Queer people have in recent decades been one of the less talked about victims of what is generally called "Islamic terror". Udayan Dhar speaks to some of those who have a personal stake in the matter, and muses on what the future holds for LGBT people in Muslim societies.
Forty-year old Xulhaz Mannan’s life was brimming with creativity, talent and hope. An employee of the American embassy in Dhaka, he was also an avid photographer, traveler, activist and the editor of Bangladesh’s only gay magazine, Roopban. We had been in touch for some time because he was mentoring a small contingent from Bangladesh that was supposed to attend the Indian LGBT Youth Leadership Summit in Mumbai in June last year. Then, with just a few weeks to go, I got an email from one of the participants saying that Xulhaz and his friend Mahbub Tanoy had been hacked to death and that the team will no longer be able to make it to Mumbai. By next morning, the story about the gruesome murders was all over even on Indian news channels and newspapers.
The apparent reason was that Xulhaz was planning a rainbow rally at the annual Bengali New Year parade in Dhaka. Bangladesh, a country where Atheist and freethinking writers have for some time been targeted for expressing views against Islam or Islamic fundamentalism, had witnessed its first high-profile homophobic act of terror. And an act of terror it definitely was against an already invisible and criminalised minority.
The apparent reason was that Xulhaz was planning a rainbow rally at the annual Bengali New Year parade in Dhaka. Bangladesh, a country where Atheist and freethinking writers have for some time been targeted for expressing views against Islam or Islamic fundamentalism, had witnessed its first high-profile homophobic act of terror. And an act of terror it definitely was against an already invisible and criminalised minority. The handful of queer activists who had dared to come out went back into hiding, and we have not seen any major LGBT initiative in the country since the killings.
Tragic as it was, Xulhaz’s murder was not an exception. The LGBT community has long been the target of Muslim extremists around the globe. Soon after the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996, they went after the city’s known homosexual men and executed them. Iran is known to routinely hang homosexuals, and when the so-called Islamic State took over large parts of Iraq and Syria, the world witnessed horrific images of gay men being thrown off roof-tops, and stoned to death.
All this begs the questions- what is it that makes LGBT people one of the favorite targets of Muslim extremists? Can LGBT people ever be safe (let alone free) in Muslim societies? And how much of an influence does the faith and its history have?
(Video garb showing ISIS militants throwing a gay man off a building)
To tackle the question of history first, many of us often wonder why is it that while the rest of the world is generally moving forward on gay rights, Muslim societies are moving backwards. In fact, even in relatively moderate Muslim countries like Indonesia, the call for criminalisation of homosexuality is getting stronger and shriller. But has it always been this way? Studying Muslim history suggests otherwise. Same-sex love thrived both openly and in secret during Muslim rule in India, among other places. Terry, an Englishman who visited India in the sixteenth century, wrote about Emperor Jahangir’s personal establishment where he kept ‘little boys’ for ‘wicked use’. Alauddin Khilji was in love with his slave Malik Kafur. Amir Khusro’s poetry had lightly disguised homoeroticism. And Dargah Quli Khan’s travel accounts indicate that homosexual men were well integrated into the culture of cities such as Delhi.
What then, has created this situation of extreme hostility towards LGBT people in Muslim countries today where members of the community live in constant terror of being discovered and ostracised, or worse: maimed or killed? Saleem Kidwai, co-editor of the classic ‘Same-sex Love in India’ believes that the hardening attitudes have as much to do with geo-politics as they have to do with history. “This has to be seen as a part of the larger move towards fundamentalism”, he says over an email interview. “Anti-LGBT sentiments go along with misogynistic and anti-democratic attitudes in general. As we have argued in our book, colonialism played a major role in this. A lot of these countries inherited the British anti-sodomy laws and attitudes. And those that didn’t, have had Western supported anti-democratic regimes. The Saudis and the other sheikhdoms in the middle-east are good examples of well-springs from which conservative attitudes towards sex and women have been spreading.”
Among the many what-ifs of the modern world, one of the most intriguing ones would be to question how the Muslim world, especially the middle-east would have shaped out with zero Western influence. Would the Arab world have been a thriving secular democracy?
That indeed is a thought to ponder upon. Among the many what-ifs of the modern world, one of the most intriguing ones would be to question how the Muslim world, especially the middle-east would have shaped out with zero Western influence. Would the Arab world have been a thriving secular democracy? Or without the support of American military power, would it have regressed into several ISIS-like fragments competing among one another? And ultimately, what effect would that have had on minorities, women and queer people in those territories? I am keener to believe in the former. After all, countries like Bangladesh and Indonesia – despite all their ongoing troubles with Islamism- provide a clearer picture of what Muslim countries without too much American interference would look like.
Which is also the question many in the West face, who aim to promote LGBT rights in countries of Asia and Africa. How much influence is too much influence? And where does one draw the line between influence and interference? Fabrice Houdart of United Nations’ Free and Equal campaign is convinced that homegrown movements are the ones that are ultimately successful. “In 2013, Russian activist Igor Yasin said in the midst of a call for the boycott of the Sochi Olympics by Western sympathizers that in the sixties and seventies the American LGBT community did not ask Brezhnev or Mao to lean on the US government on their behalf. What he meant is that greater respect for human rights of LGBT people in his country will be achieved through a homegrown grassroots movement. He also hinted that posturing by Western governments on LGBT issues can be harmful and that Western LGBT attention to and intervention in certain situations can be counterproductive.” But does it mean a complete hands-off approach? No, says Fabrice. “Stakeholders, such as global LGBT groups, diaspora, companies or foreign governments, can and must contribute to support these local movements by strengthening the capacity of nascent civil society organisations, using their voice and influence to call for respect of human rights of LGBT people.”
How much influence is too much influence? And where does one draw the line between influence and interference?
And where do gay Muslims fit into this whole debate? How do they balance their own spiritual needs with their desire to live life openly and freely?
And where do gay Muslims fit into this whole debate? How do they balance their own spiritual needs with their desire to live life openly and freely? Imam Daayiee Abdullah, America’s first openly gay imam recently said in an interview on America Tonight that he is firm in his belief that there has never been “one monolithic, isolated” formulation of Islam. “It’s not something that’s new. It’s just like reform and revival within Islam, about every 100, 150 years there have been these discussions and there have been people who have opposed the status quo on these issues,” he said. “So it’s not something that I’m just coming up with as a modern Islamic scholar, but something that has been in existence since time immortal.”
For some gay Muslims, it can also mean trying to “prove that it is possible to be a good Muslim and gay”- an endeavor that can often prove frustrating to themselves, and futile to others. This is what Parvez Sharma tried to do as part of his documentary ‘A Sinner in Mecca’. Notwithstanding the obvious sensationalism of the film which claims that being openly gay is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia (it is not- the act of homosexuality is punishable)- “Let’s hope we come out alive”, Parvez says at one point in his journey to Mecca- it definitely chronicles the inner struggles that many gay Muslims face when confronted with rampant homophobia within their own communities.On the other hand are Muslims who fail to see the point in engaging in a theological debate with the mullahs. Nuwas Manto, a Pakistani gay activist who blogs under a pseudonym writes, “In a country where raped women still await justice, where Ahmedis are targeted out and about and where every other person roams around the street as a guardian of Islamic faith ready to slit the throat of dissidents, it seems we’d have to work thrice as hard as India or US for gay equality. It would be much wiser if the US pushes Pakistan for a more secular constitution and to provide security to the warriors of humanity. The rest then would be the job of activists and communities themselves.”
So what lies ahead, and what is a reasonable way forward? Fabrice says that if you can trigger a conversation at home, even one in which homosexuality is compared to incest and bestiality, the battle is already half-won.
So what lies ahead, and what is a reasonable way forward? Fabrice says that if you can trigger a conversation at home, even one in which homosexuality is compared to incest and bestiality, the battle is already half-won. Saleem calls out Western democracies for their hypocrisy on this matter. “LGBT rights are a part of human rights which should enforced everywhere”, he says. “The Western democracies cannot be selective about this. The US created the Taliban which has morphed into other horrific versions. Was Islamic ideology to blame per se or its wilful manipulation for their geo political interests by the super powers?”
The need to prevent more Talibans to prop up against queer people cannot be emphasized enough. In the global nature of today’s fundamentalism and in the unimaginable violence it unleashes, even queer victims are spread across the globe. The world watched in horror as 49 blood soaked bodies of gay men were recovered from a gay nightclub in Orlando. The shooter- 29 year old Omar Mateen who reportedly “did not like gay or lesbian people”, had in the hours before the shooting posted a string of messages on Facebook vowing vengeance for American airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. Sadly, the victims of Orlando will not be last queer victims of those who look to the Islamic faith for inspiration. One can only wait and watch how the ongoing geopolitics plays out on one hand, and how local struggles to bring a semblance of humanity to the conversation around LGBT human rights finds voice even in the most hostile of environments.