Johann Hari wrote an article. It annoyed me. This is the (lengthy) result.
Johann – you don’t mind if I call you Johann, do you? – I like you, I really do. You’re one of the few professional journalists I have anything approaching respect for. But this kind of nasty, vitriolic hate-mongering won’t do, especially not from someone like you, who should know better. You realise what I’m talking about, I’m sure: that article you published on your website a couple of days ago.
Can we talk about Muslim homophobia now?
Did you come up with that headline yourself, I wonder, Johann? Or did the editors at Attitude choose it for you? Either way, you’ve reproduced it on your personal website, so I guess you’re at least happy to endorse it. Well, you know what, Johann? It stinks. It’s a title worthy of the Daily Express.
It tells us this is not just an article about ‘Muslim homophobia’, oh no. This is a weary request dripping with caustic irony: ‘Can we talk about Muslim homophobia NOW?’ It’s of a piece with those made-up headlines that tell us ‘NOW Muslims demand full Sharia law’ (link goes to google cache). It implies the presence of some sinister, shadowy force that has, up until now, been suppressing all discussion of ‘Muslim homophobia’: “Can we talk about Muslim homophobia NOW, Mr Political-Correctness-Gone-Mad?”
Well, really, Johann, who’s been stopping you? Which gangs of marauding do-gooders have held you back from talking about ‘Muslim homophobia’ all these years? What’s been preventing you – with your ability to place articles in The Independent, and Attitude, and the London Evening Standard, and the New York Times, and the Huffington Post, and your own website, over which you have absolute editorial control – from writing about ‘Muslim homophobia’ every day of the week if you wanted to?
And do you really think that ‘Muslim homophobia’ hasn’t been talked about? Are you really that far out of touch? Do you think that it hasn’t been moving steadily up the UK agenda ever since 2002, when Pim Fortuyn, the gay Dutch fascist, was murdered for using the issue of ‘Muslim homophobia’ to further his quest for an all-white Europe? Do you really think that, since then, the cleverer elements of the far right haven’t been exploiting the issue of ‘Muslim homophobia’ in their attempt to position Muslims as the ‘new Jews’ – a religious/ethnic minority who can never, it is wrongly claimed, be true Europeans? Do you not realise this tactic has been so successful that there are gay men naïve or stupid enough to march in lock-step with the homophobic thugs of the EDL? Can’t you see that the Islamophobic ‘defence’ of gay rights in contemporary far-right ideology is the obvious parallel of the anti-Semitic ‘defence’ of the working classes in 1930s far-right ideology?
And why is it ‘Muslim homophobia’, by the way? Why not Islamic homophobia? Because if you’re worried about the impact of religion on social attitudes, it would be more common to use the word that describes the religion (Islamic), not the word that describes the followers of the religion (Muslim). By opting for Muslim you seem to be attacking the people directly, not the bigotry they express. Why is that, Johann? Unless, that is, you’re deliberately echoing the rhetoric of the far right. They also like to blur the distinction between conservative interpretations of Islam and the personal attitudes of all Muslims.
Of course, it’s unfair to criticise just a headline – especially when there are such rich pickings in the main body of your article. Take this sentence:
Here’s a few portents from the East End that we have chosen to ignore.
So these despicable occurrences – and they are despicable; don’t doubt for a second that I share your absolute condemnation for homophobia in all its forms – are not troubling incidences of homophobia, but ‘portents’, which is to say ‘indication[s] of something […] calamitous about to occur’? Is that kind of apocalyptic language helpful, do you think? Is it, in its warnings of a terrible storm brewing, more likely to stimulate unreasoning panic than rational thought? And which of those two states of mind is most desirable when making important and far-reaching decisions about social policy?
In May 2008, a 15 year old Muslim girl tells her teacher she thinks she might be gay, and the Muslim teacher in a state-funded comprehensive tells her “there are no gays round here” and she will “burn in hell” if she ever acts on it. (I know because she emailed me, suicidal and begging for help).
What a terrible situation; I’m glad she knew of someone to reach out to, even if it was only a journalist via email, rather than someone she knew personally. But regarding the homophobic teacher, I wonder: is her homophobia something peculiar to her status as a Muslim? Are all Muslims homophobic? Are all homophobes Muslim? And if the answers to those last two questions are no – and you know what, Johann? I’m pretty sure they are – then wouldn’t we better off criticising her for her homophobia, not for her faith?
You and I are both atheists, Johann, so this doesn’t make immediate sense to us but, to believers, their religion is really, really important; it’s usually pretty much central to their sense of self. So when you criticise someone for being a Muslim, you criticise them – and all the other Muslims who overhear your remarks – for something that feels to them like the foundation of their being. Criticise them for homophobia, on the other hand, and you criticise them for something incidental, something it will feel far more possible to change.
Later on in your article, Johann, you say your goal is to change the homophobic aspects of Muslim culture, not to get rid of Muslims. Well, that seems like a good aspiration to me, too. So what do you think is the best way of getting from here to there? Is it blanket attacks on Muslims for being Muslim, or is it targeted criticism of a particular attitude many – but not all – Muslims express? Which of those do you think is more likely to stimulate resistance to change, and which is more likely to open people up to the possibility of thinking in new ways? Which is going to prove most helpful to devout Muslims trying to reconcile their religious identity with a non-straight sexual orientation? Ringing denunciations of religious faith are tremendous fun, but if you’re trying to help the Muslim teenager terrified she’s going to burn in hell, are they the most useful thing you could be doing?
It seems to me that generating and promoting confusion about the difference between religious identity and conservative social attitudes is most useful for hardliners on both sides. It’s useful for conservative clerics (who can use anti-homophobia as ‘evidence’ of Islamophobia) and it’s useful for the far right (who can use homophobia as a ‘justification’ for their Islamophobia), but it’s counter-productive for those people who want to eradicate homophobia, or who want to eradicate Islamophobia. Or – and here’s a really novel idea – want to eradicate both.
Time for your next ‘portent’:
In September 2008, a young gay man called Oliver Hemsley, is walking home from the gay pub the George and Dragon when a gang of young Muslims stabs him eight times, in the back, in the lungs, and in his spinal column. In January 2010, when the thug who did it is convicted, a gang of thirty Muslims storms the George and Dragon in revenge and violently attacks everybody there.
A horrific, appalling crime – no, two horrific, appalling crimes. Although, interestingly, I haven’t been able to find any online reports about the attack on the pub – even Pink News don’t seem to have covered it – which seems a little odd; I mean, a violent attack by a 30-strong group of vigilantes is the worst assault on the gay community since the Soho nail bomb. Unless – and forgive me for raising this, Johann, but based on the way you’re proceeding in this article, I think I have to – your description is a gross over-hyping of a much less serious occurrence?
I can’t help but notice, anyway, that the victim in the first attack is named, but his attacker isn’t. I can’t believe that you don’t know his name – it’s Nazrul Islam, and it’s very easy to find if you google Mr Hemsley – so why exclude it, I wonder? I mean, he’s even named for the religion you’re criticising – what could be more helpful than that?
Perhaps it’s because, if people were to read about Nazrul Islam, they would find that, in addition to brutally paralysing Mr Hemsley in a vicious, unprovoked attack, he had also committed armed robbery (something which goes fundamentally against Islamic teachings), and that, in the words of the judge who sentenced him, he speaks ‘with pride about his reputation [for violence] with the boys’. Perhaps all of that, coupled with Nazrul Islam’s age – he was 15 – might persuade the average reader that he was a gang member, and that his easy recourse to violence has more to say about gang culture in East London than it does the Islamic faith. Or perhaps there’s another reason for failing to name the attacker. Perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that, when you fail to name the perpetrators of appalling homophobia, it’s easier to persuade your readers to think of them as a faceless, implacable other, not as despicable individuals.
I sort-of think I might be onto something with that last possibility, because it seems you’re not above making use of sweeping generalisations in advancing your case:
East London has seen the highest increase in homophobic attacks anywhere in Britain. Everybody knows why, and nobody wants to say it. It is because East London has the highest Muslim population in Britain
So ‘everybody knows’ this, Johann? Everyone is in absolute agreement about this, are they, and even more, this isn’t opinion or supposition or speculation – this is something that everyone ‘knows’ with implacable certainty? Are you quite sure about that? Because it seems to me as though you’ve identified – without, I note, giving us the evidence (or even linking to it) – a correlation between a substantial increase in homophobic attacks and the number of Muslims living in a particular area. And then you’ve fallen plumb into the classic error of assuming that correlation equals causation. You don’t even pay lip service to the possibility of alternative explanations for your findings, something which even Melanie Phillips tends to do these days.
You seem, for example, to have assumed that the number of reported attacks and the number of actual attacks are one and the same. You don’t seem to acknowledge the reality that the reporting of homophobic attacks has always been subject to huge variations because of differences in the quality of the relationship between the gay community and the police. If the relationship in East London is now especially good, or used to be especially bad, that factor alone could account for much of the rise you mention.
Then, too, you say East London has seen the ‘highest increase’ in attacks, but you don’t tell us the absolute numbers, which makes the statement meaningless. A big increase from a historically low level might still make East London a safer place for gay people to live than other areas with fewer Muslims. Actually, it occurs to me that saying ‘the highest number of attacks’ would be a lot stronger than saying the ‘highest increase’ in attacks, so I wonder why you don’t put it that way. Might it be because East London doesn’t have the highest number of homophobic attacks? And, if so, wouldn’t that mean that you knew your Muslims/ homophobia correlation was dodgy, but you still went ahead and put it in the article anyway? Please tell me you haven’t descended to the level of deliberately manipulating statistics to mislead, Johann. You’re better than that.
Speaking of statistics:
The most detailed opinion survey of British Muslims was carried out by Gallup, who correctly predicted the result of the last general election. In their extensive polling, they found literally no British Muslims who would say homosexuality is “morally acceptable.” Every one of the Muslims they polled objected to it.
Well, at least this time you provide a link to your source (although this turns out to be an article in The Guardian which contains only incomplete data, and itself fails to link directly to the survey); as a result of this I know that Gallup polled 500 British Muslims. That in turn tells me something quite significant – that this survey has almost certainly produced junk data.
It pretty much has to be junk. I mean, for a start, there’s the 100% finding. Every one of those 500 Muslims said they believed homosexuality to be morally unacceptable, apparently. Not only did none of them find it morally acceptable, not one of them replied “don’t know”, or declined to answer the question. There are always people who answer any survey question “don’t know”; total unanimity like this is usually the hallmark of faked election results under dictatorships. This alone is grounds for being sceptical.
But here’s another reason: the lowest credible estimate for the prevalence of homosexuality in the UK population is 1%. This means that, statistically speaking, an absolute minimum of 5 of those 500 Muslims should themselves have been gay, yet they condemned homosexuality as forcibly as their straight counterparts. That tells me either that recruitment practices for the survey were sufficiently flawed to mean no gay Muslims were recruited, or that the survey was conducted in such a way that people felt unable to answer in the way they wished (keep in mind this last factor would inhibit the free expression of views by liberal heterosexuals just as readily as homosexuals). Either way round, it strikes me we pretty much have to discount the findings of this survey, or, at the very least, treat them with great caution. We certainly shouldn’t use them as the basis for a diatribe about the inherent evil of Muslims.
And then there’s this other thing, Johann, and I’m afraid it suggests that once again you’ve been playing fast and loose with the facts. You see, the survey, as reported in The Guardian, was a comparative study; it looked at social attitudes amongst Muslims in the UK, France and Germany. The survey isn’t fully reported in The Guardian (I think this may be the executive summary of the survey, but it’s even less specific), but one detail that is included is that, in France, 35% of Muslims polled found homosexuality to be morally acceptable. You didn’t find space to mention that little titbit in your article, Johann, and that’s worrying, because the fact that a third of French Muslims go so far as saying they consider homosexuality to be, not just tolerable, but ‘morally acceptable’ radically undermines your argument. Clearly, it can’t be the case that “Muslims = homophobia”, as you simplistically claim; it must be the case that “Mystery Factor X + UK Muslims = homophobia”.
Dalia Mogahed, […] executive director of the Gallup Centre for Muslim Studies […,] expressed concern that British Muslims were less happier and less “thriving” than Muslims overseas. “The British Muslim community is disproportionately unemployed.”
Well, that’s pretty relevant to the findings, wouldn’t you agree, Johann? The Mystery Factor X that makes Muslims more likely to be homophobic in the UK than in France is economic deprivation – that same factor which we know correlates with increased criminal activity amongst all communities. So why not mention that, Johann? Why not mention that endemic poverty among Muslims in the East End of London is fanning the flames of prejudice and violence?
Instead, you go so far as to explicitly criticise anyone who tries to put attacks by Muslims in any kind of context:
When there was a wave of vicious gay-bashings in Amsterdam by Morroccan [sic.] immigrants – ending the city’s easy, hand-holding culture – the gay spokesman for Human Rights Watch, Scott Long, said: “There’s still an extraordinary degree of racism in Dutch society. Gays often becomes victims of this when immigrants retaliate for the inequities they have had to suffer.” What? How is it a “retaliation” to beat up a gay couple? What have they done to Muslims? What other human rights abuse would Human Rights Watch make excuses for? Would they say the Burmese junta beats dissidents in order to “retaliate for the inequities they have had to suffer”?
Well, excuse me, Johann, but I wonder if you’d mind joining me in my time machine for a couple of minutes. Because this is what you had to say about the corrosive effects of inequality back in the spring of 2009:
[In unequal societies] we become more suspicious of the people around us. In highly equal Sweden, 66 percent of people feel they can trust their fellow citizens – and as a result have the highest levels of friendship in the developed world. In highly unequal Portugal, only 10 percent of the population trust the rest: see the bars on the windows.
We are far more likely to break down into depression or mental illness, or to snap and attack somebody. James Gilligan – the psychiatrist running the Center for the Study of Violence at Harvard Medical School – explains that acts of violence are “attempts to ward off or eliminate the feeling of shame and humiliation – a feeling that is painful, and can even be intolerable or overwhelming.” He adds that he has “yet to see a serious act of violence that did not represent an attempt to undo this ‘loss of face.'”
That’s you, Johann, positively reviewing a book called The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone for the Huffington Post, and drawing an explicit link between economic inequality, the lack of social cohesion, the rise of prejudice, and the proliferation of violence. So what’s changed, Johann? In 2009 you were keen that your readers should see serious acts of violence as complex phenomena resulting ultimately from inequality, and requiring socio-economic interventions to resolve. In 2011, you want your readers to see serious acts of violence as the simplistic result of communal bigotry, and the solution as shouting at Muslims. So which of these represents your true view? One thing, Johann – you can’t have it one way for homophobic violence, and the other for all other forms of violence. That would make you look like an idiot and a hypocrite.
Well, I don’t know about you, Johann, but I’m getting a little tired now. Unfortunately, the idiocies in your article keep coming thick and fast, so I guess I’ll just have to soldier on. Take this little gem, for example.
When gay people were cruelly oppressed in Britain, we didn’t form gangs to beat up other minorities. We organized democratically and appealed to our fellow citizens’ sense of decency.
How quickly we forget our history! Was it democratic organisation when the Lesbian Avengers invaded the BBC News studio, or abseiled into the House of Lords, in 1988? Was it democratic organisation when, a decade later, Outrage stormed the pulpit at Canterbury cathedral on Easter Sunday? Was it respect for the principles of democratic organisation that inspired the largest gay rights organisation in the UK to name themselves after a riot? Given your outspoken support for confrontation in the fight against government cuts, Johann, I find it a little odd you’re so keen to recast the struggle for gay equality as though it had involved little more than handing out leaflets at a summer fete.
But forget that, because this little paragraph is also staggeringly un-self-aware. I mean, what do you think you’re doing right now, Johann, in this very article? Think about it: some gay men have been attacked, and your response is to join right in with the virtual lynching of Muslims. Yes, there’s a use of the word ‘virtual’ in that sentence, because you don’t perpetrate or advocate violence, and that’s an important distinction. But we’ve seen how happily you join in with the rush to summary judgement, and wilfully twist the evidence to make it as damning as possible of Muslims.
You’re a politically astute man, Johann, so you must know how useful this will be to the rising tide of fascism on British and European streets, and yet you go ahead anyway. Why is that, I wonder? I guess I’ll never know, but one thing, at least, is absolutely clear. You may not be joining ‘gangs to beat up other minorities’ yourself, Johann, but you’re encouraging the people who will. So how does that make you feel, knowing that you’ve produced material like that, and the uses it will be put to?
Anyway, now you move from demonising Muslims to demanding authoritarian crackdowns against them:
Today, schools in Muslim areas like Tower Hamlets are deeply reluctant to explain that homosexuality is a natural and harmless phenomenon that occurs in every human society: they know that many parents will go crazy. Tough. It should be a legal requirement, tightly policed by Ofsted, and any school that refuses should be shut down. Every one of those schools has gay kids who are terrified and isolated and are at a high risk of self-harm or suicide. We need to get simple facts and practical help to them, over the heads of religiously-inspired bigots. No school should be a “faith school”, inspired by medieval holy books that demand death for gay people. Every school should be a safe school for gay children, and every school should educate straight children to live alongside them.
What is it with liberals and their chronic illiberalism – “Freedom and equality for all – but only if they agree with me”? Seriously, I wish I knew.
Anyway, Johann, let’s imagine you’re Education Secretary, and you’ve brought in these zero-tolerance policies, and Ofsted have acted, and all the schools that refuse to teach that homosexuality is natural and harmless have been shut down. Hardline muslim parents (the ones whose kids really need the help) have reacted, inevitably, by taking their children out of school, and ‘educating’ them at home. All of this will mean, of course, that the terrified gay kids you have such concern for will now be even more isolated, and there’s even less chance that they’ll come into contact with a teacher or another adult who will tell them it’s ok to be gay, and help them to make contact with the organisations that may very well save their lives. So when all that’s been achieved, Johann – when gay kids growing up amidst hardline Muslims have, thanks to your policies, been placed in greater isolation, and at greater risk of suicide – will that feel like a victory? Or will it occur to you that a populist, knee-jerk response maybe wasn’t such a great idea after all?
Perhaps not, given your admiration for knee-jerk populism abroad.
we need to make it plain that accepting the existence of gay people – and our right to live peacefully and openly – is a non-negotiable British value. In the Netherlands, they now show all new immigrants images of men kissing, and if they object, they tell them they should go and live somewhere else. We should be doing the same
When are we going to administer this test, Johann? Is it going to form part of the Citizenship Test? If so, it will have to be public knowledge that the ‘gay kiss test’ exists, and all ardent homophobes will have to do is fake their answer. (It may shock you to learn of this, Johann, but people cheat on tests.) Are you really so naïve as to think that introducing this would make any actual difference?
Or is the test going to be administered earlier? Are immigration officers at airports going to be supplied with Euroboy DVDs for the purposes of discomfiting new arrivals who haven’t had a chance yet to learn what social attitudes are expected of them? If it’s the latter, then is that really fair? I mean, someone arriving in the UK, perhaps fleeing persecution, perhaps still in fear for their life, who’s never seen images of homosexual behaviour before, and has had no chance to learn about it – is it fair that they should be denied asylum simply because they initially express discomfort at being made to look at same-sex couples kissing? What if they come from a culture that disdains all public displays of romantic affection, gay and straight?
For that matter, what about gay people themselves, fleeing countries where homosexuality is illegal, and who expect all government officials to be routinely and violently homophobic? Because it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that such a person might pretend to object to the picture because they think that’s what’s required to get into the country. Alternatively, they might be terrified that responding positively would ‘out’ them to the official, and result in them being thrown in prison, or worse. Or what about someone – a 16 year old, let’s say; someone who remains legally a child, but is old enough to understand their sexual orientation – travelling with their parents, and perhaps worried that a positive reaction might open them up to parental abuse – is it right that they should be judged by this standard?
While we’re at it, Johann, are you certain that ‘accepting the existence of gay people – and our right to live peacefully and openly’ really is ‘a non-negotiable British value’? Do the Christian Legal Centre agree that it is? I mean, they funded – and lost – a High Court appeal attempting to preserve the ‘right’ of foster parents to tell their children that homosexuality is unacceptable. What about Norman Tebbit? He’s so impeccably British he came up with yet another simplistic test to make immigrants prove they were acceptable to live in the UK – the ‘cricket test’ – yet he doesn’t seem to be fully supportive of the right of gay people to live openly in Britain.
So, Johann, it seems to that two things follow from this. Firstly, that you can’t in good faith claim that acknowledging the existence of gay people and accepting our right to live openly are non-negotiable British values, given that they are so clearly contested by UK citizens (not all of them Muslim; not all of them immigrants). And, secondly, that in insisting that Muslim immigrants have to pass this test, you’re holding this group of people to a higher standard than anyone else. So is that fair, Johann? Is it proportionate, given that, even with your obvious willingness to distort the evidence, you haven’t managed to produce the smoking gun that proves Islamophobic measures are the necessary price for defeating homophobia?
I’m sure you’ll be pleased to hear, Johann, that I’m finally – finally! – coming to the end. But before I go I just want to point out one final thing that you didn’t find room for in your article – the reactions of Muslims to the homophobic events you describe. From your article, we are left with the inescapable conclusion that – with the exception of a couple of groups, the insignificance of which you are at great pains to stress – Muslims uniformly hate and despise gay people, and that they endorse the violence being meted out to gay men by some Muslims. Well, luckily, Pink News, in reporting your article, decided to do some proper, balanced journalism. They included the response of Dr Dilwar Khan, the director of the East London Mosque and the London Muslim Centre (so that’s an important figure in two large, mainstream Muslim organisations) to the homophobic events you describe:
We stand together with our fellow citizens against all forms of hatred, including homophobia. We are committed to building strong and cohesive communities in Tower Hamlets, and our strength is that we will not let incidents of hate divide us.
What an impressive response, Johann! An unequivocal condemnation of homophobia, a determination to work with everyone in the area to build strong, cohesive communities, and to stand firm against incidents of hate, wherever they arise. Clearly, Dr Kahn is determined to do everything he can to pour oil on troubled waters.
What a shame that you are so clearly determined to fan the flames of unreasoning hatred instead. What a shame that your article is one of the ‘incidents of hate’ that we have to join forces against.
Edited to add: Since initially posting the original article on his website, Johann Hari has added a correction giving extra information about the rates of homophobic violence in the East End of London, and acknowledging that his original claim, as discussed in this post, was false.