” she says. “It was that he was brought to London by Ken Livingstone and he was greeted by Ken Livingstone.”

Those seeking consistency in Livingstone’s approach to Muslim integration might compare it with his approach to gay people. The mayor believes in the grassroots ? that politics is participation. He has used his official role to emphasize that both Muslims and gay people are welcome and entitled to participate fully in civic life on their own terms.

His offering of Trafalgar Square for minority events is symbolic of this approach. In one analysis, it may seem a homogenizing exercise in central control to corral various communities into the same physical space. However, the current European debate about Muslim integration has focussed on ghettoization.

In that light, Livingstone’s gesture says: You are not tolerated in your ghettoes, you are celebrated in the centre of town; The city is yours and you are the city. Recently Livingstone has passionately defended the right of Muslim women to wear veils in public, which adds an important qualifier: Come as you are.

Last month the mayor welcomed the Muslim celebration of Eid, which marks the end of Ramadan, to Trafalgar Square. The city hopes it will become another anticipated annual event there, like the Indian festival of Diwali and Chinese New Year. And now, too, Pride.