The Gay Sons of Allah: Wave of Homophobia Sweeps the Muslim World

By Juliane von Mittelstaedt and

Part 2: '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.

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Photo Gallery: The Muslim World's Increasing Homophobia

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 be better able to 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 cafés for online chat sessions, and he didn't let anyone in on his secret, not even the members of his family knew. 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 Guards.

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 only communicated with each other by e-mail and very few people knew his real name. But in the end his identity was still 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 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 the US capital, Washington D.C., 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 on-line forum entitled "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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