Homophobia in Tower Hamlets: how a small group of bigots are trying to stitch up the East London Mosque

The statement by a group of LGBT activists reported yesterday by the GuardianPink News and the East London Advertiser draws attention to the worrying rise in homophobic crimes in Tower Hamlets, which increased by 21%, from 67 to 81, during the year up to April. But the statement fails to mention that this phenomenon is to be found across many London boroughs and that Tower Hamlets is by no means the worst example.

Indeed, when the Pink Paper reported last month on increases in homophobic crime revealed by the latest Metropolitan Police statistics, Tower Hamlets didn’t even rate a mention:

“Homophobic attacks in London’s Soho and the gay-friendly borough of Westminster increased last year, according to the Met Police. New figures released by Scotland Yard revealed that anti-gay hate crime increased by 26 per cent, from 117 to 148 incidents, from April 2010 to April 2011…. The borough of Harrow suffered the biggest increase in assaults, with crimes soaring by 125 per cent. Likewise, Islington saw a significant jump with incidents rising from 82 to 131, a surge of 60 per cent. The boroughs of Havering, Kingston-upon-Thames and Enfield weren’t dissimilar, joining Westminster as some of the worst offenders in the Greater London area.”

In response to an FOI request by Andy Godfrey the Metropolitan Police have also provided detailed statistics for violent homophobic crime in London between 2006 and 2009. Though the figures for Tower Hamlets do not include religious affiliation, they show that during this three-year period 66 individuals were proceeded against, of whom 24 were of Bangladeshi heritage, i.e. members of the ethnic group to which the overwhelming majority of local Muslims belong. This was 36.3% of the total. The last census put the figure for the borough’s Bangladeshi population at 33.4%.

And while the Bangladeshis who carried out these attacks may have been Muslims, it does not follow that their actions were religiously motivated. The LGBT activists’ statement refers to the horrific assault on Oliver Hemsley in Hackney in 2008. As they note, the Bangladeshi youth later found guilty of stabbing Hemsley was initially released on bail pending the results of forensic tests, and he took the opportunity to rob a 12-year-old girl of £5 at knifepoint. Does this really sound like an individual whose actions were primarily motivated by his faith? It doesn’t require a degree in sociology or criminology to work out that the gang culture that produces this sort of crime is in fact likely to attract the least religiously observant youth.

So the picture of Tower Hamlets as a hotbed of Islamically-inspired homophobic violence – which has previously been promoted by Johann Hari and Graeme Archer, and which the LGBT activists’ statement now tries to uphold – is just a myth. There were far fewer homophobic crimes reported in Tower Hamlets last year than in Westminster or Islington, while the percentage increase was much less than in a number of other London boroughs. There is no evidence that it is Muslims who have been disproportionately responsible for the homophobic crimes committed in Tower Hamlets. Nor is there any indication that those members of the Bangladeshi community who have engaged in homophobic attacks did so because of their religious beliefs.

But it becomes clear that the purpose of the LGBT activists’ statement is not to provide an objective analysis of homophobic violence in Tower Hamlets. Rather, their aim is to smear the East London Mosque as its source.

The statement lists a number of preachers who have spoken at the mosque and quotes homophobic comments they are alleged to have made. However, with a single exception – Abdul Karim Hattin, who spoke at a conference in 2007 booked by an outside body at the London Muslim Centre – none of these comments was actually made at the East London Mosque. Yet this is the flimsy basis on which the LGBT activists accuse the ELM of “allowing its premises to be used to promote gayhate campaigns” and claim that preachers at the mosque have “spread a message in which maiming and violence is the most dutiful, honourable, devout thing to do”.

What we have here is an unrepresentative group of bigots promoting a fantasy about Islamic homophobia in Tower Hamlets in an attempt to set the LGBT and Muslim communities against each other. And bear in mind that their statement was issued only a few days after the English Defence League announced its intention to stage a provocative and intimidatory anti-Muslim demonstration in the borough. By issuing this irresponsible statement the signatories have made their own small contribution to the wave of Islamophobic lies and distortions which provide the conditions for the growth of the far right, a development that poses a threat to all minority communities.

Update:  And over at the Casuals United blog the EDL have thoughtfully reproduced the LGBT activists’ statement, claiming that it backs up their argument that Tower Hamlets has been taken over by “radical Islam”.