Lies, damned lies and statistics – misinterpreting the homophobic hate crime figures for Tower Hamlets

In an article published in yesterday’s Guardian, Jack Gilbert of Rainbow Hamlets, the Tower Hamlets LGBT community forum, writes: “In June, we obtained a month-by-month analysis of homophobic crime figures in the borough. It reveals that incidents in Tower Hamlets have risen by a third (33%) between April 2009-March 2010 and April 2010-March 2011, much more than the 21% widely reported in the media.”

The reported 21% rise over that 2009-11 period was based on earlier figures provided by the Metropolitan Police which showed that recorded homophobic crimes in Tower Hamlets had increased from 67 to 81. The Met’s statistics are being continuously revised, and if we look at the latest figures to which Jack Gilbert refers we find that the numbers now show a rise to 81 from 61, which does indeed give an increase of 33%.

However, as you can see, the reason for this higher percentage change is not that the Met’s figure for homophobic crimes in Tower Hamlets during 2010-11 has increased, but rather that the figure for 2009-10 has been revised downwards. Which means that the total figure for homophobic crimes over the period 2009-11 has also been reduced – from 148 to 142. Using these figures to suggest that homophobic crimes in Tower Hamlets are at a higher level than has been reported is disingenuous to say the least.

It would also be interesting to see the 2008-9 figure for comparison, because it seems possible in view of the latest statistics for 2009-10 that the level of recorded homophobic crime in Tower Hamlets might even have fallen over the 2008-10 period, or at least that any increase was lower than previously thought.

The reason why a longer time-frame would be useful in assessing the actual development of homophobic crime levels in Tower Hamlets is that over shorter periods the statistics often show sharp percentage changes for no obvious reason. This becomes clear if you break down the figures for the period from April 2009 to March 2011 into six-month rather than one-year segments.

Between April and September 2009 there were 38 recorded homophobic hate crimes in Tower Hamlets. Over the next six months, October 2009 to March 2010, the figure came down to 23 – a fall of almost 40%. In the following six months, April to September 2010, the figure rose to 46 – an increase of 100%. It then fell to 35 during the six months between October 2010 and March 2011 – a decline of 24%.

It seems highly unlikely that such wild fluctuations reflect the actual rise and fall of homophobia in Tower Hamlets. It’s just that when you are dealing with relatively low figures like these even small numerical changes produce dramatic-looking percentage shifts. Nor do the statistics show that the level of homophobic crime in Tower Hamlets at the end of the two-year period from April 2009 to March 2011 was any higher than at the beginning, as the figure for the final six months is slightly down on that for the first six months (35 as against 38).

The problem is that when people are intent on “proving” that there has been a dangerous increase in homophobia in Tower Hamlets they just interpret the statistics to justify their own prejudices.

The recent notorious Homintern statement denouncing rising homophobia in the borough gave headline prominence to the 21% figure. However, an earlier version of the same statement, published under Andy Tippetts’ name on the National Secular Society website, took the view that there might have been a fall in homophobic crime in Tower Hamlets – but argued that this was because “there are many gay people who have been forced out of the borough, unable to cope with the harassment”. So, according to this reasoning, if there has been an increase in anti-gay crime in Tower Hamlets, that shows a rise in homophobia, and if there has been a fall in anti-gay crime in the borough that shows a rise in homophobia too!

The purpose of exaggerating the level of homophobia in Tower Hamlets is of course to imply that Muslims are primarily responsible for anti-gay hatred in the borough. But the statistics that are available do not bear that out. The only figures I have seen are for violent homophobic crime in Tower Hamlets over the three-year period 2006/7 to 2008/9. These show that 36% of such crimes were committed by people of Bangladeshi heritage, who form 33% of the total population of Tower Hamlets according to the last available census figures. So there is no evidence that Muslims are mainly or disproportionately responsible for homophobic violence in the borough.

Now, it may be that over the past two years there has been a big surge in the proportion of homophobic crimes in Tower Hamlets committed by Muslims. But unless they can produce any evidence that this is the case, LGBT organisations would be advised to avoid giving credence to accusations that have a basis in Islamophobic mythology rather than facts.

And while we’re on the subject of statistics, it would be helpful if those who blame the East London Mosque for the supposed rise in homophobia among local Muslims could provide a figure for the number of speakers who have used the mosque as a platform to preach hostility towards the LGBT community.

In his Guardian article Jack Gilbert argues that the ELM “has accepted it has hosted at least one homophobic speaker, Abdul Karim Hattin, in 2007, whose Spot the Fag lecture was featured on Channel 4’s Dispatches programme”. This lecture was delivered at an event organised by an outside body who had hired a conference room at the London Muslim Centre. And, as Gilbert notes, the ELM’s website now states firmly that “those hate preachers who circumvented our bookings policy in the past are now barred; our vetting procedures for speakers and guests appearing at our mosque and centre have been significantly tightened over the past year”.

The basis on which Islamophobes like the signatories to the Homintern statement justify their charge that the East London Mosque is guilty of “allowing its premises to be used to promote gayhate campaigns” is to compile a list of preachers who have spoken at the mosque over the years, together with homophobic statements these preachers are alleged to have made. But nobody, so far as I’m aware, has claimed that any of these alleged statements, with the sole exception of Abdul Karim Hattin’s 2007 lecture, were actually made at the ELM itself.

In short, the answer to the question of how many speakers have used the East London Mosque as a platform to preach hostility towards the LGBT community would appear to be – one, four years ago, at an event booked by an outside body, and he’s now been banned.