Hate Crimes: Like the Taliban, Americas Middle East Allies Tyrannize Gays
October 3- 9, 2001
36 Cooper Square, New York, NY 10003
By Michelangelo Signorile
On March 22, 1998, 18-year-old Abdul Sami and another young man, a
22-year-old named Bismillah, were buried aliveput beside a mud wall that
was bulldozed upon theminside a stadium in the Afghan city of Herat.
The gruesome public execution was the young mens sentence, under Taliban
law, of having been found guilty of engaging in sodomy. They were hardly the
first to receive that kind of punishment for same-sex sexual transgressions:
Just a month earlier three men found guilty of the same infraction had a stone
wall collapsed on them in public just outside the city of Kandahar (purported
to have had a large homosexual community before the Taliban seized power in
1996). Amazingly, all three survived and were taken to the hospital with
fractures to most of the bones in their bodies; they were later given their
freedom. (According to the Talibans interpretation of Islamic law, if you
survive such a punishment, youre free to go.)
After the Herat executions, the official Taliban Radio Voice of Sharia,
clearly intent on sending a message to would-be sexual deviants throughout the
land, proudly announced the heinous accomplishment: "Sharia-prescribed
punishment has been administered to two sodomites [in] Herat Province. The
cases of the accused were investigated by the public prosecution office of
Herat Province, where the accused confessed to their crimes without duress or
The Talibans treatment of homosexuality is pretty frightening stuff. But
even scarier is that many of the countries being approached to join the U.S.
in the fight against the Taliban dont treat homosexuals, and other citizens
deemed second-class, in a drastically different way. Islamic fundamentalists
and their fascistic beliefs have a grip, in varying degrees, on the leadership
of many Muslim countries.
The Taliban offer what is perhaps the most extreme manifestation of
discrimination against women. As has been reported in the media, women in
Afghanistan are beaten to death, according to Amnesty International, for
walking in public with a man who is not a relative. Women are also beaten and
executed for walking alone at night, or having their ankles or wrists exposed.
The Talibans brand of cruelty, garnering world attention in the wake of
the World Trade Center destruction and the killing of more than 6000 people,
is perhaps enough to make some American gay activists and feminists hawkish,
ready to blow the Taliban and Osama bin Laden to kingdom come.
"We have to go out and eliminate the threat or at least significantly
diminish it," says Washington, D.C., gay activist John Aravosis, who
spearheaded the campaign against the antigay radio talk show host Dr. Laura.
"We have to destroy the people who launched this attack [on NewYork and
Washington]. That means military action."
The many gays and feminists involved in the antiwar protests
notwithstanding, Aravosis believes that gays and lesbians may be even more
red, white, and blue than others right now.
"The gay businesses had the most flags up by far," he notes of
shops in Washington, D.C., the day after the Pentagon attack. "I think were
just like everybody else, but to some degree I feel theres even a little
more patriotism. Gay people are forced to understand the freedoms that we do
or dont have as Americans. It requires you to think about the rights youre
The Talibans treatment of homosexuality isnt the main reason Aravosis
believes military action is necessaryit is the attack on the Word Trade
Center, he says, that warrants a responsebut the Talibans death penalty
for homosexuality has made him increasingly comfortable with his position.
"I would not shed a tear if that government should be destroyed or
overthrown," he says.
On an emotional level, its hard to disagree with Aravosis. Taking
action, however, is far from cut-and-dried. Aside from the arguments of
antiwar activists that torpedoes and ground troops will result in the killing
of many civiliansincluding many of the women, homosexuals, and others being
persecuted by the Talibanthe emerging coalition against terrorism is
putting the U.S. in bed with several other dictatorial regimes that also
subvert the rights of women, gays, lesbians, and transgendered people.
"I think we have to look at all the potential consequences to the
coalition that the U.S. is trying to build, and the way its building
it," warns Surina Khan, executive director of the International Lesbian
and Gay Human Rights Commission (ILGHRC). Born in Pakistan and raised in an
Islamic family, Khan is more than familiar with the policies of some of the
hard-line Islamic countries the U.S. has bolstered and whose abuses the U.S.
has excused. While much of the Muslim world has condemned the terror attacks,
views Islamic terrorists and regimes like the Taliban as having twisted the
tenets of Islam, and may be more moderate toward women, on the issue of
homosexuality Islam is fairly uniform across the board, as is much of
Christianity. "Homophobia runs through mainstream, conservative, and
fundamentalist elements of Islam," says Khan. "Its a common
thread that runs through every Muslim nation."
George W. Bush has set the terms of the impending battle: the good people
of the world against the "evil folks," making it appear as if every
nation in the coalition against terrorismincluding the U.S.is a bastion
of human rights, while Afghanistans Taliban and any other country that
doesnt join the coalition are the planets only torturers, murderers, and
supporters of terrorism. This administration, which hasnt exactly defined
itself in its first 10 months as one concerned about social issues in the
U.S., let alone abroad, is even suddenly talking about the Talibans
treatment of women, just as the rabidly conservative New York Postno friend
to the gay rights movementran a few paragraphs in the aftermath of the
attacks about the horrendously antigay policies of the Taliban.
The fact is, some of the countries the U.S. is now cozying up to have
oppressive laws and policies frighteningly similar to the Talibans. In
Pakistan, the U.S.s newest ally in the so-called war on terror, homosexual
acts between men or women are crimes punishable by death. Though the law is
rarely enforced, it is used as a threat to intimidate people and as a
blackmail tool by the police. In Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar, laws against
homosexual acts are enforced with prison sentences of three to 10 years. In
the United Arab Emirates and Yemen, both male homosexuality and lesbianism are
crimes punishable by death.
Women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive, must get written permission
from a male relative if they want to leave the country, and cannot walk
outside without being accompanied by a male relative. Male homosexuality in
Saudi Arabia is punishable by death. In 1996, a man was reportedly beheaded as
a punishment for homosexuality. Last year, nine transvestites were subjected
to 2600 lashes each in public for performing "deviant" sexual acts,
violating a UN convention Saudi Arabia signed that prohibits torture, and were
sentenced to several years in prison as well. (Police had caught the men on
surveillance cameras dressing in womens clothes.)
In Egypt, women run the risk of losing their citizenship if they marry a
non-Egyptian. And 52 men accused of "practicing debauchery with men"
have been on trial in Cairo over the past several months in a spectacle that
has received international attention. The two main defendants have been
charged with "forming a group that aims to exploit the Islamic religion
to propagate extremist ideas."
The men had been arrested inside and outside a riverboat disco, the Queen
Boat, that was raided last May. "This disco had a policy of admitting
single peoplemost places only admit couples," says Scott Long, ILGHRCs
program director. "The police targeted men who they thought were
effeminate or men who were alone."
The arrests are part of what appears to be a crackdown by the Hosni Mubarak
government that some believe is an attempt to distract Egyptians from the
serious problems plaguing the country, while also pandering to Islamic
fundamentalists by suppressing an increasingly visible gay community. A month
before the disco raid, in April, reports emerged of men having been entrapped
by police on the Internet as well: Posing as potential sexual partners, police
met with men who were seeking sex online and then interrogated them, a tactic
similar to the crackdowns on supposed pedophiles in the U.S. A month earlier,
an Egyptian computer engineer was sentenced to three years in jail, and an
accountant to 15 months, for engaging in the scandalous act of advertising for
sex on the Internet.
Some of the Cairo 52 have reportedly been tortured and abused in jail,
coerced to confess by use of electric shock treatment, and are being tried in
State Emergency Security Court, a special court system that was created
specifically to deal with terrorists and criminals who pose threats to
national security. A 15-year-old boy who was swept up in the raid at the Queen
Boat has already been tried, found guilty, and sentenced to the maximum
penalty of three years in prison. The court ruled that he was guilty after a
medical examination had showed hed engaged in "debauchery."
The trial of the Cairo 52 resumes this month. There are fears among
activists that Mubaraks government, wanting to appease angry Islamic
fundamentalists while it sides with the U.S. against the Taliban and Bin
Laden, has cracked down even further on suspected homosexuals and that the
fate of the Cairo 52 will be worse than previously thought.
"The war on terrorism is seen in parts of the Middle East as an
attack on Islam," Khan explains." The government of Egypt, trying to
appease the religious rights opposition to Egypts participation in such
a war," is ready to step up discrimination against homosexuals. Long adds
that reports are surfacing of additional arrests. "I just got a note from
Aswan saying a number of men were arrested in their flat," he says.
In August, Congressman Barney Frank and 34 other members of Congress sent a
letter of protest to the Mubarak government, as have UN officials. But while
activists say the state department under the Clinton administration was more
vocally proactive on antigay human rights abuses around the world, prior to
September 11 there was no pressure on Egypt by the Bush administration, and its
doubtful there will be any now.
Its understandable that the U.S. needs Egypt as an ally in isolating the
Taliban. Its not in the U.S.s best interest if Egypt experiences
internal strife that might destabilize its government at this critical time.
But the U.S. most certainly canand mustspeak up about Egypts and
other countries human rights abuses at the same time that it forms a
coalition against terror. What, after all, is the U.S. fighting for when it
claims to be preserving freedom and democracy?
"Egypt is already an allyits more than an ally, its basically
a client state of the U.S.," notes Long, referring to the fact that Egypt
is the second largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid (Israel being the first).
"We fund the Egyptian government, and thats why Egypt is joining the
coalition. If were going to use that relationship to engage with them on
terrorism, we should not be afraid to use it to engage with them on human
rights. These are 52 human beings. They range from young students to engineers
to doctors to lawyers to construction workers, and theyre facing
persecution. They should not be further victims of September 11."
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