Padraig Reidy: The “gay cake” case bedevils Northern Ireland

QueerSpace Belfast / Facebook

QueerSpace Belfast / Facebook

Last Sunday, as Northern Ireland’s footballers prepared to play Finland in a European Championship qualifier, protesters gathered outside Windsor Park, the team’s Belfast home.

The assembled were members of the Free Presbyterian Church. They were angered by the fact that Northern Ireland were playing on a Sunday  – the Sabbath  – for the first time ever.

Reverend Raymond Robinson told the Press Association: “Our opposition is to the breaking of observance of the Lord’s day.

“We believe in the Sabbath being kept holy. It seems more and more that the football agenda is being driven by the television companies and not what God says, or what public opinion is.”

Commentator Newton Emerson was, like many, blase about the protest, tweeting “I think these people are harmless enough now to just count towards our wonderful diversity.”

Be that as it may, Christian fundamentalism still plays a huge role in public life in Northern Ireland. While the old demands for Biblical propriety may seem archaic, a new struggle has emerged over what many religious people in the country see as threats to their religious freedom and way of life. And a cake has become the latest flashpoint.

Asher’s bakery is a business run by a family known for its Christian beliefs. It is named after one of the Biblical Twelve Tribes of Israel. Last summer, the bakery was asked to provide a cake by Gareth Lee, a volunteer for LGBT group QueerSpace.

Lee had requested a cake decorated with a picture of Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie and the slogan “Support Gay Marriage”.

The bakery initially accepted the order, before then informing Lee that it could not fulfil the deal. The case went to Northern Ireland’s Equality Commission, and, between the jigs and reels, is now in the hands of district judge Isobel Brownie, who will rule on Monday whether the Christian bakers engaged in unlawful discrimination by not delivering the pro-same sex marriage cake.

Meanwhile, the “gay cake” case has raised the spectre of a “conscience clause” in equality legislation in Northern Ireland.

The whole situation is, quite frankly, pitiful. One can preach it, validly, both ways: fundamentalist bigots out of touch with the modern world, and inflicting their bigotry on others, or God-fearing, humble folk sticking by their beliefs in the face of an onslaught they didn’t invite.

I can’t help feel sympathetic towards the McArthurs, the family who own the bakery. Karen McArthur told the court that she had initially accepted the order to avoid embarrassment. Colin McArthur said “On that day I didn’t make a clinical decision. I was examining my heart. I was wrestling it over in my heart and in my mind.” He was, apparently, “deeply troubled”. “We discussed how we could stand before God and bake a cake like this promoting a case like this…”

On the other hand, Gareth Lee said he was left feeling like a lesser person after he was told his order would not be fulfilled.

This shouldn’t be down to who was more upset or offended, but then, on what criteria can we judge it? I don’t think it’s necessarily true to say that Lee is entitled to have any message he wants put on any cake by any person. The prosecution, correctly, pointed out that the message was rejected because of the word “gay”. The defence lawyers suggested that a ruling against the McArthurs could lead to a situation where devout Muslims were legally obliged to decorate cakes with images of Muhammad. While “you wouldn’t say that about the Muslims” is a tedious argument, and one deployed increasingly often by Christians, it’s not, in this case, an entirely unreasonable position.

Hardline Christians see homosexuality as a (wrong) choice people make, or a psychological disorder. I recall watching the Reverend Willie McRea, an MP, once, being asked what support he would offer to a constituent who was a victim of homophobia. McRea replied that he would advise the young man not go down that route: basically, the best way to prevent homophobia is to stop being gay.

Meanwhile, Iris Robinson, wife of Democratic Unionist Party leader Peter Robinson, firmly believes that one can be counselled away from homosexuality.

These people are odd, certainly, but they are not fringe characters who can be dismissed as irrelevant to mainstream society in Northern Ireland.

And even if these views were not mainstream, that would not make the fundamentals of the case any different. But it does seem as if the Equality Commission is trying to drag a segment of Northern Irish society kicking and screaming into the secular world.

So who’s right? Who should win? Reader, I am about to break the columnist’s solemn covenant and admit: I don’t fully know. This is not as clear cut a case of discrimination as, say, barring a gay couple from a Bed and Breakfast: if the McArthurs had simply refused to sell a cake to Lee, that would be clear cut. But the cake was loaded, so to speak. Should this tricky case lead to a “conscience clause” in equality legislation, then one can imagine legitimisation of genuinely discriminatory practices.

At the same time, the McArthurs, are wrong, and one’s initial inclination is to side with the gay rights activist against the religious fundamentalists. But that’s the problem with defending freedom of conscience, (and its expression in freedom of speech). Everyone’s conscience is different.

Northern Ireland beat Finland 2-1, by the way. God’s clearly not very troubled by Sunday football.

This column was posted at on April 2, 2015

Gay Egyptians living in “constant fear” as crackdown from authorities and media worsens

Mona during her show (Image: Al Kahera Wal Nas TV Network/YouTube)

Journalist Mona El Iraqi colluded with security forces in a raid on a public bathhouse allegedly frequented by gay people (Image: Al Kahera Wal Nas TV Network/YouTube)

When prominent Egyptian actor Khaled Abul Naga criticised President Abdel Fattah El Sisi counter-terrorism policies in Sinai in a video posted on the El-Bawaba news website last November, he was slammed by government loyalists and Egypt’s pro-regime media.

Lawyer Samir Sabry, notorious for filing legal complaints against opposition activists, filed a lawsuit against Abul Naga accusing him of “treason” and “inciting anti-government protests”. In a telephone interview with the Egyptian privately-owned satellite channel Sada El Balad, Sabry said “those who go against the will of the people who elected El Sisi, must be punished”.

Abul Naga’s prosecution reflects the growing intolerance in Egyptian society and the persistent intimidation of dissenters since the ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi some eighteen months ago. Since the military takeover of the country on 3 July, 2013, anyone expressing a view that runs counter to the official narrative is labeled a “traitor” and a “spy” by supporters of Egypt’s military-backed regime.

Even more disturbing than the criminal charges faced by Abul Naga is the barrage of insults hurled at him by government loyalists in the media who poked fun at the actor’s alleged sexual orientation.

Talk show host Tawfiq Okasha scandalously mocked Abul Naga’s sexuality, hinting that the actor was gay.

“Why do you sleep on your stomach and not on your back?” the controversial TV presenter (and owner of Faraeen Channel) asked, adding that there must have been a reason why Abul Naga was exempted from military service.

Mazhar Shaheen, a pro-government cleric who presents a talk show on a privately-owned satellite channel, also scoffed at Abul Naga, suggesting that he leave the country.

“If you are not happy with the military’s performance, you should go to either Syria or Iraq,” he said, addressing Abul Naga.

“But watch your pants while you are there,” he sarcastically warned.

Abul Naga’s lampooning by the pro-government media reflects the shrinking space for free expression in today’s Egypt. It also highlights the increased vulnerability of and continued discrimination against the LGBT community in Egypt’s deeply conservative society.

In recent months, Egypt’s gay population have increasingly been targeted amid a brutal crackdown that has seen 150 suspected homosexuals arrested and detained since November. While Egyptian law does not expressly ban homosexuality, gay people are frequently charged with “debauchery” and detained. Muslim scholars and prosecutors have condoned the arrests, arguing that “homosexuals are shameful to God” and that “it is the government’s duty to protect morality” — a conservative view that is widely shared by the Egyptian public. A Pew survey conducted in 2013 found only three per cent of Egyptians accept homosexuality.

While disdain for homosexuality is not new in Egypt, inflammatory reporting by Egypt’s pro-government media has in recent months further fuelled prejudice against gay people and deepened the stigma associated with homosexuality.

Last month, TV reporter Mona El Iraqi who works for the privately-owned Al Kahera Wal Nas TV channel, colluded with security forces in a raid on a public bathhouse in downtown Cairo, allegedly frequented by gay people. Iraqi used her cell phone to take pictures of 26 half-naked men wrapped only in bath-towels as they were arrested. After sending undercover agents to the bathhouse to spy on visitors, she alerted the police, claiming that “promiscuous orgies” were taking place there. On 7 December, police — accompanied by Iraqi’s camera crew stormed the bathhouse and indiscriminately arrested the suspects.

Iraqi unashamedly posted pictures of the half-naked men on her public Facebook page. The images were removed a couple of hours later after she was lambasted by rights activists enraged by what they described as her “insensitivity” and “flagrant intolerance”. Defending her actions in a Facebook post, she insisted that the bathhouse was a “hotbed of immorality” and was “helping spread HIV and AIDS in Egypt”.

Despite the outpouring of horror over the bathhouse raid on social media networks, Iraqi’s episode was broadcast to “mark World AIDS Day and spread awareness about the causes of HIV and AIDS in Egypt” — according to Iraqi.

The 26 men who were arrested were charged with “debauchery” and subjected to intrusive anal checks to determine their sexuality. Human Rights Watch has decried the anal examinations, describing them as being in violation of “international standards against torture“. The forensics report claimed that two of the 26 defendants may have been subjected to rape as signs of struggle were evident on the bodies of the men in question. At the trial last Sunday, defence lawyers argued however, that it was almost impossible to verify whether the men had indeed practiced homosexuality. They also slammed the decision to allow Iraqi to film the arrests, describing the move as “unconstitutional”. Denouncing the arrests, they said it was only natural for the men to have been naked “for they were either in the shower or the steam bath when police stormed the premises”. Khaled Naqash, one of the defence lawyers meanwhile, claimed his client had been fully dressed but was stripped naked by the police before his arrest. The defendants’ families were barred from entry into the courtroom and complained they were “ruffled up” by security guards who had apparently already condemned the defendants even before the verdict has been pronounced. The trial has been adjourned until 12 January when the fate of the men will be decided.

The latest mass arrests are reminiscent of the 2001 so-called “Queen Boat raid“, when security forces stormed a floating nightclub moored on the Nile in Cairo’s affluent neighbourhood of Zamalek, arresting 52 men. That incident sparked international outrage and condemnation and sent a chilling message to Egypt’s LGBT community. Rights advocates say the latest arrests are even more disturbing than the Queen Boat incident as they show media colluding with the police instead of holding security forces to account for their actions.

The bathhouse raid also comes hot on the heels of similar raids on gay hangouts in Cairo in recent months including cafes, bars and even private house parties. In March last year, four men were arrested in a raid on a house party after police allegedly found the men dresses in women’s clothing. The men were accused of “debauchery” and sentenced to eight years in prison. In September, a video of an alleged “gay wedding ceremony” posted online prompted the arrest of another eight men including the alleged “gay couple” who were seen in the video exchanging rings and hugging. While all the men had reportedly tested “negative” for homosexuality, they were nevertheless, sentenced to three years in prison each. A Cairo appeals court later reduced the sentences to one year in prison. The court also ruled however, that the men would remain under police surveillance after completing their jail terms. Last Sunday, El Youm El Sabe’ reported that two men were arrested in Alexandria by “morality police” and charged with “debauchery” and “destroying public morals”.

The recent spate of mass arrests of gay suspects has sparked serious concerns for Egypt’s LGBT community.

“I no longer feel safe,” Karim, a 26 year-old Egyptian homosexual told Index. “Egypt has never been safe for us but things are worse now under the military-backed authorities because we know we are being targeted.” He explained that the current regime was trying to woo the conservatives in the society by “appearing more Islamist than the ousted Islamist regime”.

“I’m always looking over my shoulder now and constantly live in fear,” said Mohamed, 32, another member of Egypt’s LGBT community. “I would leave Egypt if I could.”

For Mohamed and other gay people in Egypt, what is even more worrying than persecution and prosecution is the humiliation and shame they may bring onto their families if their identities were revealed — as has happened with the defendants in the recent bathhouse case.

“Now that the media is aligned with the police, we are at serious risk of public defamation and loss of dignity,” he lamented.

“What is even sadder is that few Egyptians are denouncing the arrests of gays as some media are telling the  public that homosexuality is a disease that will destroy public morality and hence, it is necessary to rid the society of the scourge,” he added.

Buthayna Haleem ( her name has been changed to protect her identity) an Egyptian lesbian writer is one of the few people in Egypt condemning the raids.

“It is not something that concerns others,” she told Agence France Press in a recently televised interview. “This is oppression against people.”

Update: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Mona Iraqi had removed the images posted to Facebook. Facebook removed the images because they violated the service’s terms.

This article was published on 6 January 2015 at

Media must end its love affair with religious censors


Asif Quraishi, better known as drag queen Asifa Lahore, sits unassumingly in a TV studio. “One question I’d like to ask”, he says, “is when will it be all right to be Muslim and gay?

The programme is Twitter-powered BBC Three debate series Free Speech, whose host Rick Edwards (of Tool Academy and, unexpectedly, Cambridge) makes Nicky Campbell seem subdued, and where no thought is too complex for 140 characters. Producers, show name notwithstanding, spiked the question from a previous edition when officials at Birmingham Central Mosque, where Free Speech filmed on March 13, “expressed deep concerns” about gay Muslims being discussed. The speed at which showrunners acquiesced, postponing the segment, speaks to a wider trend.

The first guest to comment, kufi-clad Portuguese convert Abdullah al Andalusi, calls condemning gay sex “the Islamic position” with a party leader’s certainty. It’s unsurprising: al Andalusi, who defends public segregation by gender and from whose talks women have been banned, seeks a nondemocratic “modern [Islamic] Caliphate” under sharia government, free among other things of “women wearing bikinis”, “the hijab being optional” and “men and women having identical inheritance and gender roles”. Al Andalusi rails in-studio against notions of “extremism”, declaring them a means of profiling “Muslims with orthodox beliefs”. He sees himself as holding these, and so apparently do programme-makers, since he speaks much more than Asif does.

The counter-extremist whose work he attacks, Lib Dem candidate for Hampstead Maajid Nawaz, is also in the room. (“I will speak out”, he tells the drag performer, “on your right to identify however you want.”) Nawaz too has been hounded by religious would-be censors, despite being a Muslim himself. This January, following the LSE’s attempts to ban it, he tweeted an image from the atheist web strip Jesus and Mo, commenting “This is not offensive and I’m sure God is greater than to feel threatened by it.” A subsequent petition calling for his sacking gained over 20,000 signatures, some with death threats attached. Though Nick Clegg eventually stepped in to condemn them, spokespeople told the press the party “urged all candidates to be sensitive to cultural and religious feelings”, and Nawaz – presumably after internal bickering – conceded in a joint statement with Mohammed Shafiq, head of the Ramadhan Foundation and leader of the witchhunt, that “images of the spiritual leaders of all religions should be deemed to be respectful”.

In February Shazad Iqbal, a hitherto unknown British Muslim, used a similar petition to demand YouTube remove Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” video, in which an Ancient Egyptian turns to sand whose pendant, on close inspection, reads “Allah”. “Blasphemy is clearly conveyed in the video”, Iqbal wrote. “Such acts are not condoned nor tolerated.” While the offending necklace, which had to be indicated using photoshopped freeze-frames, was barely visible, tens of thousands of signatures poured in – today, the page boasts more than 65,000 – and Perry’s producers digitally obscured it.

Iqbal, who used his petition site to share evangelistic videos, gained a platform much like Iqbal’s and al Andalusi’s. All three, and countless more religious rightists, have sold themselves as commentators, “community leaders” and de facto spokesmen for Muslims (“men” is applicable here), grabbing the spotlight neither through skilled writing nor through views polls say are actually widespread. They owe their standing to officialdom’s mounting anxiety to please the most censorious believers, its instinct that those eagerest to cleanse the public sphere of blasphemy are those who matter most.

Recycled lines about a scaremongering anti-Muslim press over-reporting extremism come easily, but demagogues of this kind are media’s darlings; far from casting them as bogeymen, it heaps meetings with politicians, TV appearances and public validation on them. Nor is this pattern unique to Islam. In a 2012 speech for the National Secular Society, Pragna Patel of Southall Black Sisters cites the case of Behzti, a play by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti which portrayed sexual violence in a Sikh temple. “Fundamentalists, but also so-called moderates,” says Patel, “took offence, protested and had the play removed”, theatre staff bowing to their demands. Leaders on the Sikh right, she says, stated once Bhatti entered hiding that if Labour’s Racial and Religious Hatred Act had existed at the time, it would have been used to censor the play.

Authorities sided with those attacking her, as they sided with Shafiq over Nawaz, al Andalusi and Birmingham Central Mosque over Quraishi, Iqbal over every Muslim undisturbed by Katy Perry. Reformists and minorities like them, as much as a free society, are casualties of this love for religious censors. If minor faiths, still mysteries in the public eye, need representatives, far better ones exist: A media that paints puritans and fanatics as mainstream forfeits its right to condemn them.

This article was posted on 14 April 2014 at

“We no longer feel safe”: Egypt’s attacks on gay rights

Thousands of Egyptians celebrated the 25th of January 2011 revolution anniversary at Al Etihadia Palace Square. Demonstrators chanted for the army and police and raised flags and banners bearing images of Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. (Photo: Adham Khorshed / Demotix)

Since Mohamed Morsi’s ouster in July 2013, backed by the army and General Abdel Fattah al-Sis, there has been a rise in the number of arrests of people based on their sexual orientation (Image: Adham Khorshed/Demotix)

A Cairo misdemeanour court on Monday sentenced three men to eight years in prison “for committing homosexual acts”. A fourth defendant in the case was sentenced to three years in prison with hard labour.

The men were allegedly found dressed in women’s clothes and wearing make-up when they were arrested last month, following a police raid on a private apartment in Cairo’s northern residential suburb of Nasr city. The apartment had been a meeting place for some members of Egypt’s gay community, who had been attending a party there when the raid occurred.

During Monday’s court session, prosecutors said one of the defendants had rented the apartment to receive “sexual deviants” in his home and host parties for them. While there are no laws banning homosexuality in Egypt, “debauchery” or breaking the country’s law of public morals is outlawed. Egyptian courts use legislation on debauchery to prosecute gay people on charges of “contempt of religion” and “sexual immorality”.

The severe sentences the four men received on Monday have raised concerns among rights campaigners of a widening crackdown on Egypt’s long-oppressed and marginalised gay community. Youth-activists expressed their dismay and disappointment at the verdicts on social media networks. In a message posted on her Twitter account on Tuesday, Shadi Rahimi, a journalist and photographer working for Al Monitor described the verdicts as “outrageous”. Blogger Nervana Mahmoud meanwhile said: “The verdicts demonstrate that the current regime is as conservative as their Islamist predecessors.”

In Egypt’s conservative, predominantly Muslim society, homophobia is deeply embedded, with 95% of Egyptians sharing the conviction that “homosexuality should not be accepted”, according to a 2013 poll conducted by the Pew Research Centre.

The recent crackdown on Egypt’s gay community is highly reminiscent of the security clampdown in the spring/summer of 2001 when authoritarian president Hosni Mubarak was still in power. In May 2001, 52 people suspected of being gay were arrested on charges of immorality during a raid on a tourist boat moored on the Nile in Cairo. Twenty three of the men were sentenced to up to five years in prison with hard labour. The highly-publicised “Queen Boat case”, named after the discotheque-boat that for long had been a known meeting place for Egypt’s gay community, signalled what rights campaigners feared might be an end to long years of discreet and quietly tolerated public activity by the country’s threatened LGBT population. Some analysts said at the time that the sudden crackdown was a means of diverting attention away from the regime’s failures, including a political crisis and a looming economic recession. Critics of the 2001 crackdown also believed it was an attempt by the then-autocratic regime to present an image as “the guardian of public virtue so as to deflate an Islamist opposition movement that appeared to be gaining support every day”.

Not surprisingly, many of Egypt’s gay men and women were at the heart of the January 2011 protests demanding democracy, freedom and social justice. They had hoped that the revolution would usher in a new era of change including greater freedoms and tolerance, allowing them to better integrate into mainstream society. Karim, who requested that only his first name be used out of concern for his safety, told Index: “We had a lot of hope then but the last three years have only brought disappointment. There has been no change in people’s attitudes. In fact, we get insulted more often now, as people feel emboldened knowing that the authorities are siding with them.”

Rights campaigners agree that life has gotten worse for Egypt’s gay citizens since the Arab Spring. Adel Ramadan, a legal officer at the Cairo-based Egypt Initiative for Personal Rights told NBC News last year that “after the fall of Mubarak, the criticism of revolutionary groups has always contained a sexual element. Women who participate in protests are often called prostitutes or ‘loose’ women, while male revolutionary activists are called homosexuals”.

Meanwhile, the rise of Islamists to power in Egypt in the post-revolution era fuelled fears among rights groups and Egyptian gay citizens over greater restrictions on the gay community. They anticipated an even harder crackdown under Islamist rule and worried that the Islamist-dominated parliament would pass anti-gay legislation. Whether or not their fears were justified is uncertain, for Islamist rule in Egypt was short lived, lasting only one year. President Morsi was toppled by military-backed protests on July 3, 2013 and the People’s Assembly (the lower house of Parliament responsible for issuing legislation) was disbanded by a Supreme Constitutional Court ruling in June 2012, only a few months after its members were elected. However, in their time in power, there were signs indicating a potential tightening of restrictions on Egypt’s gays. In August 2012, a man was arrested for allegedly leading a “gay sex network” while later that year, vigilantes beat four men suspected of being gay before handing them over to the police.

“Many of my gay friends fled the country when the Islamists came to power; they were terrified of what would happen to them under Islamist rule. They knew they would not be able to live freely so they emigrated,” said Karim. “Those who stayed behind, participated in the 30 June mass protests demanding Morsi’s downfall. We were overjoyed when he was toppled and hoped there would be fewer restrictions on us from then on,” he added.

Paradoxically, since Morsi’s ouster in July 2013, there has been a rise in the number of arrests of people based on their sexual orientation, according to the US-based Human Rights First group. The group says the surge in arrests and prosecution of gay men and women is part of the military-backed regime’s efforts to reassure Egyptians that the current regime is as conservative as any Islamist party.

In October 2013, state-owned Akhbar el Youm reported that at least 14 men were arrested for “practicing homosexuality” after a raid on a health club in El Marg district in northeastern Cairo. According to the weekly newspaper, police found the men “in positions that were against religious precepts”. Less than three weeks later, police arrested ten more people on “homosexual-related charges”. The arrests occurred during a police raid on a private party held to celebrate Love Day (Egypt’s equivalent of Valentine’s Day) in Cairo’s western suburb of 6 October. The men were subjected to humiliating anal examinations before being convicted of prostitution and sentenced to between three and nine years in prison. Mohamed Bakier, one of the defence lawyers in the case, said the charges against them were “political rather than criminal”. He added that the harsh sentences they received were meant to deliver a message that the society is still conservative.

Similarly, the severe sentences handed down to the four men on Monday may be an attempt by the military-backed authorities to appease a sceptical public and win over conservatives in the deeply polarised society ahead of upcoming presidential elections in which the former defence minister Abdel Fattah El Sisi is the lead contender.

The verdicts, meanwhile, coincided with another court ruling upholding three-year jail terms imposed on three secular revolutionary activists convicted of organising or participating in unauthorised protests, prompting rights campaigners to concur in opinion that this is all part of the wider, ongoing crackdown on personal freedoms.

Whatever the motives are behind the harsh sentences, one thing is certain: The verdicts have increased anxiety over the insecurity of Egypt’s vulnerable gay community. “We no longer feel safe,” said Karim. “We know we are being targeted by the police and sooner or later, they will come after us.”

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the 52 Egyptians were arrested in May 2010. The incident took place in May 2001.

This article was posted on 9 April 2014 at