In an exclusive interview with Sarah Mills, Peter Tatchell speaks about the rise of Islamism, his surprising takes on identity politics and multiculturalism, the failures of the Left to defend LGBT Muslims, and police handling of death threats against him by Islamist extremists.
Written by Sarah Mills
Peter Tatchell was still in Brighton for Pride when I interviewed him on Sunday, August 6. I had drawn up a plethora of questions for him beforehand, mostly concerning his views on the contemporary debate surrounding sexuality and gender identity, his take on the achievements of the LGBT community thus far, and the future of the movement for equality. I would have to save those questions for another interview. I received an email from the renowned human rights activist that clearly delineated the topic to be covered that day. It was none other than that which has usurped the conversations of both traditional and social media.
The rise of political Islam: 1995 to present
I found it significant that Tatchell wished to discuss Islamism. It only confirmed to what extent politicised religion was once again encroaching on human rights. I dug up a quote from an article he had written for the Gay Times way back in 1995: “The political consequences for the lesbian and gay community could be serious. As the fundamentalists gain followers, homophobic Muslim voters may be able to influence the outcome of elections in 20 or more marginal constituencies. Their voting strength could potentially be used to block pro-gay candidates or to pressure electorally vulnerable MPs to vote against gay rights legislation (and other liberal measures).”
Twenty years later, we are still having the same discussion – and it seems more pertinent than ever considering the rise in fundamentalist interpretations and their effects in the social sphere, including gender segregation and the presence of Sharia courts. So the first question I asked was how it felt looking back on the article. Had anything changed?
Tatchell responded in a way that might disgruntle fear-mongers, but also placate the more anxious among us, clutching at flotsam in a sea of viral tweets purporting to show an insidious (sometimes government-sanctioned!) Islamist takeover:
“Those fears have largely not materialised. It is true that in some constituencies with significant Muslim populations the candidates have not been as outspoken as might be expected against Islamist homophobia, misogyny, and threats against minority Muslim sects, such as Ahmadi Muslims. On the positive side, most Muslim MPs did vote for same-sex marriage.”
Why can’t we mock Islam? CEMB versus East London Mosque
What of the more underhand ways religious organisations have tried to silence opposition? I wanted to address the recent confrontation between the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (CEMB) and the East London Mosque. The barrage of criticism the mosque leveled towards CEMB – accused of inciting hatred against Muslims – was unsurprising. But London Pride also issued a statement denouncing Islamophobia, stopping just short of extending an apology, as the mosque would have wanted. There was obviously a discrepancy in how different religions were being dealt with. Pride marches of yore came to my mind, those that, in the true progressive tradition of taking on religion, unabashedly challenged Christianity with lightheartedness and humour. ‘Jesus had two dads’, some placards reminded us. ‘God is gay’, read others. Westboro Baptist haters and their ilk were vastly outshined by dazzling, rainbow-festooned insistence on inclusivity and love. I asked Tatchell what he made of the obvious reluctance on the part of many “progressives” to challenge Islam in the same way. To what did he attribute the difference? Why could we not make jokes at Islam’s expense?
“All ideas,” he responded, “including religious ones and even my own, should be open to scrutiny, criticism, ridicule, and humour. That is what a free society is all about. Only a homophobe could object to the statement that ‘Allah is gay’ since there’s nothing shameful about being gay. Indeed, in Islamic holy texts, being gay is not condemned. It is just same-sex acts that are denounced.”
Did he mean to say that the theology itself did not support the death penalty for gay individuals?
“The Quran,” he explained, “includes no explicit condemnation to homosexuality and prescribes no punishments. The death penalty is dictated in the hadith, allegedly written by Muhammad. He was a mortal human being who was influenced by the culture of his age. No Muslim can cite the Quran as justification for discrimination or violence against LGBT people. The authority of Muhammad is questionable even in Islamic terms. The Quran states that it is the full and complete word of God and that it requires no addition or interpretation. Therefore, the hadiths, strictly speaking, have no theological standing if you are a true Muslim who believes in the Quran.”
The research seems to support his statement. So why, then, is the accusation of Islamophobia gratuitously fired at ex-religious persons who hold up placards bearing, ‘Throw ISIS off a roof,’ and ‘We’re here, we’re kaffir, get used it’? I could easily come to the conclusion that the only people who might take offence at these signs are members of ISIS (and their supporters) themselves! I asked Tatchell if the Left was doing a disservice to the very people they claimed to want to protect when they protect religion. Didn’t they used to be the strongest proponents of free speech, individuality, protection of the most persecuted, and criticism of religion?
“Liberals and progressives have profoundly double standards when it comes to Islam,” he said. “Traditionally, they’ve always fought religious obscurantism, ignorance, superstition, and prejudice. They defended the right to mock faith in films like Life of Brian and Jerry Springer: The Opera. But when it comes to Islam, they take a quite protective view and sometimes even defend Islam against legitimate and valid criticism. Just because Muslims suffer prejudice, hate crimes, and discrimination does not justify anyone looking the other way when Muslim people oppress LGBT people, women, and minority Muslim sects. We have a duty to show consistency in opposing the intolerant strands of all religions and all political ideologies.”
I asked him whether the solution to this climate of tension surrounding Islam would be to continue in the same vein or not. Should we provoke for provocation’s sake? Or would that only create deeper fissures and further alienation?
“I’m a supporter of free speech,” Tatchell answered, “so I defend the right of anyone to critique any religion, including by means of satire and humour. But I think we have to make a judgment call about what is likely to win people over as opposed to actions that might alienate them and actually fuel the forces of fundamentalism. It’s probably best to avoid causing gratuitous offence because that can play into the hands of far-right extremists like the EDL and PEGIDA. My own view is that the most effective way to challenge fundamentalism is to do so in ways that support and empower liberal and progressive Muslims and those who have left Islam.”
LGBT-Muslim solidarity campaign: fighting all hate
He proceeded to expound upon his own activism through the Peter Tatchell Foundation, which has sought through campaigns including the LGBT-Muslim solidarity campaign to “build bridges with the Muslim community around the agenda of fighting all hate.”
“The idea,” he said, “is to isolate the fundamentalists and extremists and to win support among non-hardline Muslims, of whom there are a growing number.”
The campaigns centre on battling the discrimination and hate that afflicts both LGBT and Muslim communities. When those two communities intersect, this battle becomes especially critical.
“One of our priorities,” said Tatchell, “is to defend LGBT Muslims against those within their own community who oppress and persecute them. Organisations like the Muslim Council of Britain have aligned with Christian and Judeo fundamentalists to oppose nearly every LGBT equality law of the last two decades. The far right makes indiscriminate and generalized attacks upon all Muslims. Our focus is to defend Muslims against the undoubted victimization they face but also to challenge those within the Muslim community who oppose the principle of universal human rights and who seek privileged status for their faith and other faiths. The problem with much of the Left is that, in the name of defending Muslim communities against the far right, it fails to critique Islamist extremism and to defend the human rights of women, LGBT people and others. This failure leaves a vacuum that is exploited by right-wing extremists.”
Recently, however, there has been a shift of alliances. Many on the right are siding with the LGBT community in a move that can only be described as one forged primarily on the basis of a common enemy. I wondered what Tatchell thought about this recalibration. Was it disingenuous on the part of the far right, who, not too long ago, would have been against the community, or was it a welcome development? He replied in no uncertain terms.
“The far right’s embrace of LGBT rights is entirely cynical and opportunistic. They’re only supporting LGBT people as a way to bash Muslims and project a more liberal image. No one should be taken in by their professed support for LGBT rights. These same groups and individuals regularly use homophobic insults against me and even try to discredit me by claiming I’m a pedophile. It shows that their support for LGBT rights is not even paper-thin. it’s political PR to win support for their far-right agenda.”
I asked him about the overall response to his campaigning. Was it successful in changing many minds, in winning people over to the cause of a unified front against bigotry? Tatchell recounted a leafleting event he organised in East London, in the heart of the Muslim community, as part of the LGBT-Muslim solidarity campaign.
“We put up placards with the words ‘LGBT-Muslim solidarity. Fight all hate’ and ‘LGBTs and Muslims unite. Fight the far right.’ We distributed leaflets with similar messages to Muslim shoppers at the Whitechapel tube station. About twenty percent of the people we engaged with said things like, ‘I’m Muslim and I support gay rights.’ Another twenty percent were overtly hostile, saying things like you couldn’t be gay and Muslim. As for the other sixty percent- it was impossible to tell what their reaction was. Now, twenty percept seems like a small proportion, but it is considerably higher than polls indicated a decade or so ago and these people not only expressed their support for LGBT rights, but did so publically in front of other Muslims passing by. It can be a bit disheartening to see that such a small percentage supported us, but I’m encouraged it’s more than in the past. I go to lots of schools to speak about LGBT issues and it’s noticeable that Muslim students are beginning to speak out in favour of LGBT equality. At one school, three Muslim girls in hijabs played a leading role in setting up an equality network that included support for LGBT rights. Times are changing. Not as fast and as far as I would like, but the trend is in the right direction. I think it shows that our tactic of trying to win over hardline Muslims by appealing to our common humanity is one of the most successful.”
Identity politics and multiculturalism: positive phenomena?
On social media, I had inevitably witnessed (and personally experienced) the hastiness with which all sides callously dismissed each other’s opinions with little or no consideration for reasonably persuading or, at the very least, agreeing upon universal human values. Winning an argument for its own sake was the common objective. I asked Tatchell what he blamed for this apparent spike in division. Did he feel that the rise in identity politics, for example, had created problems for LGBT people from minority communities? What he had to say surprised me.
“On the contrary. Identity politics have been successful in bringing to light not only LGBT people in general, but the particular plight of LGBT Muslims. I take the view that although identity politics and multiculturalism are sometimes distorted and misinterpreted in a negative way, on the whole, they have been the means by which disadvantaged communities have been able to highlight their victimisation and make their claim for justice and equality. Without identity politics, LGBT Muslims would be invisible.”
Was he praising what I had always considered a largely negative phenomenon and to which I attributed so much of the fighting between individuals and groups who would otherwise be on the same side?
“Identity politics are fine provided they do not fragment society to the point where everyone is fighting in their own corner without any concern for the rights and freedoms of others. The right to be different is a very important principle of multiculturalism. I see it as a progressive value provided it isn’t manipulated in ways that diminish the rights and freedoms of others, which sometimes happens. So, for example, Muslim and other faith majorities sometimes claim that their right to be different gives them permission to deny equal human rights of women, LGBT people and minority Muslim sects. They claim it’s ‘their culture’ to be misogynistic, homophobic and Islamist supremacists. That’s a perversion of what multiculturalism should be about.”
So, we broached the topic of multiculturalism, that experience touted by world leaders, including Obama and Trudeau, as the modern approach to the changing faces of society brought on by increasingly open borders and globalisation. I asked Tatchell what he thought of the mosaic solution. Was it flawed?
“No. Historically both Left and Right have ignored the rights of women and minorities, including disabled people and LGBT individuals. It’s only thanks to identity politics and the ethos of a multicultural society, with its defence of the right to be different, that the female sex and excluded minorities have been able to win greater rights.”
What of those who pit multiculturalism against assimilation? Many would argue that the reason we are experiencing problems including ghettoisation and radicalism is because we are not encouraging assimilation as we might have in the past. Tatchell, characteristically, had a unique perspective on the issue that, once again, put my own convictions to the test:
“I don’t support assimilation. I think it’s positive we recognise the strengths and contributions of diverse communities. I would not want black culture to be erased by assimilation into the dominant white society.”
I was inclined to maintain that integration did not necessarily target benign cultural practices and perspectives so much as it encouraged loyalty to the host country in the most significant matters. Tatchell went on:
“My belief is that black people, for example, have a unique understanding, perspective and cultural contribution to make, providing that doesn’t involve attacks on the human rights of others such do the murder music lyrics by some Jamaican dance hall singers. Diversity of experience is something that enriches all of society.”
When Tatchell was protesting what he coined ‘murder music,’ or Caribbean music that exploited violent lyrics against homosexual men, people accused him of racism. Did he feel that something similar was happening now? Were people resorting to accusations of Islamophobia to silence him? What Tatchell replied this time did not come as a surprise:
“It’s a cheap dishonest tactic of some on the Left when they accuse critics of Islamist extremism of being racist and Islamophobic. First of all, Islam is a faith – not a race. It includes people of many different racial heritages. Secondly, there’s nothing wrong with critiquing religion, indeed, it’s an obligation when religion seeks to deny others their human rights.”
Unfortunately, it is also a (fallacious) tactic that is all too effective at redirecting debate and, often, tarnishing the reputation of whomever is bold enough to voice his or her opinion on the dangers of Islamism. Tatchell, however, proposed a solution to tackling the problem:
“The fight against Islamism is the same fight against all religious fundamentalism. It’s against religious privilege, and against the way religion is often used to profess a moral superiority and oppress other people in the name of faith. One of the disturbing trends in Britain today is the expansion of faith schools. This involves Christian, Jewish, and Muslim schools. The fragmentation of the education system along religious lines is deeply regressive. It undermines the principles of a cohesive society and the collaboration of people of different faiths. In the case of Muslim schools, there have been a number of exposés about some of these schools teaching extremist theology, practicing gender segregation and ignoring the human rights of people of other faiths, women, and LGBT individuals. One way to ensure a more inclusive and equal society that breaks down barriers is to abolish all faith schools, to ensure that young people grow up with an appreciation of our common humanity and the importance of a rational, scientific understanding of the world where the human rights of all people are accepted and respected.”
Are LGBT organisations failing the most vulnerable?
So where did that leave us now? How far were we from achieving our ideal? I wanted to gauge his thoughts on some of the most pressing problems facing the communities he’d sought to unite through his solidarity campaigns:
“Within Britain, LGBT Muslims are probably the most victimized section of the community. Many are disowned by their families, thrown out of their homes by homophobic parents, banned from local mosques and subjected to threats and hate campaigns by other Muslims. It’s the cowardly and unprincipled the way in which LGBT organisations are not willing to defend LGBT Muslims. They fear being labelled racist and Islamophobic so they look the other way. That is a huge betrayal. The LGBT community has a special responsibility to stand in solidarity with LGBT Muslims and their liberal Muslim straight allies. Globally, the worst oppression of LGBT people is mostly happening in Muslim majority countries. Ten of them have the death penalty for same-sex behaviour as well as for women who have sex outside of marriage, apostasy, and blasphemy. In the United Nations, the association of Islamic nations has spearheaded the fight against LGBT rights, yet the international LGBT movement is very reluctant to challenge Islamic rule globally”.
Tatchell cut no corners to condemn the silence of those who should have been aiding indeed one of the most persecuted groups in the world. With the recent witch-hunt of homosexual men in Chechnya, the break Islam gets from the left is particularly insulting, as is the way much of the right refuses to even entertain the idea that there can be progressive Muslims at all and that they may be cooperated with to liberalise the religion from within.
I thanked Tatchell for his time and asked him if he had anything further to add. He did. I will quote the story in full because it merits no less.
‘The police did nothing’
“Ever since I began publicly campaigning against Islamist extremism in 1989, the time of the Salman Rushdie death fatwa, I’ve been subjected to hate campaigns and death threats by Islamist extremists. These have included threats to behead me. When I’ve reported these threats to the police, they’ve done nothing.
For about six months, I had a torrent of almost daily death threats from Islamists, but they always dialled 141 so I could never trace them. One time, they forgot to dial 141. I managed to trace the number. When it was reported to the police, and even though they had the person’s mobile phone number, they did nothing. I got a tech person to eventually trace that number and identify the name and address of perpetrator. Even then, the police did nothing. We were told this was a very sensitive issue. We didn’t want to inflame the Muslim community. This was barefaced police collusion with threats to kill me.
In 1994, together with colleagues from the LGBT group Outrage! I staged a protest outside an international mass rally by the Islamist extremist group Hizb ut Tahrir at the Wembley arena. We highlighted the fact that Hizb ut Tahrir and its spokesperson had variously urged the killing of women who have sex outside of marriage, Jews and LGBT people. There were six thousand of them and six of us. We were surrounded and subjected to sustained homophobic abuse and some even said things like ‘We’ll track you down and kill you’. They said this in front of police and officers did nothing. Instead, we were arrested for behaviour likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress. That was because we had held up placards stating what Islamist extremists wanted to do with LGBT people, namely to variously behead and burn us. That was deemed as contrary to the public order act. We went to trial and were able to show video footage of the protest, which resulted in the public order charges being dropped. But, in a spiteful act, two of us were convicted of obstructing the highway. I had to go through months of appeals before the conviction was eventually overturned.”
I asked Tatchell why he thought the police had done nothing about these threats.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” he said. “I can only speculate that some police officers take the view that the Muslim community has to be given leeway when some extremists within it do bad things.”
I instantly recalled the suspicion expressed on social media regarding how the police went about handling crimes as heinous as female genital mutilation (FGM) within Muslim communities. Was the public rightfully losing its faith in the authorities?
I knew we had reached the end of our chat, despite the vulnerability of Tatchell’s closing story to further questions. We could have spoken for hours more, but I left the book open to where the quote last closed and placed a pen down its middle for either himself, myself, or other activists to pick up, to continue deciphering one of the defining dilemmas of our time.