New U.S. Allies Enforce Homophobic Persecution
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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