The Middle East Channel

The ongoing battle for gay rights in the Arab world

When the European parliament issued a critical report on Egypt's human rights record in 2008, the Mubarak regime responded with nationalistic fury. The Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, sided with Europe. "Respect of human rights is now a concern for all peoples," its parliamentary spokesman, Hussein Ibrahim, declared at the time.

That Islamist movements, or at least the more mainstream ones, should take an interest in human rights is not especially surprising. They have, after all, experienced repression at first hand and had years to reflect upon it. There are some obvious limits, though. While acknowledging universal rights up to a point, they still hanker after cultural relativism. Ibrahim for his part added an important rider, that "each country has its own particulars" -- and made very clear that in Egypt's case the Brotherhood excludes gay rights.

It's a similar story in Tunisia now where the moderately Islamist Ennahda party dominates the post-revolution government. Samir Dilou, the country's first human rights minister (and a member of Ennahda) caused an outcry from activists last month by saying on television that sexual orientation is not a human right and described homosexuality as a perversion requiring medical treatment. Amnesty International quickly sought to disabuse him, pointing out in a letter that "homosexuality stopped being seen as an illness or a "perversion" by world medical organizations and associations decades ago."

Dilou's remarks, though, confused and homophobic as they might seem, also suggest that Islamists -- some of them at least -- are beginning to shift their ground. He didn't, for example, invoke religious scripture to denounce homosexuality as one of the most heinous sins known to man or suggest that gay people should be put to death, as many Islamic scholars have previously done. "We are not inciting anybody against homosexuals," his press secretary said later, but "Tunisia's distinctiveness as an Arab-Muslim society must be respected."

Unintentionally, perhaps, Dilou's remarks also raised a tricky question for Tunisia's "distinctive" society. If homosexuality is now to be regarded as an illness rather than a sin, how can they justify continuing to criminalize it, with punishments of up to three years in jail for offenders?

The "sickness versus sin" debate is a familiar if futile one, but sometimes a necessary step in adjusting to reality -- an attempt to find some middle ground between moralistic rejection of homosexuality and acceptance. To those who can't accept gay people the way they are, the idea of "curing" them can seem more enlightened than punishing them, and some societies have hovered for a time between the two. Britain in the 1950s, for instance, provided "treatment" for gay men (sometimes even in the form of chemical castration) as an accompaniment, or sometimes an alternative, to prison.

Arab societies today are in a similar position. Discovering a gay son or daughter in their midst, some families react punitively and throw them out of the house. Others send them to psychiatrists. Which they choose is partly a matter of class and partly a matter of how "traditional" or "modern" the family consider themselves to be.

Same-sex acts are illegal in most Arab countries, and even in those where they are not other laws can be used -- such as the law against "habitual debauchery" in Egypt. With a few exceptions, though, the authorities do not actively seek out people to prosecute. The cases that come to court often do so by accident or for unrelated reasons. This is mainly a result of denial: large numbers of prosecutions are to be avoided since that would cast doubt on the common official line that "we don't have gay people here."

To continue denying that gay Arabs exist, though, is increasingly difficult. Thanks to the internet, young Arabs who experience same-sex attractions can now find information that helps to explain their feelings and gives them a sense of identity, as well as providing the means to contact others of a similar disposition. Gay activism in Arab countries is still on a relatively small scale, but it is growing. The Lebanese LGBT organization, Helem, has been functioning openly in Beirut for almost 10 years now and has won some recognition from the government for its work on sexual health. There are numerous gay Arab blogs and websites, and the latest addition in Tunisia is a magazine called "Gayday".

Inevitably, this draws a response from those who are fearful of change -- sometimes a violent one. In post-Saddam Iraq, men suspected of being gay, or simply not "masculine" enough, have been killed by vigilante squads and the number probably runs into the hundreds. The authorities turn a blind eye while newspapers provide incitement with articles condemning "fashionable" (i.e. western) hairstyles and clothes. Many Arabs blame the West for spreading homosexuality and other forms of "immorality" but also look to the West for solutions. A series of articles at IslamOnline (an Egyptian-based website supervised from Qatar by the famous cleric, Youssef al-Qaradawi) provided what was claimed to be a scientific look at homosexuality, based on the idea that sexual orientation is a choice which can also be "corrected". Its main source for this was not Islamic teaching but the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), a fringe psychiatric organization in the United States which promotes "sexual reorientation therapy."

Such arguments may offer a rationale for not punishing homosexuality but they cannot offer a genuine way forward. The arguments themselves are already thoroughly discredited and adopting them is nothing more than an avoidance mechanism, postponing the day when fundamental questions will have to be addressed.

The core of the Arab Spring is a revolt against authoritarian rule, but to bring real change the struggle cannot be limited to merely overthrowing regimes; it also has to tackle authoritarianism in society more widely. Doing that is more about changing attitudes and ways of thinking than politics: even as dictators fall, the Mubaraks of the mind are yet to be confronted. Attitudes towards gay rights are therefore an important measure of how far, or not, a society has moved from authoritarianism. Gay rights in the Middle East are not simply about gay people; they are intimately bound up with questions of personal liberty, the proper role of governments, and the influence of religion. Demands for gay rights add to the broader pressure for change and, conversely, progress in these other areas can ease the path towards gay rights.

Criminalization of homosexuality, for example, reflects abhorrence of the act but also a philosophy of government that seeks to regulate people's behavior in matters that ought to be no concern of the state. This applies at many levels, not just sex -- from the imposition of dress codes in some countries to the notion that publishing a newspaper or establishing an NGO requires permission from the government.

As far as religious attitudes to homosexuality are concerned, the debates in Islam are very similar to those in Christianity and largely boil down to a question of how believers interpret the scripture. So far, Muslims have generally been more resistant than Christians to admitting the possibility of new scriptural interpretations. One reason is that the "doors of ijtihad" (independent interpretation rather than dogmatic acceptance of established views) have long been considered closed. Another is insistence on ahistorical readings of the Qur'an -- the idea that its injunctions are valid for all times and all places and cannot be modified in the light of changing times and circumstances.

To successfully make an Islamic case for gay rights, those barriers have to be broken. Again, though, the key point is not homosexuality itself but the underlying principle: a more open and questioning approach to religious teaching unblocks the road to many other things.

While the calls for freedom heard during the first year of the Arab Spring have been mainly directed against unaccountable governments -- a demand, in a sense, for collective liberty -- there is also an undercurrent seeking liberty at a more personal level. This is a fundamental issue but one that Arab societies are reluctant to recognize because of the value placed on pretensions of unity (national, cultural, and religious) and conformity with social norms.

The rights of minorities are rarely considered seriously and, if they are discussed in public at all, it's usually to emphasize how harmoniously everyone is getting along. When conflicts break out -- as between Christians and Muslims in Egypt -- they are quickly hushed up rather than being examined and addressed. At the root of this is an aversion to fitna or social strife -- a feeling that difference is a problem and a source of embarrassment. The idea that diversity has some intrinsic value, and that it can enrich a society if handled properly, has not yet taken hold. Overcoming that is one of the main challenges for ethnic and religious minorities, along with those who are outsiders for sexual or other reasons.

Another huge challenge for the future is entrenched and continued patriarchy. Arab leaders personify it, but it is imbued throughout society and built on rigidly-defined gender roles in which traditional concepts of "manliness" are highly prized. Intentionally or not, gay people undermine that simply by asserting their presence -- as do women.

In the meantime, of course, Arabs are preoccupied with more broadly rendered and elemental struggles in Syria and elsewhere. But in this the question of gay rights cannot be set aside indefinitely. At some point it will have to be recognized as a part of the process of change, and inseparable from it.

Brian Whitaker is the author of Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East (Saqi Books and University of California Press).

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The Middle East Channel

Lessons from the Saudi “Spring”

On March 11, 2011, Saudi Arabian activists called for a "Day of Rage" wishing to bring the rising tide of protest to the kingdom. Only one person showed up. But underneath the quiet surface, some things have changed in Saudi Arabia and dissent is brewing. One significant change is that activists can, sometimes successfully, challenge arbitrary detention in administrative court. The second change is that in order to avoid such challenges, the security services now level formal charges against detained dissidents and bring them to trial for their activism. In a country without written criminal law, forcing the government to submit to judicial process gives dissident grievances a legitimate platform.

The official Saudi response to the attempted protests showed that the government would not cede an inch of political space to popular calls for reform, choosing instead in February and March 2011 to placate Saudi citizens by doling out an estimated $135 billion in subsidies. The ruling Saud family, whose senior members occupy not only the throne but also key ministries and all provincial governorships, clamped down early on dissent. But for all government efforts to project an air of normality and suppress protests, popular displays of discontent continue.

The legal treatment of protesters reveals that the courts remain pliant to political will despite King Abdullah's judicial reform project -- but subjecting dissidents to a judicial process is a significant gain for the latter who have a platform to defend their rights to peaceful expression, assembly, and association.  In February 2011, security forces arrested the first protesters, a group of people who intended to establish the country's first political party, and other intellectuals who advocated for political reform in a series of petitions issued that month. In March, ahead of the "Day of Rage" that had been announced on Facebook, the interior ministry and the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, the highest religious body tasked with interpreting Islamic law, issued a ban on all protests. Over the following months, more and more protesters in the heavily Shiite Eastern Province who defied the ban landed in jail. In March, and again in December, peaceful protesters in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, and Qasim, a northern province, were also jailed. In May and June, authorities arrested women who drove automobiles to protest the kingdom's informal prohibition on women getting behind the wheel.

Arresting dissidents is not new in Saudi Arabia. In the past, Saudi Arabia's feared secret police, the mabahith, have locked up thousands of suspected militants as well as individual peaceful reform activists. In some cases, they pretty much threw away the key. In others, the detainees have been released after the authorities thought they had served sufficient time -- conditional on repentance and a promise not to repeat the supposedly offensive activities. There was no judicial process.

What is new is that activists arrested in 2011 either for peaceful protest or written expression of dissent now are formally charged and sometimes tried in court. This is a small victory resulting from increased pressure from protesters and activists, as well as judicial reforms begun by King Abdullah in 2007. Abdullah ordered specialization of Sharia courts dividing them into criminal, civil, family, commercial, labor, and traffic courts, and added appeals courts. He also ordered the codification of criminal law -- however with no tangible progress to date -- and poured millions of Saudi Riyals into increasing and training judicial officials.

Ending arbitrary detention was the central demand of initial, small street protests in the Eastern Province and in Riyadh in 2011, and had been a longstanding concern of isolated activists. The former judge, and lawyer, Sulaiman al-Rashudi in 2006 and 2007 collected powers of attorney for detainees intending to sue the mabahith before the Board of Grievances, an administrative court, over arbitrary detentions -- until he was arrested in February 2007.

That year, King Abdullah declared judicial reform, with new and more streamlined courts and administration, a central pillar of his reforms. In 2009, the new Specialized Criminal Court began trials for hundreds of long-term detainees accused of militancy. In 2007, the mabahith could still arrest lawyers they considered a threat, or ignore verdicts by the grievances court, but the numbers and the organization of petitioners have grown. Since mid-February, the Saudi Association for Civil and Political Rights (ACPRA) has filed over two-dozen petitions with the grievances court. In previous decisions, the court has sided with the petitioners, for example, ordering the release last June of Thamir al-Khadhr, a human rights activist and student detained since March 2010 without charge.

Pressure through court cases and the king's judicial reforms have led the mabahith to initiate a semblance of legal process. Most activists arrested in 2011 have faced some formal charges and trials. This positive development has neither prevented arrests, nor precluded convictions, but it has starkly set out the judicial interpretation of relations between ruler and ruled, and defined what is considered a crime in Saudi Arabia given the lack of a written criminal law.

Here are some acts that the court has suggested are criminal:

  • Muhammad al-Bajadi, arrested in March 2011, is being tried for being a member of ACPRA, a peaceful, but unlicensed, rights organization.
  • Abd al-Aziz al-Wuhaibi, arrested in February 2011, was convicted in November and sentenced to prison for trying to found a peaceful political party.
  • Sad al-Rashud and others were convicted in January 2012 and sentenced to prison for taking part in a peaceful protest in December 2011.
  • Nadhir Al Majid, arrested in April 2011, is charged with providing information to an international journalist.
  • Mubarak bin Zuair, arrested in March 2011, was charged in December 2011 with "disobeying religious scholars," and "encumbering the affairs of the ruler" for petitioning the interior ministry to release his detained father.
  • Shaima Jastainah, a woman driver, was convicted in September for violating public order and sentenced to public lashing.

These cases are seminal in defining, in law, seemingly absolute powers of the ruler and denying basic rights of assembly, association, and expression to citizens. They underline that the courts remain pliant tools of government repression. But the cases have also given fodder to what by 2012 has become a large number of engaged citizens who use Twitter and other online expression to ridicule these verdicts, protest new arrests and trials, and demand their international human rights. The government has apparently taken note of this public opinion and released Khadhr, Rashud, bin Zuair, and others.

The House of Saud remains the absolute rulers, but the Saudi "Spring" has left its mark. Saudi absolutism has become less arbitrary and more defined, and thus open to challenge, in the courts and in public opinion. The government has to publicly defend its actions, and increasingly, members of the public are doubting its reasoning that portrays peaceful, often nationalistic and religious-based reform activism as dangerous subversion.

Christoph Wilcke is a senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch who has long tracked developments in Saudi Arabia.

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