Pav Akhtar, the first non-white president of the Cambridge University Students Union, is challenging the conservative conceptions of what it means to be a Muslim. In 2006 he also became the first gay Muslim to run for NUS president. He lost to Gemma Tumulty by 28 votes amidst claims of homophobia and Islamophobia.
In the same year Sir Iqbal Sacranie, head of the Muslim Council of Britain, announced homosexuality as ‘harmful’, to resounding condemnation. The election campaign exposed the schism that exists between the conservative Islamic community and those who seek to interpret the Koran more liberally.
As part of the ‘Love Without Borders’ campaign organised by York LGBT, Akhtar explained the urgency of addressing this rift. “The condemnation of the LGBT community by many Islamic practitioners is based on a very narrow interpretation of Islamic teaching. Now is the time to engage in critical constructive thinking, not to reform Islam,” he continued “but to reform the narrow, conservative dogma which has set the political frame to which all Muslims must conform.”
Akhtar was raised in a moderately conservative Pakistani-Indian family, and as an openly gay, practising Muslim the prejudice is two-pronged. It exists both inside the LGBT and Islamic community. “In January last year, some of our hijab wearing sisters were spat on and abused by people of the LGBT community,” he explained. “There are prejudices and stereotypes within our own community.”
It is when discrimination is substantiated by political power that Akhtar sees the greatest threat. In addition to working for the trade union, UNISON, he is a British Labour Party politician and chair of the LGBT Muslim organisation, Imaan. Voicing opinion in the political and legal sphere is to Akhtar the most effective and empowering tool for the LGBT and Muslim community.
“Understanding the legal framework allows you to develop a greater sense of where you need to go in order to achieve the love without borders aspiration.”
Section 28, brought in under Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1988 stated that a local authority could not promote the teaching of homosexuality in any maintained school. Many saw it as homophobia enshrined in law. “I think what it did was it forced many people like me from being gay and being Muslim in this country” he explains. It was repealed by the Labour government in 2003.
The Equality Bill, which is set to replace nine major laws and 100 other regulations, is now of great importance. “The current public sector equality duties which exist for race, gender and disability will now include LGBT and sexual orientation which I think is a massive step to protecting us,” says Akhtar. “All publicly finding bodies will have to proactively promote sexual orientation equality across the board to remove the barriers to LGBT people having fair access to services.”
And according to Akhtar, Britain more than any country in Europe needs to address its conservative reading of both homosexuality and Islam to avoid what he describes as the “schizophrenic lifestyle” of covert LGBT Muslims.
“There exists an incredibly diverse interpretation of Islam in wider Europe whereas in Britain we have a much more conservative reading.”
“You’ve got the prospect of the BNP winning a seat in Yorkshire, they are probably going to win two seats in the north west. Sometimes we hold onto values and constructs, as we’re not quite able to challenge ourselves, he adds “but this is the time to challenge ourselves.”