By Aviva Stahl
Disclaimer: I’m not a queer or LGBT Muslim, so I am certain there are lived complexities and ambiguities to this particular controversy that I cannot understand. If the folks who are most immediately affected by this issue object, critique or respond to what I’ve written here, I will do whatever I can to ensure that their voices gain exposure and are taken seriously.
On hate: A response to Peter Tatchell
On the 20th March, Peter Tatchell celebrated his most recent triumph: he successfully campaigned to block Khalid Yasin and Jalal Ibn Saeed from speaking at the University of East London (UEL). Tatchell’s blog post detailing his accomplishment, posted on the Huffington Post and elsewhere, unnerved me, but it didn’t surprise me.
What was it about this event at UEL, that led to his interventions “on behalf” of gay Muslims? Do Tatchell’s efforts (however well-meaning) actually corrode the ongoing struggles for queer liberation and racial justice?
The context: Tatchell’s history of Islamophobia
Tatchell has dedicated a lot of time to engaging with the issue of so-called “Islamic extremism”. Here he explains his anti-“Islamic right” interventions at an EDL demo. in this article, describing his opposition to another cleric, Tatchell tells us, “wherever Islam has political power, democracy and human rights are crushed” – not to make a sweeping statement about Islam’s incompatibility with those institutions we hold dear, or anything. It seems that Tatchell wants to have it both ways: he maintains that he’s anti-racist and anti-Islamophobic, but draws on one of the core ideologies of the War on Terror in crafting his rhetoric and selecting his targets – namely, that false distinction between “good” Muslims who should be embraced (e.g. secularists who embrace his vision of human rights, democracy, gender equality and sexual freedom) and “bad” Muslims (e.g. Islamists who don’t) who should be shunned from British society.
Also consider the vocal opposition many gay Muslims have expressed against Tatchell, most notably in a 2006 incident with remarkable parallels to what recently occurred at UEL. Tatchell’s organization, Outrage!, issued a press release condemning a Manchester imam after he had discussed whether execution was a legitimate punishment for homosexuality in Islam. Here are some responses to Tatchell from the online discussion board of Imaan, an LGBT Muslim group:
“We feel that OutRage! doesn’t understand our cultural and religious sensitivities. Often, the way they word and phrase their press releases can and does antagonise Muslims. Much as we’ve invited them to meetings so we can talk about the best way to tackle Muslim LGBT issues, they insist on doing things their way.”
“Peter, you either don’t understand or don’t care that the methods/wording that Outrage employs offends Muslims. We are Muslims. You either don’t understand or again don’t care that the UK is experiencing a wave of Islamaphobia and that has huge implications and impacts ALL Muslims including us.”
“Just recently Outrage! seems to have jumped on Islam as the only current enemy to your cause and in the current atmosphere of Islamophobia … it’s really unhelpful. Whether you intend it or not you are helping stoke a very dangerous fire and it worries me that however many people (most of them the LGBT Muslims you claim to be concerned about) tell you this, you don’t seem able to accept it.”
To sum up: for many gay Muslims, Tatchell’s interventions in condemning “hate preachers” are most unwelcome, because they reinforce hateful stereotypes about Muslims (e.g. they are “barbaric”, “uncivilized”, “backward”, “woman and gay hating”, etc). Gay Muslims are affected by Islamophobia just like straight Muslims, and its them and their family members and friends who are watched by the cops, visited by the the security services, stopped and interrogated at airports, bad-mouthed on the evening news, and harassed on the street. By implying that gay rights can only be “won” at the expense of inflaming Islamophobic sentiments, Tatchell’s words function to align the interests of queer Muslims against the interest of their religious/ethnic communities, often against their explicitly expressed wishes.
UEL, Khalid Yasin and Tatchell’s article
In the second paragraph of Tatchell’s piece, he writes that the meeting was “advertised with ‘segregated seating’ where women would be forced to sit separate (sic) from men” (emphasis mine). Forced to sit separately? It clearly hasn’t occurred to him that some Muslim women prefer segregated seated events and may have elected not to attend this (now-cancelled) meeting if the seating had been mixed. Tatchell’s choice of wording is telling, in that he seems to describe the “suffering” of others primarily through his lens as a white, non-Muslim male.
It’s also important to consider the message at the heart of Tatchell’s article, that certain individuals should be banned from speaking at universities for promoting discriminatory or violent ideas. These certain individuals happen to be Muslims who Tatchell finds politically unacceptable. When justifying blocking the UEL event with Yasin, Tatchell linked a 22-second clip of him describing what according to his view, the punishment for homosexuality should be in Islam. Sure, I personally find Yasin’s ideas offensive, but it doesn’t seem that Yasin is inciting the Muslim community towards vigilante violence against gays either, though it’s difficult to judge since the context for Yasin’s comments has been edited out.
If the idea is to ban all “hate preachers” from university campuses, exactly whom does that include? What about the Catholic speaker, Joanna Bogle, who spoke at UEL this past February? If you’re going to equate religious objections to homosexuality with unacceptable homophobia, then why wasn’t there an attempt to ban her? After gay marriage legislation passed in February, Bogle lamented:
“And how sad it is to be in London witnessing this, living through this, knowing that this insanity is happening in the country which once contributed so much to the world and had a quality of real greatness about it.”
Even Tatchell has come under fire for inciting hatred and violence against gay communities. A few years ago, he was accused by African LGBT activists of putting their lives in danger through his work with Outrage! They told Tatchell to “stay out of African LGBTI issues”, and cited a letter addressed from one Ugandan human rights activist to the man himself:
“You will sit safely in London while our activists in Uganda pay the price for your deeds . . . We have many people in the West who support our struggle, but they would not do anything to jeopardize our safety. . . . You have shown a blatant disregard for the reputations and safety of legitimate activists in Uganda . . . I know what effect your press releases have on my country. Please put a stop to all your press releases regarding my country. It must stop.”
So Tatchell has been individually called out by gay and lesbian Africans for putting their lives in danger. If Yasin is banned from speaking at UEL for saying things that have “endangered” LBGT people, then maybe Tatchell should be banned too.
What’s the cost of Tatchell’s tactics and rhetoric, and who’s pays the the price?
Like David Cameron and Theresa May, Peter Tatchell is not alone in his efforts to silence and criminalize Muslims that hold particularly “unsavoury” ideas. From Rizwan Sabir to Ahmed Faraz, many Muslims are facing prosecution and prison for reading or producing the “wrong” material. In many respects, “thought crime” is the state’s new front in the War on Terror, and Tatchell has happily carved out his own role – policing British Muslims and their scholars for their supposed predisposition to homophobia.
Perhaps most worryingly, Tatchell’s recent intervention coincides with the emerging, terrifying appropriation of the gay rights discourse by extreme right-wingers. A case in point: the newest set of ads paid for by the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), including this one:
THE AFDI has been classified as a hate group (by the Southern Poverty Law Center and others) and is founded by none other than Pamela Geller. For those who aren’t familiar with her, Geller rose to Fox News stardom when she led the campaign to oppose Park51 (the mosque and Muslim community originally planned for construction in lower Manhattan). Reportedly, she even invited the EDL to speak at a demonstration in New York against the mosque. Her most recent ads are soon to run on San Francisco’s public mini buses, and all feature Muslims expressing anti-gay sentiments. Geller’s been pretty blunt about why she’s chosen to run these particular ads in San Francisco: “The gay community should be standing with me, not against me.”
Tatchell doesn’t need to agree with everything Geller says to be complicit in the same message – they both believe that in the war against homophobia, certain Muslims are among our primary enemies. By positioning queers and Muslims against each other – rather than in alliance to confront the forces that oppress us all, Tatchell is enabling LGBT communities and Muslim communities to be divided and conquered. For queers, section 28 was about more than just censorship. We understood that this particular legislation did not just silence; it also “spoke”, it communicated who was in power (straight homophobes) and who was welcome inside school doors (straight or straight-acting students and teachers). We may see the controversy over Yasin very differently than the battle over section 28, but we must recognize that both instances of silencing functioned to dictate whose lifestyles, bodies and ideas “belong” in school, and whose are utterly reprehensible. And both instances tied into broader efforts by the state to produce desirable and undesirable citizens.
The symbolic violence of banning speakers is ultimately linked to other more tangible forms of violence perpetrated by the state. I know Tatchell hasn’t forgotten the brutality queers have faced and still face from the cops, border controls, prison guards, the criminal justice system, etc. But he seems wilfully unwilling to recognize that his current modes of activism appear to collude with and justify the state violence that Muslims face everyday.
I am aghast that Tatchell can sign statement in support for Talha Ahsan, as if he plays no role in the very thing that allowed Talha and others to be whisked away to solitary confinement, while Gary McKinnon and others were spared: that new plague of hatred we call Islamophobia. How frustrating it is that Tatchell continues to select his “targets” and tactics with such arrogance and employ inflammatory rhetoric, as if no other options are available to him. No one is asking Tatchell to sacrifice his commitment to gay rights, merely to recognize that gay rights shouldn’t be won at the expense, exclusion and marginalization of any Muslim, gay or straight.
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