Could community relations survive a homophobic campaign?

A very important article by Jack Gilbert in today’s Guardian. Here is how it starts:

It’s late afternoon on Bethnal Green Road, in east London, and I am rushing from the tube for a meeting. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye I catch something that brings me to a stop: a rainbow flag turned into a no entry sign, with the words “gay free zone” written across. Above are the words “Arise and warn” and below “And fear Allah. Verily Allah is severe in punishment”. Both with a Koranic reference. I shiver, and am reminded of the words “Juden raus” (Jews out) that my mother would have seen in Berlin in the 1930s. It is not something I thought I would ever witness 70 years on in one of the most diverse neighbourhoods in Britain, where gay pubs share the same streets as synagogues and Halal butchers.

This, you knew about:

At informal meetings involving the Council of Mosques, the ELM, and the Inter-faith Forum, chaired by a Christian minister, we looked at how to address homophobia in faith communities. We argued that no hatred, harassment or bullying of any LGBT person is ever justified by faith, even when scripture forbids same-gender sexual relations. Whatever any community’s teaching, this is entirely separate from its duty to respect human life and to develop good relations with its neighbours and other communities of culture and belief.

Out of these meetings came the idea for a major interfaith conference on the International Day Against Homophobia on 17 May. A multifaith LGBT steering group was assembled and Rahman and the cohesion minister, Andrew Stunell, agreed to join more than 80 LGBT and straight people from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist and secular backgrounds.

Later in the piece, Jack Gilbert explains why it was so important for the East London Mosque to take practical action to oppose homophobia:

The ELM is a leader of the Muslim community, with a responsibility to set an example. It has accepted it has hosted at least one homophobic speaker, Abdul Karim Hattin, in 2007, whose Spot the Fag lecture was featured on Channel 4’s Dispatches programme. Last month, the ELM contacted Rainbow Hamlets after accusations of culpability for the rise in homophobic crime in Tower Hamlets appeared in the national press. It asked what could be done.

The Interfaith Conference could have been the opportunity to make such a stand. They fumbled that chance:

But in April, it suddenly became hard to get a response from the Council of Mosques and the ELM. We realised that neither would talk publicly about their new stance on hate speech, or even, despite our strenuous efforts, send any formal representatives to the conference. A couple of community members were sent along to participate in their own right, but a chance was missed, goodwill dissipated and the trust that had been built up sorely tested.

So, there you have it. The East London Mosque was quite happy to make the right noises when the press was looking. The moment attention was elsewhere, like Macavity, it was nowhere to be seen.

A clearer example of bad faith, it would be hard to find.

Jack Gilbert observes:

All too often, these issues are dealt with in ways that create enormous tensions and hurt, reinforce ignorance and disrespect, and build anger and hatred. At the same time, whatever good words are said to us in meetings in private, they are only of value if they lead to public action. Otherwise, what use are they in building understanding between communities when tensions exist?

Quite so. It gets worse:

In June, we obtained a month-by-month analysis of homophobic crime figures in the borough. It reveals that incidents in Tower Hamlets have risen by a third (33%) between April 2009-March 2010 and April 2010-March 2011, much more than the 21% widely reported in the media. The increase is of even more concern because the data counted all the reports of stickers in the borough as one linked incident.

So, this is what is being done now:

We are now engaged in intense dialogue. Our approach is to treat the ELM like any other body in which homophobia has occurred. So we have made clear that we intend to compile an evidenced-based report. We have asked the ELM for a clear statement of its policy towards homophobic speakers. On its website it does say “those hate preachers who circumvented our bookings policy in the past are now barred; our vetting procedures for speakers and guests appearing at our mosque and centre have been significantly tightened over the past year”. But to date no one has seen its policy. We have also asked how it will enforce the policy and, crucially, for a clear response about which preachers are barred. We intend to report progress next month.

The East London Mosque can be certain that the press will also be watching, to see whether they are prepared to close their doors to hate preachers. This is their last opportunity. They are showing every sign of fluffing the test.

Here’s Jack Gilbert’s conclusion:

Today, moderate communities have a simple unequivocal duty: to be seen to show all their neighbours respect – whether or not they agree or approve of their beliefs or lifestyle. What is needed is a paradigm shift among LGBT and Muslim opinion formers, one that enables the leaders to find a rhetoric that can speak of respect and joint-working publicly, and which addresses patterns of prejudice on all sides without fear.

Twenty years ago this month, I was secretary of the Jewish Lesbian and Gay Helpline when it was banned from a cross-community charity walk organised by the chief rabbi, Lord Sacks, because it was an event for families. Clerics, like all of us, can change. Nowadays, Sacks says: “Jews cannot fight antisemitism alone, Muslims cannot fight Islamaphobia alone, gays cannot fight homophobia alone. The victim cannot cure the crime, the hated cannot cure the hater. We are as big or as small as the space we make for others who are not like us.”

We should all take note.

This is precisely what citizens in a pluralist, liberal and multicultural society deserve and have every right to expect.