Harry on IDS and Cohen on Livingstone (again)

Nick Cohen has had yet another article printed in the Observer, attacking the mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, for his connections (a meeting or two and a hug) with the Muslim scholar, Yusuf al-Qaradawi. This article, which contains a repeat of a series of tired accusations, was printed just a day after Iain Duncan Smith, the former leader of the Conservative (Tory) party, gleefully predicted that the UK’s political right would be “rescued” by blogs, as it supposedly has been in the USA. Harry at Harry’s place alleges that blogs offer a space to opinions neglected by the mainstream media:

As I’ve said before, in political terms, the interesting thing about the way the British scene has developed is that it has given a space to political views that don’t get much representation in the mainstream media. On the left, many of the most popular sites come from the pro-liberation left which has been largely ignored by the liberal media, while on the right it is radical free-market libertarians such as Samizdata who get the serious traffic as such views are hard to find in the conservative press.

This is actually the same accusation the US neo-cons make - that they have to resort to talk radio and blogs because the media are dominated by liberals. In the UK, the “pro-liberation” (i.e. pro-war) left, like Nick Cohen, David Aaronovitch and Johann Hari, regularly get their opinion pieces published in both the Guardian and the Independent. The left-wing press regularly publishes articles by Tories - Michael Howard and IDS in the Guardian recently, and Michael Portillo regularly writes reviews for the New Statesman. The people who can’t get an airing in the decent press are usually the alarmists and bigots, like Kilroy who launched the latest phase of his political career in the Daily Express. Alarmism and bigotry is the stock in trade of quite a few US right-wing blogs.

Cohen’s latest piece consists of an attack on the so-called “pseudo-left”. They are left-wing at home, but “their principles flip as soon as they leave Heathrow”, abandoning a commitment to social justice and liberty for alliances with “fascists” and religious leaders. The problem is that some Marxists and other leftists might realise that western solutions to western problems, including Marxism, might not be applicable “off the peg”, or at all, to non-western countries. We have already seen the disasters which resulted from the imposition of another dogma, the free market, on third world countries. Whereas some Marxists welcome the invasion because it raises the (faint) possibility of Marxists taking power in Iraq. As for why Muslims co-operate with anti-war Marxists, it’s because we share one aim, if for wholly different reasons. We certainly don’t want Marxists taking power in Iraq or anywhere else in the Muslim world; they have a long history of repression of basic Islamic expression, practice and teaching.

Cohen then starts repeating the various accusations about al-Qaradawi. It’s worth noting that all of Qaradawi’s “controversial” views are standard Islamic legal positions, and if you actually asked any Islamic scholar raised in the UK, they would give the same answers on all the issues Cohen mentions except, possibly, suicide bombings.

On “wife beating”: To put this in context, one needs to point out that Islam requires a woman to obey her husband, except in a small number of cases, such as when he demands that she do something against Islam, or give up property to him. He is allowed to hit her if she is rebellious, and all the hadeeth literature on this subject (a) discourage the practice anyway and (b) encourage restraint. “Wife beating” conjures up images of unreasonable (and possibly drunken) men attacking their wives for burning their toast or for some other petty reason or none. This is not what the shaikh is referring to, and Muslims consider this to be despicable behaviour and it is grounds for a judicial separation. Whether Cohen agrees with smacking children or not I’ve no idea, but it’s culturally acceptable in our society for grown women, and men, to hit children less than half their size (rather than another adult perhaps less than a foot smaller in height). I’m sure he wouldn’t demand that the mayor of London not meet someone who approves of a parent smacking his or her child.

On female circumcision: This is a controversial issue because it is associated with the removal of the labia and other injuries which lead to difficult births and incontinence, and with the unhygienic and used implements used by some practitioners. Female circumcision is otherwise no more controversial in the countries where it is practised than its male equivalent is. Western anti-FGM campaigners invariably talk about east Africa; I have personally spoken to women who have undergone lesser types of female circumcision, and they did not consider it any big deal. The lesser forms also take place in southern India and south-east Asia.

On homosexuality: The penalty commonly cited as “for homosexuality” in fact applies to buggery, and that’s when they are actually caught. (Yes, you have probably read this here before …) It does not apply to men merely known to be gay or living together. Like the apostasy law, it is the prerogative of the state, not the community. It does not give licence to any vigilante to simply shoot an apostate, even if he publicly argues against Islam.

Suicide bombings are a controversial issue even among Islamic scholars; suicide itself is a sin which leads the person responsible to Hell. The difference here, of course, is that suicide bombings are a means of striking at the Enemy, not (necessarily) an easy way out of what one perceives as a hopeless life. The views on Palestinian suicide bombings differs; al-Qaradawi is said to approve of the Palestinian bombings but is known to have disapproved of the 9/11 attacks, while others have disapproved of the recent Palestinian attacks but approve of the tactic in certain circumstances. (As for Tantawi, he is regarded in many quarters as the Egyptian government’s house scholar. This is the impression I got from talking to locals when I was in Cairo in 1999.)

Later on, he returns to the theme of the “pseudo-left” who first “define ‘communities’ by their religion”, then “assumed that misogynist and anti-democratic practitioners of that religion are the true leaders of their communities”. Well, there are some communities defined by religion. We as Muslims are a religious community which accepts members of any race, tribe or nation. Why on earth should accidents of birth such as colour and mother tongue be a greater uniting force than what we believe and stand for? Perhaps religious scholars don’t speak for all Arabs or Pakistanis, but some of them do speak for religious Muslims of whatever background.

If the issue is the role of Muslims (and exactly why al-Qaradawi met Ken in the first place has become lost in this debate), as opposed to Asians or blacks (even though these groups overlap) in British society, or whether the hijab should be allowed in schools, the right person to speak on the issue is a Muslim scholar. The reason is that an over-permissive view, such as that wearing hijab is optional (which it’s not), may lead to banning the hijab being seen as legitimate. The Egyptian scholars have the moderate position on this matter; they do not insist on the face being covered, as do authorities who hold sway in parts of the Gulf region, but they insist on the minimum level - with hijab, and none of the body shown except the hands and face.

Cohen concludes that Livingstone is in fact perpetuating “the stereotype of the Muslim as a death-obsessed, woman-hating, queer-bashing cheerleader for suicide bombers”, as if that’s what al-Qaradawi is. Most Muslims do not hate women (neither, as far as I can gather, does the shaikh). Anti-sodomy laws (like those the Iraqi Ba’athists repealed in 1969) are not the same thing as queer-bashing. He’s right that there’s nothing in the water and no genetic mutation which “means that one billion people actually want to be ruled by priests”. That’s why we opposed the invasion of Iraq. We don’t want Iraq dominated by Marxists, Shi’ite “ayatollahs”, Wahhabi fanatics or, for that matter, a “safe” puppet dictator. What comes out of this is Cohen’s muddle-headedness: he accuses the left of being chummy with anti-gay religious fanatics, instead supporting an invasion which threatens to bring “ayatollahs” to power and remove a régime which, though certainly oppressive, had a reputation for being secular and progressive (by the way, this isn’t necessarily a compliment) before the Kuwait war.

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