Comment: Tower Hamlets council can lead the way on tackling homophobia

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Fiyaz Mughal, the director of non-profit group Faith Matters, argues that a combined ‘hard and soft’ approach should be used to tackle homophobia in Tower Hamlets and east London and that bodies which continue to invite anti-gay speakers should have their funds cut.

The posters that have been plastered around Tower Hamlets, promoting homophobia and discrimination against the LGBT community, are a shocking and sickening reflection of some within our community who choose to promote division and hate. For the last six years, I have been working to develop positive relations between different communities in the UK, and on countering all forms of extremism. The sheer kinds of ignorance, distrust and venom that I have witnessed lead me to conclude that within our communities, there is still a lot of work to do to counter these prejudices. I have seen an increase in anti-Muslim rhetoric, have witnessed anti-Semitism, gender, race and LGBT hate crime and sometimes have had to come face to face with victims in these communities who have been scarred deeply, both physically and mentally. After so long in this sector, I have slowly come to the conclusion that a ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ approach are needed to change mindsets and counter prejudice, particularly where hate is involved.

So, when I saw the posters misquoting Qur’anic script, which were targeting the LGBT community in Tower Hamlets, a number of things came to mind. How can an area which is so multicultural be targeted by such posters? Who would want to cause this division? How will relations between the Muslim and LGBT communities fare after this? A number of groups could be responsible, but the focus has to be on ensuring that it is not allowed to continue.

The key to undermining the divisive agenda of these groups includes ‘soft approaches,’ such as ensuring collective community voices speak in solidarity as soon as incidents happen, instead of the current approach of having to call upon individuals to take positions. An immediate public position against all forms of hate should be the starting position and this should be consistently reinforced through many media sources from all communities.

It is also important that materials are available which counter hate and discrimination and are widely distributed throughout the borough. In the past, much discussion was taken about countering hate crimes concerning race and religion, but as a community, we need to and must actively fight hate aimed at the gay community.

There are also ‘hard’ approaches to tackling such issues and these include the public condemnation and ‘naming and shaming’ of any institution that invites openly anti-gay speakers. If an institution wants to invite such a speaker, that institution and its officers should know that not only will they be named and shamed in the local press and other media sources, they may also find themselves potentially falling foul of the law. Add to this the fact that the local authority should be pressured into removing any access to public funds by such institutions and we will see how quickly institutions and officers change their tune.
Homophobia has been an issue within some faith communities for over a millennium. This has meant that faith institutions and its congregants refuse to discuss anything about it and harbour an unhealthy belief that it is legitimate to hate – a sort of God-given right. Homophobia been allowed to fester and take root but the time for change is now.

In my opinion, Tower Hamlets can lead the way on this. While legislation and human resource policies may explicitly state that discrimination should play no role in service delivery, I would welcome the local authority and key partners in the area drafting a charter that all public institutions must sign up to. The charter should be simple and list a number of key requirements that the general public can expect in terms of services public institutions provide. Within the charter it should be listed clearly that institutions will not support, condone or facilitate activities, speakers or events that promote any forms of hate. At the very least, seeing the charter pinned up in the foyer of a church, synagogue, mosque or temple will be the best signal to all people that discrimination and hatred of any form will not be tolerated at all. My aim is for all communities to be more tolerant of each other.