Last edited: February 14, 2005

Government Disorientation

Widespread Middle Eastern repression of homosexuals stems from outdated ideas about the role of the state.

The Guardian, April 29, 2003

By Brian Whitaker,

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is probably the most important document ever issued by the United Nations. It spells out in clear and uncompromising language “the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family”. The word “universal” in the title is not to be taken lightly. It means exactly what it says: human rights should apply equally to everyone, everywhere, at all times.

One of the difficulties of attempting to police human rights through the UN, of course, is that its members are among the offenders and there are always governments seeking to make exceptions to the principle of universality.

That the declaration exists at all is mainly due to the fact that it was approved by the UN General Assembly in 1948—during a brief period of idealism immediately after the second world war (when the horrors of Nazi Germany were still fresh in the memory) and before the start of the cold war with the Soviet Union. It is very doubtful that UN members would be able to agree on such a document today.

Even in 1948, various governments were unhappy with the declaration. The Soviet Union said it over-emphasised “18th century rights” at the expense of economic rights. South Africa, which was just embarking on its racist apartheid system, saw nothing wrong in discriminating on the grounds of skin colour. And Saudi Arabia was unhappy with the idea of religious freedom (even though the Koran specifically states that there is no compulsion in religion).

Last week, there were more objections. At the annual session of the UN Human Rights Commission, Muslim countries blocked a resolution expressing “deep concern at the occurrence of violations of human rights in the world against persons on the grounds of their sexual orientation”.

The resolution was proposed by Brazil and backed by European countries but five Muslim countries—Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt, Libya and Malaysia—staged a filibuster that resulted in the debate being postponed for a year.

It was the first time that the UN had addressed the delicate issue of homosexual rights by name, and it proved too much for Shaukat Umer, the Pakistani ambassador. Muslim nations could not accept the proposal and in any case, he suggested, the correct term was not “sexual orientation” but “sexual disorientation”.

“This is a question that concerns the fundamental values of our society,” he said. “It’s an attempt to impose one set of values on to people who have another.

“We say: we respect your value systems, but please handle those within your own countries.”

To human rights organisations, these are all familiar arguments. “In many parts of the world,” Amnesty International says, “being gay or lesbian is not seen as a right, but as a wrong. Homosexuality is considered a sin, or an illness, an ideological deviation or a betrayal of one’s culture.

“The repression that gay and lesbian people face is often passionately defended by governments or individuals in the name of religion, culture, morality or public health ... Same-sex relations are dubbed ‘un-Christian’, ‘un-African’, ‘un-Islamic’, or a ‘bourgeois decadence’.”

The president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, takes a more original line: lesbians and gay men are “less than human”, therefore they are not entitled to human rights.

Whatever anyone thinks of Mr Mugabe’s view, it does have a certain logic. There is no point in fudging the issue with arguments about cultural traditions or religion. Either all human beings have the same “equal and inalienable rights” (as the UN declaration puts it) or they do not.

Those who say their religion does not permit them to treat everyone with equal dignity and respect should stop complaining about “western values” and ask themselves what they think their religion is for, and whether they have interpreted the scriptures correctly.

Much as some would like to portray the sexual orientation battle as another aspect of the supposed “crusade” against Islam, there is no reason why it should be. Britain and many other countries went through similar traumas in the last century; they not only survived but, on the whole, are better places because of it.

Throughout Europe, following a ruling by the Court of Human Rights, laws that criminalise private consensual sex between adult men are now invalid.

There is also a worldwide trend towards granting legal protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. South Africa was the first to do this, in 1996, and it has been followed by others such as Canada, France, Ireland, Israel, Slovenia and Spain.

The Arab and Islamic countries are a notable exception to this trend. In almost all of them, sexual relations between men are illegal, with penalties ranging from imprisonment to death. (The position regarding relations between women is less clear and the issue is almost never mentioned.)

By no means all of them enforce these laws stringently. In Oman, for instance, it’s said that cases only get to court if “public scandal” is involved.

Egypt, on the other hand, has been going out of its way during the last couple of years to track down people and prosecute them—often by using dubious entrapment methods and intimate “medical examinations” of suspects that have little or no scientific value.

The most highly publicised case was the arrest of 52 men following a raid on the Queen Boat floating disco in Cairo two years ago. More than 20 of the suspects were jailed. At a “retrial” where no evidence was heard, their sentences were increased and the case is now going to appeal.

Despite the international protests caused by this, the persecution has continued and, according to activists in Egypt, may even have been stepped up. More recent prosecutions involve smaller numbers of people and attract less attention, but there are many of them.

Technically, homosexuality is not illegal in Egypt, so prosecutions are usually based on the charge of “habitual debauchery” (which is legally defined as having sex with more than one person over a period of three years).

One of the favoured entrapment methods is for undercover police to make contact with their victim through a gay website or chatroom and arrange a meeting. When the victim turns up in his best clothes for the date, he gets arrested. In these cases the suspects can also be charged with immoral “advertising” on the internet.

Another common practice is to arrest people at private parties. In one such case the police appear to have been tipped off by the man who was hosting the party.

In justification of this policy, the Egyptian government’s chief spokesman, Nabil Osman, offers the usual excuses about social norms and family values.

“It’s very disgusting,” he told an American newspaper.

“Homosexuals may be accepted in western societies, but they’re not accepted in our society. Neither are they permitted by religion, be it Islam, Christianity, or Judaism.”

One possible explanation is that the Egyptian government, facing challenges from the Islamists, is trying to out-do them on the public morality front. Others suggest it’s merely to divert attention from the country’s real problems. The morality argument might look more convincing if the government put similar effort into other issues—such as stamping out the rampant corruption.

Ultimately, though, it has very little to do with morals or even sex. It is one symptom of a far greater problem that besets the Middle East: outdated ideas about the purpose of government. Egypt has hundreds of laws governing personal behaviour. Apparently it’s even illegal to smoke while driving a vehicle (though anyone who has visited Cairo will probably have got the impression that smoking at the wheel is compulsory). There are so many of these laws that the average police officer is no more aware of them than the average citizen, but it does mean that if the authorities wish to arrest someone they can always find a reason for doing so.

At the same time, newspapers continue to be censored (in the fond pretence that nobody would dream of looking elsewhere for information), and non-governmental organisations which have a genuine and positive role to play in the country’s development get closed down or taken over by the government.

This control-freakery may help to keep up appearances and maintain the status quo, but in the long run it is doomed. Meanwhile, the government seems incapable of applying its regulatory powers to things that would actually benefit the public—such as controlling the terrible pollution in Cairo, sorting out the buildings that regularly fall down on top of people, or making the railways safer.

In terms of death and injury over the last few years, Egypt’s state-owned railways are a greater menace than al-Qaida. Following one disastrous train fire in which hundreds died, the government’s reaction was to increase fares in order to provide life insurance for passengers. Relatives of anyone fortunate enough to die on a train, rather than under a collapsed building, will now receive several hundred dollars in compensation.

All these issues reflect an attitude to power—its use and misuse, its abuse and non-use—that is shared to a large extent by most leaders in the Middle East. But in the modern world it cannot last, even if it shelters for a time under the umbrella of religion or cultural norms.

“Sexual disorientation” is not the problem here. Government disorientation is.

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