Helping Islamic Gays

Originally appeared Feb. 6, 2002, in the Chicago Free Press.

It was bad enough that Afghanistan's repressive Taliban regime publicly executed at least five gay men during its brief existence. Then we learned of Egypt's ongoing arrest, imprisonment and possible torture of gay men, charging them with "offenses against religion" (i.e., Islam).

Now we learn that on January 1, 2002, Saudi Arabian authorities publicly beheaded three gay men after Islamic religious courts in the southwestern city of Abha declared them guilty of "engaging in the extreme obscenity and ugly acts of homosexuality, marrying among themselves and molesting the young," charges obviously exaggerated to provoke public outrage.

With the defeat of the Taliban, Saudi Arabia is now the world's most repressive Islamic regime - with its Taliban-like, truncheon-wielding religious police, a nationwide ban on other religions, state support for fundamentalist religious schools, and complete censorship of media and the Internet.

Troublingly, there have been few noticeable condemnations of the Saudi executions from human rights groups, none from moderate Islamic groups, no expressions of concern from the U.S. or Western European governments.

Gay, human rights and civil liberties groups, here and abroad, should be protesting to the Saudi embassies and the Saudi government. Gay and gay-supportive groups could picket and demonstrate outside the Saudi embassy in Washington. Individual gays and lesbians could send letters of concern and Faxes to the embassy.

The hope would be to raise awareness of the executions and warn repressive Islamic regimes that there is declining public support for American financial or technological aid or military protection for anti-gay regimes.

The Saudi's American ambassador, Prince Bandar, is a key members of the ruling Saud family. If he detected growing U.S. disapproval, with its possible policy consequences, he would transmit that message back to his government.

We may anticipate that in the short run such protests would have little or no impact on the Saudis or the Egyptians since the arrests and execution of gays are generated by a powerful internal dynamic that we have little ability to influence.

In both nations, particularly Saudi Arabia, corrupt, repressive and undemocratic regimes try to mitigate internal political dissent and pressures for social and economic reform by conspicuously enforcing traditional Islamic law and its strict codes of sexual morality.

Arresting and executing gays (along with much else) is part of their means of staying in power. It is meant to reassure a restive populace that they are pious, uphold Islam, have not capitulated to Western decadence and do not need to be reformed.

Against such a strong dynamic any direct actions at our disposal will be frustratingly ineffective. No doubt, too, all the potentially effective actions are frustratingly indirect. Nonetheless we ought to try them - because there is nothing else.

Ultimately tolerance of gays will not happen apart from an overall moderation and liberalization of Muslim societies. Hence we should support initiatives that will force, induce or assist conservative Muslim nations to move toward becoming more tolerant, pluralistic, open societies.

Writing in the January 2002 issue of "Foreign Affairs" former ambassador Martin Indyk sketches out several general policy approaches in dealing with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which I freely adapt, alter, and supplement here to gay-specific purposes.

Conservative Islamic governments must stop subsidizing religious schools that teach an intolerant, fundamentalist version of Islam. Instead, they must begin providing economic and moral support as well as media exposure for moderate Islamic spokesmen and clerics.

They must begin to permit more democracy and popular participation in order to provide an alternative outlet for dissent besides support for fundamentalist Islam. In addition, as foreign policy analyst Joshua Muravchik pointed out, democracy not only allows legitimate grievances to be addressed but people also begin to learn the virtues of moderation and compromise.

They must be pressured to promote an independent "civil society" separate from both religion and government whose institutions would help create the social and political space for Muslim gays to breath and begin to articulate their concerns - as they cannot now.

They must initiate neo-liberal economic reforms to promote private business and industry that can give people independence from government and religious control, a stake in social and economic progress, and personally meaningful work to reduce their psychological need for religious validation of their lives.

They must be persuaded that their persecution of gays promotes disrespect and disdain for Islam, damaging the Islamic cause, by inclining people around the world to view Islam as a narrow, retrograde and punitive religion rather than as a great religious tradition worthy of respect and consideration.

They must stop demonizing America and other liberal Western nations as decadent or Satanic in their state-owned media and schools and begin portraying America as a humane, successful and virtuous nation worthy of respect and emulation.

This is particularly important for gays because America is prominently associated with the acceptance of gays and seen as a fountainhead of the gay movement. As moderate Muslims gradually change their view of the U.S., they may come to see persecution of gays as a cultural excrescence and emblem of social weakness rather than strength.

Comments are closed.