Two domestic political controversies are especially noteworthy. The first is that the London Mayor, Ken Livingstone, has issued, not at personal expense, a document justifying his welcome last year to the Muslim cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi. The visit was widely denounced for Qaradawi’s views on homosexuality, women’s rights and terrorism. Livingstone maintains that that criticism was founded on malice and misrepresentation; his dossier has been attacked for its selectivity by Peter Tatchell of the Outrage! campaign, writing on Harry’s blog (which has been discussing the story all week).
On this point, as on much else, I agree with Tatchell’s aims while disagreeing with his argument: Livingstone’s conduct is indefensible; his alliance with theocratic reaction is a mockery of the Enlightenment principles that the Left ought to be defined by. (I wrote about Tatchell, now a member of the Green Party, a few months ago. I believed in the early 1980s, and believe now, that his urging extra-parliamentary action to “challenge the [Thatcher] government’s right to rule” absolutely disqualified him from being a potential Labour parliamentary candidate, and I am appalled by his tactic of ‘outing’ alleged homosexuals in public life. I cannot but admire, however, his disinterested advocacy of human rights, to the discomfort of all the right people; his transparent decency; and – as I found when lambasting him shortly after his by-election disaster in Bermondsey in 1983 – his unfailing courtesy when responding to his critics.)
However, the reason for objecting to Livingstone’s embrace of Qaradawi is not that Livingstone has thereby “alienated the gay and lesbian community” (which, for one thing, isn’t a community). I am a strong supporter of the campaign for homosexual equality, including gay marriage and adoption rights, but I do not consider that respecting the sensibilities of interest groups is an inherently desirable part of public policy. Nor can I see anything intrinsically wrong with a municipal politician’s meeting a religious figure of repellent illiberal views; to suggest that there is merely allows Livingstone to define the issue, as he has done, as an unexceptionable one concerning his civic duties:
As Mayor of London, I have a responsibility to support the rights of all of London's diverse communities and to maintain a dialogue with their political and religious leaders, irrespective of the fact that there will always be different views on many issues.
I cannot either see much point in taking issue with Livingstone’s claim that:
The document shows that Qaradawi has been one of the foremost Muslim scholars in combating socially regressive interpretations of Islam on issues like women's rights and relations with other religions.
The claim runs against the evidence of Qaradawi’s stated edicts (on the Koran’s justification for wife-beating, for example) to British news organisations during his visit, but if interpreted as a relative judgement it is not obviously wrong. To say that it is makes the Mayor’s case that his critics have a problem with Islam rather than a problem with him.
The fundamental reason for finding Livingstone’s conduct reprehensible is a point on which there can be no refuge for Livingstone in claiming that Qaradawi’s views have been rendered inaccurately. During his visit to the UK, Qaradawi gave Channel 4 News his views on the suicide murder of Israeli civilians:
When we say that such operations are permissible, it is because they are the only means. They are necessary because, simply, the Palestinians do not have any other means of confronting their enemies.
As a descriptive statement this is nonsense – plenty of opportunities exist for the campaign for Palestinian statehood, not least direct negotiation with Israel – but it is also morally repugnant. The reason is one I have cited before with reference to the views of the political philosopher Michael Walzer. Walzer maintains that the type of rationalisation that sees suicide terrorism as a last resort born of desperation exploits and debases our notion of innocence. He summarises the spurious reasoning this way:
Of course, it is wrong to kill the innocent, but these victims aren't entirely innocent. They are the beneficiaries of oppression; they enjoy its tainted fruits. And so, while their murder isn't justifiable, it is ... understandable. What else could they expect? Well, the children among them, and even the adults, have every right to expect a long life like anyone else who isn't actively engaged in war or enslavement or ethnic cleansing or brutal political repression. This is called noncombatant immunity, the crucial principle not only of war but of any decent politics. Those who give it up for a moment of schadenfreude are not simply making excuses for terrorism; they have joined the ranks of terror's supporters.
Yusuf al-Qaradawi is a supporter of terrorism and the murder of innocents. He is thus, by definition and without extenuation, an evil man. That is the reason – not his reprehensible positions on gay rights and sexual equality, and certainly not his religion – that he ought never to have been accorded the reception that Livingstone gave him, and why there can be no justification for allying with him on grounds even of the most amoral Realpolitik. The highest municipal official of a cosmopolitan capital city cannot behave as Livingstone has done and be considered any part of a principled and humanitarian politics.
This point stands irrespective of any other factor, and independent of the rights and wrongs of the Arab-Israeli conflict. But I should add that Livingstone’s sophistry regarding Qaradawi’s support for terrorism is particularly reprehensible. Livingstone asserts:
I condemn all violence in Israel and Palestine but no purpose will be served by refusing to speak to either the Israeli or Palestinian sides.
But he is not being asked to decline to speak to either the Palestinian or Israeli side – a matter for which he has no political responsibility and on which he has no business taking a public position. He is being expected to fulfil the minimum requirement of the holder of public office in a democracy: to uphold an absolute prohibition on political violence directed – specifically directed – against civilians, in defiance of the principles on which democratic politics are founded.