Amidst this winter’s worldwide violent protests over the 12 cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed published in a Danish newspaper, the words of Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi did little to ease the tensions. “Let Friday be an international day of anger for God and his prophet,” he proclaimed several days before a massive, February 3rd protest in which hundreds of British Muslims descended upon the Danish Embassy in London. They bore placards that read, “Butcher those who mock Islam,” “Behead those who insult Islam,” and, more generally, “Kill those who insult Islam.” One protestor was arrested a few days later for dressing as a suicide bomber.
The man who called for the protest is not some obscure Imam known only to radical Islamists. The Egyptian born and Qatar-based Qaradawi is the head of the International Association of Muslim Scholars and one of the Arab world’s most well-known television preachers. The Daily Telegraph observes that, “he is considered one of the most influential men in modern Sunni Islam.” Qaradawi is most known to Britons for his cozy relationship with the left wing Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, who has praised him as a “leading progressive Muslim” and hosted him at a conference in 2004. Following the London bombings of last summer, Livingstone again invited the man he has called a “moderate” to London with the hope of easing inter-cultural tensions. This, in spite of the fact that Qaradawi has called homosexuality a “disease that needs a cure” and the website of which he is the chief scholar, www.islamonline.net, suggests that gays be executed via “burning or stoning to death.” Following the Asian Tsunami of 2004, Livingstone defended Qaradawi after he said that “Tourism areas are areas where the forbidden acts are widespread as well as alcohol consumption, drug use and acts of abomination…Don’t they deserve punishment from Allah?” by stating that the Sheikh was a victim of a smear campaign orchestrated by the Israeli intelligence service Mossad. Qaradawi has endorsed suicide bombings in Israel as “martyrdom operations,” proclaimed that “We will conquer Europe, we will conquer America!” and is banned from entering the United States.
Despite the fawning he has received from Livingstone and the ambivalence that much of the British left has demonstrated towards his remarks, Qaradawi has had a vocal, liberal critic ever since he became a prominent figure in British debates over Muslim assimilation. He was right then and he is right now. But much of the left doesn’t want to hear him.
Peter Tatchell can no longer meet with journalists in his home for fear of physical attack. Requesting an interview, I could have been one of his myriad political enemies out to entice him into a trap. It has happened before; a group feigning to be a black student television crew recently lured Tatchell into welcoming them into his office space only to assault him over his campaign against the Jamaican dance hall “murder music” which calls for gays to be maimed and killed. Had security guards not been in the building at the time, Tatchell says, he could have been seriously injured. There is something wrong with the state of liberal politics when many on the left are upbraiding the avowed socialist Peter Tatchell as a right-winger. But that is just the place where Tatchell, whom the reactionary populist Daily Mail once labeled a “homosexual terrorist,” finds himself today.
Though born and raised in Australia, Tatchell is the most visible gay rights figure in Great Britain and part of a long tradition of English radicalism and social activism. For his entire public life he has been associated with the far-left reaches of the British political spectrum, a spectrum that stretches much farther left than it does in the United States. From forming the London chapter of the AIDS direct-action agitation group ACT-UP to standing up for the rights of those perennial targets of the British Conservative party, asylum seekers, Tatchell never deviates from a left-liberal perspective in his approach to politics. His noisy tactics, like commandeering the Archbishop’s pulpit during the Easter Sunday service at the Canterbury Cathedral in 1998 to denounce the Church of England’s hostility to gays, are a composite of Larry Kramer’s self-righteousness and Abbie Hoffman’s mischief-making.
Born in Melbourne in 1952, Tatchell founded an anti-Vietnam war group, Christians for Peace in 1970. He immigrated to the UK the following year in order to avoid being drafted to fight alongside American troops. In 1973 he organized a gay rights protest in East Germany but was assaulted by the Stasi and kicked him out of the Communist bloc country. He first came into national British consciousness after he stood as a Labor Party candidate in a 1983 parliamentary by-election for a seat in the southeast London constituency of Bermondsey. Tatchell lost by a large margin and the race has entered the annals of British politics as one of its most notorious because of its rank homophobia. Ironically, Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat who won the seat and just lost a campaign to be leader of the party, recently came out of a closet of sorts to pronounce himself bisexual. While most in Tatchell’s situation might evince bitterness, Tatchell was astonishingly gracious. “That was 23 years ago – I don’t hold a grudge,” he told Britain’s Independent. On his website, he even went so far as to write, “I don’t support the Lib Dems, but if I was a member I would vote for Simon as leader.”
Sticking so determinedly with his liberal principles, Tatchell has taken on a number of causes in recent years that are bete noires for many on the left and celebrated by the right. One of his most high-profile targets is Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who has shut down independent newspapers, jailed political opponents and denounced gays as “worse than dogs and pigs.” In 2001 the Belgium government feted the African dictator while Mugabe¹s goons beat Tatchell about the head after his second unsuccessful attempt at a citizens’ arrest (the first was in 1999), leaving him with permanent damage in one eye. In March, the Zimbabwean government accused him of helping to fund a coup against Mugabe, to which Tatchell responded, “I can’t raise enough money to staff an office for my own human rights work, let alone fund an insurrection.” Tatchell has found little solace from the supposedly anti-totalitarian left, which, at best views Mugabe as a side effect of Western imperialism rather than an intrinsic evil that should be directly opposed. “Mugabe has killed more black Africans than even apartheid,” Tatchell says, an observation that while likely true, hardly represents a consensus in left-wing circles.
Tatchell has also angered blacks due to his lonely campaign against Jamaican reggae dance hall music, a genre whose most popular singers call for the mauling and death of gays in their lyrics. He felt compelled to raise the issue because many gay Jamaicans approached him and were afraid to speak publicly due to the violent homophobia so prevalent in their home country. In late November, for example, the gay Jamaican AIDS activist Steve Harvey was shot to death just a year after the murder of Brian Williamson, a founder of Jamaica’s gay rights movement. “We were deluged with denunciations from black and left activist groups who accused us of having a racist and imperialist agenda,” Tatchell said of the black response to his campaign. A spokesman for the Black Music Council threatened, “Don’t you even try to change us, because you can’t change us. We will never, ever bow. We are ready and we are coming because what you are doing is racism to the extreme,” and the New Nation, a black British newspaper, bestowed Tatchell with its “Pest of the Year” award in 2004. When Tatchell called upon the BBC to rescind its decision to broadcast the Music of Black Origin Awards due to its celebration of homophobic Jamaican reggae singers, black Guardian columnist Joseph Harker wrote, “Instead of seeing a sympathetic figure trying to engage with them, black people see only a white man acting like a modern-day missionary, trying to impose his views.”
After Tatchell claimed that Malcolm X might have been gay, the British branch of the Nation of Islam branded him a “Godless sodomite.” The Voice, a black British newspaper, wrote that “Unwittingly, Tatchell falls into a tradition of many white right-wing historians who have attempted to rewrite important chapters of black history that effectively disown people of the African Diaspora of their own heroes – re-presenting them in ways that have little meaning or attraction to the young.” Tatchell received enough death threats due to his anti-homophobia campaign that the London police placed him under their protection. Meanwhile, Amnesty International, Tatchell says, halted their support of his campaign out of fear of angering the black community. “If the neo-Nazi BNP [British National Party] was advocating the murder of black lesbians and gay men the left would be rising up in mass demonstrations,” he says. “When some Jamaican reggae stars advocate exactly the same thing, large sections of the left run a mile.”
In the spring of 2005, Tatchell again came out in opposition to Amnesty for their failure to recognize the grievances of gay Palestinians. The silence is caused by what Tatchell believes is the human rights organization’s fear of engendering a backlash likely to come about by faulting a movement that holds a firm place in the pantheon of left-wing conscience. He has battled with pro-Palestinian groups – whom he has frequently stood alongside protesting Israeli occupation – over their failure to acknowledge the Palestinian Authority’s militant homophobia. In 2005, Tatchell presented Amnesty with a dossier on Palestinian oppression of gays culled from interviews with gay Palestinian exiles. He characterized Amnesty’s response as, “We’re too busy and we don’t have time.”
But it has been Tatchell’s latest crusade against the Mayor of London’s favorite imam that has divided the left in a way that is indicative of a much larger trend in European politics, that is, the problem of Muslim integration. Tatchell was amazed that Livingstone, whose political career he had endorsed from his first race for leader of the Greater London Council in 1980, would carry the water of a man the left ought to have condemned as a bigoted theocrat. “I was utterly astonished that this longtime left-winger and supporter of gay rights was prepared to roll out the red carpet for a fundamentalist cleric who believed in the execution of apostates, unchaste women and gay people,” Tatchell says. “It went against everything he’s ever stood for.” Livingstone had always been a prominent and outspoken leader for gay rights, and supported Tatchell in his 1983 race when the leadership of the Labor Party (including Party leader Michael Foote) opposed his running out of a fear that he was too radical and too gay.
Livingstone, known affectionately and derisively (depending on your politics) as “Red Ken,” has long been a thorn in the side of Prime Minister Tony Blair and has been a rallying figure for the party’s left wing. He is also something of a thug. In March, he called the US Ambassador to Great Britain Robert Tuttle a “chiseling little crook” after Tuttle requested that US envoys not be forced to pay London’s congestion out of respect for diplomatic tradition. Livingstone was temporarily suspended from his duties as Mayor in February, after a 2005 incident in which he compared a Jewish journalist to a Nazi. Approached by Oliver Finegold, a reporter for the Evening Standard, outside an event, Livingstone said, “What did you do? Were you a German war criminal?” Informed that Finegold was Jewish, Livingstone added that the reporter was acting like a “concentration camp guard.”
Bob Pitt, a member of Livingstone’s official research staff who has worked in Britain’s Marxist political circles for decades, regularly derides Tatchell and other Muslim moderates on his blog, Islamophobia-watch.com. Late last year he wrote that, “Tatchell, along with many of his fellow self-styled defenders of Enlightenment values, takes refuge in mindless sectarian bigotry.” Tatchell points out that Pitt, in the run-up to the NATO invasion of Afghanistan following the September 11 attacks, wrote that, “It is perfectly principled for socialists to defend the Taliban against imperialism.” On March 25, Tatchell headlined a Freedom of Expression rally in London’s famed Trafalgar Square to protest Muslim demands that the cartoons not be printed. Though some right-leaning British organizations like the Libertarian Alliance and the Thatcherite Freedom Association co-sponsored the rally alongside Outrage!, some of Tatchell’s left-wing and Muslim critics (“preferring to remain pure and marginal,” Tatchell said at the rally) alleged that he was colluding with the fascist British National Party, which he and the rally organizers emphatically deny.
In January, Tatchell was denied an invitation to attend a conference held by a bi-partisan Parliamentary caucus on equality whose stated purpose it is “To raise awareness of the need for measures to provide parity of protection from discrimination and promote equality and dignity for all.” On January 31st, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Equalities held a seminar on “potential conflict between different kinds of rights” and one of the panelists was an adviser to the Muslim Council of Britain, a group which has called for a boycott of Holocaust Memorial Day and whose leader supported the Fatwa on Salman Rushdie, and of which Tatchell has been a perennial target. The organizers claimed that the event was only open to Members of Parliament, but when Tatchell asked an MP who attended the event if such a rule was applied, he found otherwise. “Tatchell now suspects an orchestrated plot to prevent him attending the bash,” the Independent reported.
A regular target of verbal and written attack, Tatchell has become used to physical abuse as well. He has been beaten up, threatened with murder, and his house has been vandalized countless times. Yet up until recently most of these assaults came from far right groups. Now, the threats that Tatchell receives come from those normally assumed to have left-wing sympathies: blacks and Muslims. Several years ago he placed bars on his apartment windows.
His lonely work is not only thankless; it also leaves him close to penniless. His is not the glamorous life of many high profile, media-savvy activists. He does not charge expensive lecture fees or have a massive fundraising operation like established, American gay rights organizations. He makes next to nothing (earning a few thousand pounds a year from donations and journalism) and lives in public housing. His is a one-man, thankless, human rights organization
“There are large sections of the left who have now twisted the virtues of multiculturalism into a new form of moral relativism whereby anti-humanitarian practices in non-Western cultures are ignored or even defended in the name of ‘cultural sensitivity,'” he says. “It’s an ethical and political acrobatics on a monumental scale.” But he has found little support amongst his social democrat peers for his political courage. For much of December and January, the Outrage! Website was down, and Tatchell suspects that any number of his new found enemies on the left could be responsible for the hacking. “It was a highly sophisticated cyber attack,” he confirmed. “The huge effort involved could only have been politically motivated, with the aim of putting us out of action for a long time. Our site was mined with hundreds of viruses and some curious bits of Arabic script, which may be a pointer to the culprits.”
Though Tatchell was, and remains, an opponent of the Iraq war, he had a credible, anti-statist alternative to the Bush-Blair plan that would have warmed the hearts of neo-conservatives like Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz. Just a few days before Coalition troops commenced hostilities, Tatchell was arrested for jumping in front of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s limousine in Piccadilly Circus with a sign that read, “Arm the Kurds! Topple Saddam.” After his arrest, he said, “The Left’s do-nothing, oppositionist stance borders on appeasement. It colludes with Saddam’s oppression, and is a shameful betrayal of Iraqis struggling for democracy and human rights.” He points out that he has been a vocal opponent of Saddam and the Ba’ath party for decades, joining protests outside the Iraqi embassy in the 1980s, long before the left, (or the right, for that matter), took any interest in Iraq. One would be hard-pressed to find another anti-Bush left-winger of Tatchell’s prominence holding such nuanced views.
Though conservatives might like to claim him as a convert, Tatchell is hardly a member of their ranks, in either the philosophical or practical sense. He opposes the “assimilationist” approach of gay conservatives like Andrew Sullivan, because “my agenda is about liberation…I don’t want queers to fit in with society as it is, I want them to take the lead alongside liberal progressive straights to fundamentally transform society for the benefit of everyone.” He supports lowering the age of consent to 14 and the disestablishment of the Church of England. He is a political radical on nearly every issue and in 2004 defected from Labor due to its rightward drift under Tony Blair and joined the Green Party. “Go red and go green,” he wrote in the run up to the 2005 parliamentary elections. This is no Log Cabin Republican.
Many of his former comrades have decried Tatchell as an opportunist and a right-wing dupe seeking support from a public rendered amenable to anti-Muslim arguments by fears of terrorism and cultural incompatibility. But Tatchell has not changed his values one whit in his over four decades of activism. It is not Peter Tatchell who has left the left. It is the left who has left him.