The Mayor of London is a man hard to shift - even, it seems, when he can see all the evidence is stacked against him. Ken Livingstone has again defended Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a Muslim cleric who says that the Asian tsunami victims were punished by Allah because their countries are centres of perversion.
Al-Qaradawi's words are worth quoting. In a sermon broadcast on Qatari television (and reported, for example, by the Times and the BBC) he declared: "People must ask themselves why this earthquake occurred in this area and not in others. Whoever examines these areas discovers that they are tourism areas . . . where the forbidden acts are widespread, as well as alcohol consumption, drug use and acts of abomination . . . and sexual perversion . . . Don't they deserve punishment from Allah?"
On the morning these views were reported, Livingstone held a press conference to defend his decision to welcome al-Qaradawi as an "honoured guest" at City Hall in London last July. He dismissed the concerns of a coalition of Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Christians, homosexuals, humanists, women, students and refugees from Islamist repression. These people are understandably astonished and horrified to find that their left-wing mayor is defending an extreme right-wing Islamist.
Al-Qaradawi's views should not be a matter of contention. They are clear from his books, Modern Fatwas and The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam, and from the Islam Online website - the content of which is approved by him in his role as scholar to the site. Among other things, he favours female genital mutilation, wife-beating, the execution of homosexuals in Islamic states, the destruction of the Jewish people, the use of suicide bombs against innocent civilians and the blaming of rape victims who do not dress with sufficient modesty (see the London coalition's website: www.londoncommunitycoalition.org).
Nor does the evidence against al-Qaradawi stop there. Arab News reports that two years ago he raised a storm when he issued a fatwa allowing the killing of pregnant Israeli women and their unborn babies on the grounds that the babies could grow up to join the Israeli army. And in September 2003, in response to questions from the Egyptian Union of Journalists, he said it was allowed for Muslims to kill "all Americans, civilian or military" in Iraq.
Livingstone says critics of al-Qaradawi are guilty of "lies and Islamophobia". These critics include 2,500 leading Muslim intellectuals from 23 countries who signed a petition to the United Nations last October naming al-Qaradawi as one of "the theologians of terror" and accusing him of "providing a religious cover for terrorism". Are they all liars and Islamophobes?
When challenged to prove his case, Livingstone uses selective and partial quotations from al-Qaradawi to show him in a favourable light. He insists, for example, that al-Qaradawi says female genital mutilation is not obligatory, but he omits to say that the cleric recommends it. In Livingstone's defence, it cannot be denied that al-Qaradawi has made some progressive statements, but the liberal tone he adopts when he visits western capitals is mostly a front, designed to seduce politicians such as Livingstone. As Arab News makes clear, when he preaches in Arabic to Middle Eastern audiences, when no western journalists are present to record what he says and when there are no western politicians for him to court, his beliefs are hardline fundamentalist.
Livingstone justifies defending al-Qaradawi on the grounds that the mayor has a duty to "maintain dialogue with all of London's faiths and communities". Fair enough, except that al-Qaradawi is no Londoner. Livingstone also argues that he welcomed the cleric because he is a major religious leader. Would he greet a Christian fundamentalist who advocated, as al-Qaradawi does, the creation of a theocratic state where democracy and individual liberty would be erased, where gay sex would be punishable by death, where wife-beating would be permitted and where free speech, trade unions and the right to protest would be crushed?
The affair has prompted open and bitter dispute at City Hall. Livingstone refused to meet the coalition of protesters to discuss their concerns. Instead, he attempted to rubbish al-Qaradawi's critics, at times sailing perilously close to insinuating that the coalition has been manipulated by some kind of homosexual, communist and Zionist conspiracy.
When it was rebuffed by the mayor the coalition petitioned the London Assembly, which held a special meeting to discuss the matter a fortnight ago. When a gay Green Party assembly member, Darren Johnson, quoted al-Qaradawi's edicts on the death penalty for homosexuality, the mayor branded him "thoroughly dishonest". This prompted the chair of the London Assembly, Brian Coleman, to suspend proceedings for five minutes while he sought legal advice. Meanwhile Johnson declared his intention to report Livingstone to the local government watchdog, the Standards Board for England, for breach of its code of conduct on ethical behaviour.
From then on the tone of the meeting deteriorated, with insults flying thick and fast. Livingstone accused Johnson of "pandering to Islamophobia" and being "used as a stooge by a Zionist front organisation".
Livingstone informed the assembly - incorrectly - that everyone in the critics' coalition had abandoned the objections to al-Qaradawi, except the gay group OutRage! and two communist parties. And he restated his refusal to meet the coalition, on the grounds this time that it includes people like "Peter Tatchell, who has a long history of Islamophobia". I am still waiting to hear his evidence for this, but for the record I have campaigned, with others, against police stop-and-search harassment of Muslims and I have long supported the Palestinian struggle.
Livingstone's advisers also cancelled the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Forum that was to have been held at City Hall on 11 January, the second month running that it has been called off at short notice. On both occasions the forum was due to discuss motions relating to al-Qaradawi. This apparent use of bureaucratic manoeuvres to stifle debate is alienating the gay community, which once supported Livingstone.
More than a dozen gay groups this month wrote an open letter to the mayor. "When some of us attempted to raise our concerns in the mayor's LGBT Forum we were silenced," it said. "Debate and motions were vetoed . . . The forum has not met since September . . . [It] lacks democratic input and accountability. It is chaired by an unelected person hand-picked by the mayor and it has no decision-making powers or mechanisms to scrutinise the Greater London Authority's record and formally advise the mayor. We urge the mayor to reconvene the LGBT Forum on a democratic basis, where the members elect their own chair and decide their own standing orders and policies."
Given the political cost, why does Livingstone persist? Cynics see it as a Labour ploy to court Muslim votes and undo the electoral damage done by the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I am not convinced. I think the mayor probably sincerely believes that by defending al-Qaradawi, he is resisting Islamophobia.
I have supported Ken Livingstone for more than 20 years. In my view, he has been a good mayor of London. On the Qaradawi issue, however, he is wrong and he has allowed a commendable desire to support the Muslim community to translate into knee-jerk defence of a cleric who rejects humanitarian values.
The result is shock and dismay among those he believes he is defending. "Why is Ken willing to have a dialogue with Islamic reactionaries like al-Qaradawi, but not with progressive Muslims?" asks the gay Muslim activist Ramzi Isalam, a refugee from Islamist terror in Algeria. "He ignores the victims of Islamic repression. We never get welcomed at City Hall. Having suffered enough at the hands of fundamentalists, we do not want our persecutors following us to London and being given the red-carpet treatment by the mayor."