Fifty years ago, Muslims, Christians and Jews generally agreed that homosexuality was evil. While one could not say that Judaism and Christianity as a whole have come to terms with it, major bodies of opinion in these faiths have since moved forward and adopted a more tolerant approach to homosexuality.
This is not the case in contemporary Islam, where, broadly speaking, there is no real debate on issues of sexuality or rather Middle Eastern homosexuality.
Far from the essentialist discourse, often tinged with racism, that seeks to explain this difference away by theories on the ‘true nature’ of Islam, or by ‘clash-of-civilizations’ talk, ‘Unspeakable Love’ locates it as a political problem, and reminds us that there is not ‘one’ Islam, but many.
Let’s also remember the considerable distance that exists between the founding scriptures of any religion, the laws it derives from them, and the individual religious practices of its believers. Besides, a great variety of social, cultural and historical factors coexist within the Muslim world, from Morocco to Indonesia.
This variety produces multiple ways to conceive and to live Islam. In matters of sexuality, the Middle East has not always been as intolerant as it appears now. Indeed the idea of a licentious, depraved ‘West’ held by many Arabs today mirrors the view that many Europeans had of the Middle East in the nineteenth century and earlier.
The present intensification of puritan, rigorist tendencies in the Islamic and Arab world is a product of the particular dynamic that colours the cultural relations between the East and the West, and more particularly, a reaction against what is sometimes perceived as contemporary imperialism.
In other words, the institutionalized homophobia that has developed in the Muslim world is not a religious or a cultural issue, but is first and foremost a political problem of which culture and religion are contingent factors.
The Case of Queen Boat – Middle Eastern Homosexuality
An instance of the degree to which homosexuality has become an issue of contention in the Middle East was the ‘Queen Boat’ case, a cause célèbre in Egypt in the early part of the 2000s. In May 2001 the Egyptian authorities raided the gay nightclub Queen Boat in Cairo and arrested 52 individuals.
The case caused a furore inside but also outside Egypt and led to its international condemnation for the persecution of homosexuals. It was also discussed in the context of the UN Human Rights Council 2011 Report on homosexuality mentioned in the introduction.
Homosexuality is not actually an offense on the Egyptian statute books, so those arrested on Queen Boat were charged with and convicted on the grounds of ‘debauchery’ or fujur, as well as for ‘contempt for religion’.
(Though amended in 1961, the law on fujur was initially introduced by Egyptian nationalists in 1951 as part of the anti-colonial struggle against British ‘immorality’. It specifically targeted state-licensed brothels, which serviced the British military.)
In the intense debate on the Queen Boat case in Egypt, homosexuality was constructed as a threat to the country’s culture, as articulated in the chief prosecutor’s statement that ‘Egypt has not and will not be a den for the corruption of manhood, and homosexual groups will not establish themselves here’.
“Gay’ dress was described as ‘un-Egyptian’ and homosexuality was deemed to be part of ‘the globalization of perversion’, a Western-driven process.
The outcry from international rights groups, the European Parliament and Western governments confirmed that the West was intervening in defense of homosexuality, enabling government officials to depict the prosecutions as a way of protecting Egyptian cultural values from Western decadence.
Caught in the middle, Egyptian human rights movements became divided over the issue and ultimately refused to stand up for the rights of the homosexuals.
The negative attitudes towards homosexuality held by the bulk of Middle Eastern societies buttress and, in turn, are buttressed by authoritarian governments, conservative religious leaders, traditionalist patriarchs and, not least, matriarchs. Their authority is shored up by the call to protect an ‘authentic’ culture which, if it ever existed, has long ago been wiped out.
At the current juncture of Middle Eastern history, Islamists (and in particular the fundamentalists among them), both in government and in opposition, steer their fellow citizens in the direction of collective oblivion and willful ignorance when it comes to the subject of homosexuality.
The vilification of homosexuals in the Middle East epitomizes the distortions and subjugations brought about by the search for an elusive ‘authentic’ cultural self.