Muslims, The Far-Right And Gay Rights

Gay Muslims

Smashing Moronic Stereotypes

The distinctive difference between the European and American far-right is this: European fascism is often secular in nature, while the US variety fanatically adheres to fundamentalist Christianity. This allows European fascism to paint itself as “modern”, and so in contrast show that “foreign” cultures are backward. This method worked in demonising Jews in Nazi Germany, and is being deployed today against Muslims.

This difference shows itself most strongly when it comes to issues surrounding gay rights; the American right is viciously homophobic. No hurricane or earthquake can pass without some moron calling it God’s retribution for tolerating homosexuality. The American right rallies “in defence of marriage” – a coded term for rejecting same-sex unions. Meanwhile, European fascists loudly parade European “tolerance” of homosexuality as a stick with which to beat Muslims. They claim that intolerant Muslim immigrants are poisoning “our culture of tolerance”.

This is a straw-man argument. Europe’s supposed tolerance of gay rights is extremely recent, and far from universal (11 of the 27 EU members don’t recognise gay marriage). The Nazis’ slaughter of homosexuals in concentration camps is almost certainly the greatest attack on gays in history (since Sodom, anyway). Although homosexuality was legalised here in the UK in 1967, gays were still afraid to openly walk the streets until perhaps the late-90s, when public acceptance had finally reached tipping point.

The far-right method is simple: point out the barbaric treatment of gays in Iran and Saudi Arabia, where executions take place; then blur the line between these two states and the 50+ other Muslim-majority countries. All this is done while ignoring attacks on gay rights in the non-Muslim world, including in the US. While some of the worst abuses of homosexuals have come from Christian-majority African and Caribbean states like Uganda and Jamaica, these are ignored – especially when US evangelicals are found to be backing Uganda’s attempts to introduce the death penalty for homosexuality.

The fascist method is to create simple myths about whole groups of people. The idea that there is a single “Muslim culture” is laughable to anyone who has travelled extensively. The cultures of Muslim Arabia and Muslim West Africa, for example, couldn’t be more different.

As for the idea that Muslims are somehow less tolerant than Jews, Hindus or Christians? Reality flatly disputes this. A poll of British Muslims and Christians last year found that Muslims were marginally more proud than Christians of Britain’s tolerance towards homosexuals; when asked if they agreed with the statement: “I am proud of how Britain treats gay people”, 47% of Muslims agreed (contrasting with 46.5% of Christians). And how about the French Imam who blessed a gay union earlier this year? Reality undermines the myth that somehow Muslim immigrants are reducing European tolerance.

Conservative religion worldwide is guilty of extreme homophobia; American evangelical leaders, the mullahs of Iran and Saudi Arabia, and leaders in many African countries – Muslim and Christian alike – attack homosexuality as an evil. Amusingly, some non-white homophobes often refer to homosexuality as a “white disease“, showing much in common with the fascists who label homophobia a Muslim import.

My own experience agrees with the poll quoted above. Most Muslims I know are accepting towards homosexuality; and a night I spent in a very gay (but mixed) nightclub in the Moroccan city of Agadir showed me that these attitudes are widespread outside Europe too. Fascists, of course, deliberately ignore all these subtleties. Their job is to convince morons that Muslims are damaging “our culture”, and that requires simple, black and white stories to be disseminated.

WTF Is “Radical Islam”?

Generally, sparring with morons online can be fun. Being told that I’m a pawn of the devil, or a self-hating Jew often makes me smile. But there are more disturbing moments. The ongoing fascist-style campaign to paint all people of Muslim descent as an evil threat to the Western World becomes ever-more reminiscent of what was done to the Jews across Europe and America in the 1930s. Usually, the offenders are semi-literate Bible-bashers, but increasingly, just as in the 30s, secular “liberals” can be found in the melee, swinging a punch or a kick.

Recently, for no apparent reason I could identify, I was accused by some fellow Atheists of “defending Islam”. Now, I’m not aware that I’ve ever “defended Islam”. In fact, that term itself has an Orwellian ring to it, like “supporting terror” or “promoting homosexuality”. It seems “defending Islam” is something that good, secular liberals everywhere must avoid, or face public condemnation. In response, I pointed out that defending Muslims from attack isn’t “defending Islam” – to which I was told: yes it is: because all Muslims uphold Islam, which (as any moron knows) is an evil ideology. I pointed out that I know people who identify as Muslim, but who don’t practise, or in some cases don’t even believe. But these Atheist defenders of rationality told me I was wrong: anybody who claims Muslim identity is bad by definition, I was told.

Fascist stuff indeed: identity, I’ve always believed, is for the individual to choose for himself, and nobody else to force upon him. In my own experience, I tend to feel most Jewish when I encounter anti-Semites (and least Jewish in the company of other Jews). And certainly, a similar transformation is taking place among European and American Muslims: hatred towards Muslims is growing at breakneck speed, and the more times someone has MUSLIM screamed at them, the more Muslim they will feel. Like Judaism, Islam is a deep culture, with its book, traditions and routines. I remember childhood Friday evenings lighting sabbath candles and being allowed a sip of red wine; the prayers and tastes of the Passover dinner; the unique smell of a room decked in fruit and leaves during Sukkot, the harvest festival. My nostalgia over those memories, and my feeling that I was enacting an ancient ritual, are still there, despite my Atheism – the Jewish religion still forms a part of my experience, memories and identity, although I reject its superstitious beliefs. Muslims likewise, both secular and religious, will remember the rituals, the tastes and smells, of their childhoods, and feel Muslim, however little they practise their religion.

The Nazi propaganda campaign against Jews was subtle and sophisticated. How do you persuade Europeans that a tiny minority could be a threat? Some conditions are required: first and foremost, the population must be ready and willing to believe. And indeed, hatred of Jews (and Muslims) is an old European (and Catholic) tradition, dating back many centuries. Next, you take some grains of truth. And then you build up layer after layer of lies.

Post-9/11, the far-right leaped into action and repeated Nazi methodology to the letter. The far-right British National Party didn’t mention Muslims at all prior to 9/11. Their target was “Asians”, but this hate campaign failed to gain much traction. Within days of 9/11, their leaflets were rewritten, and Muslims had replaced Asians as the threat. Those people attacking Muslims today use the Islamophobe’s favourite phrase: I’m not racist; Islam isn’t a race. But to attack Muslims in the UK means to attack Pakistanis, who have been the target of race hate since at least the 1970s. And French fascists now label North and West Africans (who they’ve always attacked) as Muslims. And Dutch or Spanish fascists now label Moroccans (who they’ve always attacked) as Muslims. Bit by bit, European and American fascists have clicked into gear with each other. The anti-Muslim messages have been standardised, strengthened and amplified.

Secular fascism has returned. The Muslim-hating Atheist spreads similar stories of hate to the Christian crusader. Of course, the secular fascist tends to be more intelligent, and more persuasive. Unlike the Christian fascist, the secular fascist can uphold gay rights and women’s rights without hypocrisy, and hence sound more compelling. Secular fascists can sound liberal, and then use their “liberalism” against Islam – or more accurately, against their definition of Islam. Or more accurately still, against Muslims, whatever they believe, and wherever they live. Because the target of European fascism isn’t a religion or ideology, but minority groups: fascism gains strength by demonising minorities. Pre-9/11, there was no coherent “threat” for fascists to unite around. 9/11 gave them a common narrative.

A favourite way to “confront Islam” (or bait Muslims) is to cherry-pick.

“Islam oppresses women”.

“How so?”

“Look at Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan.”

Note how these three countries are repeatedly chosen as examples, ignoring most of the other 50 Muslim countries. Never mind that Saudi Arabia is home to a fundamentalist cult, Wahhabism; or that war-torn Afghanistan is home to the ultra-conservative group, the Taliban; or that Iran is a theocracy. Never mind that these three countries have totally different cultures to each other. Never mind that the modern state of all three societies has nothing to do with Islam, and everything to do with 20th century Western and Russian foreign policy, with oil, and the American imperial war. In the mind of the moron, this argument is enough. Of course, anything can be “proved” this way: Christian countries have the world’s highest rates of rape. Therefore Christianity is the rapist religion – easy! But of course, fascism is doesn’t target Christians. It targets Muslims, Jews, Roma, blacks… any group that forms a distinct minority in the West.

This was the Nazi method by which the Jewish Problem was invented. The corruption of a Jewish financier, or the explosion of a Zionist bomb, or the “backwardness” of fundamentalist Judaism were unrelated issues. But a combination of clever propaganda and a moronic public turned them into the same thing. Never mind that most Jews who were eventually dragged into concentration camps were neither Zionists nor fundamentalists nor financiers. The Jewish Problem came to mean everything Jewish.

The modern equivalent of the Jewish Problem is Radical Islam. It is equally meaningless, equally misleading, and equally capable of persuading morons that a real threat exists. It is a term that can be stretched to include any group or event. The 9/11 attacks were by Radical Islam, not Saudi dissidents protesting against US occupation of Arab states. Radical Islam (not the conservative Taliban) stopped women from being educated in Afghanistan, and stops women from driving in Saudi Arabia. Al Qaida, a terrorist organistion, and Hizbollah, which exists to defend against terrorism, are both Radical Islam. It’s enough that both groups are Muslim (although in fact, Hizbollah also has Christian members – details always spoil a simple story). The peace-loving Muslim who prays 5 times a day and the loud-mouthed protester who burns poppies in protest at British involvement in Afghanistan, are both Radical Islam. Support for Iraqi insurgents (and why shouldn’t anyone support those fighting against invasion of their own land?) is Radical Islam, and so is a group of teenagers throwing stones at Israeli soldiers who are helping to destroy their village’s crops. Palestinian activists who belong to the secular Fatah movement are Radical Islam. British Muslims who come out to defend their streets against EDL street thugs are Radical Islam. Women in burqas or hijabs are Radical Islam. The conservative, Islamist government of Turkey is Radical Islam. The conservative Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt are Radical Islam.

Fascism has risen again in Europe, and real people are being hurt today in real attacks – that is the real result of fascists, both religious and secular, “confronting Islam”. When street thugs target Muslim homes and businesses, they don’t care whether the owners are religious or not, political or not. While we’re easily distracted by the moronic antics of street thugs like the EDL, the most dangerous fascism now, as in the 1930s, lives among the middle classes. Generally, fascism is most prevalent among religious conservatives, but secular liberals can be the most persuasive and dangerous advocates of fascism. Seeing some of my fellow Atheists joining the bullying campaign against ordinary people (whether religious or secular) saddens me, but doesn’t surprise me. After all, Atheism isn’t a movement – it’s simple a lack of belief in a god. I find the religious beliefs of Muslims (and Jews, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists) to be ludicrous – but that debate must be one that accepts the right to believe. Using religious intolerance as a proxy for a race war isn’t a new trick – but apparently it’s one that is as powerful today as it always was.

Moronic Misrepresentations of Muslims

As I write this, I’m spending a few days in Egypt – by my count, this is the eleventh Muslim-majority country I’ve visited (though that count includes a fast, accidental journey through the Palestinian West Bank, driving a car with yellow Israeli number plates, so perhaps ten is a more accurate number). A few minutes ago I took a seat in a café. At the next table was a veiled woman with two small boys; I smiled and nodded at her – she met my eyes and nodded back. Maybe she smiled back too.

Western misunderstandings and misrepresentations of Muslims and Muslim-majority countries don’t begin with the 9/11 attacks – the seeds of the fear have been there for centuries. I admit that when I took my first trip outside the “Christian world”, to Turkey, I expected to meet some unfriendliness at the least, and resolved to keep my Jewish identity a secret. I had already travelled in Europe and North America, but nowhere else. On my first day in Istanbul I asked a local how to get somewhere; he beckoned me to follow him, and I reluctantly did. We walked to a main street and boarded a bus. I looked around at the other passengers and listened to them talking their incomprehensible language, and wondered if I was heading into danger, or at least that my guide was going to try to fleece me for some cash. After a little while we got off the bus in a residential area. The man pointed up the street to show me my destination. Then he waved goodbye, turned and walked away. My first real encounter with a Turk, and he’d been more friendly and helpful than pretty much any Western stranger I’d ever met. Coincidence? It turned out not – Turks, I found, are generally more friendly and welcoming than any European population I’ve encountered (by which I include European diaspora cultures including North America and Australia).

My second venture into an Islamic culture worried me more. I’d been offered a few weeks’ work in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates. Growing up Jewish, having been taught to love Israel and having vague childhood memories of Arab-Israel hostilities, I had a negative view of Arabs. Nobody had overtly told me they were bad people, but somehow I’d developed that idea anyway. I was worried people might spot that I didn’t look particularly English, and enquire about my origins. At immigration, my passport was checked by a man in traditional Arab dress. I admit I was worried – but of course I had no problems. As my time in Abu Dhabi passed, I relaxed, and would stroll the city in the evenings, eating in local places. After a while, I confided in a work colleague (a Lebanese man) that I was Jewish. No alarms sounded; he didn’t look shocked; but shook his head sadly: “The Jews and the Palestinians are the smartest people in the Middle East”, he said. “If only they could work together, they would lead the region”. The people of UAE proved to be welcoming and friendly enough – though perhaps less approachable than Turks. Given that native-born UAE residents are fairly wealthy and form an upper class over a largely immigrant workforce, that’s not surprising though.

Later travels took me to several Muslim countries in North and West Africa. Each time I found people who were generally more welcoming of outsiders than Europeans; indeed, I started to realise that a natural hostility to outsiders seems to be a characteristic found more strongly in European cultures than elsewhere. Given our continent’s position as a remote north-western outpost of the Old World, that’s perhaps not surprising. Europe has been of little interest to outsiders for most of human existence, and Europeans aren’t used by nature to foreigners visiting us. We are still the fortress continent, and we (including our white American, Australasian and South African cousins) carry that old European fear of anybody different to ourselves. The only long-term visitors to Europe from outside are the Jews and the Gypsies – and neither group has fared well.

I have frustrating conversations on Twitter with ignorant morons, largely in the US, who have never visited a Muslim country – many who have never even met a Muslim person – and yet persist in a ludicrously narrow, stereotypical view of Muslims. There’s nothing that can be truly described as “Islamic culture”. Surface Arab conservatism hides the same vices that exist in the West. Morocco was a haven of tolerance for European homosexuals long before they were accepted anywhere in Europe. I’ve danced in a local Moroccan night club that doubled as a gay venue and a brothel; I’ve seen Gambian and Sierra Leonean women dance far more outrageously than would be considered “decent” in many American bars. Saudis drive to Bahrain to get drunk for the weekend just as Brits head out to Amsterdam to get stoned.

Is the Islamic world packed with uniformly wonderful people? Of course not – and it’s the diversity of cultures that gives the lie to the idea that there such thing as Islamic culture. (Muslim) North Africans I’ve met, who have worked in wealthy Saudi Arabia have described the (Muslim) Saudis to me as the most racist people they’ve ever encountered. The Muslim world contains communists and fascists, atheists and fundamentalists, just as the Western world does.

As for the growing myth that Muslims and Jews are natural enemies: this is spread by Christians, the true historic enemies of both Jews and Muslims. Muslim nations sheltered Jews in the 1930s and 1940s when Europe was no longer a safe place for them. Further back, the Islamic Moorish Empire in Spain protected the right of Jews to worship; when the Catholics retook Iberia, they forced Jews and Muslims to convert, under the threat of death. My own ancestry includes some Sephardic Jews who fled from Portugal to the Netherlands following the Christian victory over the Moors. Until the establishment of the state of Israel, every Muslim country in the Middle East and North Africa, plus Turkey, Persia/Iran, Pakistan, and others had thriving Jewish communities; most of these countries still have small Jewish communities, sadly diminished by the pull of Israel. Israel itself owes its existence to the Nazis; the vast majority of European Jews had no interest in joining the Zionist extremists until they were slaughtered en-masse by Christians.

As for alcohol? This is very much the European’s drug of choice, but I’ve drunk legally in every Muslim country I visited; in the UAE, only foreign passport-holders can drink legally, but in the other nine countries it was freely available, including locally-produced beers and wines. This is the case in the vast majority of Muslim countries. Cannabis and hash were also easily available in most of the countries, and generally more tolerated than in the majority of European countries or US states. Many Muslims drink, though more moderately than Westerners, and many tend to give up as they get older, seeing it as a drug for young people.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which recently polled around 40% of the vote here in Egypt, is conservative, and against much of what I believe in; yet most of its beliefs are markedly more tolerant and centrist than those on the Christian right of US politics. It’s sad but inevitable that democracy in Arab and North African countries has unleashed conservatism; the people of Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco are in the majority, poor and rural. Rural people are naturally conservative. The only way towards liberalism in these places is to allow democracy, development and urbanisation to occur. The next, better educated and wealthier generation in turn will demand their sexual and personal freedoms from the religious right.

The religious right in America, despite being the most bigoted and loudest voice against Muslims, is the natural ally of the religious right in Arabia and North Africa. They believe in the same things: that sexual liberty needs to be reigned in, that drugs and alcohol should be tightly controlled, that abortion and homosexuality are wrong and that people shouldn’t be allowed the freedom to choose these things for themselves. The far-right in Europe is more secular, intelligent and cynical – they use the supposed “intolerance” of Muslims against them; yet this intolerance is a lie. For example, a recent poll in the UK showed British Muslims were marginally more accepting of homosexuality than British Christians were.

Sadly, even some liberals have fallen for this propaganda. Some have supported France’s bigoted ban on veils, accepting the lie that most women don’t choose the veil for themselves; they often accept the “Muslims are intolerant” line almost as easily as bigoted right-wing Christians do. They believe that Western troops in Afghanistan can somehow “improve” the lives of women (forgetting that the rise of the Taliban conservatives was caused by our own destabilising of liberal, secular regimes there).

Oh, and let’s get past the lie that Muslim-hate isn’t racist. Yes, as our bigoted moron friends will constantly point out, Islam isn’t a race. But Islamophobia has just become a proxy for race hate towards old targets: Pakistanis in the UK, Moroccans in the Netherlands, blacks and Arabs in the US, Turks in Germany.

We need to confront the lies and the liars head-on. The terrorism in the world comes overwhelmingly from ourselves in the West. We can strengthen liberal tolerance and freedom in Islamic countries by strengthening it in our own, and lending support to struggles for democracy, social equality and tolerance elsewhere. The rise of religious crazies in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia will only be strengthened by the rise of fascist, Christian crazies in Europe and North America. Our job is to expose their moronic lies at home – our Muslim cousins can deal with their own problems.

As I prepared to submit this post, a little Egyptian boy came and offered me a bowl of sweets – I took one, saying Shukran. the boy’s mother and grandmother, both wearing hijabs, walked past and smiled at me. “It’s his Mum’s birthday”, explained the grandmother, gesturing at her daughter, flashing me a broad smile, before they hurried on after the child.