On September 10, I was writing a letter to the Egyptian Ambassador in London, protesting at the trial of 52 men in his country who were charged with various homosexual offences. This was obviously a show trial, I said, and it is clear (see last month’s Gay Times for details) that many of the men aren’t even gay, and are simply sacrificial victims, apparently chosen at random, to create a diversion from the country’s financial woes.
Then there was September 11.
A few weeks after this catastrophe, we were told by our Prime Minister that Islam had nothing to do with it. The people who did it were simply ‘terrorists’, not ‘Islamic terrorists’. Then he went to Pakistan in order to create a coalition with a nation that, only days before, had been regarded as a pariah to decent people and a grotesque abuser of human rights, and he assured the leaders of that country that Islam is a peaceful and glorious religion.
A recent issue of The Pink Paper examined the approach to homosexuality in leading Islamic states. The catalogue of cruelty, murder and persecution of gays was second only to their abuse of women. But we aren’t allowed to place the blame where it truly lies – at the door of Islam.
And even as I write, a news story comes down the wires, taken from an Iranian daily paper called Entekhab, saying “Iran’s government has ordered police to stamp on gays, who it claims are a sign of ‘western depravity’, and on women who are ‘unIslamic.’ Police have been told to close down internet providers who allow gay sites as well as internet cafes frequented by gays.”
Then at the Labour party conference, Home Secretary David Blunkett promised British Muslims that legislation would be rushed through making “incitement to religious hatred” illegal. He did this because Muslims in this country are being threatened and beaten up in the street in the wake of the World Trade Centre attacks.
I feel very sorry for those innocent people who are being violated and intimidated because they are Muslim. My sympathy arises from direct experience of being subjected to random violence and harassment from strangers in the street. I sympathise because last month a friend of mine was queer-bashed so badly that he had to spend two days in hospital. I sympathise because two straight colleagues of mine who were on their way to a party together were mistaken for “batty boys” and, for no other reason, were given a good kicking by a gang of strangers.
We in the gay community know what this kind of arbitrary violence can do to both body and mind. Let us not forget that the bomb that went off in the Admiral Duncan pub was an act of terror aimed at gay people, by a man filled with seething hatred that must have been incited somewhere – probably on some fascistic website. So why aren’t we getting protection from incitement to hatred?
After all, there is enough anti-gay hate mongering around. We are subject to casual abuse from many different sources. Tabloid newspapers sometimes vent their hatred of us in unrestrained terms. And so do religious zealots. One has only to remember the campaign waged in Scotland by Brian Souter and Cardinal Winning, and the violence that flowed from it, to realise that Muslims are not the only ones who need protection.
The race relations law has done little to stop racist violence, but it has stopped racist groups being able to publish inflammatory material advocating that violence. I’m all for that. But how would that work in relation to religion? Would the new law be protecting people, or their ideas?
Perhaps it was The Daily Telegraph that best summed up the dangers in an editorial. “It is important to be clear what Mr Blunkett is putting forward. Incitement to criminality has always been illegal. When person A persuades person B to attack person C, person A is breaking the law. What makes the race laws different is that person A can be convicted on the basis of his pronouncements alone, even if no one has acted on them. For the first time, crimes can be dealt with differently according to the accused’s motivation. This goes to the heart of our judicial system. Traditionally, English law has concerned itself with punishing deeds, not thoughts or words. If the law tries to stipulate what can or cannot be said about religious belief, we really are heading back towards the Middle Ages.”
The Public Order Act, the Criminal Damage Act, the Offences Against the Persons Act already make it illegal to bash innocent people in the street or threaten them or harass them whether they’re Muslims or Scientologists, black or white, straight or gay. So what exactly is this new law supposed to cover?
Well, it all depends on what Mr Blunkett decides “incitement to religious hatred” means. Does it mean that if I should say, for instance, that Islam is a hateful, murderous religion that persecutes women, gay people – and even sometimes Christians – I will be sent to prison or heavily fined? I only ask because, in its more unpleasant forms I think Islam can be a hateful, murderous religion – but then, so can Christianity and Judaism and Hinduism, when they get the chance to be. We have only to remember the letter sent to The Times opposing the lowering of the age of consent, and signed by just about every religious leader in the country, to know that they don’t hold back from trying to rob us of our human rights.
Some religious groups have been actively hate-mongering against gay people over the past few years and there is little that anybody can do to stop it. Some Muslim clerics in this country have called for the death penalty for gays, but I didn’t see Mr Blunkett rushing through any new laws to protect us from that.
If this law protects religion from criticism, then it could put us at a severe disadvantage. If, for instance, the Christian Institute decides to produce and distribute even more extreme anti-gay literature than it does already, will we just have to grin and bear it? If the Evangelical Alliance says that it doesn’t want gay people to have jobs in any welfare organisation that it controls, will we just have to take our P45s without protest?
If you think I am exaggerating, think back to the experience of Peter Tatchell in 1994 when he was protesting at a rally of Islamists at Wembley Arena. The 6,000 fundamentalists in attendance were advocating the murder of homosexuals, and Peter bravely went among them carrying a placard reading: “Islam Nazis behead and burn queers”, a reference to the gruesome methods of execution used by the Iranians to kill 4,000 gay men and lesbians since the Islamic revolution there. He was prosecuted under the 1986 Public Order Act, charged that his placard was “threatening, abusive or insulting” to Muslims and likely to cause them “harassment, alarm or distress”. No Muslim was arrested for advocating the murder of homosexuals.
But this illustrates that Blunkett’s law is already redundant. All that can be put in place that is not already there is some kind of extension to the blasphemy laws, which at present only apply to certain elements of Christianity (and which, we shouldn’t forget, were last used to prosecute a gay magazine in 1977). This would make it very difficult to attack religious extremism of any kind. One word out of place, and the many lawyers at the Christian Institute would be on you like a ton of bricks.
And before people start writing in to tell me that I’m racist, let me explain that this is not just a tirade against Islam, it’s a tirade against all religion. They have all set themselves up as our enemy, and whatever liberals within the various faiths might say, the official line in all major faiths is anti-gay.
The Pope thinks we’re “intrinsically disordered”, the Archbishop of Canterbury signed the notorious Lambeth Conference motion, putting the cause of gays in the church back by decades, the Chief Rabbi has spoken out in disparaging terms about homosexuality on many occasions. Even the Hindus and Sikhs added their name to a petition drawn up by Lady Young to keep Section 28.
But it is the Islamists who are the biggest threat to us. Their intention is not just to keep us in our place, but to eradicate us.
The events of September 11 brought out an apparent determination by the leaders of the Western world to fight hard to protect the liberal values of our society and the freedoms that have been so hard won.
And yet here we have a Home Secretary who is willing to sacrifice an important element of free speech to placate bigots. If this law is as restrictive as I fear, then it will be a capitulation to terrorism, not a defiance of it.
Islamic theocracies do not even understand the concept of human rights or civil liberties, and that is the chief element of what separates us from them. We must make every effort to ensure that the repressive values of Iran and Pakistan and Egypt do not find their way into our lives by stealth.
And with this in mind, my message to the Home Secretary is: Junk it, Blunkett!