Written by Emile Yusupoff and Robbie Travers
Criticism of Islamic homophobia must not be forced out of LGBT+ spaces. It’s time for Ex-Muslims to be heard.
Pride parades are a commemoration of the 1969 Stonewall riots, serving as both a celebration of LGBT+ identity and a means to further advance liberation politics. It remains a platform with which individuals can celebrate civil rights victories and agitate for further progress, increasingly so in a context of multi-faceted and intersectional identities.
At Pride this year, the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (CEMB) sent a delegation with the intent of highlighting the discrimination and oppression suffered by the LGBT+ community in Islamic nations and the plight of ex-Muslims. Their participation in the march should have served as the helpful reminder that whilst Britain is able to celebrate comparative progress towards LGBT+ equality, global progress is far more uneven. Even in Britain, ex-Muslims, particularly those who are LGBT+, continue to face serious threats, including non-acceptance, hatred and violence.
Marginalised voices must not be denied a platform
The purpose of the CEMB marching was to draw attention to the fact that many LGBT+ Muslims suffer vicious threats from all angles. Leaving Islam can amount to painting a target on your back. For LGBT+ ex-Muslims, the target is in luminous paint. For many, the journey to leaving Islam was inexorably bound up with exclusion from the community for being homosexual. The experience, as CEMB activist Jimmy Bangash puts it, is effectively a “forced apostasy” whereby you are told, “you can be Muslim or gay, not both”.
For some, leading a double life becomes necessary. Others are forced to abandon Islam, their friendships, relationships and their community. At the same time, they remain exposed to the vitriol of the typical asinine, but potentially fatal, racist abuse from the far-right, who cannot understand, or do not care, that an individual can renounce their religious beliefs. What is more, these tend to dish out homophobic abuse in conjunction with racist and sectarian abuse. Even some moderate Muslims can be hostile and dismiss ex-Muslims as “far right stooges”, aiding and abetting anti-Muslim racism.
CEMB activists marched with potent and topical banners listing the 13 countries worldwide, all under Islamic rule, that, along with ISIS’ purported caliphate, impose the death penalty for the ‘offence’ of homosexuality. Other placard slogans included “Throw ISIS Off Rooftops” and “Allah is Gay”. Many of those marching were LGBT+ ex-Muslims. Their experience with homophobia within Islamic communities has been critical in informing their views and identity.
Isolation from family and community can be devastating. Those who are ostracised, whether they are LGBT+ and ex-Muslims, often must live in fear, which affects their economic and social opportunities. When so many in their community promote shockingly hateful and vicious rhetoric against them, it can give the impression that they have no allies who will stand up for their rights, and many feel their cause is solely championed by those outside their community who may be using them for political point-scoring.
For many ex-Muslims, it can take years to find a community of individuals who are like them. For many LGBT+ ex-Muslims, this can be twice as arduous.
The famous “Allah is Gay” placard must be understood in this context. Unfortunately, the plight of ex-Muslims and/or LGBT+ individuals within Muslim communities is all too often shut out from the mainstream discourse because of the ease with which the regressive left brandishes the accusation of ‘Islamophobia’. Holding people back is likewise the legitimate fear of providing anti-Muslim bigots with ammunition. Sheer ignorance may also be a factor, as many in Islamic communities do very little to criticise and combat homophobia within them.
The freedom to criticise religious homophobia does not end with Jesus
It is sadly not surprising that CEMB have nevertheless been slandered and vilified as “Islamophobic”. Some have apparently taken offence at being told that Islamic fundamentalism kills LGBT+persons when they should have been (more appropriately) outraged by the fact that LGBT+ persons are killed by Islamic fundamentalism. The CEMB delegation was even approached and questioned by police officers responding to a complaint made regarding the offensive nature of their signs. Surely the metropolitan police have better things to do than ruminate on minor theological criticisms. Apparently, “Allah is Gay” was the primary target of opprobrium. It seems bizarre that theological offence could be even potentially within the realm of police power.
CEMB were permitted to remain at Pride after police chose not to take any action, possibly because no actual offence had been committed. Also, CEMB claim that when they were actually marching, the response from other Pride participants was overwhelmingly positive, with particularly vocal support coming from individual gay Muslims and ex-Muslims as well as Christian LGBT+ activists. Notably, as is not uncommon for Christian LGBT+ groups, those present were carrying placards that read, “God is Gay” and “Jesus Had Two Dads”. There was no suggestion that this entailed attacking Christians or inciting violence. There was no hint of a racist or prejudiced agenda that desired to dehumanise Christians. Mocking Islamic theology must be seen in the same light.
“Notably, as is not uncommon for Christian LGBT+ groups, those present were carrying placards such as, “God is Gay” and “Jesus Had Two Dads”. There was no suggestion that this entailed attacking Christians or inciting violence”
All religions are legitimate targets for mockery. The idea that we should have a de facto blasphemy law based on labelling all criticism of Islam as harmful should be resisted. Many of these individuals aren’t making uninformed criticisms of Islam either. They have experienced firsthand the harmful effects of Islamic fundamentalism.
A formal complaint has since been filed by East London Mosque, in part due to one of the placards stating that the “East London Mosque Incites Murder of LGBT”. In a worrying development, the East London Mosque has claimed that this and other placards were “inciting hatred against Muslims”. Human rights activist and prominent CEMB associate, Maryam Namazie has responded by saying:
“We included placards on the East London mosque to bring attention to the fact that there are mosques here in Britain that promote the death penalty for homosexuality and apostasy.”
The East London Mosque, as noted by Peter Tatchell, has failed to meet LGBT+ ex-Muslims on 11 occasions. It has also hosted hate preachers and conservative Muslims with regressive views concerning the LGBT+ community. It has hosted Ibrahim Hewitt, who has likened homosexuality to pedophilia and has called for the execution of homosexuals. Dare it be said, were some of these speakers’ views made into Pride signs, there would have been arrests made. Could it even be said that this report was an attempt to silence ex-Muslims by an Islamic centre uncomfortable with criticism of its own poor record? It seems a possibility.
@@ConatusNews East London Mosque has refused dialogue with LGBT community. Refuses to meet LGBT Muslims. I've asked them 11 times since 2015
— Peter Tatchell (@PeterTatchell) July 15, 2017
“As ex-Muslims, we are at risk from hate preachers that speak at some mosques and universities; our gay members are at an increased risk.”
“The East London Mosque has a long history of hosting hate preachers who incite against blasphemers, apostates and homosexuals, so we felt naming and shaming them was very apt.”
Hate is hate is hate. It’s never defensible
Pride is about combating homophobia and hatred of the LGBT+ community. Should we care where that homophobia comes from? Many Muslims face racism, which is unacceptable, but that cannot legitimise any prejudiced beliefs held within Islamic communities. Muslims must be protected from racism, but bigots must not be protected from criticism just because they happen to be Muslim. To place them above criticism makes them immune from challenges to their views based on identity. That is fundamentally illiberal. Muslims should be treated like any other group: with dignity and respect. And that is how we should expect them to treat others. In fact, failing to recognise this and treating Muslims as beyond the realm of reasoned discourse, Bangash points out, is itself racist.
“To put them beyond criticism makes Muslims immune from challenges to their views based on identity. That is fundamentally wrong and illiberal”
CEMB’s placards, to their credit, explicitly and unambiguously avoided targeting Muslims. CEMB knows what it means to be targeted as individuals for who they are, so they kept their criticism to ideas and made sure not to denigrate individuals.
Their placards focused on Islam, specific organisations, hate, and the concept of Allah. In fact, whilst some complaints concerned an alleged “Fuck Islam” poster, CEMB deny that this existed, and was likely a misreading of a placard that instead read, “Fuck Islamic Homophobia”. CEMB’s primary targets were specific terrorist organisations and human rights abusers, confirmed by multiple corroborating detailed reports by international organisations and monitors.
Ex-Muslims are acutely aware of the dangers of real anti-Muslim bigotry, given their own ethnic backgrounds and the fact that their families are often still Muslim, not to mention the prejudice faced by those who are LGBT+. As Bangash notes, “We look Muslim. Promoting anti-Muslim bigotry would be as dangerous for us as anyone”. Ex-Muslims don’t want to annihilate Islam or punish Muslims; they simply want to be able to live in peace and with a level of security that doesn’t hinge on whether they go public with their views or identities. Is it too much to ask?
We can find no reason to suggest any claims about the nations and terrorist organisations cited by CEMB were false. Nor can we confidently assert that they intended to incite violence. It was a shocking reminder, on a day of solidarity with the LGBT+ community, that many in the community do not enjoy the luxury of living in a tolerant country. In fact, one of the placards stated, “Homophobes, Racists, Islamists Fuck Off”. It’s quite clear the CEMB has a concern for welfare and human rights. The CEMB has shown no selectivity in who deserves those rights – and this is to be commended.
The claim that any of this promotes hatred of Muslims appears to be the classic Islamophobia sleight of hand: any criticism of Islam is spun into an attack against individual Muslims and the critic falsely aligned with anti-Muslim bigots. There is a double-danger in suggesting attacks on Islam are attacks on Muslims. Far right bigots are given a basis to attack Muslims, since the latter are made complicit in and accountable for a theology they may or may not believe in. It also protects Islam from legitimate criticism, which in turn only aids fundamentalists, who can then claim reformers are attacking Muslims.
God is not straight
There is also nothing remotely offensive about the idea that Allah is gay. Bangash suggested to Conatus News that this should, in fact, be seen as “a compliment, unless you have a problem with gay people”. If we must dabble in theology, it is also worth noting that if Allah is the creator of everything, he created the LGBT+ community. There is no way around the fact that homophobia stems in large part from Islamic theology. As the East London Mosque accepts, “there might be theological topics dealing with homosexuality in Islam”. Unfortunately, much of the theological debate concerns the appropriate method of execution, as opposed to whether killing gay people at all is actually a good idea. And this is not a limited to an extremist fringe. A recent poll brought to light that 52% of British Muslims believe homosexuality should be criminalised. Furthermore, as Bangash notes, this does not imply that the remaining 48% of British Muslims are tolerant. Rather, many have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude, which effectively ostracises gay Muslims or confines them to the closet. If anything, Bangash says, one of the purposes of the protest was to specifically reach out to gay ex-Muslims who often have no recourse or support network within their communities or once they leave.
“One of the purposes of the protest was to specifically reach out to gay ex-Muslims” – Jimmy Bangash
Perhaps a more sophisticated criticism of CEMB’s approach would be to suggest that it was too confrontational and not conducive to promoting dialogue that could foster change within Muslim communities. Bangash disagreed strongly with this suggestion. Citing the examples of the suffragettes and the black civil rights movement, he pointed out the history of civil-rights progress has never been defined by making liberation messages palatable for oppressors.
Indeed, the controversy that has ensued has ensured that people are talking about the issues raised, which they likely would not have done had the protest been tamer. Bangash added that to airbrush the message, perhaps by saying something like “Allah is Love”, would have skirted over the oppression faced by LGBT+ individuals in countries ruled by Islamic law. Indeed, many of the marchers were refugees from the listed countries, who would not have been comfortable with banners praising Islam, given their lived experience of Sharia law.
Ironically, it has also illustrated that Islamic organisations are attempting to silence criticism and attack those who would protest against the religion by suggesting this wasn’t an inclusive event. A simple response to this would be to ask when Islamists have particularly cared about expressing inclusivity and ensuring their events are inclusive. The suggestion of divisiveness would be laughable, even if it didn’t come from religious groups that maintain the importance of sex-segregation.
Opposing racism and homophobia goes hand-in-hand. There is no real conflict
To conclude, we re-emphasise that not only is there no reason why one cannot actively oppose both racism and homophobia, but that we have an absolute duty to combat both, wherever they emerge. As Namazie noted:
“…as a minority within a minority facing serious threats to our lives, shunning, ostracisation, discrimination (and that’s only in Britain), is it fair to ask us to remain silent because of other forms of persecution or bigotry? Why can we not confront racism AND homophobia, bigotry AND hatred against apostates, women, blasphemers… To do that, we have to be able to criticise the far-Right (including our far-Right – the Islamists) and religion and regressive beliefs.”
Bangash similarly told Conatus News that although his activism focuses more on anti-homophobia, this goes hand-in-hand with anti-racism and shouldn’t be in contrast to it. Any greater focus on anti-homophobia stems from the differing levels of prejudice faced by gay Muslims and ex-Muslims in the UK, with Bangash comparing the experience of encountering Grindr profiles that state a preference for ‘no Asians’ with the much more pressing concern of being targeted in an acid attack or honour killing by their own community.
We would concur, and we would likewise emphasise that if we live in a culture that abandons free speech and fails to prevent the stifling of minority voices within minorities, and those who are oppressed by minorities, we do a disservice both to them and to the members of all minority communities. This is also a sure fire way to promote division and prejudice. If homophobia within Islam is not confronted, it will remain. Aside from the real harm suffered by gay Muslims and ex-Muslims, promoting the idea of Islam as incapable of reform and inherently illiberal is exactly what both Islamist extremists and anti-Muslim bigots want. Pride must address all these bigoted beliefs.
It is clear to us that the louder ex-Muslims are about the issues they face, the better. The more the news of their suffering affects sensibilities, the better. And the more this riles those trying to censor them, the better. It’s time for ex-Muslims to be heard. Hopefully this will be the start of a journey to true, all-encompassing progress.
Blogger, activist and former philosophy student at The University of Edinburgh