Last autumn, mysterious posters began to appear all over the East End of London announcing it is now a "Gay-Free Zone." They warned: "And Fear Allah: Verily Allah is Severe in Punishment." One of them was plastered outside the apartment block I lived in for nearly ten years, next to adverts for club nights and classes at the local library, as if it was natural and normal. I'd like to say I'm shocked - but anybody who lives there knows this has been a long time coming.
Here's a few portents from the East End that we have chosen to ignore. In May 2008, a 15 year old Muslim girl tells her teacher she thinks she might be gay, and the Muslim teacher in a state-funded comprehensive tells her "there are no gays round here" and she will "burn in hell" if she ever acts on it. (I know because she emailed me, suicidal and begging for help). In September 2008, a young gay man called Oliver Hemsley, is walking home from the gay pub the George and Dragon when a gang of young Muslims stabs him eight times, in the back, in the lungs, and in his spinal column. In January 2010, when the thug who did it is convicted, a gang of thirty Muslims storms the George and Dragon in revenge and violently attacks everybody there. All through, it was normal to see young men handing out leaflets outside the Whitechapel Ideas Store saying gays are "evil." Most people accept them politely.
These are not isolated incidents. East London has seen the highest increase in homophobic attacks anywhere in Britain, and some of the worst in Europe. Everybody knows why, and nobody wants to say it. It is because East London has the highest Muslim population in Britain, and we have allowed a fanatically intolerant attitude towards gay people to incubate there, in the name of "tolerance". The most detailed opinion survey of British Muslims was carried out by Gallup, who correctly predicted the result of the last general election. In their extensive polling, they found literally no British Muslims who would say homosexuality is "morally acceptable." Every one of the Muslims they polled objected to it. Even more worryingly, younger Muslims had more stridently anti-gay views than older Muslims. These attitudes have consequences - and they are worst of all for gay Muslims, who have to live a sham half-life of lies, or be shunned by their families.
No, Muslims are not the only homophobes among us. But the gap between them and the rest is startling. It's zero percent of British Muslims vs. 58 percent of other Brits who say we are "acceptable."
Why does nobody want to talk about this? No, it's not because Muslims have "taken over" Europe, as ludicrous hysterics like Mark Steyn claim. I debunk that nonsense here: Muslims are 3 percent of the population of Europe.
So why the silence? It is true that British Muslims are themselves frequently the victims of bigotry -- just as in the US and across most of the Western world, especially since 9/11. They are often harassed by the police, denied jobs, and abused in the street, and they are forced to watch as our government senselessly incinerates many Muslims abroad. (I have written many articles detailing and deploring these ugly facts.) So gay people are naturally reluctant to pile in onto minority who are being oppressed. We are rightly sympathetic. We know what it is like to be treated like this. We instinctively respond with solidarity, not suspicion.
But this can easily morph into excuse-making. When there was a wave of vicious gay-bashings in Amsterdam by Morroccan immigrants -- ending the city's easy, hand-holding culture -- the gay spokesman for Human Rights Watch, Scott Long, said: "There's still an extraordinary degree of racism in Dutch society. Gays often becomes victims of this when immigrants retaliate for the inequities they have had to suffer." What? How is it a "retaliation" to beat up a gay couple? What have they done to Muslims? What other human rights abuse would Human Rights Watch make excuses for? Would they say the Burmese junta beats dissidents in order to "retaliate for the inequities they have had to suffer"?
When gay people were cruelly oppressed, we didn't form gangs to beat up other minorities. We organized democratically and appealed to our fellow citizens' sense of decency. It's patronizing -- and authentically racist -- to treat Muslims as if they are children, or animals, who can only react to their oppression by jeering at or attacking people who have done them no harm, and who they object to because of a book written in the sixth century. Muslims are human beings who can choose not to do this. The vast majority, of course, do not attack anyone. But they should go further. They should choose instead to see us as equal human beings, who live and love just like them, and do not deserve scorn and prejudice.
Yes, it is "Muslim culture" today to be bigoted against gay people. It was British culture to be anti-gay thirty years ago. Cultures change. They change all the time. They are not sacred and fixed. They are constantly in motion. But they only change if we admit there is a problem publicly and openly and search for solutions. We should not "respect" the bigotry of Muslims, any more than we would respect the bigotry of Christians or Jews or the Ku Klux Klan. The only consistent and reasonable position is to oppose bigotry against Muslims, and oppose bigotry by Muslims.
So how do we do it? There are plenty of practical steps. The most crucial is in the school system. Today, schools in Muslim areas like Tower Hamlets and across Europe are deeply reluctant to explain that homosexuality is a natural and harmless phenomenon that occurs in every human society: they know that many parents will go crazy. Tough. It should be a legal requirement, tightly policed by the school inspectors, and any school that refuses should be shut down. Every one of those schools has gay kids who are terrified and isolated and are at a high risk of self-harm or suicide. We need to get simple facts and practical help to them, over the heads of religiously-inspired bigots. No school should be a "faith school", inspired by medieval holy books that demand death for gay people. Every school should be a safe school for gay children, and every school should educate straight children to live alongside them.
There are other crucial changes. We should be lauding -- and funding -- the few Muslim groups that are brave and humane enough to take a stand and defend the equality of gay people. They do exist: British Muslims for Secular Democracy is a heroic example. The same goes, even more crucially, for the gay Muslims who have come out and formed groups like Imaan. Only they can show their fellow Muslims that when they advocate discrimination against gay people, they are advocating discrimination against their own sisters and sons, brothers and daughters.
And we need to make it plain that accepting the existence of gay people -- and our right to live peacefully and openly -- is a non-negotiable value for living in a democracy. In the Netherlands, they now show all new immigrants images of men kissing, and if they object, they tell them they should go and live somewhere else. We should be doing the same -- starting with imams, who are almost entirely imported into British mosques at the moment from countries where homosexuality is a crime punished with death.
I believe Muslims can change. I believe they can accept and love their gay children, just as surely as my parents -- who also grew up in horribly homophobic places -- accepted and loved me. I think of all the good kind Muslims I met in my years living in Tower Hamlets, and I believe that over time they were capable of understanding that my sexuality is natural and innate and hurts nobody. But it won't happen if we pretend we "respect" their bigotry, and that it is a legitimate expression of difference. It is not, any more than hating black people was the "legitimate" culture of the Deep South, or Apartheid South Africa.
No, we will not tolerate the idea that we are "immoral" for loving each other. No, we will not tolerate posters declaring East London a "gay free zone." We will see them as a reason, at last and at least, to end this taboo -- and demand much better of our fellow citizens.
This article appeared in Attitude, Europe's best-selling gay magazine. To subscribe for just £27 and read these articles a month before they appear on this site, click here.
For updates on this issue and others you can follow Johann on Twitter at www.twitter.com/johannhari101
Follow Johann Hari on Twitter: www.twitter.com/johannhari101