Communists for freedom at Conway Hall

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Yesterday evening there was a meeting held by the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association, at which Peter Tatchell (OutRage), Ali Hilli (OutRage’s Middle East spokesman) and Houzan Mahmoud of the so-called Organisation of Women’s Freedom of Iraq spoke. It was held at Conway Hall in Holborn, London, a well-known venue for secularist meetings. The theme was “Women, Gays and Secularists in Post-War Iraq”, and I found it advertised in this post by Brett Lock at Harry’s Place. The meeting was held in the library, which turned out (I’d never been to Conway Hall before) to be rather a small venue, although with just about enough room for this audience. I found myself right at the front and literally a metre from the three speakers (and I suspect I was right in front of Norm as well).

Ali Hilli told us that he had received an email earlier the same day from a contact in Baghdad, who told him of various new developments. He accused the police and interior ministry of being in league with the militias. His friend reported that police had been stopping long-haired males in the street and demanding that they cut their hair as it looked too modern or trendy, and that men had been killed for wearing shorts, and that there was talk of a ban on jeans. In parts of Baghdad women were no longer allowed to drive. He said that many Iraqis had been excited after Saddam fell, and although he had never supported the war, he did not imagine that the situation would get as bad as it has. (He also mentioned, toward the end of the meeting, that he had been told of gangs of men trying to “cure” lesbians by raping them.)

Most of the killings, he alleged, were the work of the Badr and Sadr militias, both southern-based Shi’ite groups (strangely, Zarqawi and his group were never mentioned). He claimed that they had assassinated, among other people, Sunnis, moderate Shi’ites, trade unionists, women’s rights activists and gays. His group had investigated a fatwa issued by “Ayatollah” Sistani, which called for gays to be killed in the “worst, most severe way possible”, and said they found that nothing like it existed elsewhere in Islamic literature, and that those who run the website eventually gave into pressure to remove the fatwa from the website, although it was not revoked. (Even so, I suspect it referred to judicial penalties for men caught in the act of sodomy, not to the murder by armed gangs of men they accused of being gay.) Hilli alleged that a new fatwa had been issued since, to the effect that gays and lesbians should be killed and burned. He claimed also that the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq had an office in London and a huge influence on Iraqis here, that their agents had been monitoring and threatening him, and that people had asked him how dare he challenge Sistani who was such a “holy man”. He said that Sistani was a man, but not at all holy.

The next speaker was Houzan Mahmoud, about whom I have earlier written this. She thanked OutRage for supporting her campaign from the beginning, and said that it was not just gays but also women, students and people generally who were under threat in Iraq. Women, she said, were 60% of Iraqi society and had lost nearly all their rights; that the US and UK had installed a right-wing reactionary regime full of “ayatollahs” and “mullahs”, and that a religious constitution had been promulgated which was full of insults to women. They wanted to bring back Shari’a and install a regime akin to that of Iran or Saudi Arabia (note: Iraq last had Shari’a law under Ottoman rule, which was not akin to Iran or Saudi Arabia).

Her “Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq” was founded in June 2003, and its main aim is secularism, because in their view as long as religion has a role in the state or in education, there can be no progress or freedom. They want to see religion “privatised” world-wide. OWFI was not purely a local group, she said, but part of a worldwide movement.

Women had been attacked and killed in Iraq for not wearing the veil; many gangsters were kidnapping women and young girls and boys for trafficking purposes. Islamists were making lists of women to kill in one suburb called al-Dora as part of some cleansing process. The puppet government was put together on sectarian lines, and had no relevance to the people and were incapable of protecting people or providing basic services. The “Iraqi Freedom Congress”, of which OWFI are a part, were mobilising people to resist both the occupation and the religious takeover of the country. The militias are not a mass movement, but are well-funded, including by leftists in the west. The occupation must end, but not at the cost of a religious regime similar to that of Saudi Arabia, Iran or the Taliban.

The final speaker was Peter Tatchell, who obviously addressed from a gay point of view, pointing out how recent developments brought home to the community in the UK how they are the lucky ones; that they can’t imagine how difficult things are in other parts of the world, not just in Iraq but also Jamaica and Zimbabwe among other places. Much of OutRage’s work has been building solidarity with gay communities in other countries. The situation facing gays in Iraq had not even been reported in the gay press, not because of deliberate oversight but because people simply did not know about it. OutRage wanted to bring the story to people to raise solidarity.

Tatchell said that the sex industry had been growing because people were selling their bodies just to raise money for basic necessities. People were becoming trapped by gangs who made sure to photograph them in sexual acts, which they threatened to publish if those involved decided to leave the industry. Their families may also be endangered, because families are blamed for their children’s homosexuality. It is also known for the militias to threaten to kill the families of homosexuals who have gone beyond their reach unless they surrender.

Tatchell urged the community to demand that pressure be put on the Iraqi government to abide by their own purported commitments to human rights and to their own constitution, flawed as it is (he pointed out that it had exceptions for honour killings). He asked for money to be raised to establish safe houses in safer parts of Iraq, to help people escape to Syria and Jordan, and to pay for equipment, communication and travel costs.

The meeting was then opened up for questions, and the first was whether they considered that Islam itself was to blame for the situation they were facing. Ali Hilli replied that he did not believe this; that Islam was a religion of peace and love (Houzan interjected that this was not true), but people use it for whatever purposes they want, as with other religions.

Sacha Ismail of Workers’ Liberty then stood up and apologised for the British Left, some of whom had remembered only what it was against and forgotten what it was for. Houzan Mahmood told us that she was an atheist who saw no good in Islam; she believed it was not progressive and did not allow a space for everyone to live peacefully. She believed that it did not belong to this century.

Lesley Mansell of the TUC’s National LGBT Committee told the speakers that she and her associates had been trying to raise these issues in the TUC and planned to do so at a forthcoming session. She asked if gay organisations had tried to contact trade unions, to which Ali Hilli replied that they had not, but were trying, and that they presently numbered only thirty people who were presently involved in a media campaign against homophobic fatwas.

Various other questions were fielded, among them at least two from “gay Muslims” seeking to defend Islam from Houzan Mahmood’s attacks; one of them said she had not come to defend her faith, but found herself forced to. Ali Hilli told the meeting that he did not have any hope for Iraq now, and blamed the invasion for the present situation. He said that Saddam Hussain was an evil man and oppressed religious people, but under his rule people did at least live peacefully together and there was a sense of Iraqi nationhood which has disappeared since.

As far as I can tell, I was the only ordinary Muslim to have ventured in (as opposed to Gay Muslim or communist of Muslim ancestry), although I didn’t stop for long to ask anyone else. I must say I was moved to sympathy with the gay aspect of the situation presented last night; of course, as Muslims, we don’t condone homosexual behaviour, but we absolutely condemn gangsterism, kidnapping, blackmail, armed thugs presuming to be moral vigilantes, and the threatening of families for one member’s deeds. What annoyed me immensely was Houzan Mahmood’s portrayal of her Worker-Communist front group as some sort of authentic mainstream secularist feminist movement, when it is in fact a militantly atheist Marxist movement. Houzan Mahmood, in both her dress (a purple top and tight jeans with holes) and her attitudes, is not at all representative of Iraqi women. Many, if not most, Iraqi women are religious to a greater or lesser degree and would not benefit from her idea of “freedom”; a read of the manifesto of the “Iraqi Freedom Congress” reveals that they seek to “confiscate and repossess all the properties and estates belonging to religious foundations and utilise them to meet social, recreational and political needs of the people”, and the “complete separation of religion from state and education”. Such demands could only come from either secular nationalists of the Turkish variety, or communists - and we all know about Houzan’s commie pals Maryam, Homa and so on.

As bad as this was her attempt to bring Iraqi trade unionists into her “struggle” as if communists were any friends of trade unions. It’s a well-known fact that free trade unions do not exist in communist dictatorships (the only place in the old eastern bloc where we heard from the unions was Poland, and we all know what happened there); free trade unionists tend to coincide with other types of freedom, such as freedom of religion. There should really be no conflict between Islam and trade unionism per se; in fact, one of the well-known Islamic scholars of Syria, Shaikh Abdul-Rahman Shaghouri, was a trade union activist earlier in his life. It certainly would not benefit workers if Muslims were to be alienated from unions because they are dominated by people hostile to Islam, or trying to hijack them for their revolution.

I wonder if all of those leftists who indulge these Worker-Communists are aware of their real agenda? Peter Tatchell is a member of the Green Party, so surely he is aware that communism led to environmental disasters such as Chernobyl and the dreadful pollution which was in evidence in industrial areas in the old eastern bloc. (Of course, the western bloc put out its fair share of pollution as well, and continues to do so, but here people are not afraid to talk about it and about means of making the devices which cause pollution cleaner and more efficient.) The “Decent Left” routinely attacks other figures on the British left for associating with Socialist Workers and Islamists, but they still build alliances with this sect and present them (like Nick Cohen) as feminists or secularists, and not as militantly atheist Marxists, and invite them to talk of the situation in Iraq without mentioning their total contempt for the religious feelings of most Iraqis. The fact is: they are in no position to talk of liberating women (or anyone else) in Iraq, because they have nothing in common with most of them.

(Photos to follow, insha Allah.)

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