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Gay, Muslim and proud

Islam, too, is now having to confront the realities of everyday life.

‘‘You’re straight, aren’t you?” one of the group I’m with asks me as we walk through the gates of Regent’s Park in London. When I confirm that I am, his response is quick: “That’s a shame.” I’m tagging along with members of Imaan, a support group for LGBT Muslims, who are celebrating the end of a four-day conference in Soho.

Once inside the park, I’m introduced to dozens of Muslim men and women – some are playing football while others are relaxing, enjoying the sun. The mood is palpably friendly. Looking around, there are young, middle-aged, introvert and extrovert Muslims in the gathering; it is also multi-ethnic. Lying down with his head on his jacket is 43-year-old Scott Kugle – a white American convert to Islam and the author of Homosexuality in Islam. I wonder what a gay American would see in Islam – isn’t the religion often perceived as homophobic and intolerant? He sits up: “I didn’t embrace Islam as a gay Muslim,” he says calmly, “I embraced Islam as a human being.”

As we continue our discussion, boys and girls are mixing freely, a few hugging and kissing, actions anathema to traditional Muslim gatherings. For many LGBT Muslims, however, religion is mostly about love – everything else is subsidiary. While Islamic scripture is often used to condemn homosexuality, the LGBT Muslims I speak to offer an alternative, more inclusive, interpretation.

This doesn’t mean that LGBT Muslims neglect their religious practices. One of the first things they did at the park was perform Asr, the mid-afternoon prayer. Yusef Gojikian, 28, is of Palestinian-Lebanese heritage, he’s a social worker for Imaan and is wearing a green traditional Muslim cap. He doesn’t see why – apart from his sexual orientation – he’s different from any other Muslim. “I pray five times a day and I read the Quran,” he says.

I also speak to a young, south Asian lesbian, who prefers not to be named because she hasn’t yet come out to her parents. She’s wearing a green jilbab, the long, loose-fitting garment that covers the entire body. “Nobody forces me to wear this. It’s completely my choice,” she says.

Arab springboard

As the sun sets and everyone begins to depart, I get the chance to carry on speaking to Kugle, who is excited about recent global developments. “The public solidarity from the Arab spring is going to create many alliances. Some Arab spring activists are gay and lesbian and are finding a way to speak out.” It doesn’t end there. “In South Africa, there’s a real media presence and the discourse is being changed about LGBT Muslims,” he says.

Unlike many of the civil rights movements from the 1960s, LGBT Muslims are not hitting the streets demanding change. But open meetings like this are significant nonetheless. While the issue of homosexual marriage in the Christian Church has been fiercely debated in Britain recently, the discussion has yet to permeate mainstream Islamic discourse, partly because many Muslims believe the prohibition of homosexuality is immutable.

But Islam, too, is now having to confront the realities of everyday life.

Omar Shahid is politics editor of the youth magazine “Live” (

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Lib Dem special

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide