Toward Decriminalizing Homosexuality in the Arab World*
In August 1980 the Democratic Party of the United States adopted Homosexual Rights in its platform. 31 years later, in December 2011 Barrack Obama issued a presidential memorandum directing “all federal agencies engaged abroad to ensure that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons.” The following day, Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, stood before the UN General Assembly in Geneva and gave a speech in which she asserted that LGBT rights were human rights. Six months earlier, in June 2011, The UN Council on Human Rights passed its very first resolution “condemning violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.” This was followed by further resolutions. The most recent of these was voted on on June 30th of this year, resulting in the appointment of an independent expert to scrutinize specific violations of gender and sexual
minority human rights.
In a parallel world, Russia, which is reverting to its cold-war counter-power, having remarkably restored its military prowess in the last 15 years, is also rhetorically pitting itself as an anti-imperial, protector of endangered cultural rights. Vladmir Putin made this clear in his Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly in December of 2013. He indicated that Russia had no aspirations “to be any sort of superpower with a claim to global or regional hegemony; …we do not try to teach others how to live their lives.” The implication is of course that the US does. “Th[e] destruction of traditional values from above,” Putin continued is “essentially antidemocratic, since it is carried out on the basis of abstract, speculative ideas, contrary to the will of the majority…." His comments were made in context of Russia’s “gay and pedophilia propaganda” law which was implemented earlier that year.
There are in fact on a global level, as well as in western academic theory, two narratives that dominate about the internationalization of LGBT rights as human rights. In the first narrative, there is a claim for the existence of and the rights for gender and sexual minorities identified specifically as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender. In the alternative narrative this form of advocacy is seen as an imposition of Western values and concepts on others, without consideration of cultural rights, religious beliefs or ethnic specificities.
It is important to recognize that a critique of international LGBT rights as human rights is not necessarily a form of strategic homophobia. For example it is absolutely crucial to the health of the movement to recognize that some concepts which are required to have this conversation, such as privacy, individual freedom, or sexual/gender orientation or identity may be confounding or alien in many non-Western cultural contexts. Furthermore, labels used to designate gender and sexual minority groups, like LGBT, may also fail to account for cultural variations in gender and sexual practices across the globe, potentially alienating, mis-identifying or not identifying at all, groups or individuals the movement purports to help. And in addition, coercion of nation states to comply can have a disastrous effect. In 2014 the US ceased aid to Uganda following an anti-homosexuality bill. This form of collective punishment does nothing to dissuade people from continuing to believe that homosexuals bring about national ruin. Having said all of this, it is also equally important to recognize that contemporary post-colonial theorists who keenly point
out the shortcomings of the international LGBT rights movement, fail spectacularly at adequately addressing the depth and breadth of state-sponsored violence against gender nonconforming people and consensual same-sex practitioners.
Following the June 30 UN mandate to appoint an independent expert on protection against violence and discrimination, Omar Ramadan, Egypt’s delegate to the United Nations, issued a statement indicating that Egypt would boycott the mandate. Ramadan argued that it contradicted the very definition of universal rights, that it was too contentious, having been secured only by a small margin of votes. He went further to say that participating in selecting an expert went against (and I quote), "the values that I stand for." In previous media interviews, Ramadan’s concern was that these resolutions would be a precedent to the imposition of various civil liberties like marriage equality, gay adoption and gay pride parades in the streets of Cairo. He seems to believe that the mandate’s stated purpose, which is to protect people from
violence and persecution, is only a cover, a Trojan horse for a back-door (no pun intended) usurping of cultural values.
The concern with the imposition of LGBT liberties masks a more fundamental, unspoken refusal to decriminalize homosexuality, and stop its prosecution and state-sponsored persecution – something in which Egypt has been so steeped, since the turn of the century, through continuous, large-scale operations of police entrapment, torture and incarceration. So it is no surprise that Ramadan is joined in his concern by the Organization of Islamic Conference (which includes 57 member states and 5 observer states), which, he writes [all except Albania] “shall boycott this mandate and shall not recognize its creation nor cooperate or interact with it in any form or format.”
Less than six weeks prior to Mr Ramadan’s comments, in June of this year, Egypt and a host of Muslim nations around the world issued official statements condemning the massacre of 49 people in attendance at a gay night club in Orlando, Florida. Egypt was joined with similar reprisals by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, each of which have at some point voted against the UN resolutions connected to LGBT rights. The Secretary General of the Arab League, Nabil al-Araby also issued a statement, condemning the attack as terrorism. Al-Azhar, the world’s leading Sunni institution of Islamic scholarship, also decried it as un-islamic.
The statements recognize the humanity of the victims and their right to life but they do not recognize the connection between legalized persecution at the governmental level and the cultural violence resulting from reviling gender non-conformity and same-sex behavior. The Orlando massacre is not dissimilar from the killings carried out in recent years by extremist Shiite and Sunni militias in Iraq, following. a US-led invasion which was, to say the least, illegal under international law.
In 2009 and again in 2012 gender non-conforming individuals as well as homosexual men were targeted through calculated killing sprees by a Shiite militia in Sadr City and Baghdad. The 2012 violence also targeted individuals who were unconventionally dressed or groomed. The killings in Baghdad and Sadr City have been in part attributed to militias of the Mahdi Army, whose leader, Ayatolla al-Sistani, is said to have incited the violence in a religious opinion placed on his website. It is said in several sources that this opinion was retracted in 2006, three years before the first crime wave. More recently, on July 7th of this year, Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Sadr Militia, to whom these killings are also attributed, published a ruling on his website that such persons are mentally ill, and that while scripture strictly forbids their doings, they should be ostracized and not attacked because the latter would act as a “further deterrent for them to respond to reasonable means to guide them to the straight path.”
In recent years the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has televised carrying out punishments for crimes in accordance with its sharia --- laws derived from religious edicts. The killing of men who have been accused of liwat/ male sodomy has been transmitted across social media on a number of occasions. The most recent incident came a day after the UN security council's condemnation of the Orlando massacre.
The actions of the Shiite militias seem to harbor cognitive dissonance on the subject, with the official ruling contradicting the mass murders of civilians. ISIS's Wahabbi sharia, on the other hand, is in consort with their actions, where homosexual conduct is indeed punishable by death. But even these laws are far from being indisputable. A Saudi scholar, Dr. Salman Al-Ouda (who is a controversial figure having been imprisoned by the Saudi regime in the 90s), recently put forward the argument that while same-sex behavior is forbidden in Islam, the killing of such persons is not only unlawful Islamicly but is much worse than homosexuality itself. Al-Ouda may be in the minority for now, but he is pointing to a crucial open secret that scholars of Islam, both Shiite and Sunni conveniently ignore. There are no verses in the Quran that specify judicial or worldly punishment for same-sex behavior. this point might not seem like much but it is extremely crucial where the effort to decriminalize is in Muslim-majority countries where the law is based on religion.
The Wahabi school of thought currently dominates politically and is spreading culturally in the Arab world but it is counterbalanced by the other Sunni authoritative body, and that is al-Azhar, which is based in Egypt but trains scholars from all around the world. On that point it's worth nothing that Sheikh al-Azhar asserted that the Orlando massacre was un-Islamic and while it he asserted that it is unacceptable to engage in homosexual behavior, it is also un-Islamic to bring harm to such persons. The Mufti of Egypt, Shawki Alam, also asserted something along similar lines. Both Shawki Alam, Ahmad al-Khatib (Sheikh al-Azhar) and Muqtada al-Sadr have all stated at some point or another that their personal opinion is that homosexuality is an illness. So now we are moving away from criminalization toward pathologization. This is an opinion that is not supported scripturally.
Many Muslim-majority countries prosecute homosexuality under secular laws, Egypt is one such country, but al-Azhar is important in the sense that it influences people culturally and the Muslim international. I am going to close by suggesting that what we need to do is pay attention to the internal logic of each national context when we're working on decriminalizing homosexuality and work with the specific law, culture and constitution of each nation state. Slow, organic social change that is in keeping with the internal logic of nations states is going to be the most meaningful and peaceful form of social change that we can hope for.
*A talk given at the Symposium on Human Rights, Gender and Sexuality in the Islamic World, held at the University of Michigan, Oct. 27, 2016.