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The Pathetic Dispute Over Islam and Homophobia

A defense of religion turns incoherent

Macdiarmid/Getty Images

There’s a vaguely pathetic, rather illuminating conversation about faith and homosexuality taking place across the Atlantic, courtesy of a spectacularly naïve essay that ran in The New Statesman this week. In an opinion piece for the liberal weekly—whose centenary was celebrated by Geoffrey Wheatcroft in our latest issue—Mehdi Hasan, a writer for the magazine and The Huffington Post’s UK political director, added his own contribution to the already rich genre of people oh-so-mindfully battling their own homophobia in print. (The piece also ran on HuffPo). Awkwardly titled “As a Muslim, I struggle With the Idea of Homosexuality, but I Oppose Homophobia,” the story lays out Hasan’s soulful wrestling as he disparages gay-bashing, rues discrimination, confronts his own past, and argues for both tolerance and Islam in ways that quietly undercut  the latter.

Hasan, who is perhaps best known for several tangles with Richard Dawkins over matters of faith, has garnered some criticism for this latest piece, especially for its belated acknowledgement of youthful homophobia. But rather than quickly consigning Hasan’s story to the dustbin of tortured and not especially convincing arguments, it’s worth doing a close read because the religiously-tinged argument, like many others before it, eventually makes a case against the faith it is ostensibly promoting.

In classic fashion, Hasan begins with an apology:

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.

He bravely sticks to this slightly sappy, slightly trying-too-hard-to-be-self-critical tone throughout. Here is the core of his argument:

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.

Translation: I am a liberal Muslim, who because of my faith struggles with homosexuality. But Islam has nothing to do with my intolerance! Hasan is blissfully unaware of the contradiction. He has, however, broached a potentially interesting point, namely the relationship between faith (in this case Islam) and tolerance. But because the rest of his piece is devoted to upholding Islam, he can’t really continue with this line of thinking. As he writes:

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.

He doesn't seem to notice that several paragraphs earlier he had referenced a study by quoting the following line: “None of the 500 British Muslims interviewed believed that homosexual acts were morally acceptable.” This doesn’t really seem like “a minority of reactionaries.”

Hasan then quotes everyone’s favorite “moderate” Muslim, Tariq Ramadan, the Oxford professor whose equivocating on issues such as stoning women has been questioned, most notably by Paul Berman in The New Republic. As Ramadan states, “I may disagree with what you are doing because it’s not in accordance with my belief but I respect who are you are.” Hasan then notes that this is “a question of respect and mutual understanding.” Stripped of the touchy-feely language, this is just another version of “hate the sin, love the sinner,” and it’s just as slippery, implying that homosexuality is about actions alone, as if straight people consider their straightness only in the context of heterosexual sex.

Before long, Hasan’s piece descends further into silliness. He writes:

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.

It clearly doesn’t take much for Hasan to feel pride. And anyway, this poll could be read any number of ways. How does Britain treat gay people? He continues:

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.”

It’s unclear whether Hasan sees the depressing irony and absurdity of the MP’s wish to remain anonymous about such an innocuous, clichéd quote. He then goes on to remind the reader that some homophobes are not Muslim, as if anyone was arguing otherwise.

A key to the problem with Hasan’s reasoning occurs at the end of the piece, when he types some platitudes about everyone being a brother or sister of everyone else, and lamely concludes that, “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.” Such courage! And it’s nice to know that he thinks the people who should bridge the divide between Islam and homosexuality are theologians, as if the right approach to gay people depends on what a Holy Book says. (Ramadan follows the same logic). Hasan’s introspection may be a necessary step towards being a nice guy, but he hasn’t done his faith, or Britain’s gay citizens, any favors.

Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him on Twitter @ichotiner