Anti Fascism

A convert speaks

Yusuf Smith has taken issue with Nick Cohen’s critique of Ken Livingstone’s meeting with Qaradawi.

The essence of his argument is that Qaradawi is a wholly mainstream figure in Islam, and that “right person to speak on [the role of Muslims] is a Muslim scholar”. That is, incidentally, a mirror of the position of some commentators – such as Robert Spencer of Jihadwatch – whose criticism of islam frequently strays into islamophobia. Both appear to agree that religious zealots should be regarded as the authentic voice of their faith.

Smith’s defence of Livingstone’s meeting with Qaradawi proceeds along familiar lines. He thinks that Qaradawi’s advocacy of wife beating is less shocking than smacking little children. He reminds his readers that islamic law requires that the state punish gay men only if they are actually caught buggering each other. He defends Qaradawi’s rejection of Tantawi’s opposition to suicide bombing on the basis that Tantawi “is regarded in many quarters as the Egyptian government’s house scholar”. Pretty unobjectionable stuff.

Yusuf Smith’s reason for hawking Qaradawi as the appropriate spokesman for the Ummah is that “there are some communities defined by religion. We as Muslims are a religious community which accepts members of any race, tribe or nation.” According to Smith, Qaradawi is the natural spokesman, perhaps not for “all Arabs and Pakistanis” but certainly for religious muslims.

I’d like to take issue with Yusuf Smith’s concept of a “religious community”.

The first point is that most people who would describe themselves as jews, muslims, sikhs, hindus and so on do not in fact regard conservative and reactionary religious figures as their representatives. It will not do to say that these people are “not really jews” or “not really sikhs”. They are, however, at a disadvantage because they do not control their religious establishments which tend to discourage moderates from involvement: partly because religious organisations are usually conservative by their nature, and partly because people who are moderate in their faith are less likely to want to devote all their spare time to jockeying for position within such organisations.

Yusuf Smith’s case is that there is nothing objectionable in treating conservative religious figures as the representatives of their followers: and indeed there isn’t. What we should be wary of is of taking the claim that such conservative religious figures make – that they speak for all “true” members of their religion – at face value. Qaradawi’s position may indeed be an orthodox position: but how many people who regard themselves as members of that religion actually subscribe to these views? Most religious people know that their religions contain weird, unpleasant stuff: most of them gloss it over or ignore it, and certainly do not set themselves up as figures of authority to promulgate the vicious aspects of the religion. It is simply sleight of hand to treat “community leaders” as the true and legitimate representatives of all people who regard themselves as members of that community.

The second and more important point is this. Religions typically claim to have a special nature: that they express the true, eternal, world of god. However, from the perspective of the secular state which must be neutral between the competing and conflicting claims of many groups, the claim to divine inspiration must be disregarded. Religions should be treated as essentially a collection of ideas, occasionally with a political programme attached to it. From that perspective, Qaradawi is simply a man who thinks that women can be smacked like naughty children and who would like to establish a state in which gays – sorry, gays caught in the act of sodomy – are executed.

A distinction might be drawn between a culture and a belief system (religious or otherwise). Smith is right when he says that there are communities defined by religion. However, for most members of a religious community, identity is related to cultural continuity and transmission, the festivals and observances which punctuated their childhood, and so on. The state should certainly be sensitive to such identity-constituting cultures, which clearly are an important constituent of a person’s sense of self. Cultures may be intertwined with a belief system: but the state should respect them not because it endorses that belief system, but because we rightly regard the culture as valuable to its participants, and do not wish to destroy it.

That, of course, does not mean that we should publicly embrace religious conservatives. Although we might believe strongly in the freedom to choose to wear the hijab, we shouldn’t chum up to reactionaries who believe the hijab wearing is obligatory, especially when there are people of muslim origin – some of whom would describe themselves as religious muslims, even if Qaradawi would not – who do not share that view and who regard it as an artifice and an imposition.

What do we say, then, about the position of a convert, such as Yusuf whose childhood was not filled with happy memories of Eid and of long hours sitting in the mosque with his dad, going through the familiar rituals, his knees going numb, and his mind full of thoughts of the fabulous lunch his mother was preparing at home? Do any of the arguments from culture apply to somebody whose connection is chiefly with the “belief system” aspect of his chosen religion? To put it another way, how can we sensibly distinguish between a person who thinks that gays and intellectual dissenters – “apostates” – should be punished severely and executed, because god has so decreed, and somebody who holds the same views but leaves god out of that equation?