Tatchell, OutRage! and the Grand Mufti

By Bob Pitt

Last month the notoriously homophobic mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, attended a mayoral summit meeting in London hosted by London’s mayor Ken Livingstone, prompting a protest by Peter Tatchell and the gay rights organisation OutRage! The website Gay.com reported:

“The Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, has denounced same-sex relationships and gay pride events as ‘satanic’, ‘unnatural’, ‘deviations’, ‘blasphemy’ and ‘deadly moral poison’. In February 2006, Grand Mufti Talgat Tadzhuddin was quoted as saying about Moscow gay pride marchers, ‘If they come out on to the streets anyway they should be flogged. Any normal person would do that – Muslims and Orthodox Christians alike.’ For these reasons Outrage are co-ordinating a protest at London’s City Hall.”

Although the criticism of Luzhkov was right on the button, the reference to the Grand Mufti appeared, on the face of it, inexplicable. It is a well-established fact that, as Gay.com itself reported at the time, the attack on Moscow Pride in May 2006 was carried out by “skinheads and militant Orthodox Christians”. Yet the idea that the leader of Russia’s Muslims was the main instigator of the violent suppression of Moscow Pride has now apparently entered folklore among a section of the LGBT community in the UK.

The mayor of London had his own view on where this myth originated. In a statement issued by his press office in response to the controversy over Luzhkov’s visit, Livingstone condemned attacks on LGBT rights in Russia and Eastern Europe and the role of politicians in legitimising homophobia. But he continued: “The attempt of Mr Tatchell to focus attention on the role of the grand Mufti in Moscow, in the face of numerous attacks on gay rights in Eastern Europe which overwhelmingly come from right wing Christian and secular currents, is a clear example of an Islamaphobic campaign.”

Tatchell and his supporters responded with predictable indignation. Pink News quoted Tatchell as stating: “A year ago we once criticised the grand Mufti after he urged his followers to violently attack gay people in the streets. But the main focus of our criticism during that campaign was on the homophobia of the Chief Rabbi, the Russian Orthodox Church, neo-Nazis and ultra-nationalists. To suggest that this was an Islamophobic campaign was nonsense, despicable and brings the Mayor’s office into disrepute.”

In a post on the neocon website Harry’s Place (to which he is a regular contributor) Brett Lock of OutRage! denounced Livingstone as “a shameless liar” and “a man without principles or integrity”. Lock insisted that “Tatchell didn’t say Russian Muslims were the leading force attacking gay rights”. He also accused the mayor of hypocrisy, on the grounds that in May 2006 Livingstone himself had condemned “support given by the Russian Orthodox Church, the Grand Mufti, and the Chief Rabbi” to the ban on Moscow Pride.

Somewhat contradictorily, George Broadhead of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association (GALHA) – a group closely associated with OutRage! – weighed in with a further attack on the mayor, accusing him of refusing to criticise Muslim homophobia. “Mr Livingstone is clearly determined to treat Islam with kid gloves no matter how stridently homophobic its adherents are,” Broadhead declared. “The slightest criticism of Islam is immediately branded Islamaphobic.”

What was the actual practice of Tatchell, OutRage! et al during the run-up to Moscow Pride 2006? Is Lock correct in claiming that Tatchell “didn’t say Russian Muslims were the leading force attacking gay rights” in Moscow? Is there any truth to Tatchell’s assertion that they condemned the Grand Mufti only “once”, and that “the main focus of our criticism during that campaign was on the homophobia of the Chief Rabbi, the Russian Orthodox Church, neo-Nazis and ultra-nationalists”? Let us examine the record.

On 16 February 2006 Pink News reported that “Gay groups planning to attend the Russian gay pride march in the Spring may face violent protests from Muslim groups”. The article quoted the Grand Mufti who had called for lesbians and gays to be “bashed” if they took to the streets of Moscow. Pink News even claimed that the Mufti had threatened that participants in the Pride parade “could be killed”, though it provided no direct quote to back that up.

The following day, in a post on his Lock & Load blog, Brett Lock reported the mayor of Moscow as stating that he would not allow a gay parade “in any form” and that any attempt to hold a gay event would be “resolutely quashed”. Lock added that Luzhkov’s announcement “follows statements by the Russian Chief Mufti threatening violence if the Pride parade went ahead”. He did mention that the Chief Rabbi had also opposed Pride and had stated that “sexual perversions” did not have a right to exist, though Lock argued that the Rabbi was less of a threat than the Mufti because he had “stopped short of calling for violence”. There was no suggestion that the Orthodox Church might pose a threat, nor any warning about “neo-Nazis and ultra-nationalists”.

post by George Broadhead on the GALHA website, also dated 17 February 2006, similarly argued that the main physical threat to Moscow Pride came from Muslims and made no reference to the Orthodox Church or the extreme Right. Broadhead stated: “The aggression of some Muslim extremists is such that it is quite likely that participants in any parade will be killed or seriously injured.”

Lock now claims that all this merely amounted to reporting the Mufti’s statement. But surely a moment’s consideration would have revealed the absurdity of the idea that, in Moscow of all places, Muslims would play the leading role in organising violence against the LGBT community. Or it would have if – unlike Tatchell, Lock, OutRage! and GALHA – you weren’t blinded by the delusion that Islam represents the major faith-based threat to LGBT rights.

By the time OutRage! issued their press release of 2 March 2006, reporting on a protest they had jointly organised outside the Russian Embassy in London, it was clear that the Orthodox Church too was actively campaigning in support of the ban on Moscow Pride. But the OutRage! press release again placed the main emphasis on the role of the Grand Mufti. He was quoted first and at greater length than anyone else, and was held to represent the sole threat of violence. The Orthodox Church was presented as playing a secondary role and only merited a short quote. Again, there was no mention of “neo-Nazis and ultra-nationalists”.

On 1 May 2006, however, a report on Gay.com demonstrated where the real threat of homophobic violence in the Russian capital emanated from:

“Moscow’s first Pride parade faced an ever more uncertain future over the weekend after protesters hurling eggs and bottles forced a Moscow nightclub to call off a major gay and lesbian party. Organizers were hoping to attract about 1,000 people to the Renaissance Event Club’s ‘Open Party’ in the Russian capital, but arriving party-goers were met Sunday evening by a crowd of at least 100 skinheads, nationalists and elderly religious protesters carrying Russian Orthodox icons and crosses. Demonstrators chanted, ‘Down with pederasts’ and ‘No perverts here’….” (emphasis added).

This attack was also reported by the BBC and Pink News, and the case was taken up by Human Rights Watch, who protested to the Moscow authorities about the attack. So Tatchell and his colleagues could hardly claim ignorance of the event. Yet, for all Tatchell’s present-day claims that their campaign had focused on criticising “the Russian Orthodox Church, neo-Nazis and ultra-nationalists”, there was no public condemnation by OutRage! of the attack on the Renaissance Event Club, despite the clear implications this had for the potential use of violence against Moscow Pride. It is not difficult to imagine how very different OutRage!’s reaction would have been if the attackers had been Muslims.

On 4 May 2006, Tatchell posted a piece on the Guardian’s Comment is Free blog in which he condemned Sir Iqbal Sacranie of the Muslim Council of Britain for homophobia. During the subsequent online discussion, in the course of which both Tatchell and Lock asserted that Islam was more homophobic than any other religion, one contributor pointed out that the mayor of Moscow had banned Pride “with the support of the Russian Orthodox Church who called it ‘the propaganda of sin’. Indeed, a few days ago a Moscow club holding a pro-Pride event was surrounded by Orthodox Church supporters shouting ‘Down with pederasts’ and ‘No perverts here’.”

Brett Lock replied by once again asserting the centrality of the Mufti’s role in inciting homophobic violence: “the Mayor of Moscow is not acting with the Russian Church’s blessing alone. The Chief Mufti went even further, calling for not only a ban, but for violence against gays. Chief Mufti of Russia’s Central Spiritual Governance for Muslims, Talgat Tajuddin said: ‘Muslims’ protests can be even worse than these notorious rallies abroad over the scandalous cartoons…. The parade should not be allowed, and if they still come out into the streets, then they should be bashed’.” The obvious point made by OutRage!’s critic – that “it is the Orthodox Church rather than the supreme mufti or the chief rabbi that exercises the predominant religious influence over Russian culture” – was ignored by Lock.

On 25 May 2006, on the very eve of Moscow Pride, OutRage! issued a further press release. Once again, the role of Talgat Tadzhuddin was emphasised and homophobic statements by the Orthodox Church and the Chief Rabbi were accorded a secondary role. As usual, only the Grand Mufti was accused of inciting violence. There was still no mention of “neo-Nazis and ultra-nationalists”.

The previous day, Tatchell had posted an article about Moscow Pride at Comment is Free, which made his position even clearer. He wrote:

“Threatening violence against Moscow Gay Pride, the chief mufti of Russia’s Central Spiritual Governance for Muslims, Talgat Tajuddin, said: ‘Muslim protests can be even worse than these notorious rallies abroad over the scandalous cartoons. The parade should not be allowed, and if they still come out into the streets, then they should be bashed. Sexual minorities have no rights, because they have crossed the line. Alternative sexuality is a crime against God,’ he said, calling on members of the Russian Orthodox Church to join Muslims in mounting a violent response to Moscow Gay Pride. Russian Orthodox leaders responded by lobbying Mayor Luzhkov to ban the parade” (emphasis added).

In other words, in opposing Moscow Pride the Orthodox Church was not acting on its own initiative but had followed a call by the Mufti. There was, yet again, no mention of the threat from the far Right, despite the earlier attack on the Renaissance Event Club.

On 26 May Gay News reported another right-wing attack on the LGBT community in Moscow:

“Russian ‘nationalists’ managed to draw first blood at Moscow Gay Pride last night when they disrupted a lecture on Oscar Wilde given by the author and playwright’s grandson Merlin Holland…. ‘No faggots in Russia’, was the cry of the nationalists, who also called for gays to be removed from the country. As they were being removed, the nationalists threw vials of an irritant gas in the auditorium, which then had to be evacuated.”

On the same day Islamophobia Watch, in a post entitled “Muslim homophobia the main threat in Moscow, Tatchell claims“, took up this report and the earlier attack on the Moscow nightclub. We pointed out that “the religious component to this upsurge of violent right-wing homophobia derives, as you would expect, from Orthodox Christianity. This hasn’t prevented Peter Tatchell from attributing to Islam the primary place in the anti-Pride campaign in Moscow and suggesting that Russian Orthodox Church is merely following the lead of the chief mufti!”

In other words, in the more than three months between the middle of February and late May 2006, the campaign conducted by Tatchell and his friends in relation to Moscow Pride consisted of banging on endlessly about the Grand Mufti, portraying him and the Muslim population of Moscow as representing the main threat of violence. They played down the role of the Orthodox Church, and never once mentioned that there was a threat from the extreme nationalist Right who took their inspiration from Christianity, despite clear evidence from at least the beginning of May that this was where the real danger of homophobic violence in Moscow lay.

But let’s be fair. On 27 May, the very day that Moscow Pride took place, Brett Lock did belatedly wake up to the fact that OutRage! were about to make complete prats of themselves over their total misunderstanding of the source of violence against Moscow Pride. Lock posted a short piece on his blog which reported the attack by “neo-Nazi thugs” on the Merlin Holland meeting and for the first time identified “right-wing skinheads” as a threat to Pride. Lock still couldn’t bring himself to mention the central role of the Orthodox Church, however, and with his reference to “assorted religious leaders (who have issued death threats)” he appeared to be sticking to his line on the Grand Mufti.

As for the actual violence that participants in Moscow Pride faced later that day, here’s Scott Long of Human Rights Watch describing the forces involved in the violent assault:

“As they neared the entrance, draggled in the downpour, the skinheads came out of nowhere. I say ‘skinheads’ as a useful generalization. In fact very few of them fit the stereotype. There were three waves. First there were the Boys, the most numerous, mostly young (though some ranged into their late thirties), black-clad, short-haired though usually not shaven, thuggish and enraged. They were the shock troops. They were followed by the Priests. These, fatter, older, carried crosses or icons. They had beards, often, leather jackets trimmed to look like orthodox cassocks, sometimes black T-shirts with crosses bent fascist-style as if ready to administer a black mass…. Finally, in the rear, there were the grandmothers. Old babushkas, kerchiefed, also carrying icons. They turned their backs on the mayhem the leaders were causing, faced the curious or outraged crowd, vented their tearful misery at the spectacle of their grandsons being arrested behind them, sang hymns, presented a pathetic face of suffering.”

Note – not a Muslim in sight. And no sign of the Grand Mufti either.

Brett Lock, however, has been unable to restrain his anger at Livingstone’s accusation that OutRage!’s glorious leader was guilty of anti-Muslim prejudice over Moscow Pride 2006. In his post at Harry’s Place Lock wrote: “if you look at Peter Tatchell’s reports – on his website here, and in The Guardian, you will see that, like Long, he focuses on right-wing Christians and neo-Nazis and DOES NOT EVEN MENTION THE MUFTI. Tatchell also filed an exclusive report for UK Gay News from Moscow, and, surprise, surprise, DOES NOT EVEN MENTION THE MUFTI.”

Well, it’s true that Tatchell’s reports from Moscow Pride, in which he was a participant, failed to mention the role played by the Mufti and the Russian Muslim community in the violent assault on the demonstrators. But that is hardly surprising, given that the Mufti and the Russian Muslim community played absolutely no part whatsoever in those events.

As apologist-in-chief for OutRage!, Brett Lock of course omits to mention that the campaign waged by himself and Tatchell in the months preceding Moscow Pride – as the lengthy and detailed analysis here has so clearly established – did in fact ludicrously overestimate the threat posed by Muslim homophobia in Moscow, downplayed the significance of the Orthodox Church, and entirely ignored the threat from the far Right. Tatchell’s reports from Moscow merely demonstrated that the actual events surrounding Moscow Pride bore not the slightest resemblance to OutRage!’s Islamophobic fantasy.

First published by Islamophobia Watch in March 2007