Why defend bigotry?

A British Muslim leader comes to the defense of London's 'Red Ken'.

livingstone ken 88 298 (photo credit: Associated Press)
livingstone ken 88 298
(photo credit: Associated Press)
I know it is politically incorrect to suggest that some religions (or religious traditions) are better or worse than others, and I'm not offering any such suggestion, but it seems clear that some religious leaders are worse than others. Consider, for example, Sir Iqbal Sacranie, the secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Great Britain. Following the month-long suspension of Ken "Red" Livingstone, London's embarrassing mayor, for making bigoted statements to a Jewish journalist, the Muslim leader embraced the anti-Semitic mayor and said that "we" - purporting to speak for all British Muslims - "are proud to stand by him." Sir Iqbal is standing by Livingstone for his racist outburst at a Jewish journalist who had asked a question about a City Hall matter. This is how the popular mayor of London replied: "What did you do before? Were you a German war criminal?" The Jewish reporter shot back: "No, I'm Jewish. I wasn't a German war criminal." The Mayor subsequently added: "All right, well you might be [Jewish] but you are just like a concentration camp guard. You are just doing it because you are paid, aren't you?" Livingstone has adamantly refused to apologize for comparing a Jewish journalist to a Nazi killer or for invoking the anti-Semitic stereotype that Jews will do anything for money. This was not the first time London's ridiculous mayor went over to the dark side of bigotry. In May 2005, Livingstone wrote in The Guardian "Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister, is a war criminal who should be in prison, not in office... Sharon continues to organise terror... Today the Israeli government is helping to promote a wholly distorted picture of racism and religious discrimination in Europe, implying that the most serious upsurge of hatred and discrimination is against Jews... For 20 years Israeli governments have attempted to portray anyone who forcefully criticises the policies of Israel as anti-semitic." WELL, IN Livingstone's case, the jackboot fits. Why then would a Muslim leader - who has been honored, no less, with knighthood - leap to the support of such anti-Jewish bigotry? Surely not in the name of free speech or democracy. After all, Sacranie complained vociferously about the cartoons depicting Mohammed. When Salman Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses came out, he asked the British government to ban the book, saying "there is no law at the moment, sadly, that would enable me to pursue with a legal course ... of seeking its withdrawal." Asking whether Muslims should follow Islamic law and execute Rushdie for "insult[ing] the blessed prophet," he reportedly responded "Death, perhaps, is a bit too easy for him?" Sacranie stands by Livingstone because he obviously supports what the bigoted mayor has said about Jews. CONTRAST THAT complicity in bigotry with the reactions of most Jewish leaders to the cartoons of Mohammed and to other statements and images deemed offensive to Muslims. The Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks, expressed concern about the Danish cartoons. He wrote that "[c]ivilization needs civility. Judaism says that putting someone to shame is like bloodshed. At the end of every prayer we pray, we ask God to guard our tongue from evil. The only way to have both freedom of speech and freedom from religious hatred is to exercise restraint. Without that, we can have one freedom or the other but not both... The real question is: can we learn to respect what others hold holy?... Free speech is one thing; responsible speech another; and a free and gracious society needs both." The Chief Rabbi of France, Joseph Sitruk, was equally forceful in condemning anti-Muslim bigotry: "I share the anger of Muslims following this publication. I understand the hostility in the Arab world... One does not achieve anything by humiliating religion. It's a dishonest lack of respect. You don't get anywhere by insulting religion." And listen to the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League: "Disregard for the core tenets and sensibilities of particular religious groups - such as the graphic portrayal of the Prophet Mohammed in an editorial cartoon - runs counter to our principles, and by giving offense to others, offends us as well." And: "ADL is opposed to religious, racial and ethnic stereotyping in the media. We found some of the cartoons in Jyllands-Posten troubling, particularly the direct linkage of Mohammad and violence." No Jewish leader, to my knowledge, has embraced anti-Muslim bigotry. Sir Iqbal Sacranie and his Muslim Council can learn a lesson in brotherhood and civility from these Jewish leaders. The writer is a professor of law at Harvard. His most recent book is Preemption: A Knife that Cuts Both Ways Norton, 2006).