Last edited: February 14, 2005

New U.S. Allies Enforce Homophobic Persecution

Washington Blade, October 19, 2001

By Lou Chibbaro Jr.

WASHINGTON—As the U.S. intensified its air war this week against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, international human rights groups were monitoring the ongoing trial in Egypt of 52 men arrested during a raid earlier this year on a Cairo nightclub patronized by Egyptian gays.

The two events illustrate a complex picture that is emerging as the United States combats terrorism with the crucial support of Arab and Islamic governments that treat gays as criminals, punishable in many instances by a brutal death.

Two months before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, gay Muslims—becoming increasingly more organized and vocal in the last decade—faced a religious decree from Al-Muhajiroun, a radical Islamic group in London. The "fatwa" declared the gay Muslim group Al-Fatiha, based in Washington, to be the enemy of Islam.

"My impression is the chief driver in this is the degree to which orthodox Muslim values prevail in a given country," said Fred Star, chair of the Central Asian Institute of Johns Hopkins University’s School for International Studies.

And with heightened publicity focused on the Middle East and Islam, human rights activists are calling on the U.S. to take steps to discourage allies in the region from engaging in human rights violations, including anti-gay persecution.

Officials with the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission say they recognize the need for the U.S. to build alliances with Islamic countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia for its war on terrorism.

But that also offers an opportunity to prod those nations into improving conditions for gay men and lesbians, the activists said.

"Non-normativity is constructed as un-Islamic and anti-culture and, therefore, homosexuality is deemed an imported evil, a ‘Western disease,’" wrote Anissa Helie, a member of the International Solidarity Network of Women Living Under Muslim Laws, in a paper she presented before an international gay conference in Rome in July 2000.

The need for better treatment of gays is ever-present even in moderate Egypt, according to human rights activists, who are increasingly alarmed at what they call a highly publicized anti-gay "show trial." Egyptian authorities are prosecuting 50 men on a charge of "obscene behavior" and at least two on a charge of "contempt for religion."

The IGLHRC reported that many of the men have been subjected to beatings in a Cairo jail.

To IGLHRC and other human rights groups, the Egyptian crackdown against gays highlights the fact that Egypt and other Islamic countries supporting the U.S. campaign against terrorism and atrocities linked to Osama bin Laden are themselves responsible for human rights violations against gays.

‘Allies’ execute gays

While the development in Egypt is of great concern to gay rights advocates here and abroad, the crackdown there pales in comparison to the treatment of gays in other Islamic nations that the U.S. has enlisted as coalition partners in its military action against Afghanistan.

The Taliban regime in Afghanistan has been cited by human rights groups as one of the worst in its treatment of gays, women, and other minorities in an Islamic country. Since taking power in 1996, Taliban authorities have staged public executions of Afghans convicted of sodomy by using bulldozers to topple stone or mud walls on top of them, crushing them to death.

Human rights groups such as Amnesty International have reported that Afghan women are subjected to severe beatings and executions for failing to comply with strict rules prohibiting them from leaving their homes without covering their bodies from head to toe and without being accompanied by a male relative.

There are no recent reports of crackdowns against lesbians, but observers of the Taliban regime say women discovered to have engaged in sexual relations with another woman would almost certainly be subjected to a penalty of death.

In Saudi Arabia, people charged with sodomy are routinely executed by beheading. Laws in Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen also call for the death penalty for sodomy. Iran, which has joined the effort to fight the Taliban, has executed men convicted of sodomy by stoning.

Women convicted of "lesbianism" under Iranian law are subjected to 74 lashes at a whipping post and face an automatic death sentence if convicted for a fourth offense of lesbian sex, according to a copy of the Iranian criminal code published by Homan, a group of gay Iranian exiles.

Fundamentalists feed persecution of gays

Al-Fatiha, an international group representing gay Muslims, has reported that anti-gay persecution exists in various degrees of severity in virtually all of the world’s Islamic nations, including those in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

Surina Khan, executive director of San Francisco-based IGLHRC, said her organization understands the need for the U.S. to enlist the help of Islamic countries in the fight against international terrorism, and said she is not suggesting that it should break its ties with these countries.

Khan, who was born in Pakistan, said she also understands that anti-gay persecution in some Islamic nations, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, is partially driven by pressure from fundamentalist Islamic groups and factions that threaten insurrection and possibly revolution. The fundamentalist movements within the Islamic nations have been the most virulently homophobic forces in these nations, according to human rights groups and experts on the Islam faith.

But Khan said it would be wrong for the U.S. to ignore human rights violations by Islamic nations against gays, women, and other oppressed groups, despite the need to continue the joint, U.S.-led effort to fight terrorism.

Sydney Levy, IGLHRC’s communications director, said the U.S. should support efforts by international human rights organizations like IGLHRC to push for human rights reforms in all nations in which human rights violations occur, including Islamic nations.

In a fashion similar to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, IGLHRC publicizes incidents of human rights violations such as anti-gay persecution and urges U.S. citizens to write letters to leaders of the countries in question, urging them to repeal anti-gay laws and discontinue oppressive actions against gays.

Fighting for tolerance

Faisal Alam, one of the founders of Al-Fatiha, said dozens of similar organizations have formed during the past 10 years on several continents, with the aim of supporting gays and other sexual minorities in Muslim countries.

"The voices that have fought for tolerance [within Islamic nations] have always been loud, but more than 10 years later, we have yet to taste the juices of true justice and equality," he wrote in a column published last month in this newspaper.

"In the last 30 years, while the struggles for justice and equality have progressed in Western countries, most Islamic nations continue to oppress and victimize gays and other sexual minorities," Alam wrote. "Enough is enough. It is the responsibility for every Muslim to stand up and speak out against injustice. The time to stay silent has passed."

An example of the resistance gay Muslims like Alam have faced surfaced in a dramatic way in Great Britain in July. Al-Muhajiroun, a radical Islamic group in London, said in a religious decree that Al-Fatiha members could be subjected to a punishment of death and called the group an enemy of the Islamic faith.

"The very existence of Al-Fatiha is illegitimate and the members of this organization are apostates," the decree said. "Never will such an organization be tolerated in Islam and never will the disease which it calls for be affiliated with a true Islamic society or individual. The Islamic ruling for such acts is death."

The decree added, "It is a duty of the Muslims to prevent such evil conceptions being voiced in the public or private arena."

Conflict with ‘modernity’

Star, the Johns Hopkins professor, is a recognized expert on Afghanistan and other Islamic countries. He said issues such as homosexuality are highly sensitive in Islamic nations because the topic highlights internal conflicts over how to adapt to cultural changes imposed by the concept of "modernity."

He said Islamic countries like Egypt and Jordan, with majority Sunni Muslim population are considered more amenable to many aspects of Western culture, but they continue to view homosexuality as incompatible with the Islamic faith.

But Star said mainstream political leaders in places like Egypt and Jordan are open to the concept of separation of church and state and might accept more tolerant policies toward homosexuality if it were not for intense, internal pressure by radical Islamic factions.

"One can have the most extensive form of tolerance or intolerance depending on the degree of strength of orthodox religion. There is almost a civil war within Muslim groups, countries, and cultures," Star said.

He said the orthodox or radical Muslim factions often have political aims, such as the desire to overthrow the current governments in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and to replace them with governments similar to that of Iran.

Helie, with Women Living Under Muslim Laws, expressed a similar view in a paper she presented before an international gay conference in July 2000.

"We believe that ‘fundamentalists’ are in fact extreme-right political forces seeking to obtain or maintain political power through manipulation of religion and religious beliefs," Helie said.

She added that her organization believes the rise of Islamic fundamentalism is a global phenomenon that affects all major religions, not just the Muslim faith

"Sexual conformity" appears to be such an important requirement for Islamic fundamentalists because the concept of making individual choices on human sexuality is viewed as a challenge and a threat by the fundamentalists, she said.

Human rights advocates such as IGLHRC’s Levy point out that countries like Egypt have adopted draconian policies to crack down on Islamic radicals. In the early 1990s, for example, Egypt waged a fierce crackdown on radical groups that attempted to disrupt Egypt’s tourism industry by targeting foreign tourists for terrorist attacks.

Levy said that in their efforts to suppress the fundamentalist Muslim factions, moderate Islamic countries have curtailed democratic institutions and civil liberties, making it more difficult for peaceful groups, including human rights organizations, to push for internal reforms, including better treatment for gays.

"You can’t address the human rights problems without having democracy in place," Levy said.

Levy said concerned Americans, including gay Americans, could help gay people in Islamic countries by urging the United States government to put pressure on these countries to embrace democracy rather than turn away from it.

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