The rainbow flag, symbolising gay pride, flying above the Cabinet Office last year. Photograph: Getty Images
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As a Muslim, I struggle with the idea of homosexuality – but I oppose homophobia

I've made homophobic remarks in the past, writes Mehdi Hasan, but now I’ve grown up — and reconciled my Islamic beliefs with my attitude to gay rights.

’Tis the season of apologies – specifically, grovelling apologies by some of our finest academic brains for homophobic remarks they’ve made in public. The Cambridge University theologian Dr Tim Winter, one of the UK’s leading Islamic scholars, apologised on 2 May after footage emerged showing him calling homosexuality the “ultimate inversion” and an “inexplicable aberration”. “The YouTube clip is at least 15 years old, and does not in any way represent my present views . . . we all have our youthful enthusiasms, and we all move on.”

The Harvard historian Professor Niall Ferguson apologised “unreservedly” on 4 May for “stupid” and “insensitive” comments in which he claimed that the economist John Maynard Keynes hadn’t cared about “the long run” because he was gay and had no intention of having any children.

Dare I add my non-academic, non-intellectual voice to the mix? I want to issue my own apology. Because I’ve made some pretty inappropriate comments in the past, too.

You may or may not be surprised to learn that, as a teenager, I was one of those wannabe-macho kids who crudely deployed “gay” as a mark of abuse; you will probably be shocked to discover that shamefully, even in my twenties, I was still making the odd disparaging remark about homosexuality.

It’s now 2013 and I’m 33 years old. My own “youthful enthusiasm” is thankfully, if belatedly, behind me.

What happened? Well, for a start, I grew up. Bigotry and demonisation of difference are usually the hallmark of immature and childish minds. But, if I’m honest, something else happened, too: I acquired a more nuanced understanding of my Islamic faith, a better appreciation of its morals, values and capacity for tolerance.

Before we go any further, a bit of background – I was attacked heavily a few weeks ago by some of my co-religionists for suggesting in these pages that too many Muslims in this country have a “Jewish problem” and that we blithely “ignore the rampant anti-Semitism in our own backyard”.

I hope I won’t provoke the same shrieks of outrage and denial when I say that many Muslims also have a problem, if not with homosexuals, then with homosexuality. In fact, a 2009 poll by Gallup found that British Muslims have zero tolerance towards homosexuality. “None of the 500 British Muslims interviewed believed that homosexual acts were morally acceptable,” the Guardian reported in May that year.

Some more background. Orthodox Islam, like orthodox interpretations of the other Abrahamic faiths, views homosexuality as sinful and usually defines marriage as only ever a heterosexual union.

This isn’t to say that there is no debate on the subject. In April, the Washington Post profiled Daayiee Abdullah, who is believed to be the only publicly gay imam in the west. “[I]f you have any same-sex marriages,” the Post quotes him as saying, “I’m available.” Meanwhile, the gay Muslim scholar Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle, who teaches Islamic studies at Emory University in the United States, says that notions such as “gay” or “lesbian” are not mentioned in the Quran. He blames Islam’s hostility towards homosexuality on a misreading of the texts by ultra-conservative mullahs.

And, in his 2011 book Reading the Quran, the British Muslim intellectual and writer Ziauddin Sardar argues that “there is abso­lutely no evidence that the Prophet punished anyone for homosexuality”. Sardar says “the demonisation of homosexuality in Muslim history is based largely on fabricated traditions and the unreconstituted prejudice harboured by most Muslim societies”. He highlights verse 31 of chapter 24 of the Quran, in which “we come across ‘men who have no sexual desire’ who can witness the ‘charms’ of women”. I must add here that Abdullah, Kugle and Sardar are in a tiny minority, as are the members of gay Muslim groups such as Imaan. Most mainstream Muslim scholars – even self-identified progressives and moderates such as Imam Hamza Yusuf in the United States and Professor Tariq Ramadan in the UK – consider homosexuality to be a grave sin. The Quran, after all, explicitly condemns the people of Lot for “approach[ing] males” (26:165) and for “lust[ing] on men in preference to women” (7:81), and describes marriage as an institution that is gender-based and procreative.

What about me? Where do I stand on this? For years I’ve been reluctant to answer questions on the subject. I was afraid of the “homophobe” tag. I didn’t want my gay friends and colleagues to look at me with horror, suspicion or disdain.

So let me be clear: yes, I’m a progressive who supports a secular society in which you don’t impose your faith on others – and in which the government, no matter how big or small, must always stay out of the bedroom. But I am also (to Richard Dawkins’s continuing disappointment) a believing Muslim. And, as a result, I really do struggle with this issue of homosexuality. As a supporter of secularism, I am willing to accept same-sex weddings in a state-sanctioned register office, on grounds of equity. As a believer in Islam, however, I insist that no mosque be forced to hold one against its wishes.

If you’re gay, that doesn’t mean I want to discriminate against you, belittle or bully you, abuse or offend you. Not at all. I don’t want to go back to the dark days of criminalisation and the imprisonment of gay men and women; of Section 28 and legalised discrimination. I’m disgusted by the violent repression and persecution of gay people across the Muslim-majority world.

I cringe as I watch footage of the buffoonish Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claiming: “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals . . . we do not have this phenomenon.” I feel sick to my stomach when I read accounts of how, in the late 1990s, the Taliban in Afghanistan buried gay men alive and then toppled brick walls on top of them.

Nor is this an issue only in the Middle East and south Asia. In March, a Muslim caller to a radio station in New York stunned the host after suggesting, live on air, that gay Americans should be beheaded in line with “sharia law”. Here in the UK, in February, Muslim MPs who voted in favour of the same-sex marriage bill – such as the shadow justice secretary, Sadiq Khan – faced death threats and accusations of apostasy from a handful of Muslim extremists. And last year, a homophobic campaign launched by puffed-up Islamist gangs in east London featured ludicrous and offensive stickers declaring the area a “gay-free zone”.

I know it might be hard to believe, but Islam is not a religion of violence, hate or intolerance – despite the best efforts of a minority of reactionaries and radicals to argue (and behave) otherwise. Out of the 114 chapters of the Quran, 113 begin by introducing the God of Islam as a God of mercy and compassion. The Prophet Muhammad himself is referred to as “a mercy for all creation”. This mercy applies to everyone, whether heterosexual or homosexual. As Tariq Ramadan has put it: “I may disagree with what you are doing because it’s not in accordance with my belief but I respect who are you are.” He rightly notes that this is “a question of respect and mutual understanding”.

I should also point out here that most British Muslims oppose the persecution of homosexuals. A 2011 poll for the think tank Demos found that fewer than one in four British Muslims disagreed with the statement “I am proud of how Britain treats gay people”.

There is much to be proud of, but still much to be done. Homophobic bullying is rife in our schools. Nine out of ten gay or lesbian teenagers report being bullied at school over their sexual orientation. LGBT teens are two to three times more likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual peers.

Despite the recent slight fall in “sexual orientation hate crimes”, in 2012 there were still 4,252 such crimes in England and Wales, four out of every five of which involved “violence against the person”. In March, for instance, a man was jailed for killing a gay teenager by setting him on fire; the killer scrawled homophobic insults across 18-year-old Steven Simpson’s face, forearm and stomach.

Regular readers will know that I spend much of my time speaking out against Islamophobic bigotry: from the crude stereotyping of Muslims in the media and discrimi­nation against Muslims in the workplace to attacks on Muslim homes, businesses and places of worship.

The truth is that Islamophobia and homophobia have much in common: they are both, in the words of the (gay) journalist Patrick Strudwick, “at least partly fuelled by fear. Fear of the unknown . . .” Muslims and gay people alike are victims of this fear – especially when it translates into hate speech or physical attacks. We need to stand side by side against the bigots and hate-mongers, whether of the Islamist or the far-right variety, rather than turn on one another or allow ourselves to be pitted against each other, “Muslims v gays”.

We must avoid stereotyping and demonising each other at all costs. “The biggest question we have as a society,” says a Muslim MP who prefers to remain anonymous, “is how we accommodate difference.”

Remember also that negative attitudes to homosexuality are not the exclusive preserve of Muslims. In 2010, the British Social Attitudes survey showed that 36 per cent of the public regarded same-sex relations as “always” or “mostly wrong”.

A Muslim MP who voted in favour of the same-sex marriage bill tells me that most of the letters of protest that they received in response were from evangelical Christians, not Muslims. And, of course, it wasn’t a Muslim who took the life of poor Steven Simpson.

Yet ultimately I didn’t set out to write this piece to try to bridge the gap between Islam and homosexuality. I am not a theo­logian. Nor am I writing this in response to the ongoing parliamentary debate about the pros and cons of same-sex marriage. I am not a politician.

I am writing this because I want to live in a society in which all minorities – Jews, Muslims, gay people and others – are protected from violence and abuse, from demonisation and discrimination. And because I want to apologise for any hurt or offence that I may have caused to my gay brothers and lesbian sisters.

And yes, whatever our differences – straight or gay, religious or atheist, male or female – we are all brothers and sisters. As the great Muslim leader of the 7th century and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, Ali ibn Abi Talib, once declared: “Remember that people are of two kinds; they are either your brothers in religion or your brothers in mankind.”

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the political director of the Huffington Post UK, where this article is crossposted

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Tearing down the "caliphate": on the frontline against Islamic State in Mosul

Truck bombs and drone warfare in the fight to take back Iraq’s second city from Islamic State.

The battle to retake west Mosul began, for me, rattling around in an armoured Humvee with two Abaases. “I’m Abaas One. He’s Abaas Two,” the driver, Abaas Almsebawy, said in English with a broad smile, pointing to the gunner on top.

“I have killed two Da’esh,” Abaas Two said, using an Arabic acronym for the so-called Islamic State (IS). “Well, one for sure. The other one crawled away but he was bleeding badly. I was told he died.”

Abaas One was jealous of his gunner’s luck. He was shot twice by IS in the city of Ramadi, in central Iraq; he still had a bullet lodged in his back. “The doctor said it is my gift from Da’esh,” he told me and laughed.

Over the sound of gunfire and mortars, the two Abaases called out to each other, giving directions, spotting targets. The cry of “Abaaaaas!” was constantly in the air. One from Babylon, the other from Baghdad, they stretched out on a felt blanket inside the armoured vehicle during lulls in the fighting and fell asleep, oblivious to its discomforts and the IS mortars landing outside.

They had been involved in the fighting in the east of the city, which it had taken 100 days to recapture, in hard, street-by-street clashes and through an onslaught of IS car and truck bombs. Yet the battle to retake the west, which began on Sunday 19 February and is being led by Iraq’s Emergency Response Division (ERD) and counterterrorism forces, has proved different – and faster.

Abaas One, the driver, was exhilarated. As Iraqi army helicopters flew overhead and the air force strafed villages with machine-gun fire and rockets, he rolled on, part of an armoured assault on a front that stretched for miles. His Humvee was built for this kind of terrain, moving at speed across the desert towards villages, the airport and eventually the city of Mosul.

Something else was different about this battle, too. These men were not technically soldiers: they were policemen. Abaas One went into battle in a hooded top and a leather jacket. Stuck outside manning his gun, Abaas Two, like a fighter from another age, wore a greatcoat, small, circular spectacles and a woolly hat. One lean and broad-shouldered, the other bulky and round-faced, they were a contrast but a good fit.

The Abaases were part of Iraq’s elite ERD, which has led the charge into the west of the city, just as the country’s heralded “Golden Division”, the counterterrorism unit, had pushed into the east. The ERD, part of the ministry of interior, is the less experienced junior brother of the battle-hardened Golden Division but it was determined that west Mosul would be its prize. It made swift progress and, as it took back village after village from IS, troops posed for selfies with enemy corpses on the roadside.

The closer to Mosul you were, the more charred bodies you would see, lying along the route. Two in a ditch, killed by a mortar, and two on the road, the motorcycle they were travelling on cut in half by an air strike.

In command of the 1st Brigade was Colonel Falah al-Wabdan. In Ramadi in 2015, he and his men had been cut off and surrounded by IS forces and had escaped only when more troops came to their rescue.

As he stood on the ruins of a former palace that had belonged to one of Saddam Hussein’s brothers, he had a view of all of Mosul. “I will be very glad when I see my forces move forward,” he said. “Also [when I see that] my soldiers are all safe. And I will be even happier when we have killed IS. These people [IS] are like a disease in the body, and we are now removing it, day after day.”

From there, the Iraqi forces took the town of Abu Saif, and then, in a six-hour battle, what was left of Mosul’s airport. Its runways were in ruins and its terminal buildings reduced to rubble. Yet that was the last open ground before they reached the city. By the end of the week, Colonel Falah’s forces had breached the IS defences. Now they were heading into the dense and narrow streets of the city’s old town. Meanwhile, the elite Golden Division was the secondary force, having earlier been bogged down in heavy fighting.

The competition between the two rival divisions had helped to accelerate the advance. The ERD, however, had a secret weapon. “We need to ask your men to hold off, sir. We have helicopters in the air,” the US special forces officer told an Iraqi lieutenant colonel on the rooftop as the assault on Abu Saif was in full force.

The Iraqi mortar team in the orchard and olive grove below held fire. Then the mighty thud of coalition air strikes could be heard and, just two miles away, a huge, grey cloud rose above the town.

 

***

It is Iraqis who are doing most of the fighting and the dying in the battle against IS, but since the Pentagon relaxed its rules of engagement late last year more Americans are at or near the front lines. They are calling in air strikes and laying down fire from their MRAP (“mine-resistant ambush-protected”) vehicles. They are not in uniform but, despite being a covert force, they are conspicuous and still wear the Stars and Stripes on their helmets. When journalists, especially cameramen, approach, they turn their backs.

In and around Mosul, it is more common now to get stuck in a traffic jam of US vehicles: either artillery or route-clearance teams. The Pentagon will soon respond to President Donald Trump’s call for a new plan – an intensification of US efforts against IS – but on the ground around this city, the Americans are already much more engaged in the fight against the militants.

British special forces were also in the area, in small numbers. Unlike their American counterparts, they went unseen.

Also seemingly absent in the early part of the offensive were civilians. It was three days before I met one: a shepherd, Ali Sultan Ali, who told me that he had only stayed behind because he could not get his flock to safety, as a nearby bridge had been destroyed.

As his sheep grazed, Ali explained: “They continued to attack this area, and now we are three days sitting in our homes, unable to go out because of attack and mortars . . . All the people, they have left this area one after another. They went to the east of the city of Mosul and they rented houses there because there are too many attacks here.”

Almost 60,000 people have fled west Mosul. In this area, with its population of three-quarters of a million, the battle has the potential to become a humanitarian crisis. Camps for internally displaced people still have capacity, but they are filling up.

IS, with anywhere between 500 and a few thousand fighters inside Mosul, is again using the local population as cover. But coalition air strikes may be taking a heavy toll on civilians, too. Officially, the US-led force claims that 21 civilians have died as a result of its bombs since November, but an independent monitoring group, Airwars, suggests that as many as 370 have been killed by Western aircraft since the start of March.

After the airport was recaptured, the columns of desperate people heading south began to thicken. The children among them usually held a white flag – perhaps a clever distraction thought up by terrified parents for their long walk to safety. Near the airport, I met a man who was too distraught to give his name. He told me that his brother’s family – six people – had been killed in an air strike. With his eyes red from crying and a blanket over his shoulders, he stood by the roadside, pleading. “For God’s sake,” he said. “We need you to help us. We need a shovel to get the dead bodies out of the building, because there are still two bodies under that building.”

But the battle was reaching a new pitch around him, so he left for a camp to look for his brother, the only remaining member of his family, he told me.

When the ERD finally made it inside the city, the first thing I noticed was the fresh laundry hanging in the yard of a family house. Then I heard a huge explosion as an IS truck bomb slammed into one of the Iraqi Abrams tanks.

The tank trundled on regardless and, by nightfall, the ERD had a tiny foothold inside the city: the al-Josak neighbourhood.

 

***

 

Islamic State is steadily losing Mosul and in Iraq, at least, the end of the so-called caliphate is in sight. In Abu Saif, state forces found the corpses of foreign fighters and, hiding, an IS operative who was still alive.

“He’s Russian,” one officer told me, but the man might have been from one of the central Asian republics. There were dead Syrians on the battlefield, too, men from Deir az-Zour; and for the tens of thousands of foreign fighters who joined IS, Syria will likely be a last refuge.

There may be another reason for the faster pace of the assault in west Mosul. The Iraqi forces, having fought IS in Ramadi, Fallujah and east Mosul, are getting better at dealing with the militant group’s tactics.

Truck bombs took a huge toll on their men in eastern Mosul. It is hard to describe the force unleashed when one of these detonates near you. In an early assault on one village, IS sent out four truck bombs and one of them exploded a few hundred metres from where I was standing. The shock wave ripped around the building and shards of engine went flying over our heads. My mouth was full of dirt. The debris was scattered for what seemed like miles around – yet no one died.

The suicide attack driver may have been taken out by an Iraqi soldier firing a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). Whenever they advance now, men stand ready with RPGs, specifically to tackle the threat of car bombs. And they are becoming better at “hasty defence”. An armoured bulldozer is always in the lead. When a new street is taken, defensive berms made of mud or rubble are built to halt any speeding car bombs.

The IS fighters are crafty. Iraqi forces took me to a house on a captured street. Its yard was covered and the front wall was gone. Parked in the front room was what looked like an ambulance. Hidden from surveillance aircraft, this was another truck bomb.

“It’s still live. I wouldn’t go any further,” a major warned me. Even the bomb disposal team said that it was too dangerous to touch. It was later destroyed from a very safe distance.

Although the group violently suppresses modernity, IS fighters are innovators. They have no air force but they can get their hands on drones, which are commercially available, and they have “weaponised” them. If the battle for east Mosul was the attack of the car bombs, the battle for the west began as a drone war.

For the men on the ground, IS drones are enormously disconcerting. During a gun battle in west Mosul, I stopped to speak to some troops taking cover behind a wall. As I asked a final question, the captain I was talking to cupped his ear and leaned forward because of a sudden eruption of gunfire. Then, just to my right, I felt a shock wave of a detonation that seemed to come from nowhere.

A member of the BBC team was hit, receiving a small blast injury to the arm. When we got back to the Humvee, the driver explained that there had been a drone above us. The gunfire was from Iraqi troops trying to bring it down. The detonation had not come from nowhere; it had come from directly overhead. As we drove out of there, I noticed that the gunner had closed the hatch. We were protected inside, but he was outside manning his weapon, looking for more drones.

“They drop MK19 40mm grenades from the drones to stop the movements forward. All the time, they will use four to five drones to attack one location,” Captain Ali Razak Nama of the federal police explained. “As you know, we can’t always see these drones with our eyes, but if we do see them we can attack the drones with our rifles. [But] when we go into the battle, we are not looking at the skies. We are looking ahead of us for car bombs, suicide attackers, IEDs or snipers.”

A unit of the Golden Division was hit 70 times in a single day by wave upon wave of IS drones. The operator managed to drop a grenade inside a Humvee from above; all four men inside, members of a bomb disposal unit, were killed. Dozens more were injured that day.

The sound of a drone, even one of their own, is enough to make the Iraqi forces hit the dirt and scramble under a vehicle. They are difficult to bring down. I once watched as snipers and heavy machine-gunners opened fire on some drones; they managed to strike one but still it flew on.

The IS fighters control them from motorcycles in an attempt to prevent the operators being tracked and killed. They switch frequencies in the hope that they will not be jammed. Yet as a coalition commander told me: “The enemy aren’t going to win by dropping grenades from the sky. So it is certainly not a game-changer.” Iraqi and coalition forces now appear to be having success in countering the threat. Just how, they will not say, but in recent days there has been a “very significant” drop in their use.

 

***

 

Mosul has been the biggest battle for Iraqi forces against Islamic State, but commander after commander said that others had been tougher. In Ramadi and in Fallujah, IS had a better grip. In Mosul, the local people have been quicker to turn away from the militants.

In the eastern part of the city, the bazaars are busy again and children have returned to school. Girls are receiving education for the first time in nearly three years, since IS captured the city. The so-called caliphate was declared on 29 June 2014 and, four days later the new “caliph” and IS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made his first and only filmed appearance, delivering a sermon at the city’s al-Nuri Mosque. Iraqi forces are now in sight of the mosque, with its Ottoman-era leaning minaret.

Mosul is Iraq’s second-largest city and has a cosmopolitan heritage, but Islamists had influence here for many years before IS arrived. As one Mosulawi told me, after neglect by the Iraqi capital, “There is discontent with Baghdad, not support for Isis.”

Al-Baghdadi is believed to have fled the city already. According to US and Iraqi commanders, he is hiding out in the desert. Shia militiamen and Iraqi army forces are attempting to seal off escape routes to the west, into Syria. Yet senior commanders accept that in a city Mosul’s size, it will be impossible to close all escape routes. Capturing al-Baghdadi is not a priority, they say.

There is also an acknowledgement that neither his death nor the loss of Mosul will be the end of Islamic State. But in Iraq, at least, it will destroy the caliphate.

Quentin Sommerville is the BBC’s Middle East correspondent

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain