More power to petitions!

Columnist  | Farrukh Dhondy

Opinion, Oped

As the debate is initiated, the acid attack as a threat enters the dynamic of Islam in the UK.

The petition asked the foreign secretary to get the Iranians to specify the charges against this woman and say on what evidence the Iranian courts in secret session had imposed a prison sentence on her.

“We are the only animals who kiss
Lips around lips and tongues entwined
The habits of other species we would dismiss
The licking of babies and noses behind…”
From Jamshet, Prince of Dhansakh by Bachchoo

A law in Britain allows citizens to present petitions to Parliament signed by a specific number of people, which then obliges MPs to debate the issue of concern to the petitioners. Social media has made the gathering of thousands, if not millions, of signatures to support a cause a matter of routine. I receive maybe three a week and read through them if the headline attracts my curiosity or sympathy. Decades ago, in my possibly “misspent” youth, my friends (comrades?) and I would spend time on walking through the streets in demonstrative rage or march to the American embassy to throw stones at it in protest against the US’ unjust invasion of Vietnam or Grenada. We knowingly risked confrontation with the police, arrest and worse.

In today’s protest you risk nothing. You read the paragraph outlining the proposition and then, scrolling down an inch or two, are given the option of clicking on a box to sign up. Some months ago I signed a petition addressed to the foreign office enjoining it to champion the case of one Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British citizen who has relatives in Iran and was detained there when she visited them, on unspecified charges of sedition against the Iranian state. The petition asked the foreign secretary to get the Iranians to specify the charges against this woman and say on what evidence the Iranian courts in secret session had imposed a prison sentence on her. In signing the petition I was moved by the principle of open justice. I have no idea what Nazanin thinks and don’t need to know, but would certainly want to and demand as a fellow citizen to know what subversion she is accused of.

The most recent petition I signed — again a shamefully passive, sedentary episode, in which I clicked a box on the screen — was a protest against the availability of acid, which was being increasingly used as a weapon of assault in attacks. The first attacks I read about were the disfiguring of women’s faces by jealous lovers or ex-lovers. Horrific photographs, usually before-and-after pairs accompanied the reports. Then there were honour attacks — unfortunately featuring, in the majority, Asian assailants disfiguring their female relatives’ faces for some hopelessly primitive transgression of family honour such as having sex with a white man.

In the past few months, perhaps emboldened by observing the phenomenon of the use of cars and vans to launch terrorist attacks on pavement walkers, bypassing the need for guns or bombs, the acid attacks have proliferated. They are now, and there have been five reported in the last week, used by criminals to rob people on the streets. The acids which maim and disfigure human skin and flesh and can blind and even kill, are readily available for industrial and domestic sanitary uses.

Because of the dramatic use of acids as weapons and possibly because of the petition, Parliament has begun to debate the issue to examine ways of limiting the availability of acids, which can be randomly thrown in people’s faces.

As the debate is initiated, the acid attack as a threat enters the dynamic of Islam in the UK. Specifically, a young man called Jahed Choudhury, 24, is possibly the first Muslim man to enter into a gay marriage with his partner Sean Rogan at Walsall registry office in the Midlands.

His marriage and declaration, that despite realising that the Quran says you cannot be gay and Muslim, he refuses to abandon his faith, have caused him to be threatened with acid attacks in the street. He has received verbal attacks and death threats online. “The next time I see you in the street, I am going to throw acid in your face!” Perhaps barking dogs seldom have access to acid but they deserve to be put down — or whatever the human equivalent in a civilised democracy is.

Mr Choudhury has taken the courageous decision to follow his orientation and convictions. He may be the first to publicise his formalised gay marriage, but he is certainly not alone.

A militant group calling itself the Council of Ex-Muslims in Britain (CEMB) officially registered with the Gay Pride parade and joined the Pride march through London earlier this month. They sported some very provocative banners, which drew protests from the officials of the East London and other mosques.

The banners were undoubtedly designed to elicit a reaction, for the purpose perhaps of initiating a debate. Among the slogans they sported were “Allah is gay”, “F**k Islamic homophobia” and “East London Mosque incites murder of LGBTs”.

A spokesman for the East London Mosque complained about the slogans being Islamophobic and baselessly attacking the mosques, which had openly condemned homophobia and had initiated campaigns to condemn “gay-hate” stickers appearing in their communities. He accused CEMB of propagating hatred against Islam. “Our religion doesn’t promote hatred or homophobia,” he said. “Yes, there might be theological topics dealing with homosexuality in Islam, but that’s clearly very separate from promoting hatred and homophobia.”

Within the body of the Gay Pride march there were slogans, which could be seen as attacking or questioning the Christian churches’ attitudes to homosexuality. There were slogans saying Jesus is gay, “Jesus had two fathers” and other proclamations that could offend the sensibilities of some Christians. Yet there were no protests from any part of the church or any noticeable reaction on social media as there was from Muslims to the CEMB provocations.

If the provocation leads to a proper debate not only in the UK but in all the countries where those who feel sexually discriminated against — as in Turkey, South Korea and to some degree India — it serves a democratic purpose. Slogans yes! Acid, knives, guns, bombs, vans driven into innocents? No!