Writing for PinkNews.co.uk, Adrian Tippetts criticises the producers of a BBC programme for dropping a discussion about being gay and Muslim.

If you take Mentorn TV’s word for it, the debate about whether it’s alright to be gay and Muslim was cut from the show because of threats made to the Birmingham Central Mosque where the event was held.

But the makers of BBC Free Speech’s justifications for curtailing the debate, issued at lunchtime last Friday, some 18 hours after the broadcast, go beyond security fears – in itself, enough to pull the programme – to include those age-old enemies of free speech, ‘respect’ and ‘offence’.

“Discussions took place within two hours of the programme being broadcast live as to the best way to proceed, bearing in mind the security of the mosque and respect for their concerns over offending their community.”

As a result the production company, together with the BBC and the mosque, made a considered decision to postpone the debate.

“This was a decision taken responsibly, with a great deal of thought, consideration and respect and not in any way about censorship of an issue. We were transparent with the audience about the decision.”

Leave aside the inflated language (shouldn’t all decisions be ‘considered’ ones?) we have to wonder whether Mentorn can be honest with itself, never mind with the licence payers. Why wasn’t the presenter open about the reasons for not debating sexuality during the show? Keeping viewers in the dark is not ‘transparency’.

Regardless of intention, Asifa Lahore – a cabaret artist and club DJ with a major LGBT and Asian following – was denied the chance to ask a harmless, provocative, pertinent question. LGBT and gay Asian people were denied their voice and everyone denied the chance to listen, whether out of fear of reprisals by extremist thugs or out of deference to ‘the community’. Censorship is at its most effective when no-one admits it exists.

But it is the emphasis on “respect for their concerns over offending their community” that should grate like nails down a blackboard, and why BBC Free Speech, which promises to “make your voice heard in the national conversation” is such a parody of the real thing, you could make a cartoon about it. If you’re brave enough to.

Don’t kid me that Mentorn or the BBC cares less about offending, when its sister programme The Big Questions wheels in a seemingly endless supply of crackpots to denounce LGBT people. Let’s face it, what is the worst-case scenario after denigrating LGBT people on air? A stroppy opinion piece? A few placards? Perhaps the more plausible explanation is that the TV producers are more fearful of a few dangerous extremists causing real harm for so much as parodying cherished beliefs.

Free speech – time and place matter

Free speech is most important when it is disrespectful, and when it is uncomfortable and risky to exercise it. The right to argue down bad ideas with better ones, to demand good reasons for words and actions, to ask inconvenient questions, to ridicule, parody, satirise and scrutinise is what free speech is all about. It gives us the power to change our minds, to challenge authority, to elect leaders who make the best case for governing or speaking on our behalf, and get rid of them when they don’t.

Shunting Asifa’s question to another time and place is a cop-out. It mattered to ask that question during that show precisely because of the venue. What and who gives a leader of a mosque or any religious institution the right to be a community leader, or moral guide? It was a direct challenge to the mosque and his fellow Muslims, to provide good reasons for their beliefs.

‘Respect’ is the cloak behind which to hide when there are no good reasons left. And if Asifa was snubbed out of ‘respect’, then respect to whom for what, exactly? The belief that gay people should have no voice? People who find the very existence and visibility of gay people offensive do not deserve respect. Some of us would say they deserve contempt.

The censorship was an attack on the integrity of Muslims as much as on LGBT people. When the media take offence on behalf of reactionaries, they treat Muslims, if not Asians whether believers or not, as one monolithic religious bloc, denying a voice to liberals who do not see homosexuality as a taboo. The patronising decision to postpone the debate reinforces prejudices about Muslims being incapable of debate or tolerance.

Of course, the debate took place on the mosque’s property, and the programme makers have to play by their rules. But the show’s researchers should have had the foresight to seek a neutral venue for a debate. How could the mosque be considered a neutral venue when its spokesman, Dr Mohammed Naseem, has been involved with the Islamic Party of Britain, which seeks to outlaw any LGBT group?

Where was the vigilance?

The problem lies with the audience and panel too. Sure, they applauded the video, but they were complicit in the censorship, by showing not the slightest surprise, disappointment or outrage at the silencing of the Muslim drag queen’s question. The panellists – TV writer Hayden Prowse, campaigner and journalist Paris Lees, Huffington Post editor Mehdi Hasan and Liberal Democrat peer Susan Kramer, sat silently like Easter Island moai, as the presenter moved on, with great irony, to the question of whether young people are too disengaged with today’s society.

Even here, an opportunity to question the censorship was squandered, for a clichéd sound-bite. “We all know, don’t we? It’s rich, white, men from middle class backgrounds and it’s everywhere,” opined Ms Lees on the cause of disengagement. But right there, at that moment, the young people had been docile spectators to their disenfranchisement by a Holy Alliance of BBC executives and elderly men, in the name of ‘respect for the community’.

So, come on, Mentorn TV, stop the charades about ‘respect’. I’m not asking you to put anyone in danger, and I’m certainly not asking you to stop offensive homophobia (which I’ve defended, to the irritation of most PinkNews readers). But at least be honest that you are censoring, and to say why. And to those supposed liberals, a little more vigilance please: if you can’t rise to the occasion, make way for those who will.

If there is one sign of hope, it is that the outrage at the snub to Asifa Lahore has given more attention to the topic of homosexuality and Islam far more attention than he expected. And not least because his video gives very personal account of what it’s like being Muslim, gay and British: the struggles of coming to terms with his identity in his early twenties, the support and acceptance of his family, the joy of being in love, and the awe of LGBT audiences at his performances. Now that’s what I call ‘building bridges’, and best of luck with his new track that you should all buy at once when it comes out on 24 March.

Such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks is the liberty of appearing. With such an inspiring testimonial, the reality of Asifa’s experiences needs no debate. For those who wish to leave the question ‘When will it be right to be Muslim and gay?’ unanswered for now, it can never be unasked.

PS: Recommended further reading on the topic of free expression: Nick Cohen ‘You Can’t Read This Book’

Adrian Tippetts is a commentator on LGBT issues and a public relations consultant. He is also a member of the executive council of the National Secular Society.

The views expressed in this article are his own and not necessarily those of PinkNews.co.uk