(photo credit: Associated Press)
London Mayor Ken Livingstone told a Jewish audience on Tuesday that he found the idea of a society run by ayatollahs to be "horrifying" and "completely wrong," and called Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "barking mad."
The mayor was responding to a question on the Iranian threat, asked during an event with Jewish community leaders in central London.
The event was organized by the London Jewish Forum for community members to engage with and understand the mayor's plans for London and to improve his understanding of the spectrum of issues facing Jewish Londoners, with the mayoral elections approaching in May.
Asked if he thought Iran was a threat and if he would condemn the Iranian regime, Livingstone said: "I notice I didn't get any praise from the Jewish community when I said I'd like to see the Saudi royal family swinging from the lampposts - which I thought was a reasoned intervention into Middle Eastern affairs," he said mockingly.
He added that he believed in the separation of religion and state - and that he thought it was "ridiculous" that a Catholic could not marry the heir to the throne in the UK.
"The idea of a society run by ayatollahs is horrifying to me and completely wrong," he said. "The [Iranian] president is barking mad... Iran is a threat, but we must encourage progressive forces in the country to elect a better government."
During question time, in which the mayor was asked about his policies and ideas for London, Livingstone was also pressed on the invitation he had extended to Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who has been accused of supporting suicide bombing in Israel. Last month, the Home Office banned Qaradawi from entering the UK.
Livingstone said he hadn't known who Qaradawi was until he saw the newspaper reports accusing him of being a preacher of hate.
"Once we saw all the hysteria, we checked it out. Qaradawi had [been] issued a visa virtually every other year during the [Margaret] Thatcher and [John] Major governments, and that had continued. He'd been issued a visa on the recommendation of the security services," he said.
"Do you only deal with Arabs [and] Muslims who are broadly signed up to a Western package of interests?" he asked, saying it would be a "pretty small group" if so.
"Or you can deal with those who oppose al-Qaida or the Wahhabi sect. I think a lot of people think Qaradawi is a mad Wahhabi. He is not - he's at the other side of the spectrum. The Wahhabis loathe and detest Qaradawi as he talks about engaging with the West," Livingstone added.
Regarding why the cleric had been allowed to enter the country for as long as he had, Livingstone speculated that "more will come out about the role he played that led the British security services to see him as an asset. I wouldn't be surprised to find that the Muslim Brotherhood was being funded by MI6 during the 1950s when they were the main threat to [Egyptian president Gamal Abdel] Nasser. I have been surprised by the degree of commitment of our security services to Qaradawi."
Quoting gay human rights activist Peter Tatchell - who said, "I loathe and detest Qaradawi, but he needs medical care. Let him into the UK, and let's hope it's a Jewish doctor that treats him" - Livingstone said he regretted that Qaradawi had not been allowed in on humanitarian grounds.
However, pressed on Qaradawi's support of suicide bombers in Israel, Livingstone said that "Qaradawi does support suicide bombing in Israel, but he also urged the Muslim world to donate blood to the victims of 9/11, and within an hour of the 7/7 bombings in London, he denounced it."
Asked whether Jewish Londoners should vote for him, he said: "For those London Jews who have a problem with me, I quote a man who came up to me in Golders Green [a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in London] during the last mayoral election: 'I hate everything you say about the Middle East, but you're a very good mayor, and as nothing you say has any effect on the Middle East whatsoever, I don't mind voting for you.'"
Regarding why he had taken so long to apologize for the infamous incident in 2005 in which he likened a Jewish journalist to a Nazi concentration camp guard, Livingstone said that "I've been rude to journalists all my life, and I have no intention of stopping, as some are the scum of the earth.
"Some are great and courageous people; others are purely evil," he went on. "They are employed to lie, they know they're lying, and they know they destroy lives. So when a journalist pursues me down the street [a reference to this incident], I will be very rude to them, and I don't care what religion or race they are."
Livingstone then said that if the journalist had called up the following day and said he'd been traumatized by the incident, he would have apologized, but he insisted that no one had asked him to do so.
"It was immediately referred to the Standards Board of England (SBE), who have the power to ban the mayor from office for five years," he stated. "I was forced into defending it."
This was contested by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, who said this was not the case and that in the week following the incident, the prime minister, Deputy Mayor Nicky Gavron and Greater London Assembly members had called on him to apologize. In addition, they said, a number of Holocaust survivors had attended a meeting at the GLA but failed to meet with the mayor.
Jon Benjamin, chief executive of the board, told The Jerusalem Post that the SBE had received around 24 referrals and that the mayor may have been right regarding a complaint received within 36 hours, but the main referral from the Board of Deputies - treated as the lead complaint by the SBE - had been lodged a week after the incident.
"I believe the Commission for Racial Equality made an early referral... but it is not correct to say that no one asked him to apologize," he said.
Commenting on Tuesday's event, Adam Dawson, acting chair of the London Jewish Forum, said: "This has been an extremely successful event, with a constructive yet robust discussion that pulled no punches. I certainly feel we've gained a much better understanding of Ken Livingstone's positions on a wide range of issues, from affordable housing to international affairs, as well as bettering his knowledge of issues of concern to London's Jewish community."
Launched in 2006, the London Jewish Forum is dedicated to the promotion of Jewish life in London. It provides a platform for engagement between London Jewry and the Greater London Assembly and works to promote the full and active engagement of the Jewish community with civic life in London. The LJF also works to oppose anti-Semitism, racism and all forms of discrimination in London.