Why did a few anti-gay stickers in East London provoke an outcry by gay groups, while far worse homophobia passed without protest?

The negligible media coverage of Mohammed Hasnath’s conviction is rather surprising. His case has since prompted explosive claims of judicial homophobia, the criminalisation of free speech and the failure of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities to challenge Islamist homophobia.

Hasnath, aged 18, was found guilty of posting homophobic stickers in London’s East End. The stickers declared the area a “Gay Free Zone” and advised: “Arise and warn… And fear Allah: Verily Allah is severe in punishment.”

These stickers were wrong and clearly motivated by homophobic prejudice. Such prejudice – indeed all prejudice – needs to be challenged.

Disturbingly, it appears that Hasnath has fundamentalist sympathies. On his Facebook page he lists Sheikh Khalid Yasin as one of his interests. Yasin is on record as abusing “homosexuals” and saying they should be put to death.

There are, however, several troubling aspects to Hasnath’s conviction:

He was fined a mere £100. If the stickers had declared east London a Jewish, black, Catholic or Muslim free zone Hasnath would have been almost certainly convicted of a racially or religiously aggravated hate crime and jailed. Why the leniency? Why the double standards? It looks like judicial homophobia.

Hasnath is an easy, convenient scapegoat. He was a lowly foot soldier. There is no evidence that he organised the Gay Free Zone campaign. The slow, secretive police investigation did not inspire confidence. Officers failed to apprehend the masterminds who produced the stickers and then distributed them to people like Hasnath. They’ve got away with it.

Hasnath was convicted using a discredited, authoritarian law, Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, which has been used repeatedly to suppress peaceful, legitimate protests by human rights defenders, including LGBT campaigners.

This is what happened to members of OutRage! when six of us protested against 6,000 members the Islamist group, Hizb ut Tahrir, outside their mass rally at Wembley Arena in 1994.

They called for the killing of gays, apostates, Jews and unchaste women. They were not arrested but we were. Our crime? Displaying placards that condemned Hizb ut Tahrir’s incitement to murder. Although our placards did nothing more than factually expose the fundamentalist’s violent homophobic agenda, it was deemed that they were distressing and offensive.

Section 5 is draconian and sweeping. It prohibits behaviour likely to cause “harassment, alarm or distress”. Yes, even causing mere distress to faint-hearts is now a crime.

This law can be abused to criminalise almost any words or actions. Campaigns against religious homophobia, like the OutRage! protest at Wembley, have many times resulted in LGBT activists being arrested under Section 5 for causing distress to homophobes and their religious supporters. We should not be rejoicing that the court used against Hasnath a harsh law that has so often been used unjustly against us. There is other, more credible, legislation that could have been used to bring him to justice.

The court’s ruling in the Hasnath case broadens the criminalising nature of Section 5. Well-meaning District Judge Jeremy Coleman said:

“I think you used these stickers deliberately to offend and distress people, you certainly succeeded in doing that….You have upset people and they deserve an apology, you are not entitled to behave in this way.”

The judge suggested that not only is causing distress a crime, but so is offending people and making them upset. Causing upset is, in my view, a much too low threshold for criminalisation. After all, almost anything that anyone says or does has the potential to cause someone upset, including teaching evolution, advocating abortion and suggesting that religion is a form of superstition.

Under Judge Coleman’s particularly wide interpretation and application of Section 5, most of the population are criminals. If we accept that causing upset should be illegal, as he implied at the Hasnath hearing, we risk closing down free and open debate and criminalising all manner of dissenting opinions and alternative lifestyles that some people might find upsetting.

Freedom of expression is one of the most important of all human rights. It should be only restricted in extreme and very limited circumstances. The open exchange of ideas – including unpalatable ideas – is a hallmark of a free and democratic society. There is no right to be not distressed, upset or offended. Some of the most profound ideas in history – such as those of Galileo Galilei and Charles Darwin – caused great distress and offence in their time. While bigoted opinions should always be challenged, in most instances only explicit incitements to violence and damaging libels (such as false allegations of tax fraud or child abuse) should be criminalised.

Moreover, why did the Hasnath stickers provoke howls of rage from the LGBT community, when far worse homophobia in the same area of east London stirred hardly a murmur of protest? I don’t recall any campaigns by LGBT groups or anti-fascist organisations in response to the wave of horrific queer-bashing attacks in the East End. Surely this actual physical violence – which left at least one gay man permanently disabled – is much more deserving of protests than a few stickers? Where is the LGBT outcry over homophobic assaults?

Nor can I remember any protests when the East London Mosque/London Muslim Centre hosted a series of virulently homophobic speakers, including Uthman Lateef and Abdul Karim Hattim. The latter gave lecturers in which he invited young Muslims to “Spot the Fag.”

The East London Mosque/London Muslim Centre helped create the atmosphere of hatred that has poisoned the minds of many Muslim youths, probably including Hasnath who worshipped there. They have never apologised for hosting homophobic hate preachers and have never given any assurances that they will not host them again in the future. Apart from OutRage!, no LGBT groups have publicly demanded that they do so. Why the silence from LGBT organisations that are supposedly dedicated to fighting homophobia?

Equally, there were no protests when Abdul Muhid openly incited the murder of gay people in East London and when the Crown Prosecution Service refused to bring him to trial. In my opinion, encouraging murder is many times more serious and dangerous than calling for a Gay Free Zone. Again, no protests by LGBT groups.

When OutRage! stood alone in challenging Muhid and the East London Mosque/London Muslim Centre we were denounced by some people as racists and Islamophobes. This is nonsense. We never attacked anyone because of their race or religion. We condemned their homophobia, in the same way that we condemn the homophobic bigotry of fundamentalists of all faiths.

Many LGBT campaigners are now terrified of similar false, malicious allegations of racism or Islamophobia. To avoid such smears, they shy away from robust responses to homophobia when it comes from religious and racial minorities. This inaction is de facto collusion with homophobia.

This article was first published at newstatesman.com.