A bitter row has erupted amongst left wing lesbian and gay rights activists around an academic article entiltled “Gay Imperialism: Gender and Sexuality in the war on Terror” by Jin Haritaworn, Tamsila Tauqir and Esra Erdem. This is a chapter in an otherwise obscure, but useful academic book on race and sexuality entitled ‘Out of Place’ . The ‘Gay Imperialism’ chapter makes some very pertinent criticisms of the role of white gays and western gay movements in collaborating with Islamophobic constructions of Muslims as essentially homophobic, and how this performs a key role in legitimating ‘the war on terror’ and the increased persecution of Muslims in the west. However,the well known gay rights activist Peter Tatchell is also mentioned in the chapter, and he has subsequently made loud accusations that he is slandered in this article, which has lead to the withdrawal of the book from further publication, and a retraction by the books publishers, ( who are somewhat ironically named ‘raw nerve’).
The chapter by Haritaworn has many flaws and dubious claims, and it is not my purpose to defend its every point. However, it does represent a critical and often marginalised voice from queer people of colour and Lesbian and gay Muslims. And it also contains many important insights, with its central claim about the appropriation of gay liberation discourses to promote Islamophobia remaining valid and deserving of our consideration. It describes how:
“Racism is … the vehicle that transports white gays and feminists into the political mainstream. The amnesia at the basis of the sudden assertion of a European ‘tradition’ of anti-homophobic and anti-sexist ‘core values’ is less a reflection of progressive gender relations than of regressive race relations”.
Haritaworn et al’s chapter raises some difficult questions. They ask:
“How do the new theories reinscribe or challenge the single-issue politics at the root of this problem, where sexual agency (and theory) remains white and cultural agency heterosexual? How do they contest or reinforce a construct of ‘Eastern culture’ as homophobic (and therefore open to official control and of re-colonisation by the ‘liberated West’)?”
However, all these insights and difficult questions have been lost in the subsequent outrage, as Tatchell strives to defend his reputation. The discussion is reduced into a ‘for’ or ‘against’ gossip column about the merits and demerits of a certain celebrity activist. This has been the case after Tatchell’s press release was reposted on Socialist Unity by my Green Left comrade Derek wall under the title “Academics Smear Peter Tatchell”. To gauge the highly craged nature of the debate, in this thread, I myself and others have been accused of having a homophobic motivation in being critical of aspects of Tatchells politics. This is despite the fact that I am also gay, and have been active over two decades in fighting homophobia, since the famous battles against Thatchers ‘Section 28’! My blog post here originated as a series of comments on that thread, to try and re-focus discussion on the real issues, and away from personality clashes. It has subsequently been reposted as a lead article on Socialist Unity, for which I am grateful.Haritaworn et al’s original and provocative chapter on Gay Imperialism can be read here. Raw nerves somewhat cringing ‘apology and correction’ can be found here. A biting critique by Johanna Rothe of this ‘apology and correction can be read here. Tatchell’s defence of his reputation can be found here. Other discussions can be found here and here!
Before I go any further, it seems necessary to first say this: I think that 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.
How are we to cut through the gordian knot of the intersecting forms of oppression of homophobia and Islamophobia? Most efforts of one sided single issue identity politics seem only to pull this knot even tighter. How can we simultaneously 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 is 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 ideology 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 suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires 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 of Britain who recently proclaimed 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”.
The working class based counter-hegemonic alliance of the oppressed and exploited that we need can only be forged in action. It requires people learning and growing, mobility of position, rather than defensive assertions of identities and static assumptions of separate communities under their own privileged leaderships. And for the left to play its essential role in building these bridges, making these alliances, we need the profoundly social insights of Marxism, not the shrill denunciations of the bourgeois secularism of ‘outrage’, Tatchell or Dawkins.