In the US earlier this week a controversy broke out over the decision by the Washington Post not to publish (at least in its printed edition) Sunday’s instalment of the cartoon strip “Opus,” in which a character appears in a headscarf and explains to her boyfriend that she wants to become a radical Islamist. (Fox News report here, link to the actual cartoon here.)
Reports have pointed out that a recent episode of the same cartoon strip ridiculed the late right-wing Christian fundamentalist Jerry Falwell, yet no attempt was made to ban it. Predictably, the right-wing blogosphere has leapt on this issue, accusing the media of applying double standards and discriminating in favour of Muslims (“Christians are fair game, Muslims aren’t“).
Whether the Washington Post was correct to spike the cartoon is a matter of debate (see for example Sheila Musaji’s comments at The American Muslim). But what should be rejected outright is the stupid notion that reinforcing stereotypes about a minority ethno-religious community which is already the object of a poisonous right-wing propaganda campaign is the same as taking the piss out of a white Christian evangelist like Jerry Falwell.
Far from being a beleaguered minority, the Christian Right in the US is politically close to the Republican Party and a leading figure like Falwell was even in a position to place demands on would-be presidential candidates in exchange for electoral support (see, for example, here). If there’s one thing Jerry Falwell emphatically wasn’t, it was oppressed. In fact, he was prominent among the ranks of the oppressors – so notorious was he for his Islamophobic views that the Anti-Defamation League publicly dissociated themselves from his more egregious anti-Muslim remarks.
That right-wing US commentators should be unable to make a distinction between the position of Muslims and Christians in western society is hardly surprising, but the same sort of argument is regularly trotted out by people who in other respects hold broadly progressive views and should be expected to know better.
For example, we’ve already covered Maryam Namazie’s Islamophobic rant at the International Day Against Homophobia, as reported in the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association’s magazine Gay Humanist Quarterly, in which she accused the Muslim Council of Britain of wanting to hang gay men in Trafalgar Square. But we have not dealt with the contribution from another platform speaker at the IDAHO reception – Darren Johnson, who is one of the Green Party’s two members on the London Assembly. In the same issue of GHQ George Broadhead of GALHA reported:
“In his speech, Darren Johnson cited those on the political left who were reluctant to criticise Islamic homophobia. ‘Many on the left are perfectly comfortable denouncing homophobia if it comes from the lips of right-wing Christian fundamentalists’, he said, ‘but get strangely queasy if it is espoused by Muslim fundamentalists.”
Christianity, it seems to have escaped Johnson’s attention, is the religion of the white majority in the West, whereas Islam is the religion of non-white minorities. Attacks on the belief system of Muslims therefore can and very often do serve as a cover for racist propaganda. Why else do right-wing newspapers like the Express and the Mail, and far-right groups like the BNP, devote themselves to obsessively attacking the Muslim community?
The point is – you can’t just ignore social context. This is usually pretty obvious when it comes to the Jewish community, who are of course another minority ethno-religious group with a long history of racial and religious oppression. Denouncing Judaism and Jews is not all the same thing as denouncing Christianity and Christians. Even the most rigid of secular rationalists can usually see that.
For example GALHA, of which Darren Johnson is an honorary vice-president, states on its website that: “In contrast to most religions, including Christianity, Orthodox Judaism and Islam, which derive their morality from ancient ‘holy’ books, modern secular humanism takes an enlightened, rational approach to homosexuality, accepts the validity of lesbian and gay lifestyles, and gives unequivocal support to lesbian and gay rights.”
As can be seen, GALHA includes links to articles on their site denouncing homophobia in Christianity and Islam – but not in Orthodox Judaism. Now, why might that be? It’s not as though there is a lack of material.
For example, Leviticus 18:22 states: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.” Furthermore, Leviticus 20:13 specifies the appropriate penalty for such behaviour: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.” (By contrast, no such penalty is specified in the Qur’an.)
In the present day, Orthodox Judaism still regards homosexuality as a perversion, and its call for understanding in relation to individual homosexuals is double-edged to say the least. An article on the website of the Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, entitled “Judaism and Homosexuality”, states that “we must help the homosexual avoid the pitfalls of promiscuity, despair and the various ailments to which he may be more vulnerable”. So, according to Orthodox Judaism, gay men require help because they are prone to suffer from depression and disease as a result of their promiscuous homosexual lifestyle.
The article also says: “our advocacy of tolerance and patience for the homosexual refers to the individual. It does not apply to organisations that promote homosexuality as a cause celebre or even as an equally acceptable ‘alternative lifestyle’.” So Orthodox Judaism specifically excludes tolerance for organisations like GALHA.
The article explains why Orthodox Judaism is opposed to lesbian and gay couples adopting children: “marriage and procreation are supreme values in Judaism. It is antithetical to the spirit of Judaism to initiate a procedure whereby children will be conceived, born and bred outside the normative family nucleus.”
Regarding civil partnerships, a spokesman for the Chief Rabbi has said: “There is no prospect of the mainstream Orthodox community permitting same-sex commitment or marriage ceremonies. Orthodox Jews are bound by biblical and rabbinic law, which only condones sexual relationships between a man and a woman who are married.”
And so on, and so on. Yet, as I say, the GALHA website has never got round to publicly denouncing the homophobia to be found in the beliefs and practices of Orthodox Jews.
Don’t get me wrong – I think that GALHA’s hesitation in publicly attacking Orthodox Judaism over its position on homosexuality is entirely understandable. There are considerations here that obviously don’t apply in the case of homophobia among right-wing evangelical US Christians. How can an LGBT organisation that consists predominantly of non-Jews launch a fierce attack on the “backward culture” of a section of the Jewish community without running the risk of aligning itself with the racist Right and giving encouragement to antisemitism? Faced with that difficulty, GALHA evidently prefers to keep silent.
In that regard at least, they show some sensitivity. But when it comes to Islam, all such considerations go out the window. Anyone who thinks that non-Muslims have to show some tactical sense in countering homophobia within Muslim communities, in order to avoid aligning ourselves with the racist Right and giving encouragement to Islamophobia, and that the case for a more liberal attitude to homosexuality is best argued by organisations within those communities who should be able to determine their own strategy and tactics, is denounced for succumbing to “cultural relativism”.
The result is that, often under the banner of defending “Enlightenment values”, and armed with the spurious argument that they criticise all religions equally, organisations like GALHA take a position on Islam which is not easily distinguished from that of people like Pim Fortuyn, who built a mass political movement in the Netherlands around the call for a defence of liberal Western values against “Muslim immigrants”. Indeed, as GALHA’s own experience illustrates, their approach easily tips over into outright racism.
Rather than condemning the “political left” for making concessions to “Islamic homophobia”, Darren Johnson would be better occupied criticising those fellow members of the secularist movement who join the racist Right in promoting bigotry against a vulnerable minority community. Particularly so in light of Maryam Namazie’s disgraceful contribution to the IDAHO reception.