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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How memories of the Battle of Verdun inspired a new era of Franco-German co-operation

The fight at Verdun in 1916 set a precedent for peace that lives on at the heart of Europe.

How do you clear up after a battle that took the lives of more than a quarter of a million men? In Britain we don’t have much experience of this kind. There hasn’t been a major war on British soil since the 1640s, and that wasn’t a shock-and-awe inferno of industrial firepower (although it is estimated that a greater percentage of Britain’s population died in the civil wars than in the Great War).

The French, however, fought the Great War on home soil. The ten-month Battle of Verdun in 1916 stands out as the longest of the conflict, and one of the fiercest, with fighting concentrated in a small area of roughly 25 square miles. The terrain was pounded by heavy artillery and poisoned with gas; nine villages were reduced to rubble and never rebuilt – remaining on the map to this day as villages détruits.

In November 1918, soon after the Armis­tice, Monseigneur Charles Ginisty, the bishop of Verdun, was appalled to see mounds of unburied corpses and myriad bones still scattered across the blasted landscape – what was left of men who had been literally blown to bits by shellfire. “Should we abandon their sacred remains to this desert,” he asked in anguish, “littered with desiccated corpses . . . under a shroud of thorns and weeds, of forgetting and ingratitude?”

Ginisty became the driving force behind the ossuary at Douaumont, at what had been the very centre of the battlefield. This he intended to be both “a cathedral of the dead and a basilica of victory”. It is a strange but compelling place: a 450-foot-long vault, transfixed in the middle by a lantern tower, and styled in an idiosyncratic mix of Romanesque and art deco. To some visitors the tower looks like a medieval knight stabbing his broadsword into the ground; others are reminded of an artillery shell, or even a space rocket. Creepiest of all is what one glimpses through the little windows cut into the basement – piles of bones, harvested from the field of battle.

Sloping away downhill from the ossuary is the Nécropole Nationale, where the bodies of some 15,000 French soldiers are buried – mostly named, though some graves are starkly labelled inconnu (“unknown”). Each tomb is dignified with the statement “Mort pour la France” (no British war grave bears a comparable inscription). The nine villages détruits were given the same accolade.

For the French, unlike the British, 1914-18 was a war to defend and cleanse the homeland. By the end of 1914 the Germans had imposed a brutal regime of occupation across ten departments of north-eastern France. Verdun became the most sacred place in this struggle for national liberation, the only great battle that France waged alone. About three-quarters of its army on the Western Front served there during 1916, bringing Verdun home to most French families. Slogans from the time such as On les aura (“We’ll get ’em”) and Ils ne passeront pas (“They shall not pass”) entered French mythology, language and even song.

Little wonder that when the ossuary was inaugurated in 1932, the new French president, Albert Lebrun, declared: “Here is the cemetery of France.” A special plot at the head of the cemetery was set aside for Marshal Philippe Pétain, commander at the height of the battle in 1916 and renowned as “the Saviour of Verdun”.

The ossuary must surely contain German bones. How could one have nationally segregated that charnel house in the clean-up after 1918? Yet officially the ossuary was presented as purely French: a national, even nationalist, shrine to the sacrifice made by France. Interestingly, it was the soldiers who had fought there who often proved more internationally minded. During the 1920s many French veterans adopted the slogan Plus jamais (“Never again”) in their campaign to make 1914-18 la der des ders – soldier slang for “the last ever war”. And they were echoed across the border by German veterans, especially those on the left, proclaiming, “Nie wieder.”

For the 20th anniversary in 1936, 20,000 veterans, including Germans and Italians, assembled at Douaumont. Each took up his position by a grave and together they swore a solemn oath to keep the peace. There were no military parades, no singing of the Marseillaise. It was an immensely moving occasion but, in its own way, also political theatre: the German delegation attended by permission of the Führer to show off his peace-loving credentials.

Memory was transformed anew by the Second World War. In 1914-18 the French army had held firm for four years; in 1940 it collapsed in four weeks. Verdun itself fell in a day with hardly a shot being fired. France, shocked and humiliated, signed an armistice in June 1940 and Pétain, now 84, was recalled to serve as the country’s political leader. Whatever his original intentions, he ended up an accomplice of the Nazis: reactionary, increasingly fascist-minded, and complicit in the deportation of the Jews.

***

The man who came to embody French resistance in the Second World War was Charles de Gaulle. In 1916, as a young captain at Verdun, he had been wounded and captured. In the 1920s he was known as a protégé of the Marshal but in 1940 the two men diverged fundamentally on the question of collaboration or resistance.

De Gaulle came out the clear winner: by 1945 he was president of France, while Pétain was convicted for treason. The Marshal lived out his days on the Île d’Yeu, a rocky island off the west coast of France, where he was buried in 1951. The plot awaiting him in the cemetery at Douaumont became the grave of a general called Ernest Anselin, whose body remains there to this day. Yet Pétain sympathisers still agitate for the Marshal to be laid to rest in the place where, they insist, he belongs.

After 1945 it was hard for French leaders to speak of Verdun and Pétain in the same breath, although de Gaulle eventually managed to do so during the 50th anniversary in 1966. By then, however, la Grande Guerre had begun to assume a new perspective in both France and Germany. The age-old enemies were moving on from their cycle of tit-for-tat wars, stretching back from 1939, 1914 and 1870 to the days of Napoleon and Louis XIV.

In January 1963 de Gaulle – who had spent half the Great War in German POW camps – and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who first visited Paris to see the German delegation just before it signed the Treaty of Versailles, put their names to a very different treaty at the Élysée Palace. This bound the two countries in an enduring nexus of co-operation, from regular summits between the leaders down to town-twinning and youth exchanges. The aim was to free the next generation from the vice of nationalism.

France and West Germany were also founder members of the European Community – predicated, one might say, on the principle “If you can’t beat them, join them”. For these two countries (and for their Benelux neighbours, caught in the jaws of the Franco-German antagonism), European integration has always had a much more beneficent meaning than it does for Britain, geographically and emotionally detached from continental Europe and much less scarred by the two world wars.

It was inevitable that eventually Verdun itself would be enfolded into the new Euro-narrative. On 22 September 1984 President François Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl stood in the pouring rain in front of the ossuary for a joint commemoration. In 1940 Sergeant Mitterrand had been wounded near Verdun, and Kohl’s father had served there in 1916, so personal memories sharpened the sense of political occasion. During the two national anthems, Mitterrand, apparently on impulse, grasped Kohl’s hand in what has become one of the most celebrated images of Franco-German reconciliation.

“If we’d had ceremonies like this before the Second World War,” murmured one French veteran, “we might have avoided it.”

Institutional memory has also moved on. In 1967 a museum dedicated to the story of the battle was opened near the obliterated village of Fleury. It was essentially a veterans’ museum, conceived by elderly Frenchmen to convey what they had endured in 1916 to a generation that had known neither of the world wars. For the centenary in 2016 the Fleury museum has undergone a makeover, updated with new displays and interactive technology and also reconceived as a museum of peace, drawing in the Germans as well as the French.

With time, too, some of the scars of battle have faded from the landscape. Trees now cover this once-ravaged wasteland; the graveyards are gardens of memory; the EU flag flies with the French and German tricolours over the battered fort at Douaumont. Yet bodies are still being dug up – 26 of them just three years ago at Fleury. And even when the sun shines here it is hard to shake off the ghosts.

Exploring the battlefield while making two programmes about Verdun for Radio 4, the producer Mark Burman and I visited l’Abri des Pèlerins (“the pilgrims’ shelter”) near the village détruit of Douaumont. This was established in the 1920s to feed the builders of the ossuary, but it has continued as the only eating place at the centre of the battlefield. Its proprietor, Sylvaine Vaudron,
is a bustling, no-nonsense businesswoman, but she also evinces a profound sense of obligation to the past, speaking repeatedly of nos poilus, “our soldiers”, as if they were still a living presence. “You realise,” she said sternly at one point, “there are 20,000 of them under our feet.” Not the sort of conversation about the Great War that one could have anywhere in Britain.

David Reynolds is the author of “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster). His series “Verdun: the Sacred Wound” will go out on BBC Radio 4 on 17 and 24 February (11am)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle