Empower Kurdish secular democrats to defeat Islamic State

Peter Tatchell at protest

Peter Tatchell (left) demonstrates in London, September 2014.

The British and US governments seem determined to repeat the mistakes of the past, with plans for Iraq war number three. The first was in 1991, the second in 2003 and now the third in 2014. It’s only air strikes – for now – they pledge. And only in Iraq, not in Syria (yet). But judging from the past, this limited intervention may be hard to sustain. Mission creep tends to be norm. Have our leaders learned nothing from two decades of disastrous foreign and military policy? It seems not.

To save lives and protect human rights, the genocidal fundamentalists of ISIS must be stopped. But not by the West and not for the reasons often advanced by David Cameron and Barack Obama.

Despite the ostensibly broad-based anti-ISIS coalition assembled by Washington, it’s the US that is the puppet master pulling the strings. The other foreign partners are, to a large degree, White House proxies. This is where the whole Obama strategy falls down.

A Western instigated and led external military intervention will inevitably be a propaganda gift and recruiting sergeant for ISIS. It will energize and expand the ranks of Islamist extremism. ISIS will portray it as Muslims under attack by Western crusaders and their stooges. They’ll trumpet their own actions as godly self-defence against infidel imperialism. Images of Western air strikes, and the inevitable civilian casualties, will be plastered across social media and cited as evidence of yet another attack on Muslim lands and people. This will doubtless lead to a flood of new jihadi recruits.

ISIS will be aided by the ‘national interest’ justifications offered by Cameron and Obama, who claim that ISIS must be defeated because it poses a threat to Britain and the US. In truth, the main threat is to Muslim people in Iraq and Syria. They are already bearing the brunt of ISIS brutality and remain at gravest risk in the unfolding genocide. By comparison, the danger to Western nations is minimal. Lesson one: don’t exaggerate the threat to the West and draw attention away from the main victims in Syria and Iraq.

Further evidence of this distorted Western-centric focus is the way British and US leaders are suddenly tub-thumping that swift, strong action is needed against ISIS, while effectively ignoring that an anti-ISIS fight back has been going on for more than a year in places like Kobane, northern Syria, led by Kurdish troops. During all this time, as the Kurds led the resistance to ISIS, the Western powers looked the other way. Lesson number two: don’t act like it was the West that originated the idea of action against ISIS and insinuate that the people of the region haven’t been resisting the so-called Islamic State.  

The truth is that if the US and Britain are serious about fighting ISIS they should start by aiding the people on the ground who know the region best, have local roots and who are already leading the fight against the jihadist menace – the peshmerga army of the Kurdish regional government in Iraq and guerrillas from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and allied local self-defence movements in Syria. Anti-Islamist, they support democracy and secularism. As authentic local movements with mass support, they are the best bulwark against ISIS.

But the Kurdish forces are under-equipped and lack the heavy and sophisticated weaponry needed to defeat the Islamic State. They need urgent assistance to empower them to liberate themselves.

International aid to the Kurds – in the spirit of aid to republican Spain in the 1930s – could include training, advisors, weapons, military intelligence, food and medical equipment. With extra assistance and supplies, they could be an even more powerful, effective counter-force to ISIS.

Kurdish protesters in London have made this appeal for international aid and solidarity; believing it can enable Kurdish fighters to roll back the ISIS advance.

Belatedly, some Western governments are offering to assist the Iraqi-based peshmerga but not the forces of the leftist PKK, which is still wrongly branded a terrorist organization by the US and European Union. Yet it is the PKK fighters and their allies that are holding off ISIS in northern Syria. They are a key bulwark against the spread and triumph of the Islamic State – and deserve international recognition and support.

Sadly, the UK Stop The War Coalition (STWC) has allowed its opposition to war to trump support for democracy, secularism and human rights. It is laudable to oppose Western military attacks but a betrayal to show no solidarity with the democratic, secular, liberal and Left forces in Iraq and Syria who are fighting ISIS and President Assad’s blood-soaked tyranny.

Not backing military aid to these progressive Kurdish forces, as an alternative to Western intervention, is a serious misjudgement. STWC’s failure to support those fighting an emerging genocide has a whiff of de facto acquiescence and collusion.

I hate war and see it as a last resort. But to stave off a bloodbath and enslavement, the progressive anti-ISIS Kurdish fighters deserve assistance from the West and from the whole international community. If military aid to partisans fighting Nazi fascism was the right thing to do in the 1940s, then surely support for those opposing ISIS’s clerical fascism is the right thing to do today.

More information about Peter Tatchell’s human rights campaigns can be found on the Peter Tatchell Foundation website.

Argument – Should hate speech be a crime?


A consensus exists in most Western democracies on the legitimacy of using laws to punish or inhibit hate speech, in order to prevent hate crimes, provide redress to victims, support vulnerable groups, protect human rights, and promote values of equality and respect.

Countries have international obligations to combat racism, which require enacting hate speech legislation. As in Canada, reasonable limits can be placed on freedom of expression to balance it against other fundamental rights, such as freedom from discrimination. Free speech is no sacred cow, anyway, since various restrictions are already accepted by society – for example, bans on threats, defamation, false advertising, noise around hospitals or schools.

Joyce Arthur is an activist, sceptic and feminist writer from Canada. She campaigns for abortion rights and was a founding member of FIRST, a national feminist sex worker advocacy organization based in Vancouver. She regularly blogs for rabble.ca

While laws are only one tool among many to fight hate speech, they should at least be used against the most egregious cases. Courts and tribunals are capable of objectively weighing evidence and applying criteria to ensure that legitimate free speech or merely offensive speech are not captured.

Hate speech is dangerous because words have power and can influence others to act. The assassinations of abortion providers in the US prove that words do not have to incite violence explicitly to cause violence. Hate speech promotes division and intolerance; it harms and marginalizes the vulnerable groups it targets. Free speech is exercised largely by the privileged at the expense of the unprivileged who do not have a level ground on which to respond. Having no hate speech laws is unjust – as if people’s dignity and human rights should be up for debate in the public square and ‘may the best argument win’.


Hate speech is merely saying hateful things. It is not the same as discrimination, harassment, threats or violence – all of which are qualitatively worse and are rightly criminalized.

I don’t approve of hate speech and believe it should be discouraged and challenged. However, I don’t think it should be criminalized, unless it is expressed in a particularly aggressive, inflammatory or sustained manner, in which case it would amount to criminal threats or harassment.

Peter Tatchell twice tried to perform a citizen’s arrest on Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, getting badly beaten in the process. For more than three decades he has campaigned for human rights, democracy, global justice and LGBTI freedom

One of the main problems with hate speech laws is defining what constitutes hate. Unlike incitement to violence, it is highly subjective. The line between hate speech and legitimate unpalatable viewpoints is hard to draw with certainty, clarity and consistency.

Several Christian and Muslim street preachers have been arrested in Britain for hate speech. Their crime? They said that homosexuality is immoral and that gay people will go to hell. I disagree with them but opposed their prosecution. What they were saying was hurtful but not hateful. They did not express their views in a bullying or menacing tone.

Free speech is one of the hallmarks of a democratic society. It should only be restricted in extreme, compelling circumstances. Criminalizing views that are objectionable and offensive is the slippery slope to censorship and to the closing down of open debate. It is also counter-productive. It risks making martyrs of people with bigoted opinions and deflects from the real solution to hate speech: education and rational debate. Hate speech should be protested and challenged, not criminalized.


Hate speech is a public expression of discrimination against a vulnerable group (based on race, gender, sexual orientation, disability etc) and it is counter-productive not to criminalize it. A society that allows hate speech to go unpunished is one that tolerates discrimination and invites violence. Decades of hateful anti-abortion rhetoric in the US led to assassinations of providers, because hate speech is a precursor to violence.

Hate speech has no redeeming value, so we should never pretend it occupies a rightful spot in the marketplace of ideas, or has anything to do with ‘rational debate’. Challenging hate speech through education and debate is not enough. Governments have a duty to protect citizens and reduce discrimination and violence by criminalizing hate speech.

Defining a crime with certainty, clarity and consistency is always a somewhat subjective exercise, but one that courts are expressly designed to do. Hate speech can be defined and prosecuted fairly without going down a slippery slope. An example is Canada’s ‘Taylor test’ in which hate speech must express ‘unusually strong and deep-felt emotions of detestation, calumny and vilification’.

Specific arrests or even prosecutions of hate speakers may not meet the test of criminal hate speech, and do not prove that hate speech laws are counter-productive. (In my view, however, only hate speakers with a wide audience or who engage in repeated ongoing hate speech should be prosecuted.) The justice system is a human institution and abuses can happen, but the answer is to refine and reform laws, not to scrap them.


I disagree that hate speech is an expression of discrimination. It’s an expression of prejudice; not discrimination. Words and discrimination are two different things – unless the words explicitly incite unlawful discrimination; in which case they should be crimes because they incite criminal acts.

Mere hateful views shouldn’t be criminal. Who decides what is hateful? The state should not have such power. It’s open to abuse, as happened to anti-war protesters who abused British soldiers for their role in Iraq.

Members of the Grand Dragon faction of the Ku Klux Klan shout insults at gay couples going to request marriage licences in Houston.

Carlos Sanchez / Reuters

You suggest the police and courts are capable of distinguishing between hate speech and merely offensive speech. This is not true in Britain, where insults can be treated as hate speech. I was arrested for saying the homophobia and sexism of Islamist extremists is akin to the mentality of the Nazis. Separately, a youth was arrested for calling Scientology a dangerous cult. In both instances, it was deemed we had committed religious hate crimes.

Although it is claimed that hate speech influences people to commit hate violence, it’s difficult to demonstrate that anyone has responded to hateful words with violent acts. The causal link is unproven. People don’t kill abortion providers because they heard a hate speech. They commit these crimes because of a zealous belief that abortion is immoral.

I have some sympathy for your narrow definition of hate speech (the Taylor test) and that only repeated hate speech to a wide audience should be criminalized. Perhaps this is where we come close to common ground?


In Canada, legal definitions of discrimination encompass hate speech.

I agree that people should not be arrested for the types of insults you describe. But one bad law or the abuse of laws is not an argument against hate speech laws. We are smart enough to craft better definitions of hate speech that protect marginalized groups from discrimination based only on immutable characteristics, which include religious affiliation but not specific religious beliefs or behaviours. Blasphemy must be permitted.

It can be very difficult to prove the causal effects of any law, but we accept living under a system of laws because they serve many other purposes. That said, a US court found that ‘Wanted Posters’ issued in the 1990s by anti-abortion groups for a dozen named abortion providers constituted a true threat because they led to the murders of several of them, even though the posters made no specific threats. People kill abortion providers not simply because they believe abortion is immoral, but because widespread hate speech against doctors creates an atmosphere of perceived acceptance and impunity for their actions.

Hate speech is destructive to society and to its victims. Enduring hatred over years can limit people’s opportunities, isolate them socially, push them into poverty, lead to loss of self-esteem and depression, and endanger their health and safety. It is wrong to diminish the dignity and lives of some people just so others can freely spout hate against them. Leading purveyors of hate (at least) should be prosecuted.


I share your view that if a person is subjected to prolonged, extreme hatred it is damaging, wrong and should be criminalized. But this amounts to harassment and can be dealt with using anti-harassment laws, without the need for legislation against hate speech.

The abuse of abortion doctors is disgusting but I don’t think it signals that it’s okay to kill them. On the contrary, since murder is a criminal offence with severe penalties, society signals that killing doctors is impermissible. The ‘Wanted’ posters you describe were more than hate speech. They were de facto incitements to murder, which is rightly a crime.

We both agree that hate speech is a bad thing. We differ on how to tackle it. Hate speech laws address a problem after it has happened. I’d prefer to eradicate hate before it’s expressed. Suppressing hate speech by use of the criminal law is, at best, a short-term fix. A better solution is education against hateful ideas.

I’d like to see compulsory school lessons and exams in Equality & Diversity, to challenge all forms of prejudice, starting from Year 1 and continuing every school year. Production of the exam results should be compulsory for all job applications. This would, over time, debunk and diminish bigoted ideas; creating understanding, respect and community cohesion, without the need for hate speech legislation.

People aren’t born hateful. They become hateful. Education can prevent hate. Prevention is better than punishment.

The Islamophobia debate

Zafar A Malik

Dear _New Internationalist_,

I am writing to complain about the title of an article in your May 2007 issue: ‘The making of an Islamic Jack the Ripper’. The idea of an ‘Islamic Jack the Ripper’ is as much an oxymoron as the term ‘Islamic terrorist’, only encouraging false peceptions of Islam and Muslims. Abbas Zaidi could have chosen any number of ways to describe the identity of this individual: Pakistani? – yes; Asian? – yes; Islamic? – no. He may be a Muslim, but his behaviour is certainly not Islamic.

By choosing the word ‘Islamic’ the title implies that such behaviour is tolerated and even acceptable in Islam. According to sharia law there are very specific ways to deal with murderers and those who assault and harass women. Both the title and content of the article propel the myth that Islam not only tolerates violence and misogyny, but advocates it. It also implies that piety, religiosity and even being a _hafiz_, are potentially dangerous attributes. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Islam itself condemns extremism and favours moderation, and women have had successful roles in public life since the very beginning of Islam. It’s worth noting that Muslim women had the right to vote 1,200 years before women in western Europe. Khadijah, the first wife of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), was a very successful businesswoman and his employer to boot; and his later wife Aisha was an expert in Islamic jurisprudence, and gave public consultations to both men and women.

As a Muslim woman myself, I also object to the portrayal of a Muslim woman in the Polyp cartoon (*NI 399*, April 2007) which shows a forlorn-looking, brown-skinned woman next to some cut-out burqas. It illustrates a patronizing and misguided pity for Muslim women, that only serves to perpetuate a negative stereotype. It is based on a very Western cliché and illustrates the artist’s complete lack of understanding of the values behind sexual modesty, which apply to both men and women in Islam. Rather than recognizing the beliefs, work and intelligence of Muslim women, the artist is objectifying us as mute victims.

Most practising Muslim women feel insulted and irritated by the Western preoccupation with what we wear. The majority of Muslim women find Islamic dress liberating. It frees us from the constant pervasive sexual objectification that the fashion industry dictates to women in Western cultures. We get on with our lives, dressed with modesty and dignity. Western feminist assumptions about Islamic dress are patronizing and ignorant. Practising Muslim women often find Western clothing styles repellent and degrading, although we would be too polite to say so. It will be a great sign of progress when Western non-Muslims can learn to tolerate and accept Islamic dress, and move on to the real issues affecting Muslims around the world. •

_Sincerely Ms Amatullah Matthews Taunton, England._

Silencing dissent

*Peter Tatchell* believes accusations of Islamophobia are being used to silence legitimate criticisms of fundamentalism.

‘The strength and survival of free society and the advance of human knowledge depend on the free exchange of ideas. All ideas are capable of giving offence and some of the most powerful ideas in human history, such as those of Galileo and Darwin, have given profound religious offence in their time. The free exchange of ideas depends on freedom of expression, and this includes the right to criticize and mock. We assert and uphold the right of freedom of expression, and call on our elected representatives to do the same. We abhor the fact that people throughout the world live under mortal threat simply for expressing ideas, and we call on our elected representatives to protect them from attack and not to give comfort to the forces of intolerance that besiege them.’

_This declaration of liberal humanitarian values was issued in London in March 2006 by supporters of the Rally for Freedom of Expression. The rally was called to protest against threats by Islamic extremists to kill the illustrators and publishers of the Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, and in defence of authors, journalists, publishers, artists and human rights advocates the world over who are being threatened, arrested, jailed, tortured and murdered because of their ideas and opinions._

The protest condemned all religious and political fundamentalisms that seek to deny freedom of conscience, speech and expression. It was not an attack on Muslim people or the Islamic faith. While not saying the cartoons should have been published, it defended the principle of free speech – including the right to satirize religion (and other beliefs), and the right of satirists not to be killed.

This defence of freedom of expression was widely denounced by many Muslims and left wingers as ‘racist’ and ‘Islamophobic’. They smeared rally supporters as agents, dupes or fellow-travellers of the far-right British National Party. In this inflammatory, accusatory atmosphere, reasoned debate became almost impossible. Not surprisingly, some people who privately endorsed the declaration were reluctant to do so publicly, and many others were reluctant to attend the rally. Fearful of being tarred with accusations of racism and Islamophobia, they were intimidated into silence.

Making allegations of anti-Muslim prejudice is an increasingly common way of shutting down legitimate criticisms of Islamic fundamentalism, as I discovered earlier this year.

The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, accused me of running an ‘Islamophobic campaign’, after I criticized the Chief Mufti of Russia for urging Muscovites to ‘bash’ gay people if they tried to hold a Pride March. This was not the first such slur by the Mayor. He previously denounced me as an ‘Islamophobe’ in 2004. I had criticized his decision to host at City Hall the right-wing Muslim cleric, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi. I do not oppose Qaradawi because of his race or religion, but because he wants to deny human rights to Muslims, Jews, women and gays.

While Qaradawi is a ‘moderate’ compared to the Taliban and al-Qaida, he is the spiritual head of the Islamist political movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. He endorses the suicide bombing of Jewish civilians, killing Muslims who abandon their faith, the compulsory wearing of the _hijab_ (headscarf) by women, female genital mutilation, the execution of homosexuals in Islamic states, domestic violence against disobedient wives, and the blaming of rape victims if they have not dressed with sufficient modesty.

This anti-humanitarian interpretation of Islam first and foremost oppresses Muslim people. Accordingly, three years ago 2,500 Muslim intellectuals from all over the world signed a petition denouncing Qaradawi as an apologist for terrorism and human rights abuses.

Qaradawi is an avowed Islamist. In contrast to ordinary Muslims, Islamists see their religion as not merely a faith, but also a political movement. Their aim is to win state power and to run the state on strict Islamic lines – a clerical regime enforcing sharia law. They want theocracy, not democracy.

Wherever Islamists have gained political power – such as Iran or Afghanistan under the Taliban – democracy and human rights are crushed. Islamist states don’t have free elections or a free press. Religious minorities are persecuted. Left-wingers, trade unionists, students, journalists, gays and feminists are detained without trial, tortured and sometimes executed.

Mayor Livingstone justifies fêting Qaradawi on the grounds that he wants a dialogue with Muslims. I agree with dialogue. But why dialogue with such a reactionary Muslim leader? The Mayor should be embracing progressive Muslims who don’t oppress other Muslims and who support human rights. After all, most Muslims are not fundamentalists. Many share a human rights commitment. But they are sidelined by the Mayor and by most mainstream Muslim organizations in Britain and worldwide.

The Mayor is right to oppose Islamophobia. Muslims should be defended against prejudice and scapegoating. Terrorist outrages, such as 9/11 in New York and 7/7 in London, are no justification for the backlash we often witness against innocent, entirely blameless, Muslims.

It is undeniable that Muslim people are some of the most disadvantaged in Britain, with disproportionate numbers living in poor housing and without jobs. Globally, many Muslims suffer grave injustices – including the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the US and UK occupation of Iraq. In countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh, millions of Muslims lack safe, clean drinking water and face everyday hunger. These injustices do not, however, justify the Mayor of London’s collusion with authoritarian, homophobic and sexist Islamists like Qaradawi.

But the slurs against me are mild compared to what happens to people worldwide who resist the inhumanities of political Islam.

• A death _fatwa_ was issued against the Bangladeshi feminist writer, Taslima Nasreen, after she dared suggest a modest reinterpretation of the Qur’an to improve women’s rights. She was forced to flee her homeland and seek refuge in Europe.

• In Germany, Mina Ahadi and 300 other women refugees from Muslim countries have renounced Islam, in protest at the forced veiling and stoning of women in Islamist states. They now require police protection to ensure they don’t suffer the same fate as Dutch film director, Theo Van Gough, who was assassinated by a fundamentalist fanatic.

• Islamists are behind the terror attacks in Indonesia and the Philippines. Under the Iranian ayatollahs, gay lovers are strung up by their necks in public squares; as are young girls who have sex before marriage, dissident Sunni Muslims like Dr Ali Mozafarian, and Kurdish, Balochi and Ahwazi Arab human rights activists.

Exposing these inhumanities, perpetrated by Muslims against Muslims in the name of Islam, is not Islamophobic. It is solidarity with oppressed people, based on the principle that human rights are universal and indivisible. •

*Peter Tatchell* is a British-based human rights campaigner and is now the Green Party candidate for Oxford East.

Talking to Muslims

*Sharif Gemie* and *Patricia Clarke* set out a context to move beyond the current ballet of kneejerk reactions.

Often people respond badly to criticism, even when well-intentioned: they frequently suspect the motives of the critic. This tendency is so common that Freud identified several defence mechanisms that were provoked by such situations.

Recipients of criticism sometimes seem to confuse the issue deliberately. Thus, those who criticize Israeli Government policies are routinely accused of antisemitism. These issues become even more complicated when we consider current Western debates concerning Muslims. Some critics of Muslim practices clearly are motivated by Islamophobia. For example, it is difficult to see how a couple of hundred girls wearing headscarves to school can threaten the French state – yet this practice was outlawed in French schools in 2004. Such state initiatives are significant: they immediately suggest that there is something wrong, unnatural or unacceptable about all Muslim beliefs, and thus provoke the harassment of veiled women on the streets, and hostility to men who wear what can be seen as distinctively Muslim clothes. Islamophobia is a very real threat in many Muslims’ lives: it makes them suspicious and distrustful of even well-meaning critics. Its effects should not be minimized: it does short-circuit many debates and conversations.

However, the accusation of Islamophobia can also be deployed tactically by some Muslims as a way of sidestepping issues and avoiding criticisms.

There are a number of quite plausible reasons to explain why we might hesitate to criticize the social, religious and ethical practices of another culture. One element in this dilemma has been caused by US and UK foreign policy. Those in the West who oppose campaigns such as the two invasions of Iraq often feel reluctant to question Muslim practices in the Middle East; just as some on the Left were reluctant to criticize the Soviet Union during the Cold War for fear of playing into the hands of American imperialists. One could also argue that Western and Muslim values are so different that they cannot be compared because they are incommensurable – it would be like criticizing cricket for not following the rules of football. In addition, such silences can also be motivated by a fear of adopting ethnocentric positions which simply assume that certain idealized Western norms – such as ‘British values’ – are the correct and appropriate models for the rest of the world to follow. This type of cultural and moral relativism has the additional effect of avoiding any sustained examination of core Western values, whether Judeo-Christian, liberal-Enlightenment or mass-market pop-commercial in character. Lastly, when one considers the worldwide rise of religious and political fundamentalisms and the linked refusal to question or debate, it becomes hard to see how any real debate with Muslims is possible.

These arguments seem overly restrictive, pessimistic and simply inaccurate. The forces of globalization are pushing the varied cultures of the world into ever-closer contact with each other, although these contacts often take the form of conflict rather than dialogue. Muslims and Westerners are learning that they do have some common interests and values, as well as differences. Creating – or recreating – a world of self-enclosed, autonomous separate communities, each with its own set of values and economic practices, is not a realistic option. We have to find common ground. How can this be done?

One way is to appeal to the established notion of universal human rights. Article 55 of the United Nations declares that it will promote: ‘universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion’. This is a bold and brave declaration, but it has its problems.

Some Islamic states are understandably suspicious of human rights perspectives. These may be seen as ethnocentric: as Western cultural values presented as natural norms for the rest of the world. In addition, they have clearly been applied unevenly and hypocritically: the US gets away with Guantánamo Bay and extraordinary rendition whilst Saddam Hussein’s human rights abuses are presented as a justification for invasion. Criticisms which appear to serve imperialist interests, even when they raise legitimate cases for concern, are probably worse than useless. Current American criticisms of human rights in Iran, for example, serve almost no constructive purpose whatsoever: they merely make the Iranian people feel threatened by the ‘shock and awe’ of another Middle East invasion, and therefore encourage them to rally more closely – and more uncritically – to their government.

At a practical level:

*1* Any discussion is likely to develop slowly, as was the case in the Northern Irish peace talks. Occasional faltering and mistrust on both sides is to be expected. However, it is essential that all sides are considered as equal and valid partners and that all participants have a willingness to accept (or at least to consider) criticisms from the other. In other words, to avoid Islamophobia, we might at least listen to the criticisms that Muslim states, organizations and commentators make of Western societies.

*2* Criticisms must be clearly founded on evidence, not on woolly assertions or stereotypes. Sometimes criticisms put forward in the name of human rights are impossibly vague and even – arguably – inaccurate: ‘Islam oppresses women’ is both unspecific and debatable, whereas ‘female genital mutilation is a violation of women’s rights’ is not.

*3* In any such cross-cultural debates, it would be tactically very, very useful (but nothing more than that) to accept – broadly – the legitimacy of Islamic legal and political cultures. As the dissident Iranian feminist lawyer, Shirin Ebadi, has shown, it is perfectly possible to develop concepts of equality and human rights from within the really quite wide body of Islamic concepts. However, in terms of a long-term strategy, one would wish to see the development of a global public sphere in which all citizens were automatically legitimate participants, whether Muslim, Christian, agnostic or whatever.

*4* In constructing such debates there is a problem finding legitimate interlocutors. Despite the popular Western images of a centralized, despotic power, Islam is actually not a monolithic religion. Its power structures and cultures are decentralized, overlapping and – frankly – messy. Muslims in the West are under some particular pressure: one problem which constantly arises is that fairly low-level, inexperienced religious or administrative authorities are asked to act as if they were heads of well-organized lobbies or parties. One frequent result is an apparent retreat into dogmatism, as the claimed ‘authority’ merely repeats what he thinks he can remember from traditional scholarship. What is required, instead, is more sensitive and imaginative appreciation of the many internal debates and discussions which are developing within Muslim societies. •

*Patricia Clark* is a lecturer in Philosophy at the Centre for Lifelong Learning at Cardiff University. *Sharif Gemie* is a Reader in History at the University of Glamorgan and editor of _Anarchist Studies_.

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