Consider this: an openly gay man works as a teacher in a state school in an area with a large Muslim population — say, Tower Hamlets in London’s East End. Most of his pupils are Muslims. Some of the parents of these children decide that they’re not keen on having their kids taught by a gay man. There is a stand-off. Should he stay or should he go? The Guardian‘s leader-writers scratch their heads. Whom should they support in such a “sensitive” situation?
The scenario is my invention. It is, as far as I know, still hypothetical, but it has the ring of feasibility. It throws into sharp relief the dilemma which has petrified the Left and its fellow-travellers within the social, educational and cultural establishment. When two parts of your worldview collide, when your traditional support for gay rights conflicts with your staunch and uncritical support of ethnic minority cultures, what do you do? Relativism has tied your hands. You conjure the possible intellectual somersaults you could perform to justify your reasoning. And then you stay silent.
The growth of Islam in Europe has consequences for gay men. But you wouldn’t know it from a cursory perusal of the issues which preoccupy at any one time what is known as the “gay community”. Civil partnerships, gay adoption or problems with Christian bed-and-breakfast owners and the allegedly latent homophobia of the Conservatives are all up there on the list. But, with a few honorable exceptions, such as the consistently principled activist Peter Tatchell, few voices are raised about the possible future problems for gay men in a rapidly changing demographic landscape.
There was relatively little protest from the complacent mainstream metropolitan gay community when, as Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone invited to the capital the Islamic cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a fundamentalist who supports the right of Islamic states to execute gays. The death penalty indeed exists in six Islamic nations, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Sudan. Pakistan and northern Nigeria have sharia, under which gay men can be put to death. The al-Fatiha Foundation, an international organisation that aims to support Muslim gays and lesbians, estimates that 4,000 homosexuals have been executed in Iran since the 1979 revolution. Egypt, while having no laws against homosexuality, has instead punished gays under public morality laws. In other Islamic countries, homosexuality is punishable with fines or prison.
This is all a long way away, of course. In the UK, we might be shocked by fire-breathing imams telling their flocks that gays should be shunned, thrown from mountains or otherwise murdered, as was seen in two recent Channel 4 Dispatches programmes, but there is little follow-through or outrage. The feeling seems to be that if they are ignored, then these nasty men will go away, and that in any case they are not representative.
That may well be true. But this ignores the widespread intolerance of homosexuality throughout the Muslim communities, which in Britain are growing up to ten times the rate of the rest. This community can only increase in power and predominance, especially when faced with a weak, vacillating establishment which will do anything to avoid making a scene, let along stand up for Western liberal values.
A Europe-wide Gallup survey carried out last year found that none of the 500 British Muslims interviewed believed that homosexual acts were morally acceptable. What was perhaps more alarming was a Policy Exchange report from 2007, Living Apart Together, which found that 71 per cent of Muslims aged 16 to 24 thought that homosexuality was not only wrong but should be illegal. This staggeringly high number also gave the lie to the notion, so often trotted out, that with time, younger generations of immigrant families would become more liberal, more integrated into Western ways: the figure of 71 per cent was the highest for any of the age groups questioned (the same survey found that a large minority — 37 per cent — of 16- to 24-year-old Muslims would prefer to live under sharia in Britain).
A few months ago, I attended a meeting in London arranged by an upmarket gay networking group, at which openly gay representatives of the main political parties were speaking to a packed audience, there to voice their various concerns about gay issues. From the floor, I asked if the panel shared my concern, as a gay man, on growing Islamist influence and the hostility to homosexuality embedded in Islam as evidenced in figures such as those above.
Needless to say, nobody answered. I was informed instead by the Tory spokesman, Nick Herbert, that one should be careful not to tar all Muslims with the same brush. This has become the stock response to all questions raised about Muslim opinion, and serves no purpose except to evade. Of course, I imagine the panel, which also included the Labour MP Chris Bryant, would have had no such qualms about tarring Catholicism with the same brush, or using the words of Evangelicals to besmirch the whole of Christianity.
Gays are pretty sensitive when it comes to detecting possible future persecution, which makes the relative silence about Islam — whether from denial or simple ignorance — all the more worrying. I’ve certainly found, when bringing up the subject on my travels around gay London, that one is usually met with the response: “Ah, well: it’s those Christian fundamentalists that worry me.”
“The gay activist establishment has taught gay men that Christian fundamentalists are their enemies, while members of fellow ‘oppressed’ groups, including Muslims, are their allies in victimhood,” says Bruce Bawer, an Oslo-based gay American writer and author of While Europe Slept (Broadway, 2007). “Solidarity proscribes criticism. Never mind that these ‘allies’ preach that gays should be executed. Under the reigning PC mentality, the only way in which most gays can bring themselves to criticise Islam is to do so as part of a blanket rejection of all religion.”
Bawer, a liberal who moved from the US to Amsterdam in 1998, relocating to Oslo the following year, agrees that the Left is crippled by a multicultural mentality that views America, the West and capitalism as evil, and views non-Western groups as virtuous victims of imperialism and colonialism whose cultures we have no right to criticise. “Sharia calls for the execution of gay people,” he says. “And for ‘good’ Muslims, sharia is non-negotiable. Islam has had no Enlightenment.”
Bawer fears that on an everyday level, the situation for gay men in cities like Oslo and Amsterdam is becoming more difficult, with an increase in attacks by Muslim youths. In Oslo, reports of assaults on gays by Muslims are increasing, and instead of admitting to this as a problem, prominent Muslims are arguing that in “their” neighbourhoods, Muslim cultural values should reign, meaning that gays who enter their territory should not, for example, hold hands. In one recent incident, a gay couple exchanged a kiss in an Oslo kebab joint and were chased down the street by a fellow-customer. Later, one of them told a reporter: “It was perhaps a little dumb of us to do that. I don’t like to provoke people.” Bawer notes: “This is the reigning mentality. Gays have learned to blame themselves for having ‘provoked’ people who want to beat them up for being gay.”
Bawer’s concern is echoed by Lloyd Newson, the choreographer and leader of the highly-praised dance company, DV8 Physical Theatre. In 2008, the company produced To Be Straight With You, a mixed media and performance piece which brilliantly explored anti-gay feeling in all its international forms and guises, including Islamic. The arts are famously the home to a great number of gay men, which makes the lack of creative comment on Islam and homosexuality all the more pointed. Newson’s work stands virtually alone. He was inspired to create the piece after he and his Indian partner, taking part in a Gay Pride march, had abuse yelled at them by Afro-Caribbean onlookers. Although equal weight is given to other religions in the show, Newson feels that in terms of physical danger, as opposed to the simple expression of anti-gay sentiment, Islam is the most threatening.
“I did To Be Straight With You because the debate needs to be had right here, right now,” he says. “It’s when people’s backs are up against the wall that they start to engage.” Concerned by the high proportion of Muslims who state a preference for sharia, and by the creeping censorship of all criticism of Islam, he has also come up against those who find any critique of it too rich for their blood.
“While we were making To be Straight With You, some white liberals we spoke to couldn’t handle hearing any challenges to a religious community, if it was non-white,” he says. Indeed, he lost a board member over the issue. “They were very anxious,” he says. “Their position is that you can only criticise ‘your own’ culture, race and/or religion, you cannot criticise anything ‘other’.”
Those who refrain from passing any judgment which they view as “culturally imperialist” are, arguably, also not helping Muslims who are themselves gay (the same principle applies to many Western feminists, whose silence over the treatment of women in Islam is shameful). While researching the project, Newson learned of the fear felt by many gay Muslims, some of whom had had “horrific experiences”. Last year, the gay homeless charity, the Albert Kennedy Trust, reported that it was seeing a rise in the number of gay Muslims fleeing from forced marriages and domestic violence. There is a support group, Imaan, which was set up in 1998 and is run by volunteers, and there was a well-received Channel 4 documentary in 2006, Gay Muslims, which helped to shed light on their predicament but in which most of those taking part kept their identities hidden. A high-profile storyline in the BBC soap EastEnders features a relationship between a gay white man and a Muslim, the latter being forced to go ahead with a marriage by his ashamed and terrified mother.
But many gay Muslims live in a largely invisible world, one which can be fraught with conflicts between two aspects of their identities. A study of gay British Pakistani Muslims, published earlier this year in the British Journal of Social Psychology, found that some saw their homosexuality as a test from Allah, some believed the religious texts had been misunderstood, others blamed their British upbringing, but most of them expressed guilt, the desire to stop and the hope to marry women. Said one of the participants (who, again, were all given anonymity): “I’m gay ‘cos I was brought up here (in Britain) but I reckon if I’d been brought up in Pakistan, then I would have turned out straight because this doesn’t happen that much there.”
Multiculturalist white liberals, whose belief in the virtue of “celebrating diversity” has taken on the characteristics of some sort of fetish, could probably not bring themselves to point out the ridiculousness of that statement. And this in turn exposes the contradictions which were always there, bubbling away, in multiculturalism: how or why should you celebrate a culture which sees you as morally unacceptable? Why should you try to “understand” and adapt? Could we, quite soon, be in a position where certain areas of our cities are off-limits for gay men? And, hobbled by the requirement above all to be “sensitive”, will we simply go along with it? The last word goes to Bruce Bawer, who also wrote Surrender: Appeasing Islam, Sacrificing Freedom (Doubleday, 2009). “Open your eyes,” he says, “stop being cowed by political correctness, and speak up.”