What happened to debate?
The banning of a “preacher of hate” raises far more problems than it solves, writes Abdul-Rehman Malik The recent denial of a visa to Yusuf al Qaradawi, the influential Qatar-based scholar accused of preaching hatred against homosexuals and encouraging terrorism amongst Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, is unsettling. The reasons for the rebuff are based […]
14 Feb 08

Yusuf al QaradawiThe banning of a “preacher of hate” raises far more problems than it solves, writes Abdul-Rehman Malik

The recent denial of a visa to Yusuf al Qaradawi, the influential Qatar-based scholar accused of preaching hatred against homosexuals and encouraging terrorism amongst Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, is unsettling. The reasons for the rebuff are based on ad hoc, inconsistent policy and more importantly on a fear that a certain segment of our population is so particularly gullible and immature that they cannot be trusted to filter good ideas from bad ones.

The truth is that the UK welcomes all kinds of nefarious characters to its shores, whether they are retired despots (like Augusto Pinochet) or leaders of autocratic regimes (the list is rather long).

In 2002, Narendra Modi’s government provided both leadership and material support to the braying mobs who butchered over 2,000 Gujarati Muslims in a week of hate-driven political violence. In the aftermath of the carnage, some 200,000 people were left homeless and forced to move from their neighbourhoods in case the machete-wielding hordes returned. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, among many others, highlighted the role of the police and other state actors in not only failing to prevent the killings, but actively encouraging, and even participating in them. In 2005, a previously granted visa to travel to the United States was revoked by the US government citing his role in the “severe violation” of religious freedom. Yet, Modi, the Chief Minister of the Gujarat and a member of the Hindu-nationalist BJP visited the UK in 2003, and was subsequently granted a visa to travel here again in 2005. He called off his trip due to political pressure.

Modi is accused of ethnic cleansing. His anti-Muslim, Hindu nationalist rhetoric surely encourages hate. His presence in the UK sparked ugly public rows between British Hindu and Muslim communities – no good for the so-called “community cohesion” the government obsesses about. Modi, it seems, is not just a preacher, but a purveyor of hate. Yet no move has ever been made to deny him a visa.

In the lexicon of polemical politics, “preacher of hate” is the kind of terminological shorthand that is employed as a weapon to stifle reasoned debate. The fact that it has migrated from tabloid headlines to policy language so quickly is indicative of the asphyxiated public discourse on Islam and Muslims. Once affixed, the moniker is tough to shake- the image of the hook-handed Abu Hamza looms large behind such claims.

The epithet would be better applied to Franklin Graham, son of American super-televangelist Billy Graham, and head of the Samaritan’s Purse missionary organisation. He has declared that Islam is a “very evil and wicked religion”, Muslims are set on “world domination” and that he does not owe any tolerance to a faith he considers intolerant. It’s all in the Qur’an he says: “It is there. You can read it for yourself.” Christian commentator Giles Fraser has called the Samaritan’s Purse missionary outreach project Operation Christmas Child as peddling a “toxic” version of Christianity – gift-wrapped Islamophobia. He is coming to the UK in April to lead a mission of love. It’s these double standards that ought to get us all riled.

Qaradawi has never made similar claims about any other religion. His scholarly credentials are well established: he has condemned 9/11, 7/7 and other terrorist attacks, he is considered a voice of religious moderation within the international Muslim scholarly community, and he has made a particular effort in seeking to understand the position of Muslim minorities in Europe and North America. Yet vociferous debate between Islamic religious authorities is the norm not the exception. Qaradawi views on suicide bombing in Palestine have been challenged. His guidance to European Muslims has been questioned – fellow scholars have asked him to let Muslims in Europe figure things out for themselves. In some circles, Qaradawi is branded a conservative jurist, in others he is seen as too liberal in his fatwa. His book The Lawful and Prohibited in Islam has been mockingly called “The Lawful and Lawful in Islam” for its lack of harsh prohibitions. In the end, there are plenty who would disagree with Qaradawi’s positions. There are those who will accept and support them. That’s the nature of public debate. The arguments need to be loud and unafraid. We shouldn’t fear taking on positions that we vociferously disagree with.

Some of the individuals who would seem most likely to reject Qaradawi’s presence in the UK have spoken out against the visa denial. Gay activist Peter Tatchell has called it “illiberal, unwarranted and unmerciful”. After all Sheikh Qaradawi was only coming for medical treatment. Ubaid-ur Rehman, Secretary of the Gay and Lesbian Muslim support group IMAAN wrote in a letter to the Guardian, “…Qaradawi has condemned the London bombings, the 9/11 attacks and other acts of terrorism, stating these are against Islamic beliefs. In banning Qaradawi, the Home Office is contributing to a climate of Islamophobia, which will impact on all Muslims, including our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members. We make clear our disagreements with all faiths that are regressive on homosexuality, and demand that Muslim leaders are treated equally with other faith representatives, who are not generally banned.”

Qaradawi (or even Louis Farrakhan, whose ludicrous ban from Britain persists) is an individual who puts forward ideas and opinions that ought to be debated and discussed. If we stopped listening to the tabloid polemics, we would realise that real debate at the Muslim grassroots is being drowned out. The vibrant civic discourse in Muslim communities and the expanding civil society networks are making a case for religious identity that is itself a product of modern Britain.

If anything is threatening “social cohesion”, it is inconsistent government policy on who should be let in to Britain and who shouldn’t. What separates the Modis from the Grahams from the Farrakhans? Aiding and abetting murder would be a good first criterion.

What we are witnessing is censorship by visa denial. By caving into pressure and baiting from the Conservatives, the Brown government has demonstrated how little its policies on granting visas is being guided by the “British values” it claims to hold dear and how much by political expediency.

Moreover, the widespread support among politicians and some pundits for the decision reveals the extent to which Britain’s political class is uneasy and unsure about its own “values”, the strength of its democracy and the importance of public debate. If fear of an 81-year old sheikh can render our “values” so malleable and fear opposing views so profoundly, we have more problems than we bargained for.

Abdul-Rehman Malik is Contributing Editor with Q-News, the Muslim magazine and a senior project manager with The Radical Middle Way initiative