Gay Free Zone conviction is disturbing

Why did a few anti-gay stickers in East London provoke an outcry by gay groups, while far worse homo

The negligible media coverage of Mohammed Hasnath's conviction is rather surprising. His case has since prompted explosive claims of judicial
homophobia, the criminalisation of free speech and the failure of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities to challenge Islamist homophobia.

Hasnath, aged 18, was found guilty of posting homophobic stickers in London's East End. The stickers declared the area a "Gay Free Zone" and
advised: "Arise and warn...And fear Allah: Verily Allah is severe in punishment."

These stickers were wrong and clearly motivated by homophobic prejudice. Such prejudice - indeed all prejudice - needs to be challenged.

Disturbingly, it appears that Hasnath has fundamentalist sympathies. On his Facebook page he lists Sheikh Khalid Yasin as one of his interests:

Yasin is on record as abusing "homosexuals" and saying they should be put to death.

There are, however, several troubling aspects to Hasnath's conviction.

He was fined a mere £100. If the stickers had declared East London a Jewish, black, Catholic or Muslim free zone Hasnath would have been almost certainl convicted of a racially or religiously aggravated hate crime and jailed. Why the leniency? Why the double standards? It looks like judicial homophobia.

Hasnath is an easy, convenient scapegoat. He was a lowly foot soldier. There is no evidence that he organised the Gay Free Zone campaign. The slow, secretive police investigation did not inspire confidence. Officers failed to apprehend the master-minds who produced the stickers and then distributed them to people like Hasnath. They've got away with it.

Hasnath was convicted using a discredited, authoritarian law, Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, which has been used repeatedly to suppress
peaceful, legitimate protests by human rights defenders, including LGBT campaigners.

This is what happened to members of OutRage! when six of us protested against 6,000 members the Islamist group, Hizb ut Tahrir, outside their mass rally at Wembley Arena in 1994.

They called for the killing of gays, apostates, Jews and unchaste women. They were not arrested but we were. Our crime? Displaying placards that
condemned Hizb ut Tahrir's incitement to murder. Although our placards did nothing more than factually expose the fundamentalist's violent homophobic agenda, it was deemed that they were distressing and offensive.

Section 5 is draconian and sweeping. It prohibits behaviour likely to cause "harassment, alarm or distress". Yes, even causing mere distress to
faint-hearts is now a crime.

This law can be abused to criminalise almost any words or actions. Campaigns against religious homophobia, like the OutRage! protest at Wembley, have many times resulted in LGBT activists being arrested under Section 5 for causing distress to homophobes and their religious supporters. We should not be rejoicing that the court used against Hasnath a harsh law that has so often been used unjustly against us. There is other, more credible, legislation that could have been used to bring him to justice.

The court's ruling in the Hasnath case broadens the criminalising nature of Section 5. Well meaning District Judge Jeremy Coleman said: "I think you used these stickers deliberately to offend and distress people, you certainly succeeded in doing that....You have upset people and they deserve an apology, you are not entitled to behave in this way."

The judge suggested that not only is causing distress a crime, but so is offending people and making them upset. Causing upset is, in my view, a much too low threshold for criminalisation. After all, almost anything that anyone says or does has the potential to cause someone upset, including
teaching evolution, advocating abortion and suggesting that religion is a form of superstition.

Under Judge Coleman's particularly wide interpretation and application of Section 5, most of the population are criminals. If we accept that causing
upset should be illegal, as he implied at the Hasnath hearing, we risk closing down free and open debate and criminalising all manner of dissentingopinions and alternative lifestyles that some people might find upsetting.

Freedom of expression is one of the most important of all human rights. It should be only restricted in extreme and very limited circumstances. The
open exchange of ideas - including unpalatable ideas - is a hallmark of a free and democratic society. There is no right to be not distressed, upset
or offended. Some of the most profound ideas in history - such as those of Galileo Galilei and Charles Darwin - caused great distress and offence in
their time. While bigoted opinions should always be challenged, in most instances only explicit incitements to violence and damaging libels (such as false allegations of tax fraud or child abuse) should be criminalised.

Moreover, why did the Hasnath stickers provoke howls of rage from the LGBT community, when far worse homophobia in the same area of East London stirred hardly a murmur of protest? I don't recall any campaigns by LGBT groups or anti-fascist organisations in response to the wave of horrific queer-bashing attacks in the East End. Surely this actual physical violence - which left at least one gay man permanently disabled - is much more deserving of protests than a few stickers? Where is the LGBT outcry over homophobic assaults?

Nor can I remember any protests when the East London Mosque / London Muslim Centre hosted a series of virulently homophobic speakers, including Uthman Lateef and Abdul Karim Hattim. The latter gave lecturers in which he invited young Muslims to "Spot the Fag." Watch here.

The East London Mosque / London Muslim Centre helped create the atmosphere of hatred that has poisoned the minds of many Muslim youths, probably including Hasnath who worshipped there. They have never apologised for hosting homophobic hate preachers and have never given any assurances that they will not host them again in the future. Apart from OutRage!, no LGBT groups have publicly demanded that they do so. Why the silence from LGBT organisations that are supposedly dedicated to fighting homophobia?

Equally, there were no protests when Abdul Muhid openly incited the murder of gay people in East London and when the Crown Prosecution Service refused to bring him to trial. In my opinion, encouraging murder is many times more serious and dangerous than calling for a Gay Free Zone. Again, no protests by LGBT groups.

When OutRage! stood alone in challenging Muhid and the East London Mosque /London Muslim Centre we were denounced by some people as racists andIslamophobes. This is nonsense. We never attacked anyone because of their race or religion. We condemned their homophobia, in the same way that wecondemn the homophobic bigotry of fundamentalists of all faiths.

Many LGBT campaigners are now terrified of similar false, malicious allegations of racism or Islamophobia. To avoid such smears, they shy away
from robust responses to homophobia when it comes from religious and racial minorities. This inaction is de facto collusion with homophobia.

For information about Peter Tatchell's human rights campaigns and to make a donation: www.petertatchell.net

Peter Tatchell is Director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation, which campaigns for human rights the UK and worldwide: www.PeterTatchellFoundation.org His personal biography can be viewed here: www.petertatchell.net/biography.htm

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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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