If Qaradawi is an extremist, who is left?
by Sohaib Bhutta
The moderate Islamic jurist’s interpretations of religious texts have been wilfully misrepresented. This is an attack on all Muslims
Friday July 9, 2004
“Moderate” has become one of a set of labels without which the word “Muslim” looks almost naked in any western newspaper today – and it is being used in an increasingly divisive way that can only cause confusion.
The most important use of “moderate” has become shorthand for “not supporting al-Qaida”. More broadly, the key ideas behind being moderate in Britain would seem to be integration, participation, tolerance and dialogue.
The scholarly figure widely considered to be the world’s chief proponent of moderate Islam is Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Egyptian-born Islamic jurist who heads the European Council for Fatwa and Research. Mr Qaradawi’s rulings are recognised by Muslims around the world as reflecting the balanced nature of Islamic law and its relevance to modern life. This is the recurrent theme of his programmes on Arab television channels, as well as the popular Islam Online website, for which he acts as patron.
When most Muslims look to Mr Qaradawi, they see a shining example of moderation: in its Islamic meaning. To us, being a moderate Muslim means to practise the religion faithfully, according to its letter and its spirit.
So when he arrived in Britain on Monday in advance of his long-awaited conferences in London, the barrage of attacks against him in the media was distressing for the British Muslim community. All of a sudden, the words “extremist”, “radical” and “hardline” were being used liberally, and the Sun surpassed itself by calling him a “devil”, complete with a menacing-looking photograph under the headline: “The Evil Has Landed”. Now there are demands that he be expelled from the country.
This was bound to cause distress among Muslims, but not because of the personal attacks on Mr Qaradawi. This was also a sharp tug at the rug under the feet of moderate Muslims: because if he is an extremist, who is there left to be moderate?
For as long as we care to remember, Muslims have had to answer accusations about suicide bombing, wife beating, homosexuality and much else besides. One of the reasons for the Muslim Association of Britain to host Mr Qaradawi was to allow the British people, media and policy-makers to put their questions to a real expert on Islam and modernity. Any controversial views he holds can be explored and criticised, while he can clarify or defend his point of view.
However, all of a sudden it is the moderate Mr Qaradawi himself who “encourages suicide bombing”, “permits wife beating”, and “advocates the death penalty for gays”. Statements attributed to him are consistently misquoted or quoted out of context to misrepresent his arguments.
For a person who does not believe in God, the concept of martyrdom may remain incomprehensible. A question such as that over the rights and wrongs of suicide-bombing in Palestine can legitimately be approached from different angles. A jurist like Mr Qaradawi is required to draw conclusions about its status within Islamic law – his comments are made in the context of a debate about the interpretation of Islamic texts.
He, as well as most Islamic scholars and Muslims worldwide, considers the desperate actions of Palestinians as valid acts of resistance. That is not without many difficult aspects, not least because death of innocents is considered in Islam to be horrendous. The scholars do not permit suicide bombing in any place, nor do they advocate that people from Britain go to Palestine to take part in the jihad there.
As for wife beating, there is a verse in the Koran that a few Muslim men misunderstand as permitting domestic violence. Scholars have always cautioned against this. Mr Qaradawi has specified that “the respectable and honest Muslim man does not beat his wife”.
Islam’s negative view on homosexual relations is not unique, it is common to western religions. Muslims have not abandoned the truth to please liberal fundamentalists. That we consider same-sex attraction unnatural by no means entails discrimination against “homosexuals”, nor do we seek to kill them. Again, when Mr Qaradawi has discussed homosexuality it has been about weighing up different interpretations of Muslim tradition. The question of punishment simply does not arise outside the context of a state ruling by Islamic law, and there is scholarly disagreement over the nature of appropriate punishment.
We have to ask whom British Muslims are expected to follow if not Mr Qaradawi. A leaked document reported in the Times in May described the government’s plans to promote certain scholars, including Hamza Yusuf, Suhaib Webb and Amr Khaled. The three greatly respect Mr Qaradawi, as is well known from their speeches and the solidarity between all moderate scholars of Islam. Alongside Mr Qaradawi at Saturday’s conference – entitled “Islam, Mercy to Mankind” – will be the philosopher Professor Tariq Ramadan, another key thinker for Muslims in the west, who also holds Mr Qaradawi in high esteem.
The real moderates are those who tell it like it is, even though aspects of Islam may be hard for western secular mindsets to fathom. We should be proud that Dr al-Qaradawi was not afraid to state firmly that “Palestinian martyr operations are a weapon of the weak”. The fact that Rabbi Weiss publicly stood by him shows that claims of anti-semitism hold no water. For all Muslims, Jews are “people of the book”, and Mr Qaradawi has emphasised the special relations Muslims have had with Jews down the centuries, notably when the west persecuted and expelled them.
The freedom of expression enjoyed in the UK is a source of pride, and should encourage debate between cultures. If people have criticisms of Islam, they should feel free to raise them in appropriate times and places. We Muslims don’t have to apologise for everything in our faith and way of life that doesn’t match the here-and-now of British life. I don’t want to be that sort of “moderate”.
· Sohaib Bhutta is spokesperson for the Muslim Association of Britain