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Sunday, 1 March 2015

Racists do not Speak for Us

White liberalism has problems. First it was Bill Mahler on his Islamophobia rant, now it's a column in the Independent. They claim to speak for liberal values, which are often broadly reducible to atheism and LGBT people. I want to address this.

For too long, the atheist and LGBT communities have tolerated our self-appointed leaders seeking advantage in Islamophobia. Maybe Richard Dawkins and Peter Tatchell really think there is some threat of Sharia Law being imposed in the UK. However, this seems unlikely. Muslims make up a tiny minority in Europe in general and within the UK. Even if a majority of Muslims were in favour of abandoning a thousand years of common law, (which is already a dubious assertion), they don't have the political backing or the numbers to make this happen. The idea that this is some kind of threat is absurd. Dawkins and Tatchell are being deliberately disingenuous. These men are (presumably) smart enough to know better.

Meanwhile, Christianity, the majority religion, is often threatening to both atheists and LGBT people. One need look no further to our closest allies, the US, to see a country where Christian parents can bully their trans children to death, like the case of Leelah Alcorn. And where Christianity is such an official part of that 'secular' state, that they hold a National Day of Prayer. Indeed, former president George HW Bush gave an interview where he called for atheists to be stripped of their citizenship. American Christian extremists are part of an international network, which does have links in the UK and have done some serious harm abroad. These religious extremists have travelled to Uganda, specifically to persecute LGBT people there.

And nobody spills endless ink on a national stage about the Christian threat. Because Christians are dominant and have power. Which is exactly why they actually are a threat, and also why nobody wants to have to deal with the fallout. Because obviously not all Christians are extremists, only a small minority - something that is also true for other religions, although that fact tends to be conveniently forgotten. When one lives in a dominant Christian milieu, it's immediately very obvious that there are some positive aspects to the structures created by Christian organisations and that many Christians are peaceful and harmless and privately horrified by the misogynistic and homophobic activities undertaken under the banner of Christianity. Yet, somehow, white liberals are systematically unable to perceive that this kind of ideological diversity might exist in Islam. Why is that?

LGBT people and, to a much lesser extent, atheists in the UK are 'subaltern'. In many ways still, we do not have direct access to power and are not granted platforms to advocate for ourselves unless we enter into a bargain with the powerful. We can have nice shiny platforms to advocate for ourselves only if we couple that with advocating against other unpopular groups. At least, according to Spikvak in Can the Subaltern Speak. Surely now, though, atheists and LGBT people are much more empowered than we used to be? And Grace Dent, the Independent columnist, does not appear to be part of the LGBT community, so we're not even getting access to a major media platform, we're just being used as a stick to beat people with. Our role as subaltern has shifted from being consistently outsider to some sort of militarised symbol of tolerance. 'Look at how well we treat LGBT people' says the west (please pay no attention to the discrimination behind the curtain). We're better than our military enemies because we're less awful. And thus our militarism becomes pink-washed. We invaded Kuwait many years ago to defend premature infants thrown out of incubators by the Iraq army (one of the most telling and canny lies ever told in the US congress). Now we fight ISIS to save the gays. Militaries that only recently decided to admit LGB people are now supposed to be our saviours.

There are multiple problems with this model, aside from the obvious moral ones. If we turn LGBT people into symbols of western values and western tolerance, then those who we would bomb are incentivised do the same. Putin shows he's different from the bullying US though the state's aggressive homophobia. Western militaristic pink washing puts the lives of LGBT people in other countries at risk. LGBT people in the west, as a whole, don't have a lot to gain from this strategy (although individual self-appointed leaders may find it personally very rewarding), but our community overseas has really a lot to lose.

Furthermore, and very importantly, this narrative erases the entire existence of Muslim LGBT people, especially those who are organising for their own rights. The binary opposition of white liberal vs homophobic Muslim is an invention of the western press, serving the pinkwashed military. This is the ideological heir of Blair's war in Iraq. The binary opposition of white racist vs LGBT Muslim almost never arises in the media, despite this being a real issue with a real, non-imaginary risk of violence for people in the UK. Hate crimes maim and kill people in the UK. ISIS doesn't. One of these things is a real risk for people here. The other isn't. Some fascist groups in East London have specifically appealed to the imaginary dichotomy between LGBT people and Muslims as a basis for their organising. The kind of rhetoric used in today's Independent is not without consequences.

For too long, white liberals, atheists and LGBT people have only quietly grumbled at the Islamophobia of the more famous members of our ranks. 'Sure Peter Tatchell might be an idiot about his warnings on Shaira Law in the UK, but look at all the good he's done,' we said. However, we cannot let people advocating for our rights throw others under the bus for our supposed benefit. In addition to being immoral, it's also dangerous for us as a community. One need only look at Tatchell's recently split with trans people to see how a willingness to sacrifice some unpopular people can easily grow to include ourselves.

We need to take stronger action - to link our remaining struggles for inclusion to the struggles of others. We must complain loudly when Islamophobes are invited to speak on our behalf. We must cease financially supporting organisations, like the Peter Tatchell Foundation, that make Islamophobia part of their platform. We must condemn Islamophobia where it happens and not let our white liberal 'allies' use as as tools to further racist agendas. This must stop now.

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