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

By Juliane von Mittelstaedt and

In most Islamic countries, gay men and women are ostracized, persecuted and in some cases even murdered. Repressive regimes are often fanning the flames of hatred in a bid to outdo Islamists when it comes to spreading "moral panic."

Bearded men kidnapped him in the center of Baghdad, threw him into a dark hole, chained him down, 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 is 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.

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Photo Gallery: The Muslim World's Increasing Homophobia
Instead of humiliating him in the eyes of his family, the kidnappers demanded a ransom of $50,000 (€33,000), a huge sum for the average Iraqi family. His parents had to go into debt and sell off 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 decided not to shoot him and let him go. 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 non-profit 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 cell phones. 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. Often enough long hair, tight-fitting t-shirts and trousers, or a certain way of walking were 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 currently being discriminated against and threatened in Muslim countries. Thousands of them commit suicide, end up in prison, or go into hiding.

Egypts Starts to Clamp Down

More than 30 Islamic countries have laws on the books that prohibit homosexuality and make it 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 who tap telephones and recruit 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 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, a Christopher Street Day, 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 openmindedness, 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 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 Muhammad 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.

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.

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