UK: Mayor of London, political Islam and us

Workers Party of Iran
Interview with Bahram Soroush and Fariborz Pooya.
From a TV International interview dated 2 May 2005. Bahram Soroush is a UK-based civil rights activist and Fariborz Pooya is co-editor of the Workers Party of Iran Briefing.
Maryam Namazie: Ken Livingston, the Mayor of London, has published a dossier called ‘Why the Mayor of London Will Maintain Dialogues with All of London’s Faiths and Communities’. Basically, this report is in response to a criticism of his love affair with Qaradawi – a so-called Islamic scholar - by a coalition of several individuals and organisations, including the three of us. We have spoken a lot about this issue, so we won’t go into details here. But I do want to briefly, as an introduction for people who haven’t heard our other discussions about Qaradawi, ask both our guests why they are critical of Livingston’s relationship with Qaradawi? What’s wrong with having a dialogue with him in the first place?

Bahram Soroush: It’s not just a dialogue. What Ken Livingston did was welcome Qaradawi and justify his ideas and what he has said. In fact the report that has been produced by the Mayor of London in response to a dossier by a large coalition of people who criticised his actions, goes even further than that. It paints a rosy picture of Qaradawi, which probably makes even Qaradawi wonder why he should be criticised at all by anyone. Maybe that was part of the Mayor of London’s strategy of gaining votes, finding another constituency within London and so building a cosy relationship with the Islamists. Qaradawi is one of the representatives of the Islamists, who, for example, on the question of homosexuals, women, and many other issues has uttered and holds fiercely reactionary and inhumane ideas.

Fariborz Pooya: Effectively, the Mayor of London is appeasing a movement which is quite vicious. We have seen the activities of this movement in the Middle East, as well as in Europe. This is a fascist movement. It reminds me of Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, who in the late 1930s went to Germany and brought with him a piece of paper, waving it to the crowds, saying here, I have the word of Mr Hitler that he is not going to go to war – who says he’s aggressive? The following year Hitler rolled his tanks into Poland. So effectively we are facing a movement which is quite vicious, and the Mayor of London is inviting one of the representatives of this movement and presenting him as the ‘voice of reason’ for the people of the Middle East. That’s what’s wrong. I think there’s a strong recognition of this fact in Europe, as a lot of people objected to Livingston’s appeasing of the Islamic movement.

Maryam Namazie: It’s interesting that you say that, because if you look at this dossier, the characterisations that are used for Qaradawi - from being a moderate, a progressive, a voice of reason, an advocate of democracy, pluralism, equality of women, and so on, it’s amazing. It actually brings a tear to one’s eyes when you read the things that he has been labelled as. He has been labelled as someone who is so wonderful, he is against terrorism and he even wanted to save the Buddhist statues from destruction by the Taliban…

Fariborz Pooya: I think we should elect him for Mayor of London, then!

Maryam Namazie: Well, their views are quite similar, aren’t they?! But what’s interesting is that the gay rights group Outrage! and Peter Tatchell, whom I have a great deal of respect for, because he has been a very outspoken critic of political Islam despite the barrage of racism that he has been labelled with, have written a very good report that, point by point, shows the realities of who Qaradawi really is. And what I’d like to know is how it is possible for such a positive image to come out of Qaradawi in this report? Why has that happened? What’s going on?

Bahram Soroush: That’s an attempt to counteract the criticism that was levelled at Livingston. The issue is not just a one-off issue with Ken Livingston. I think what Fariborz was raising was that we are facing an attempt, including lobbying, backed up by money, media coverage and contacts throughout the world and Europe in order to launch and push forward the agenda of political Islam in these societies. And it’s not just in Europe, but in Canada as well, where we have seen the attempt to set up courts based on Sharia, i.e. Islamic law. All this fits into an ideology which justifies all these attempts - as if society is based not on citizens, but on groups of people belonging to various religions and tribes. So women who have escaped from Islamist societies should be treated according to the laws in place in those societies; and apparently they can never get out of that label. What people like the Mayor of London are doing is working within that context. What they are revamping is a movement which is fascistic, ultra right-wing, inhumane and undemocratic in every sense.

Fariborz Pooya: Ken Livingston’s report represents a bowing to the Islamic movement. I think its essence is a retreat from civilized standards and universal rights. In the philosophy of Ken Livingston, which is shared by Bush, Paul Bremer, the Labour government and the United Nations, society is or should be a mosaic of tribes, ethnic groups and religions. Citizenship, universal rights and civil society do not exist any more. In this philosophy people are labelled and branded according to religion, ethnicity, and community; it’s a fragmented society which needs to be brought together, and power, the state and resources need to be shared based on that. This is what we see in Iraq; a government being installed based on tribes and religions, a post-Cold War type of government. What Bush and the like represent is a Western version of that. It’s a shame for humanity at the beginning of the 21st century to be retreating to the Middle Ages, where standards of the state and society were based on recognition of tribes, religions and fragmented identities.

Maryam Namazie: One of the things that really outraged me when I read this report was that Qaradawi, this so-called Islamic scholar, is this wonderful progressive and the three of us who have been fighting for people’s rights, universal rights, equality, secularism, and so on are deemed to be extremists. It is our statements that are of concern! From the fact that we support the banning of child veiling (a children’s rights issue mind you), to the fact that we think all strands of political Islam are reactionary. So I would like to get your views on this. What’s going on? It seems the world’ gone topsy-turvy. You have been mentioning this. What’s your take on this?

Bahram Soroush: I think that’s what happens when standards fall in a society. We are seeing a retrogression to the Dark Ages. Beliefs that were taken for granted, for example, in the 1960s and 1970s, even until very recently; things like opposing discrimination, fighting repressive, reactionary ideologies, putting the human being first, putting the citizen at the centre of your politics, ideology and actions, those seem to have been eroded. So people who are defending those things seem to be saying something radical. Talking about equal rights for women, fighting discrimination against gays and lesbians, standing for separation of religion from the state and education, believing that children should be left alone and not be veiled - these have been normal, standard and generally accepted beliefs of a secular and progressive society, and we now see the ruling classes going back on these, not just in the Third World, but also in the heart of Europe. Ken Livingston is part of that wave of regression.

Fariborz Pooya: One of the characteristics of this regressive move to the Middle Ages is the language that is being used. You see the ideals of humanity not only being pushed aside, but also being emptied. They talk about freedom of religion, but there’s no secularism, no freedom of individuals, no freedom of human beings as human beings. The standards are being re-defined. Ken Livingston and people like him, the whole bourgeois class, the whole state, are regressing into this. The ossification of the state and the regression are all contributing to this. They think they can stop the Islamic movement by appeasing it, by re-defining the values and norms of civilised society, by defining freedom of women as forcing the veil on them, freedom of children as the right of parents to impose religion and bigotry on them, freedom of expression as justifying the most reactionary views, while anybody who defends human values and rights of people is labelled as extremist.