COMMENT, FEATURES

Are mosques masking homophobia?

14 Mar , 2011  

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‘Gay-free zone’ posters have ignited uproar among Hackney’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) and Islamic communities, instigating a row as to who is responsible for the new brace of violent homophobic attacks in Hackney, which have increased by 25 per cent since 2009. But finding who is responsible has proved something of a wild goose chase.

The right-wing extremist group English Defence League (EDL) is suspected of putting up the posters to create conflict between the LGBT and Muslim community, fuelling further distrust and prejudice between the two groups.

Outspoken journalist Johann Hari, who is openly gay and secular, has publicly singled out the Muslim community for not only being behind the posters, but also for perpetrating many of Hackney’s homophobic attacks.

In gay magazine Attitude, he was unequivocal as to why attacks occur with such brutal frequency: “Everybody knows why, and nobody wants to say it. It is because east London has the highest Muslim population in Britain, and we have allowed a fanatically intolerant attitude towards gay people to incubate there, in the name of ‘tolerance’.”

This outpouring has caused dispute among public figures and campaigners. Gay British politician and member of the London Assembly, Andrew Boff, says: “This is sad and pathetic. These links have been made with no evidence. Given Hackney’s demographics, it is likely that attacks will be committed by people from Muslim backgrounds but it is highly unlikely that they attend mosques on a regular basis and are religious. For instance, does this mean that every attack from a white person is a Christian attack?

“By responding like this, Hari is giving these extremist nut jobs power. I am sad and disappointed with British journalism,” he adds.

Pink Paper editor Peter Lloyd believes that, on the contrary, the large amount of media coverage of the posters “can only be a good thing. People are generally scared to talk about such issues because they don’t want to be labelled as racist.”

However, Thierry Schaffauser, spokesperson for Hackney LGBT group Outeast, says it’s dangerous to discuss such contentious issues in relation to religion and race: “Homophobia shouldn’t be over simplified. It comes from a mixture of social tensions, class and gender issues. Attackers are looking for scapegoats and gays are often easy victims. This has nothing to do with religion.”

And Patrick Lilley, who runs Queer Nation, accuses Hari of exacerbating existing tensions between the two minority groups in the East End: “You have really fanned the flame for misunderstanding in our community.”

But not everyone agrees that the posters will have a negative effect on the stigmatisation of Muslims. Inayat Bunglawala, media secretary of The Muslim Council of Britain, who is employed by the Home Office as part of a team to tackle extremism for Britain, says: “If this is what the EDL intended, then their plan has backfired.

“The East London Mosque – which has been negatively associated with homophobia in the past – has now been seen speaking out for gay rights. This could therefore have the opposite effect and bring the two communities closer together.”

However, the anti-gay signage is the final straw for a group of East End residents who say they have had enough. They have walked around the area, helping police take the signs down, or covering them with ‘messages of love’. This week the group have planned the East End’s first gay pride event for next month. Organiser, Wendy Richardson, said, “we have to make a stand. This hatred is a slippery slope to a divided society.”

Outeast are meeting today to discuss how they can collaborate with Muslim communities to expel prejudice. Schaffauser says that as they are both minority groups “it makes sense” to work together.

It would be unfair to place blame for the ongoing problem of homophobia on a single community. No religion advocates homosexuality – in fact, the Qur’an condemns homosexuality on fewer occasions than the Bible. As Boff says, surely, even the most zealous believer would ultimately want to stay out of trouble: it would be against their faith to act aggressively. He said: “Religion is too often used as an excuse to fuel prejudice.”

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