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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.