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Weekly Worker 544 Thursday September 16 2004

Criticising the oppressed

The gay rights group, Outrage, is renowned for its headline-making campaigns against homophobia - of, for example, the Church of England, Robert Mugabe and elements of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. This led to a fierce denunciation by the SWP’s Lindsey German and a heated exchange on BBC2’s Newsnight. Most recently Outrage has highlighted the murderous lyrics of certain Jamaican reggae artists. But is it right to criticise the oppressed? Peter Tatchell, Outrage’s leading activist, explains his approach

My starting point is injustice - whoever is the perpetrator and wherever there is injustice - we have a duty to fight it. It does not matter if that injustice is being perpetrated by people who also happen to be victimised. The fact that they are prepared to victimise others is a damning indictment of their own moral and political failure.

Right now Outrage is involved in a major campaign of solidarity with Jamaican lesbian and gay people, who are living in a country which, for them, is the equivalent of living in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Gay and lesbian Jamaicans wake up every morning not knowing whether they are going to be beaten up or perhaps even killed. The scale of homophobia in Jamaica is unparalleled outside of any islamic fundamentalist state. Much to our shock and dismay, until very recently hardly any human rights groups or leftwing political parties were doing anything to support gay people in Jamaica. Even now, sections of the left seem more interested in attacking our campaign than helping remedy homophobia.

Outrage’s campaign began in response to appeals for help from Jamaican queers. They told us about their almost daily terrorisation. We felt we had to do something to show solidarity with lesbian and gay Jamaicans who are struggling against grotesque oppression. If that means attacking the Jamaican state and Jamaican dance hall artists who put out songs inciting the murder of lesbian and gay people, so be it. Just because Jamaica is an underdeveloped country that has suffered under colonialism; just because of the bloody imperial past of slavery and conquest; just because today it is saddled by ‘third world’ debt; just because today Jamaicans are subjected to racist immigration requirements when coming to this country; that does not absolve them of responsibility for the persecution of their own lesbian and gay citizens.

We are regularly reviled in the Jamaican press as ‘racists’ and ‘imperialists’ for daring to raise this issue, for daring to show solidarity. There are even insinuations along those lines from black organisations and the black media in this country. They seem unperturbed by the suffering of black gay people in Jamaica. Outrage decided that, despite these slurs against us, we have to take a stand. We owe it to the lesbian and gay people of Jamaica.

I will just add one qualification. If you are wealthy, part of the Jamaican middle class and gay, it is probably unlikely that you will suffer much overt abuse or threats. But if you are a poor working class lesbian or gay Jamaican, living in a slum or ghetto or in a small rural community, you will live daily in fear of your life.

Just a few weeks ago in Montego Bay a man was walking down the street. Some passers-by claimed that he looked at another man. A crowd surrounded him and started assaulting him. The police turned up and joined in the queer-bashing attack. Officers then walked away and allowed the mob to beat him to death in full public view. That is the state of lawless homophobia that exists in Jamaica today.

Similarly, in a small rural community a man was suspected of being gay. Set upon by a mob, he was chased through the streets and sought refuge in his local Baptist church. Without mercy his pursuers barged in and cornered him by the altar. As he pleaded for his life, he was pumped full of gunshots. Can you believe it?

There are even christian leaders in Jamaica who condone this violence. They cite Leviticus, where it says that homosexuals should be put to death. Far from condemning the murder of queers, church leaders have written to the Jamaican press denouncing homosexuality, excusing dance hall singers who advocate the murder of gay people, and claiming that the quest for queer human rights is a white anti-christian plot against Jamaica.

Now I must ask: where is the left in this battle? Whose side is the left on? Where is the left’s solidarity with this struggle against homophobic violence in Jamaica? All I hear is left critiques of Outrage’s campaign. Funny, they never seem to critique the killers and their apologists in the Jamaican government and police.

Contrary to misreporting in sections of press, we are not campaigning against lyrics because they are homophobic. Our campaign is not motivated by the fact these singers dislike or abuse gay people: it is solely and exclusively because they incite the murder of gay people. That is where we draw the line. We say free speech is fine: people should have free speech, even people who condemn and criticise homosexuals. But we draw the line at overt and direct incitement to murder. That is a step too far. It is a criminal offence. If black people or muslims were victims of such incitements to murder, Outrage would take the same attitude.

I am not comfortable with bans because historically they have been used against left and progressive people, but when it comes to incitement to murder you have to take a stand, particularly in a society where there are double standards. Under the Race Relations Act, racial insults are a crime. There is no equivalent legislation outlawing homophobic insults. I think we are entitled to demand that when it comes to inciting the murder of queers we want something done.

Let me turn now to another important issue of double standards. As we know, the mayor of London appears to have decided, with support from some sections of the left, to make an alliance with reactionary islam, personified by organisations like the Muslim Association of Britain and the muslim scholar, Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi, whom the mayor hosted at City Hall in July. (I note that, according to The Daily Telegraph, I have called for Dr al-Qaradawi to be banned from entering the UK. I do not know where they got that from, but it is not true. We did not call for him to be banned, but equally we did not see why Ken Livingstone should give him a platform.)

I do not know why this alliance is being forged, but some people have speculated that Ken Livingstone and other sections of the left, notably the Socialist Workers Party and Respect, having despaired of mobilising the working class, are now searching around for some new potential ally in the struggle against capitalism and imperialism. Believing that discriminated muslims could be that force, they have decided to ally themselves with influential, but reactionary, organisations like the MAB and people like Dr al-Qaradawi.

That, of course, is just speculation, but you have to ask, what other reason could there be? Ken Livingstone has been on public record, writing articles in Tribune, the Morning Star and the September issue of Gay Times, defending his invitation to Dr al-Qaradawi on the grounds that he wants dialogue with the muslim community.

Outrage is all in favour of dialogue, but not with what muslim socialists and feminists describe as ‘islamo-fascism’. We want dialogue with progressive, liberal muslim organisations who support universal human rights, who support social justice and who have no truck with the imposition of a new religious dogma on the muslim communities of this country. There are liberal muslims - some of them around the Muslim Institute; others exiled from tyrannical muslim regimes like Iran. They have a muslim faith, but not one which is based on the persecution of women and gay people; not one which is based on the denial of workers’ and trade union rights; not one which is based on the suppression of free speech and freedom of association.

If you take a mainstream organisation like the Muslim Council of Britain, which is the umbrella organisation of all muslim groups in this country, it has fought a tooth and nail battle, allied with the rightwing Christian Institute, to oppose every measure in favour of gay and lesbian human rights over the last decade. The MCB opposes an equal age of consent; it supported the retention of section 28; it has attacked employment protection in the workplace for lesbians and gays; and it says that gay people are unfit to care for children. If you read its website, there is plenty of homophobic invective, describing gay people in the most abusive, insulting and, some would say, threatening terms. This is the organisation that Tony Blair invites to Downing Street and gives privileged access to when it comes to consultation on social and moral issues. No gay rights organisation and no woman’s rights organisation gets invited to Downing Street for special consultations. The Muslim Council of Britain does, despite the fact that it does not believe in full human rights for women and it does not believe in any human rights for lesbians and gay men.

Now, is it ‘islamophobic’ to say that? I do not think so. What the MCB wants is for us to condemn islamophobia. Well, I will be first in the queue to do so. Any form of prejudice, hatred, discrimination or violence against muslims is wrong. Full stop. But how can they expect to win respect for their community, if at the same time as demanding action against islamophobia, they themselves demand the legal enforcement of homophobia?

Solidarity is a two-way street. I will absolutely defend muslims against any form of prejudice or discrimination. But it is about time they started to reciprocate that solidarity and supported lesbian and gay people as well. It is time the muslim and gay communities worked together to fight the twin evils of islamophobia and homophobia. Sadly, I do not see any prospect of this happening. Outrage has written to the Muslim Council of Britain in a friendly way, seeking a dialogue and urging mutual solidarity. It has not and, it seems, will not engage in dialogue.

We have also written to the Muslim Association of Britain to appeal for a unity around combating both islamophobia and homophobia, pointing out the effects that muslim attacks on gay people are having within the muslim community. Muslim lesbian and gay people are some of the most vulnerable, oppressed and victimised people, not just in the gay community, but in British society. They suffer the twin oppressions of islamophobia and homophobia, including from their own community leaders.

A couple of examples. A gay muslim who works for an HIV charity, doing outreach work to promote safer sex for muslim gay men, was visited late at night by what some people would probably call a mob of local muslim leaders. They warned him that if he did not stop his work with gay muslims he would have to face the consequences. This HIV worker said that he felt in fear of his life. He feared they were quite capable of coming back and doing him serious physical violence. He was so afraid that he has had to move house and make sure that his new address and phone number are not known to anyone apart from his closest friends.

Another example. A heterosexual imam, who merely said in public that he thought homophobic prejudice was wrong, was likewise visited by a group of prominent muslims - he will not say more than that because he is so afraid - who warned him that if he values his health he will never ever speak about homosexuality again. He has since received a stream of follow-up threats, abuse and insults - so much so that he has had a nervous breakdown and has had to spend time in a mental institution. That is the scale of homophobic terror that is going on in the muslim communities today - not just against lesbian and gay muslims, but even heterosexual muslims who dare stand up for the human rights of their gay muslim bothers and sisters.

Outrage was astonished to read the coverage in Red Pepper of the recent Islamic Human Rights Commission’s ‘islamophobia awards conference’. In particular they noted the fact - I would not say approvingly, but certainly not disapprovingly - that the commission had given its media award for islamophobia to Polly Toynbee of The Guardian. Now, I do not exactly share the same politics as Polly, but there is no way any reasonable person could possibly conclude that she is islamophobic - indeed she has condemned attacks on muslim people.

What the Islamic Human Rights Commission does not like is the fact that she has spoken out against intolerance, in particular homophobia and misogyny within sections of the muslim community; that she has exposed the tyrannical agenda of certain muslim organisations in Britain and around the world; that she has criticised the idea that religious schools - any religious schools, including muslim ones - should get state funding. And yet Red Pepper, of all magazines, can give this organisation space and print its propaganda without criticism.

Because all these organisations are under scrutiny, they have sanitised most of their websites and a lot of their publications over the last few months. The most outrageous things are no longer there, but even now the Islamic Human Rights Commission has on its website an article which makes it very clear that it regards democracy and human rights as alien western concepts, that these are not in accord with islamic teaching and that the islamic view of democracy and human rights is very, very different from socialist and democratic opinion. Yet this organisation is quoted approvingly by the liberal press and is even invited to cooperate with respected human rights groups. They work with the IHRC as if it were the same as Liberty or Charter 88. It is not. The IHRC is using the tag of human rights to masquerade its tyrannical agenda, to give itself an air of respectability.

Outrage is not saying that there are no muslim organisations that are worthy and deserving of cooperation and solidarity. Women against Fundamentalism is a group of feminists - mostly muslim women - who have campaigned for many years for, first of all, a liberal interpretation of islam, and secondly to defend the human rights of women, gays and other persecuted minorities, who suffer at the hands of the fundamentalists.

Why is Ken Livingstone not having a dialogue with Women against Fundamentalism instead of Dr Al-Qaradawi and the Muslim Association of Britain? Why is he not speaking to the exiled Iranian and Iraqi muslims who are struggling to defend socialist and democratic principles in their communities? These people know first hand the horrors of religious tyranny. Why, for that matter, is Ken Livingstone not having a dialogue with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender muslim group, Imaan? They wrote to him, they requested meetings, but the mayor ignores them. Yet at the drop of a hat he will meet with Dr al-Qaradawi, who says that gays are an abomination, perverted, depraved and a dozen other vile insults, and who believes that under islamic law, in an islamic state, homosexuals should be put to death either, in his view, by burning or stoning. And indeed at least six islamic states follow his murderous injunctions.

Right now there are six islamic countries who put homosexuals to death and, as we know, in Pakistan, in northern Nigeria and a few other places where sharia law has been introduced, the execution by stoning is the punishment for people who are convicted of homosexuality by islamic courts.

This is not an attack on the muslim community. Our objection is to those strands of islamic opinion which appear to be in the ascendancy in most muslim organisations, which propound a rightwing, clerical agenda. It is vital to make the distinction between reactionary clericalism and legitimate muslim concerns: over stop and search by the police, job discrimination and so forth, where I defend the muslim community wholeheartedly. But when some of their leaders speak out against the rights of women and gay people, I believe they have to be challenged.

Outrage is concerned about making alliances with groups like the MAB without ensuring they are forged on principled grounds rather than what appears to be political opportunism. Key principles like women’s rights and workers’ rights have to safeguarded. And let us not forget that traditional islam does not believe in trade unions and does not believe in workers’ rights - everyone has to be subordinated to a theocratic state. In exceptional circumstances - such as opposing the invasion of Iraq - it may be possible, even necessary, to have alliances with such groups. But mostly it is problematic.
There are other important issues where the left has been found wanting. I have been a supporter of the Palestinian struggle for over 30 years. I have no intention of wavering on that, but I am appalled that all reasonable attempts to have a dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the Palestinian National Authority on the question of the persecution of queer Palestinians has been rejected. I have tried many, many times to speak with people in the PLO office in London and with PLO officials in Palestine. I have attempted to speak to Yasser Arafat’s office and to the office of the justice minister. These efforts go back 20 years. My request for dialogue is always rejected. For lesbian and gay Palestinians, life is as bad as it is for gays and lesbians in Jamaica: they live in fear of their lives.

There is one positive recent development, however. The PLO general delegate to Britain, although he says he will not debate the issue, has indicated he is keen to have a meeting. That will be the first time ever that anyone from the PLO has agreed to meet us and talk through our concerns.

To give one example: Fuad Mussa was a Palestinian freedom fighter who, as a teenage boy, volunteered and fought in the first intifada in the late 1980s. He was regarded as a hero. Eventually, he was arrested and gaoled by the Israelis. After he came out of gaol, the rumours spread that he was gay. Mussa heard that his life and safety were in danger. He was very fearful - so fearful that, against all his wishes, he had to flee to Israel to seek refuge. He feared that if he remained in Palestine he would be killed. So this young man, who was a hero of the intifada, was forced to flee by his village and comrades. To them, he was gay and an enemy of the people, deserving of death.

How can we ignore that injustice? To raise these issues is not to undermine the Palestinian struggle. The people who undermine the Palestinian struggle are the homophobes in the PLO and the Palestinian National Authority who are splitting and dividing the Palestinian people by setting straight Palestinians against gay ones. Moreover, in terms of international solidarity, as we saw in the case of the African National Congress in South Africa, when the ANC gave up its homophobia and came out in favour of lesbian and gay human rights, it brought lesbian and gay people into the anti-apartheid struggle, both in South Africa and here in the UK.

The final question I wish to discuss is Zimbabwe. There is no doubt that Zimbabwe has been the victim of over a century of colonial subjugation. There is also no doubt that the legacy of British colonial occupation weighs heavy on that country and has put in place many grave injustices, including the fact that most of the best land has historically been owned by white settlers and their descendants. That is why in the 1970s I supported the Zimbabwe liberation struggle. As a student I helped fund-raise to buy medical kits for the guerrilla fighters who were struggling to overthrow Ian Smith’s white minority regime. But the legacy of white colonialism and racism in Zimbabwe does not justify or excuse the human rights abuses now, whereby president Mugabe has unleashed a reign of terror against his own people.

Hardly any whites have been killed in the current terror campaign in Zimbabwe, compared to the hundreds of black Zimbabweans who are the prime victims of Mugabe’s regime. This tyranny began in the early to mid-1980s, when Mugabe’s forces massacred about 20,000 people in Matabeleland. They were not white farmers. They were black Africans - black Africans who were from the wrong tribal grouping and had the wrong political allegiance. These were not black Africans who supported the white minority regime. These were black Africans who had supported Joshua Nkomo and the Zimbabwe African People’s Union, the other main liberation organisation. Zapu had fought in alliance with Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union to secure victory in the liberation war. But after that war was over and independence was won, Mugabe decided to eliminate all his political rivals and their supporters. Hence the massacres in Matabeleland.

Where was the outcry? Where was the outcry from liberal opinion? Where was the outcry from the left? That history and trajectory of tyranny has continued right to this day. Robert Mugabe has murdered more black Africans than apartheid ever did. Many, many, many times more. Yet where is the left when it comes to campaigning against his quasi-fascist regime? I would not call it fascist, but it is certainly edging in that direction: virtually a one-party state, maintained by rigged elections, and the suppression of the press and of trade unions. Where was the left when the huge general strikes were going on in Zimbabwe and the trade union leaders were being arrested and beaten up? There should have been huge protests in this country and all around the world against these attacks on trade unionists and socialists in Zimbabwe.

We can see very clearly that the people of Zimbabwe are crying out for solidarity. They are pleading with the world: ‘Support our struggle for democracy, human rights and social justice.’ Mugabe has betrayed all those values, all those ideals. Where is the left’s solidarity with the people’s struggle in Zimbabwe?

Those of us who protest in solidarity with the Zimbabwean struggle for social justice, human rights and democracy are denounced by some on the left as the agents of imperialism, as ‘white racists’. Did they say that about white people who supported the ANC’s struggle against apartheid? Of course not - the ANC implored white people to get involved and to show solidarity with black South Africans. But when it comes to Zimbabwe, all those internationalist principles are ditched by much of the left. Correct me if I am wrong, but I have not heard voices of protest from Respect or the SWP. They seem to take the view that black Zimbabweans, trade unionist Zimbabweans and socialist Zimbabweans who are being tortured and murdered should be left to their miserable fate. Apparently it is not our responsibility.

I am sorry, but I do not buy this leftwing ‘hands off’ mentality. Tyranny is tyranny, whether it is perpetrated by a person who is white, black, brown or yellow. Mugabe is Ian Smith with a black face - only worse. Ian Smith never massacred half the number of black Zimbabweans as Robert Mugabe has done. He was a monster for sure, but only half the monster - no, less than half the monster - that Mugabe has become.

If socialist leaders turn despotic, if they abuse human rights, if they tear up democracy, if they attack trade unions, then they are no longer worthy of our support. In fact they are just as much deserving of our opposition as anyone else. The fact that Zimbabwe is a poor, ‘third world’ country, and is suffering from the legacy of colonialism, cannot justify or excuse gross abuses of human rights. The full responsibility for the massacres, the murders, the tortures and the rapes lies with Robert Mugabe and the leadership of the of the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front. They are the ones who are responsible; they are the perpetrators.

When I first got involved in leftwing politics as a teenager, in Australia, it was at the time of the Cultural Revolution. Although not a Maoist, I have a great fondness for Mao’s dictum, ‘A single spark can start a prairie fire’. There are backward moments of history when mass movements are not possible. So then you are faced with the dilemma: do you sit back and do nothing; or do small groups of people wage guerrilla-style campaigns in the hope they will spark the consciousness that will eventually help create a mass movement?

The Outrage style of direct action involves cathartic, catalytic protest; using protest as a way of shocking and jolting people out of their complacency. By an action that is outrageous or provocative, it is possible to put a suppressed social issue in the news and on the public agenda, thereby creating debate and discussion. Direct action stunts can be a very effective way of planting issues in the public domain and raising awareness.

I come out of, or rather I am still in, a radical socialist tradition. Class politics are very important, but they do not have all the answers. There are forms of oppression and indeed avenues of liberation which do not fall within an orthodox Marxist or class politics perspective. Certainly there are some dimensions of class that apply absolutely to the struggle of lesbian and gay people, but, in terms of the history, causality and mode of liberation, I do not believe orthodox class politics has a lot to offer. To me, class politics are not a dogma. All theories and ideologies are guides which we can use and adapt for particular struggles. On some issues they offer very significant, if not primary, understandings and insights which guide us towards emancipation. But on other issues, like sexual liberation, they are very, very inadequate.

So I would situate the struggle for lesbian and gay human rights within a broader human rights and social justice agenda, which partly is informed and enabled by traditional socialist ideas and theories, but also partly through new agendas: like those originating in the Green movement - the ideas of ecological sustainability and the interdependence of our species with others; the wholeness of life on this earth. My view is that socialist theory needs to adapt and evolve in parallel with a fast-changing world. To be effective, it cannot remain static and inflexible.

In conclusion, the question was, ‘Is it wrong to criticise the oppressed?’ Not if they are doing the oppressing. If victims are oppressing other people, we have a duty to challenge them as much as anyone else. If we do not, we will end up with a society where one group of oppressed peoples liberate themselves, but then perpetuate oppression against others. That will not be genuine liberation: it will be another form of tyranny. And tyranny, wherever it happens, whoever perpetrates it, has to be challenged - now and always.


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