The brutal killings in London of two men, Jody Dombrowski and David Morley, were a dreadful reminder of how vulnerable gay people continue to be. Mr Dombrowski, who was only 24, was set upon as he walked home across Clapham Common; Mr Morley, 37, a barman who survived the homophobic bomb attack on a Soho pub in 1999, was targeted as he sat on a bench on the South Bank. The four people convicted of his manslaughter inflicted 44 injuries on his body. One of them, a 15-year-old girl, filmed the assault on her mobile phone.
Such cases are exceptional. The wave of popular approval which greeted the first civil partnerships last month suggests that gay and lesbian people have achieved a wide degree of acceptance. But hate crimes have not been eradicated and you might think that other social groups who find themselves similarly targeted would show ready sympathy for victims of homophobia. The Muslim Council of Britain rightly condemns attacks on Muslims, but does it stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other victims of hate crimes?
Earlier this month, the MCB's secretary-general, Sir Iqbal Sacranie, displayed the tact and empathy for which he has become famous, condemning civil partnerships and denouncing homosexuality as "unacceptable" and "harmful". Such views are not confined to officials of the MCB. More than 20 imams supported him in a letter to yesterday's Times, while evangelical Christians are not exactly liberal when it comes to homosexuality, and much else. It's reasonable to think that some bigoted radio listeners may have been confirmed in their homophobic views by his words.
After all, he is so highly regarded in Downing Street that he was given a knighthood, a decision which continues to mystify those who recall his comments on The Satanic Verses affair in 1989. On that occasion, when Salman Rushdie was threatened with death and his novel burnt in British cities, Sir Iqbal opined that "death, perhaps, is a bit too easy for him". I can't say I have much sympathy now that he finds himself being investigated by the police for his remarks about homosexuality.
Nothing new in that, you might say, for it's clear that the MCB represents a reactionary strain of Islam. It has supported Section 28, opposed lowering the age of consent for gay sex and worked with evangelical Christians to oppose adoption by gay or even cohabiting heterosexual couples. But there is a paradox here, summed up by the gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell when he points out that tolerance is a two-way street. "How can the MCB expect to secure respect for Muslims," he asked, "when it shows such obvious disrespect to other people because of their sexual orientation?"
In fact, the MCB's hypocrisy isn't confined to questions of sexuality and it is behaving in exactly the same way as leaders of other faiths who habitually misuse the language of human rights. Ardent supporters of free speech, as long as it means they can attack gay people, secularists and liberal members of their own faith, they come over all authoritarian whenever their opponents demand the same courtesy. I expected the MCB to be at the forefront of a shrill campaign for censorship, lobbying Parliament in support of a Bill which would open critics of religion to the threat of a prison sentence - and it has been. "We cannot claim to be a free and open society while we are trying to silence dissenting views," Muslim leaders declared yesterday. Quite. What we shouldn't expect from religious leaders is consistency.Reuse content