Sunday, February 5, 2012

A Critique of “Islam and Homosexuality, Straight but Narrow”: Teaching Homophobia or Spreading Islamophobia

February 5, 2012

A Critique of “Islam and Homosexuality, Straight but Narrow”

For now, rather than focusing on Middle East political matters, I have decided to focus on a recent article that appeared in the Economist entitled: Islam and Homosexuality: Straight but Narrow.

While the topic is quite serious, unfortunately, this article in which the unknown author sets out to explain to the uninitiated reader the truth about Islam and homosexuality radically fails to provide the reader with a context to understand the topic.  Instead, it is full of stereotypes and misconceptions that can only be described as racist and classical European/American Orientalism.

The article starts off by telling a story of three Muslim men in the English city of Derby who passed out hate literature against gays, which the author uses as a bridge to explain the vast hatred of gays in the Middle East. However, aren’t these three men also a product of England? Could these three Muslims not be seen as a product of their immigrant experience?  In other words, it is known that migrant communities become more conservative as a result of the isolation and discrimination they experience in their new homes. The fact that three Muslims passed out violent homophobic flyers in Derby in no way teaches us how Islam deals with homosexuality or how gays are treated in Muslim countries. It does, however, shine light on an immigrant experience. While we don’t have any information about their identity, it is clear that the author leads the reader to perceive these Muslims also as anti-western, even though violence among gays in England is certainly overwhelmingly perpetrated by (Anglo-Saxon) Christians. Lastly, let us not forget that it was the British and French colonial powers that legislated many of the anti-sodomy laws in the Muslim lands to begin with. In other words, laws forbidding homosexuality in the Islamic world for the most part have nothing to do with Islam, but rather are the legacy of the European colonial powers.  

From there, the author alludes to what the dream of the three immigrants must be: to import the Sharia to England. The author does this by throwing the reader into a sea of information without any lifeboat in sight.  He states that “of the seven countries that impose the death penalty for homosexuality, all are Muslim.” However, the author never tells us which countries those are! He provides an incomprehensible limited chart listing different Muslim countries and how they penalize homosexuality. Yet a quick check on Wikipedia will find that many African, South Asian, and Caribbean countries carry heavier penalties concerning same-sex relationships than the Muslim ones. So is the problem of homophobia and persecution of gays inherently a Muslim one? Far from it.  The danger in this article is that it could easily lead a reader into thinking that all gays in Muslim countries live in daily fear of their lives.

The author then give us details of the abhorrent punishment gays receive in Muslim lands! Yes, lashings! Certainly a tale from One Thousand and One Nights. In Saudi Arabia, a man was jailed for five years along with 500 lashes for having sex with another man. Yes, if you really want to demonize the Arab/Muslim world, using Saudi Arabia as an example is an absolute must. While the military campaign against Afghanistan was strewed with hints that it was needed to liberate the oppressed Afghani women, Saudi Arabia remains a staunch ally of the US, and even if their human rights violations make headlines, they suffer no repercussions. 

The author moves on to Iran, where three gays were executed last year; Well, I suppose with Iran we are all “experts” on the topic of this Shia Muslim state’s treatment of gays, with memories fresh in our mind of the two young men who were hung from a crane. We really did not know the details of their execution, but it was a picture hard to forget. Oh and didn’t their President Ahmedinejad declare that there were no gays in Iran? This fact became known to so many of my college students; but do they know anything else about Iran, for the most part no. Yet even according to the chart provided by the author himself gays having consensual sex might no longer be prosecuted. However, no mention of this is made in the article. A crucial missed opportunity to show that in some Muslim societies progress is being made, even in Iran (if there is truth to the article’s chart).

According to the article, “lesbians in Muslim countries tend to have an easier time,” even in Iran, where women are only executed after four convictions. But the author does not mention that same-sex sexual relations between women, at least in the Middle East, are often a greater taboo than male gay sex.  So, it does not seem that lesbians have it better off at all.  Well, as war between the US/Israel and Iran becomes almost frighteningly imminent, I am afraid that we will once again receive human rights violation accounts splashed across television and internet sites, explaining why US citizens need to support the war against this “backward” state. Forget the fact, that often the conservative forces supporting war, trying to “import human rights,” are the very enemies of the LGBT (and free-thinking) community.

The author informs us that “gay life in the open in Muslim-majority countries is rare,” but the “closet is spacious!” Ironically, it seems that the author is somehow saying why would someone have to come out of the closet (being it is so spacious) and then gives the name of the park where to pick up men in Damascus: the Sibkeh Park, where kids play during the day, and guys cruise at night (a bit like Central Park in the not too distant past).  Then the author compliments the brutal forces of President Assad, whose police force is fearsome but rarely arrests gays (they were probably too busy killing over 6,000 protestors this last year). Once finished with Syria, the reader is taken thousands of miles away to Afghanistan, where apparently US forces were not able to put an end to pedophilia and the purchasing of young boys for sex.  Did the author really just speak of grown men in Damascus having consensual sex in the same paragraph as Afghani pedophilia practices?

From Syria, Afghanistan, and few words on Jordan, we arrive now in Turkey, where “homosexuality is legal.” I might add that this is a result of the fact that they were never subject to direct European colonialism. The author has to fall back on a quote from the former minister of women affairs, Aliye Kavaf, who called homosexuality a “disease.” She was a pathetic minister who lost her job in the end; in fact, she was one of the only ministers not reappointed in the newly elected government. In my opinion, this was due precisely to the fact that the AK party did not want such unnecessary distractions in the government.  The article also fails to point out that the current minister, Fatma Sahin, has opened the door to the LGBT community, a step in the right direction. Instead, the author highlights the negative: Turkey’s interior minister, Idris Naim Sahin, was recorded as saying that homosexuality, along with Zoroastrianism and eating pork, are examples of “dishonour, immorality and inhuman situations.” If I recall correctly, quite a few government ministers in Israel have said that the exact same thing (well save for Zoroastrianism).  However, even if Israel is in the Middle East, the author does not look beyond the Muslim, limiting the possibility of important comparison which would exhibit the fact that so many of these examples fed to us in this article can equally be attributed to Jews, Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists, just to name a few.    

The author next talks about a new Turkish movie, entitled Zenne Dancer, which focuses on Turkey’s first publicized gay “honor killing.” This movie also offers a stereotypical  portrayal of a humiliated religious mother who forces the victim’s father to kill him for pursuing a homosexual lifestyle.  Nevertheless, the author of the article might have pointed out that the movie was advertised in Istanbul’s metro stations, which are controlled by the religious Muslim AK party. Yes, a gay movie being advertised out in the open, shown in cinemas throughout the city. Turkey is a great example of the fact that secularism does not always mean liberal. In fact, under the current “religious” government, the Turkish gay movement has flourished in comparison to when Turkey was ruled by secular elites. Let us not forget that in Turkey, despite the long road the LGBT community still has to work to receive equal rights (if this is their goal), every year they hold a massive gay pride march without harassment. Eastern European “Christians” in Russia and other former Soviet states could only dream of such freedom.     

The author then moves on to Malaysia, jumps to Nigeria, where Muslims unite with Christians in their homophobia (at last Christian homophobes, of course only found in Africa) and then to the Arab spring, which will not promise sexual freedom, in the author’s view.  And we are also offered America’s other failed model as a source: Iraq, where homosexuality has been legal since 2003, but gays have been targeted, with over 700 killed since the fall of the Baath Party.  Interesting that, once the Americans invaded, Iraq erupted not only in sectarian violence, but also violence against gays. It might be worth considering whether the seeds of hate can be traced to the manipulation of Iraq by the American invaders, or even to the repression and sexual violence administered by the American soldier/prison guards at Abu Ghraib.

The author then takes the orientalist jump back to the past, explaining that over a thousand years ago, when the Abbasids ruled from Baghdad, there once was a Muslim society that was open to same sex relationships (between men and not between lesbians, of course). Further, an example of a Persian leader is provided, who way back in the 11th century advised his young boy to switch between men and women according to the season. And, finally we are introduced to the Islamic scholars. This is the perfect orientalist framework: how many articles would explain homophobic hate crimes and anti-sodomy laws in the “West” through biblical passages, and a review of how homosexuality was treated back in the days of ancient Greece, or the Roman Empire.  Yes, perhaps interesting but in no way does this allow us to understand the complexities of the social norms unique to each area covered in this article.   

Unfortunately, the article is a testament to the dangers of writing a piece which instead of tackling questions of homophobia among Muslims gives fuel to Islamophobia. Simply piling all of these experiences into one narrative based solely on their religious affiliation is dangerous and irresponsible. Given the low general level of knowledge of Islam in Europe and America, such articles strengthen prejudices already deeply embedded in society. As I write this article, I remember the two men brutally murdered in Brooklyn for being homosexual. They were walking arm in arm on a cold winter night. Yet they were not gay; they were two brothers just trying to keep warm. They were killed by Christians, not Muslims. Homophobia is an international problem, and highlighting only one aspect blurs the vision of the violence that surrounds humanity on the four corners of the earth. Yes, write about human rights violations, but please refrain from rhetoric which can fuel racism and strengthens existing prejudices, which neither enlightens us on the status of LGBT communities in the imagined "Islamic" world, nor overturns misconceptions. 


  1. "Could these three Muslims not be seen as a product of their immigrant experience? In other words, it is known that migrant communities become more conservative as a result of the isolation and discrimination they experience in their new homes."

    They could but only because your Occidentalism shows through n your analysis. Like, the author of the article you make a causal connection with no factual basis.

    If you bother understanding the Muslim community in Derby you would realize that it has not experienced much discrimination and is flourishing and open.

    I would think that these immigrants newfound homophobia ia likely because while they were already conservative- regardless of how the community is treated- it is only with combing their new homes focus on human sexuality norms that they in turn focus their conservativsm on gays.
    In a way being anti-gay is a conservative community's way of being conservative in a tolerable fashion for much of the countrymen joined.

    Once again I am making assumptions- but I fail to see how you generalizing about the Muslim experience is useful- Your specific examples of Turkey are a different matter entirely.

  2. Dear friend, I kindly disagree about my "occidentalism." In any case, thanks for the criticism and I will take it into consideration. In fact, when talking about Derby, I also stressed that we have no information on their identity, and offered a different perspective. So, I think it is safe to say we both are making assumptions, which is certainly legitimate as long as we state this; or we can see it as "offering different perspective" as stated above.
    Thanks for you kind words about my analysis of Turkey, and your input in general. Yours, Louis

  3. I think that homofobia is in every society even in United States. As i was reading this article the two brothers who were murdered for being gays. If this can happens in this society where homo sexuality is legel in some states how third world and other conservative socities going to treat homosexuality. I think that two poeple from India Hindu or Muslim going to treat the homosexuality the same way. Therefor, as a muslim i think that whatever Christianity,judasim say about homosexuality, Islam is going to say the same. It all depends where you are living in what sociey you are residing.

  4. I appreciate that you try to fight with European/Western Orientalism, but I don't think your standpoint helps for the LGBT people who are struggling to gain their rights in Turkey(or in any other Muslim countries).
    There are material facts:
    1. There are many Islamic countries penalizing homosexuality
    2. Except for a few scholars (like the guy in Alberta), I haven't heard of any Islamic institution that endorses same-sex relationships. Take Al-azhar for instance...
    3. Therefore pointing out this fact should not be considered as Orientalism/west supremacism.

    These are my point of views as a member of LGBT family who was born and raised in one of these "muslim" societies...

    1. Dear KR, First thanks for your open and constructive criticism. I understand what you are saying; however, once again, I think again if this was broken down into regional analysis, it would give the "western" reader a better take. Without understanding social constructs and culture, Islamic societies become void of really any meaning. It would be interesting to conduct a study of how Islamic scholars deal with homosexuality, and I sure if we scratch the surface we will find a debate. My struggle is with the LGBT groups and it for that reason I wrote it. respectfully yours, louis

  5. Dear Louis,
    I am very jealous of your optimism, however I must say that I disagree with you on certain points. I have recently read a brilliant article from Uri Ram: I think Turkish political culture follows the same trajectory (upper left to lower left corner in Figure 1). Of course the "secular elites" were not the champions of freedom and human rights, but I just want to say that, in my humble opinion, the current paradigm shift in Turkish political culture, which is marketed as a model to other middle-eastern countries, is not a paradigm shift at all, but rather a shift in the power distribution.
    Sincerely yours,
    Nasuh Cagdas

  6. primarily, sorry for my english. i grow up in a small city, localizated at the central in Turkey. Very nationalist and almost everybody is "redneck." One of my friends whom i m not very close with him, has a very "deep friend" i mean everybody around me thinkink the same way, "they are homosexual." nobody dicriminated them. Absolutely they did'nt kissed each other in a public area, or they did'nt organized gay parties but there were some gossip, but nobody cares what they are look like or what kind of impression they give. And i remember quiet well, i saw 2 tranvesty, they were persian. They were staying in my city because of regime in iran. They abonden the city and Turkish government settled them to my city till they will go to another country. Whatever, years after then, i leaved the city and last summer i went to Santa monica, Ca. İ have italian friends, russian friends, maccedonian friends. Not only as a muslim country, but also as a traditional country Turkey is not racist or homophobic. From 2003, istanbul held a gay parade and also ankara(ankara very close to my city) in russia or serbia (whereas christians) they are beating, killing gays. My macedonnian friend told me that if you are a gay in skopje, you may get stoned!! that's all i want to say.