Arab homophobia and Western indifference


One of the more spiteful terms to have emerged from the global campaign against the State of Israel is “pinkwashing” — a catchphrase insinuating that Israel cynically uses its LGBT+ community to polish its human-rights reputation, so as to deflect attention from the alleged “apartheid” imposed on the Palestinians under Israeli rule.

Malicious formulations like these are vulnerable to challenge because they can cut both ways. One can equally say that the “pinkwashing” charge is a devious ploy to divert attention from a societal stain across the Muslim world — the persecution of gay men — to one of the several national conflicts across the region. After all, that would be in keeping with the region’s traditional approach to homosexuality. In a 2016 survey of gay rights in Muslim countries, The Guardian’s Middle East editor, Brian Whitaker, explained that the reason for the “comparatively small number of prosecutions is the official fiction that gay people don’t exist to any great extent in Muslim countries; homosexuality is regarded primarily as a western phenomenon and large numbers of arrests would call that into question.”

But on those occasions when homosexuality is thought about or discussed in this part of the world, the predominant emotions it evokes are hatred and disgust. A poll conducted for the BBC by the Arab Barometer research organization last week graphically demonstrated that in the eyes of the vast majority of Arabs, 93 percent of whom profess Islam, to be homosexual is to be less than human.

The Arab population with the lowest tolerance for homosexuality is the Palestinians, just 5 percent of whom believe that being gay is “acceptable.” In Jordan, that number is 7 percent, in Sudan 17 percent, and in Algeria, a comparatively open-minded 26 percent. In Lebanon — not so long ago constructed in the Western mind as a libertine playground of smoky nightclubs, seductive women and heady cocktails — the tolerance level for homosexuality is a paltry 6 percent.

But when these same 25,000-odd respondents were asked for their views on “honor killings” — a nomenclature that scarcely does justice to what it means, which is the repugnant practice of male relatives executing women and girls for supposedly “shaming” their families — the answers were much more positive. The answers were similarly emphatic when the respondents were asked for their views on Israel, which most Arabs still perceive as a threat to their very existence (even those living thousands of miles to the west in Morocco and Libya).

The true value of the BBC poll lies not in its confirmation of the deep-seated hatred of homosexuals in the Arab world, but in its demonstration of the company that Arab homophobia keeps. Like hatred of Jews, hatred of gay people rarely exists in a vacuum; rather, it is part of a wider network of bigotries (in which, most of the time, “the Jews” play the most devilish role of all). Critically, these prejudices are sanctioned by the law, so that gay men are driven underground in Muslim countries — Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Nigeria, Sudan and Somalia among them — where being outed means facing the ultimate sentence of death by stoning.

The fact that these homophobic views coexist with anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and violent misogyny shows that a kind of reverse intersectionality prevails in the Arab world. It isn’t an accident that hatred of Israel goes hand in hand with hatred of homosexuals and justification of female murder (25 percent of Moroccans, 21 percent of Jordanians and 8 percent of Palestinians think this practice is “acceptable”). They go together because they are products of the prevailing political and religious environment. The same passions that animate opposition to the existence of Israel as a colonial interloper underlie the conviction that homosexuality is a distinctive sin of the West. It is, you might say, a strange mixture of pre-modern views about human freedom with post-modern views about the ills of Western imperialism.

In a perverse way, this outlook best describes the present situation. If you were going to put Israel on a chart of countries that seriously address the concerns of the LGBT+ community — on marriage, on adoption, on sexual education and health, on hate crimes — alongside it would be places like Canada or Australia, not Egypt or Iraq. Given Israel’s geographical location, in this sense it is indeed an alien outpost.

Rather than raising questions about Israel’s legitimacy, this observation should trigger a much different discussion about the state of civilization in the Arab and wider Muslim worlds. The renowned reluctance — more so on the American left than on the left in Europe — to engage in this discussion has left the field open to the right-wing populists who are now held up as emblematic of the rotten state of politics.

If there is to be peace in the Middle East, it cannot involve only a “Palestinian state” (per the Palestinian Authority) or “prosperity” (per Jared Kushner); it also requires a transformation of social values. In 1979 — 40 years ago, that is — an Iranian feminist with the pseudonym “Atoussa H.” published a devastating critique of the Western left’s appeasement of the social conservatism that accompanied the Islamist revolution in Iran. “The Western liberal Left needs to know that Islamic law can become a dead weight on societies hungering for change,” she wrote in the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur. “The Left should not let itself be seduced by a cure that is perhaps worse than the disease.”

Recent history shows that the Western left was seduced. And nothing that Atoussa H. noted at that time has really changed.