LGBTQ communities face new crackdown in the Middle East | Middle East | News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW
Most people around him don’t know he identifies as gay, the 20-year-old Iraqi student told DW. But life in his relatively conservative southern city of Najaf is dangerous for him anyway.
“I once wore a pink shirt and got harassed, just because of the color,” said Haiden, whose full name cannot be released for his safety. “Sometimes people are harassed and even killed just because they don’t look like everyone else.”
And, he said, things are getting worse for LGBTQ communities in Iraq. “We are already exposed to all kinds of harassment and attacked on a daily basis,” he said. “And that’s even before this law criminalizing homosexuality was enacted.”
In July, the Iraqi government announced that it was preparing a law prohibiting homosexuality. Iraq is one of three Arab-majority countries in the Middle East that does not explicitly criminalize same-sex relations. The others are Jordan and Bahrain.
If the law is passed, it will bring Iraq in line with the rest of the region. Most other countries in the Middle East prohibit same-sex intimacy more directly, punishing it with fines, jail and, in Saudi Arabia, the death penalty.
“The new law will hold homosexuals to account and impose the harshest penalties on them,” Aref al-Hamami, an MP who sits on the parliamentary legal committee, told DW.
The law has yet to be passed, but al-Hamami said he believed it would pass, despite criticism from domestic and international human rights organizations.
“We are a Muslim country,” he said. “We have customs and traditions – and Islam forbids these actions.”
Legacy of colonialism
This argument – that same-sex relationships are not part of Middle Eastern culture – is often used by those who oppose it. But it is also false.
Just like the Bible, the Koran repeatedly mentions homosexuality in a disapproving way. But, despite religious condemnation, same-sex relationships featured regularly in poetry and art throughout the Islamic world.
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In Iraq, for example, the eighth-century poet Abu Nawas is celebrated with a statue in central Baghdad. Abu Nawas was an infamous libertine, who wrote hymns about such things as the delights of the local public baths, or hammam, where he could observe handsome naked men – at least “until the towel bearers came in and spoiled pleasure”.
Some scholars argue that, for centuries, Arab culture was more permissive about same-sex relationships than European culture.
“Pre-modern Arab-Islamic thought…had no term for the concept of homosexuality as it is understood today,” wrote Sultan Alamer, visiting scholar at the University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. from Harvard, in an essay published in New Lines magazine in June. .
This changed at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. The Victorian era popularized the idea that sexual pleasure was a sin or a shame, and in 1885 the British introduced some of the first laws to criminalize sex between men.
The Arabs began to adopt more and more conservative European attitudes. Alamer describes how an Arab visitor to Paris in the early 19th century praised the French for “not being inclined to like young men and praise them for poetry”.
Previously acceptable ideas about homosexual desire and poems about male beauty would come to be seen as uncivilized.
Some of the earliest laws against homosexuality in the Middle East were actually imported because European legal systems were also used in European colonies.
According to UK legal advocacy organization the Human Dignity Trust, most modern laws against homosexuality in the Arab world are based on religion. However, even today, some of them still have their roots in historic British law. This is the case of Sudan and Egypt – the former colonies simply retained these old rules when they became independent.
Same-sex relationships have become a “cultural battleground”, writes Katerina Dalacoura, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, in an article published in The Quarterly Third World.
“The identification of heterosexuality with cultural authenticity in Middle Eastern societies is a distortion of the historical record,” she argued.
According to Dalacoura, authoritarian governments and religious fundamentalists have stoked public sentiment against LGBTQ communities to secure their power. “Their authority is reinforced by the call to protect an ‘authentic’ culture which, if it ever existed, was long since annihilated,” she wrote.
Things seem to be getting worse for LGBTQ communities in many Middle Eastern countries. “Right now the whole region seems to be experiencing a plethora of homophobia and transphobia,” said Andrew Delatolla, a lecturer in Middle Eastern studies at the University of Leeds in the UK, whose research focuses on the race, gender and sexuality.
This includes the Saudi government’s campaign to remove rainbow-colored toys from shelves, a state crackdown and threats from a militant Christian group directed against LGBTQ communities in Lebanon, and a campaign recently launched hashtag in Egypt that uses “fetrah”, the Arabic word for “instinct”, to emphasize that there can only be two genders.
“It’s not something I’ve seen emerge in this way before, and I think part of the reason for that is that there have been so many advancements in the way society has thought about sexuality in general, and homosexuality in particular,” says Delatolla. “For many socially conservative individuals, this poses a threat to the moral values upon which they rely to maneuver in society and the state.”
Writing in New Lines magazine, Alamer concluded that authoritarian Arab rulers often substituted “moral authority” for “democratic legitimacy”.
“For the past five decades, this moral authority has been exercised by regulating religion and subjugating Arab women,” he wrote. “If you are an Arab dictator and you want moral legitimacy, but you don’t want to derive it from Islam or gender, what is the most practical source that matches your new secular and conservative agenda? One can say the answer is to embrace anti-homosexuality and, to a lesser extent, anti-atheism discourse.”
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This also appears to be behind what is happening in Iraq, activists say. “Politicians who have failed to manage the affairs of the state are distracting people with laws that have a big impact on the street,” said Sam, a consultant who works with IraQueer, who describes himself as the first national LGBTQ organization of Iraq.
There are other recent examples of similar laws in Iraq, on pornography and paternal custody, as well as against normalizing relations with Israel, said Sam, who asked that his full name not be used.
“Iraq lives in the shadow of a political class that has failed to form a government and is trying to cover up its own corruption,” Sam said. these laws preserve Islamic principles.”
Azhar Al-Rubaie contributed reporting from Iraq.