by Barry Kade
I would like to see a reasoned debate about the complex intersections between homophobia and islamophobia, and the challenges these pose for the left. I think the previous thread about Peter Tatchell shows how theoretically impoverished we on the left are, which makes us unable to deal with this complexity. Thus all we get is a ‘for’ or ‘against’ gossip column about the merits and demerits of a certain celebrity activist under discussion.
I have attempted to lay the ground for a more nuanced discussion in a comment on that thread, which has now been reproduced below. It would be nice if people took the time to read this, and post their responses below in an intelligent and comradely style….
I think there is an important issue at stake here that is not properly recognised. However, before I go ahead, to get a hearing it seems necessary to first say this: Peter Tatchell is a courageous fighter against homophobia, and is also a comrade on the green left who fights for human rights against capitalism, ecocide, racism and imperialism. However, I have significant tactical disagreements with him, and his co-thinkers. Hopefully these can be discussed in a calm and comradely way.
In the comments box of the Peter Tatchell thread, I referred to a discussion on the original Green Left open email list, I think it was in 2008 or 2007. This had a long thread under the heading ‘Salma Yaqoob’, which had started with the helpful suggestion that someone should approach Salma and ask whether she might like to join the Green Party, in the aftermath of the Respect split. This was met with a hostile response from two or three persistent posters – over dozens of emails. These emails were from white gay secular humanist comrades. (I also am gay and an atheist, but as you will see, take an opposite view).
The central thrust of these emails were that we should not work with Salma Yaqoob, as she was an ‘Islamicist’ and a homophobe. The accusations became more wild, making accusations of “Islamo-fascism’, and equating all Muslims with reactionary views. There was very little in the way of refutation from others on the list. Peter always restricted himself to only posting his formal press releases about his general human rights work on that Green Left list, rather than taking part in the discussion. I can’t remember Derek responding at the time. Obviously the ‘anti-Salma’ posters had no knowledge of Salma’s actual politics. I pointed out that Salma was not an ‘Islamicist’, but a left-progressive Muslim woman, with progressive views on women’s liberation etc. Fortunately, this has now been understood by the Green Party and the Green Left, and we have a new basis for cooperation between the Greens and Respect in Birmingham. But this was not always the case. The posters against Salma on the Green left list in 2008 were defamatory, ignorant and often abusive.
I was particularly interested in this discussion, being involved in both the fight against homophobia and Islamophobia. This is a central but highly difficult twin task, but none the less essential if we are to unite the working class against the coming capitalist attacks, and build a new left progressive counter-hegemonic alliance of all the different sections of the exploited and oppressed.
At the heart of this ‘debate’ was a view prevalent amongst many gay rights and secular humanist activists. This view may be described as simple enlightenment secular humanism. It takes the standpoint epitomised by Voltaire’s polemics against the eighteenth century religious establishment, but then deploys them against the racially oppressed migrant workers of Europe of Muslim heritage.
Voltaire and his comrades were resisting the most powerful force in European society – the church, which stood as a central bastion of feudal power. The overthrow of this power was a central task of the rising enlightenment bourgeoisie. However, today we have many wannabe petite-Voltaire’s whose central task is not to attack the most powerful, but the most powerless. This is epitomised by the publication of the ‘Prophet-Cartoons’ by the right wing Danish newspaper the Jyllands-Posten. Framed in the enlightenment language of free expression against religious obscurantism, these cartoons were about degrading and denigrating the belief systems of Muslim people, who are racially oppressed in Europe.
And this is the heart of the issue. Since the end of the cold war against ‘communism’, the west has had to invent another enemy. Orwell in 1984, had parodied this continual construction of enemies to keep the population docile and in control, with the seamless shift between enemies and allies, Oceania and Eurasia – or in our time, between ‘communism’ and an essentialised ‘global Islam’. This involves not only a series of imperialist wars and occupations to subjugate countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan – but also an increased oppression of Europe’s already oppressed racial minorities of migrant workers and their descendants, with an additional layer of Islamophobia. Thus ‘Islamophobia’ is now an official of western power, uniting capitalists and workers, in both foreign wars and domestic racism. It is also the most serious contemporary threat to the socialist project of creating a united working class resistance of all races and religions.
Yet this racism is veiled in the language of enlightenment liberalism and secularism. The rightwing thugs of the English Defence League can claim that ‘Islam is not a race’ and that they are not being racist, they are merely standing up for secular humanism. This claim was also made on the Green Left discussion list by my fellow gay rights activists. However, this ignores the dangers of the persecution of religious minorities. Ethno-religious persecution has an ugly history, from the persecution of Jews and Catholics, and other ethnic and religious minorities. With Europes Muslims this is combined with race. In Britain, workers of Pakistani and Bangladeshi ancestry have long been on the bottom rung of our society, at the receiving end of the lowest pay, worst housing and also the worst street violence and racial oppression. Now the new ideology of Islamophobia is added on, in a dangerous and volatile mix.
Gender and sexuality have become frontlines in this new battle. Our previous hard fought battles against sexism and homophobia by the women’s and gay liberation movements are now being appropriated by the establishment and other oppressive forces. Thus the war in Afghanistan is sometimes justified with reference to fighting sexism and homophobia. And the BNP and the EDL in the UK, and Dutch right wingers such as Geert Wilders sometimes try to hijack our struggles against sexism and homophobia to promote their racist and Islamophobic agenda.
Leading figures in the feminist and gay liberation movements need to speak out against this hijacking and appropriation of our struggles by the far right and the warmongers. Yet all too often they collaborate with it, attending ‘freedom of expression’ events, etc.
And just because the right try to appropriate gay liberation and feminism in their Islamophobic crusade, this does not mean that they are not also homophobic and sexist. I’ve just witnessed first hand the rising anti-gay bigotry in the USA, around an orchestrated backlash against gay marriage proposals. The thugs of the EDL might try to use us as cover for their Islamophobic racism, but this all male group of football hooligans are just as capable as going queer bashing as embarking on an Islamophobic pogrom.
It is also just as important to challenge homophobia amongst the Muslim working class. Racially and religiously oppressed minorities will not be able to defend or liberate themselves if they remain in thrall to backward and reactionary prejudices. But this will not be done by aligning ourselves with the racist right wing, and using homophobia as a stick to beat Muslims with. People retreat into their religion as a form of comfort, as a defence against a hostile, racist and exploitative world. As Marx said:
“Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions”. Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.
Thus Marx’s atheism was the opposite of Voltairian secularism or bourgeois enlightenment atheism. Marx did not believe religion would disappear in a cloud of scientific logic, but that it has material roots in social relations of alienation and oppression. If religion is a painkiller, then bourgeois atheists ridicule the oppressed for needing painkillers, while Marxist atheists seek to help the oppressed remove the cause of the pain.
And if homophobia amongst Muslims is to be challenged, then we must first unite with Muslims in common struggles against war and racism, and build alliances with progressive Muslims. That this can be done is shown by the recent courageous statements by Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council f Britain who recently spoke up for Muslim support for gay rights, saying:
“At its best, Islamic civilisation was more than willing to learn from other surrounding countries and cultures and adopt the best aspects as its own. Actively working to ensure that people are able to live free of discrimination based on one’s ethnicity, gender, religion or sexual orientation is a worthy goal and should be viewed as an Islamic goal”.
I seem to have written a long and hasty post. I will rework this further in my own blog soon. I will also repost the ‘Gay Imperialism’ article from ‘out of place’ or at least sections of it and a full exegesis and commentary.
However, given the tone of this blog thread here, I expect to be quoted out of context and denounced by our influx of petite-voltaires and uncritical inheritors of the bourgoise enlightenment secularism. Enjoy!