Homophobia on the rise in the Muslim world

As recent incidents in Iraq show, in many Islamic countries, gays are ostracized, persecuted, even murdered

Topics: LGBT, Iran, Iraq war, Religion, Iraq, Middle East, Islam,

Homophobia on the rise in the Muslim worldBlindfolded Mahmoud Asgari, 16, left, and another unidentified teenager are set to be publicly hanged, in Mashhad, Iran, on charges of raping boys in this photo taken on July 19, 2005.

Bearded men kidnapped him in the center of Baghdad, threw him into a dark hole, chained him up, urinated on him, and beat him with an iron pipe. But the worst moment for Hisham, 40, came on the fourth day of his ordeal, when the kidnappers called his family. He was terrified they would tell his mother that he was gay and that this was the reason they had kidnapped him. If they did, he would never be able to see his family again. The shame would be unbearable for them.

“Do what you want to me, but don’t tell them,” he screamed.

Instead of humiliating him in the eyes of his family, the kidnappers demanded a ransom of $50,000, a huge sum for the average Iraqi family. His parents had to go into debt and sell all of their son’s possessions in order to raise the money required to secure his freedom. Shortly after they received the ransom, the kidnappers threw Hisham out of their car somewhere in the northern part of Baghdad. They had decided not to shoot him. But they sent him on his way with a warning: “This is your last chance. If we ever see you again, we’ll kill you.”

That was four months ago. Hisham has since moved to Lebanon. He told his family that he had decided to flee the violence and terror in Baghdad and that he had found work in Beirut. Needless to say, he didn’t disclose the fact that he is unable to live in Iraq because of the death squads who are out hunting for “effeminate-looking” men.

In Baghdad a new series of murders began early this year, perpetrated against men suspected of being gay. Often they are raped, their genitals cut off, and their anuses sealed with glue. Their bodies are left at landfills or dumped in the streets. The nonprofit organization Human Rights Watch, which has documented many of these crimes, has spoken of a systematic campaign of violence involving hundreds of murders.

Restoring “religious morals”
A video clip showing men dancing with each other at a party in Baghdad in the summer of 2008 is thought to have triggered this string of kidnappings, rapes and murders. Thousands of people have seen it on the Internet and on their cellphones. Islamic religious leaders began ranting about the growing presence of a “third sex,” which American soldiers were said to have brought in with them. The followers of radical Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, in particular, felt the need to take action aimed at restoring “religious morals.”

In their stronghold, the part of Baghdad known as Sadr City, black-clad militiamen patrol the streets, on the lookout for anyone whose “unmanly appearance” or behavior would make it possible to identify them as being homosexual. Long hair, tight-fitting T-shirts and trousers, or a certain way of walking were often a death sentence for the persons in question. But it’s not just the Mahdi army who has been hunting down and killing gay men. Other groups such as Sunni militias close to al-Qaida and the Iraqi security services are also known to be involved.

Homosexuals in Iraq may be faced with an exceptionally dangerous situation, but they are ostracized almost everywhere in the Muslim world. Gay rights organizations estimate that more than 100,000 gay men and women are being discriminated against and threatened in Muslim countries. Thousands of them commit suicide, end up in prison, or go into hiding.

Egypt starts to clamp down
More than 30 Islamic countries have laws on the books that make homosexuality a criminal offense. In most cases punishment ranges from floggings to life imprisonment. In Mauritania, Bangladesh, Yemen, parts of Nigeria and Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, convicted homosexuals can also be sentenced to death.

In those Muslim countries where homosexuality is not against the law, gay men and women are nonetheless persecuted, arrested and in some cases murdered. Although long known for its open gay scene, Egypt has recently started to clamp down hard. The lives of homosexuals are monitored by a kind of vice squad that taps telephones and recruits informants. As soon as the police have accumulated the kind of evidence they need, they charge their victims with “debauchery.”

In Malaysia homosexuality has been used as a political weapon. In 2000 opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was sentenced to nine years in prison for allegedly committing “sodomy” with his wife’s chauffeur as well as with a former speechwriter. In 2004 the conviction was overturned on appeal, and he was acquitted. In the summer of 2008, charges were filed against him in a similar case when a male aide accused him of sodomy. The case is still ongoing.

For a while Anwar Ibrahim was the favorite of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and was being groomed to succeed him in that office until they had a falling out in 1998. Ten years and some prison time later, on August 28, 2008, Anwar managed to be sworn in again as a member of the Malaysian Parliament. But that’s as far as he has got with his political comeback.

Even in liberal Lebanon homosexuals run the risk of being sentenced to a year in prison. On the other hand, Beirut has the only gay and lesbian organization in the Arab world (Helem, which means “dream” in Arabic). There are posters on the walls of the Helem office in downtown Beirut providing information on AIDS and tips on how to deal with homophobia. The existence of Helem is being tolerated for the time being, but the Interior Ministry has yet to grant it an official permit. “And it’s hard to imagine that we ever will be given one,” says Georges Azzi, the organization’s managing director.

Islamists are the dominant cultural force
In Istanbul there is a free gay scene, Christopher Street Day is celebrated, and even religious Muslims are among the fans of transsexual pop diva Bülent Ersoy and the late gay singer Zeki Müren. But outside the world of show business it is considered both a disgrace and an illness to be a götveren, or “queen.” In the Turkish army, homosexuality is cause for failing a medical test. To identify anyone trying to use homosexuality as an excuse to get out of military service, army doctors ask to see photos or videos showing the recruits engaging in sex with a man. And they have to be in the “passive” role. In Turkey being in the active role is considered manly enough not to be proof of homosexuality.

It looks as if a wave of homophobia has swept over the Islamic world, a place that was once widely known for its open-mindedness, where homoerotic literature was written and widely read, where gender roles were not so narrowly defined, and, as in the days of ancient Greece, where men often sought the companionship of youths.

Islamists are now a dominant cultural force in many of these countries. They include figures such as popular Egyptian television preacher Yussuf al-Qaradawi, who demonizes gays as perverse. Four years ago the Shiite grand ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa saying that gays are to be murdered in the most brutal way possible. These religious opinion leaders base their hatred for gays on the story of Lot in the Koran: “Do ye commit lewdness such as no people in creation [ever] committed before you? For ye practice your lusts on men in preference to women: ye are indeed a people transgressing beyond bounds.” Lot’s people suffered the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for their sins. The prophet Mohammed has a number of dicta in which he condemns these acts by Lot’s people, and in one of them he even goes as far as to call for punishment by death.

European prudery exported to the colonies
The story of Lot and related verses in the Koran were not interpreted as unambiguous references to homosexual sex until the 20th century, says Everett Rowson, professor of Islamic studies at New York University. This reinterpretation was the result of Western influences — its source was the prudery of European colonialists who introduced their conception of sexual morality to the newly conquered countries.

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The fact of the matter is that half of the laws across the world that prohibit homosexuality today are derived from a single law that the British enacted in India in 1860. “Many attitudes with regard to sexual morality that are thought to be identical to Islam owe a lot more to Queen Victoria than to the Koran,” Rowson says.

More than anything, it is the politicization of Islam that has led to the persecution of gays today. Sexual morals are no longer a private matter. They are regulated and instrumentalized by governments.

“Regimes want to control the private lives of citizens”
“The most repressive are secular regimes such as those in Egypt or Morocco, which are under pressure from Islamists and so try to outdo them with regard to morals,” says Scott Long of Human Rights Watch. “In addition, the persecution of homosexuals shows that a regime has control over the private lives of its citizens — a sign of power and authority.” For several years now, a sense of “moral panic” has been systematically fomented in many Muslim countries.

Iran is a case in point, where homosexuals have been persecuted on a more or less regular basis since the Islamic revolution. Since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been in office, there has definitely been an increase in this persecution despite the fact that Ahmadinejad never grows tired of emphasizing that there are no homosexuals in his country.

The mere suspicion that someone may have committed “unnatural acts” is enough for that person to be sentenced to a flogging in Iran. If caught more than once, the person in question can be sentenced to death. According to official statistics, 148 homosexuals have been given a death sentence and executed thus far. The true figure is doubtless much larger than this. The last case of this kind to attract public attention was that of 21-year-old Makwan Moludsade, who was hanged in December 2007. He was accused of having raped three boys several years earlier. Homosexuals are almost always charged with other crimes such as rape, fraud or robbery in order to better justify their execution.

“If I had stayed, they would have killed me”
As a result of this situation, thousands of gays and lesbians have fled Iran. For most of them the first port of call is Turkey. “I had no choice but to flee,” says Ali, a 32-year-old physician. “If I had stayed, they would have killed me.”

Ali was careful. He rarely went to parties, he used different Internet cafes for online chat sessions, and he didn’t let anyone in on his secret, not even the members of his family. Everything went well until one day his friend’s father caught them kissing. Two days later Ali lost his job at the hospital and then he was hit by a car, in what seemed to be a deliberate attack. Shortly after that he received a telephone call telling him: “We want to see you hang.”

What he hadn’t known was that his friend’s father was a high-ranking member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Ali went to the bank, withdrew his savings, and took a train to Turkey, where he applied for asylum. Since then he has lived in a tiny apartment in Kayseri, Central Anatolia, one of 35 gay Iranian exiles in that city.

Arsham Parsi, 29, from Shiraz, fled Iran four years ago. A slight man with a fluffy beard and glasses, he was one of the most wanted men in Iran for several years after creating the country’s first gay network in 2001. Its members communicated with each other only by e-mail, and very few people knew his real name. But in the end his identity was revealed. Parsi managed to get away, but it was a close call. He got a visa for Canada, where he founded the Iranian Queer Organization, which now has 6,000 members in Iran. They include numerous transsexuals or persons who consider themselves to be transsexuals. Parsi estimates that “nearly half of all sex-change operations are requested by homosexuals.”

Sex-change operations booming in Iran
The persecution of gays has led to a boom in the demand for sex-change operations in Iran. More operations of this kind are carried out in the Islamic Republic than anywhere else in the world apart from Thailand. These procedures were approved by Ayatollah Khomeini himself in 1983. Khomeini defined transsexuality as a disease that can be healed by means of an operation. Since then thousands of people have requested this kind of treatment, and the Iranian government even covers part of the costs.

“Family members and physicians urge homosexuals to have operations to normalize their sexual orientation,” Parsi says. This way it was possible for a high-ranking Shiite religious scholar to finance his secretary’s physical transformation into a woman and then to marry him.

The archconservative kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the only Arab country where sharia law is the sole legal code, under which homosexuals are flogged and executed. “Homosexuals are freer here than they are in Iran,” says Afdhere Jama, who traveled through the Islamic world for seven years doing research for his book “Illegal Citizens.”

Gay men and women have a surprising amount of space in Saudi society. Newspapers print stories about lesbian sex in school lavatories, while it is an open secret that certain shopping centers, restaurants and bars in Jeddah and Riyadh are gay meeting points.

“There are numerous Saudi men who have sexual relationships with youths before they are married or when their wives are pregnant,” Jama says. In these cases, having sex with another male is often the only way of having sex at all. Extramarital affairs with women are nearly impossible. “In the West the men in question would be considered gay, but in countries like Saudi Arabia it is harder to categorize them,” Jama notes. Most Muslims have trouble understanding the Western concept of “gay identity.” In their countries there is no such thing as a gay lifestyle or a gay movement.

Cultural and political factors
Daayiee Abdullah, 55, is an imam. He wears a prayer cap, has a beard — and is gay. He is one of only two imams in the world who are openly gay. He voluntarily chose to follow the path of Islam. Raised as a Baptist in Detroit, he made friends with Chinese Muslims while studying in Beijing and then converted to Islam. “They told me it would be no problem for me as a gay man to be a good Muslim.”

Imam Abdullah and many others along with him have a somewhat different interpretation of the story of Lot. According to them, those whom God condemned were not homosexuals but rapists and robbers. It is not homosexuality that the Koran prohibits but rather rape. “The rejection of gays is a result of cultural and political factors,” he says. “Just like honor killings and arranged marriages. They’re not in the Koran either.”

Abdullah lives in Washington, the U.S. capital, and says prayers at the funerals of gay persons, particularly if they died of AIDS, something no other imam is willing to do. He officiates at same-sex marriages and, for the past 11 years, has provided religious advice in an online forum titled “Muslim Gay Men.”

He regularly receives death threats but now laughs them off, saying: “How can two loving men pose a threat to the foundations God has laid?”

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