It was shocking to read the response of liberal gay journalist Johann Hari to the recent appearance of “gay free zone” stickers carrying slogans from the Koran in Tower Hamlets, east London.
There has been an increase in homophobic attacks and homophobic hate crime.
But Hari’s argument that in Tower Hamlets this is the consequence of many of us turning a blind eye to “Muslim homophobia”, their “bigoted culture” and their “fanatically intolerant attitude towards gay people”, is not only wrong but also divisive.
It must be challenged, he said, by taking a series of steps to integrate Muslims into “non-negotiable British values”—including testing immigrants’ responses to “images of gay men kissing”.
Hari seems naively unaware that his case for breaking the “silence” on “Muslim bigotry” chimes with David Cameron’s recent assault on multiculturalism. Nor does he seem concerned that he is repeating the myth about supposed Muslim backwardness on lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) rights—an indispensable element in giving an “acceptable” face to Islamophobia.
Hari should have thought twice before choosing this moment to attack one form of bigotry—homophobia—by feeding another, Islamophobia.
As Dilwar Khan, director of the London Muslim Centre, said in response to the situation in east London, now is the time to “stand together...against all forms of hatred including homophobia” and “not to let incidents of hate divide us.”
But Hari should also have checked his facts.
He claims east London “has seen the highest increase in homophobic attacks anywhere in Britain” and puts this down to it having “the highest Muslim population in Britain”.
Yet Police figures show that over last year there was a reduction in attacks on lesbians and gays in London boroughs with the largest Muslim populations—Tower Hamlets, Newham and Waltham Forest.
But the single biggest group responsible for attacks on LGBT people are young and white.
LGBT organisation Galop’s 2009 survey into LGBT hate crime found that 16-20 year olds were suspects in almost one in four incidences. Stonewall’s 2008 Gay British Crime Survey showed three out of five attacks on LGBT people committed by strangers were by those aged under 25.
Part of the explanation is not, as Hari suggests, rooted in a “book [the Koran] written in the 6th century”—a popular argument with the racist English Defence League (EDL).
Rather, we have to look to how government policy has contributed to the deep-seated problem of homophobia and transphobia in schools, where two thirds of LGBT students say they are subject to bullying.
Between 1988 and 2003 the Tories' Section 28 law banned any discussion of homosexuality in schools unless linked to death or disease.
David Cameron recently apologised for having voted against its repeal—but there are no plans for a nationally resourced anti-bullying programme to undo the damage, even though when schools address homophobia LGBT students are 60 percent less likely to be bullied.
Tory cuts make such funding unlikely, while increasing the risks LGBT people face.
In London council cuts are jeopardising a whole range of vital LGBT services including Galop—the only dedicated LGBT hate crime unit, which monitors attacks, assesses police responses and provides victim support.
The Tories are also putting at risk the wider support for the rights of LGBT people and other oppressed groups.
The Tories aren’t stupid, but they are hypocrites. Support for LGBT people has grown enormously in recent years forcing first Labour and now the Tories to incorporate LGBT rights into the new narrative about what constitutes “British values.”
But even during the 2010 general election campaign, Cameron could not keep his own party members under control. Tory candidate Christopher Grayling made a speech supporting the “rights” of bed and breakfast owners to keep gays off their premises. Fellow candidate Philippa Stroud ran a church dedicated to “curing” gay and trans people. They both have jobs in the coalition government.
We cannot trust the Tories with LGBT rights.
Cameron’s attack on multiculturalism is part of a climate of scapegoating and fear being stoked up by governments keen to divert people’s frustrations onto targets other than themselves.
Currently Muslims and immigrants are at the sharp end of these attacks. But the politics of scapegoating doesn’t discriminate.
The EDL has been able to build with enormous speed over the last two years by feeding off a virulent anti-Muslim racism. Many of its key organisers are BNP members—a homophobic organisation whose former member David Copeland was responsible for the murderous bombings of Soho, Brick Lane and Brixton in 1999.
In Tower Hamlets, open EDL supporters are trying to get involved in organising an East End “gay pride rally” in which there is a real danger that Muslims, not homophobia, will be made the focus of people’s anger.
The last time the EDL tried to organise an anti-Muslim march in the borough they were forced into a humiliating climb-down when it became clear they would face mass opposition on the streets organised by East End United and Unite Against Fascism.
Muslims, Jews, Christians came together with LGBT people, socialists and others to celebrate.
Since then a number of other initiatives to combat homophobia have been organised including mobilising thousands for Hackney’s first Gay Pride last year, organising walkabouts to sticker over the homophobic posters and seeking to build a united response among local LGBT and Muslim groups to say no to hate crime, Islamophobia and homophobia.
In the face of new threats from the EDL and the savage cuts being imposed on the borough—the poorest in the country—how we build on unity is an urgent question.
We should always challenge homophobia—whether expressed in religious language or not.
But we have to recognise that building united struggles will put us in a much stronger position to challenge it.
It also means rejecting the racist idea that Muslims are uniquely homophobic, and understanding that class divisions will be far more important than religion in shaping the struggles to come.
A recent report by Stonewall, “Love Thy Neighbour”, argued that objections to lesbian and gay relationships were often “overemphasised and narrowly reflected by religious leaders on the one hand and the media on the other.” It found, in general people, that people of all faiths were no more likely to be homophobic than those with non-religious ideas.
It also found that while people might not agree with lesbian and gay relationships because of their religious or moral principles, they did agree that LGBT people deserved the same protections as others.
I was inspired when thousands of largely school and college students—Muslim and non-Muslim—joined the anti-fascist picket of Nick Griffin’s appearance on BBC Question Time in 2009. They added the words “and we’re gay!” to the end of the chant “we are back, white, Asian and we’re Jews”.
Struggles like these have always been key to winning advances for LGBT rights, not, as Hari claims, “British culture”.
They are struggles in which people have often had to argue to win people to supporting LGBT rights as they fight alongside them against a common enemy. This is also our experience in the struggle for women’s liberation and against racism throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
If we are going to defeat the Tory cuts and their impact on LGBT people, we will need to build a movement that rejects bigotry in all its forms and links this to powerful groups of organised workers.
It is likely that in the week following the TUC’s 26 March mass demonstration against Tory cuts that there will be strike action and demonstrations against cuts in Tower Hamlets. This offers a major opportunity to achieve a united blow against the Tories and get the homophobes and racists on the run.