Shortly after Sunday’s Orlando nightclub massacre, which left 49 people dead and many injured, the secretary general of the Arab League, Nabil Elaraby, issued a statement condemning the attack. Al-Azhar, the world’s leading Sunni institution of Islamic scholarship, also issued a statement to this effect, and emphasized that the unlawful killing of any human being is strictly forbidden in Islamic scripture. Both called for international cooperation to fight terrorism, and Al-Azhar expressed concerns for the incendiary use of the massacre to further malign Muslims living in the West. The Arab League and Al-Azhar were joined, with similar reprisals, by Afghanistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Turkey, among others.
The tragic event has produced a unique response from states where homosexuality is potentially (with the exception of Turkey) prosecutable and gays sometimes are actively persecuted. Some critics have condemned the statements as hypocritical, especially in light of Turkey’s brutalization of pride parade marchers last year, Egypt’s ongoing entrapment of men who have sex with men, and Kuwait’s sudden institution of Penal Code Article 198 in 2007, which resulted in widespread persecution of individuals labeled as “imitating the opposite sex.”
The unprecedented statements have been made mostly by nation-states (and an Islamic authoritative body) that still legislatively condemn homosexuality, sometimes to death. These statements, however, simultaneously define the victims of the Orlando massacre as people deserving of life. The international community would do well to sustain pressure on these countries to decriminalize gay and/or gender nonconforming behavior after this moment of seeming sobriety.
Egypt is currently the most daunting example of active persecution of gays. Its most famous example made headlines in May 2001 with the Cairo 52 case, where 52 men were arrested and tried for being on the Queen Boat, a gay nightclub moored on the Nile. This marked the beginning of a string of mass entrapments and arrests. Stories of police assault and torture in custody are common — falling within a broader context of torture practices that target other vulnerable groups, such as political dissidents — and where women are especially vulnerable to gruesome gender-based state violence.
More recently, in 2014, a televised police sting showed Egyptian police arresting 26 men in a Ramses bathhouse. The men, filmed shuffling out of the bathhouse naked, were subjected to intrusive anal exams to look for “habitual” gay behavior. Most were eventually acquitted. The journalist who hosted the televised sting, Mona al-Iraqi, was subsequently sued by the former defendants for slander and libel but was exonerated in court.
In April of this year, 11 men were sentenced to up to 12 years in prison for using social media to organize hookups. They were charged with “public lewdness,” a crime inherited from the British mandate and under which gays have come to be prosecuted because gay conduct is not listed specifically in the penal code.
There is no reliable data on how frequently the death penalty is implemented for homosexuality between consenting adults in Iran and Saudi Arabia. There have been no reports of enforcing the death penalty in Qatar. To warrant such a punishment often requires multiple “offenses” in the presence of witnesses to a very particular sex act.
In a 2012 United Nations report on LGBT discrimination, various international human rights bodies draw the evident linkage between the presence of penal codes that prohibit homosexuality and the erosion of the quality of life of those they target. It should be self-evident that laws criminalizing homosexuality expose gender and sexual minority people “to the risk of arrest, detention and, in some cases, torture and execution.” For this reason, the countries that issued statements condemning the Orlando massacre are primary contributors to the problem they purport to condemn, and international pressure needs to be escalated to have these laws repealed.
However, theoretical interventions in this field of study complicate the discursive productions of the international community and the emergent LGBT international rights framework. The language of the United Nations and its subsidiaries is said to be conceptually alienating to nation-states that do not share the value system of a predominantly Western-led international law and rights community. Concepts such as privacy, for example, and individual freedom, sexuality, sexual orientation or sexual identity may not be readily translatable, understandable, applicable or relevant in non-Western cultural contexts. Furthermore, labels used to designate gender and sexual minority groups, such as LGBT, may fail to account for cultural variations in gender and sexual practices across the globe, alienating the groups the movement purports to help.
This semantic disjunction is often theorized as cultural imperialism. International LGBT organizing, in this view, is seen as rhetorically Islamophobic and a way in which a hegemonic gay citizenship becomes viable at the expense of racial othering, often at the expense of Muslim bodies. The alternative view recognizes that grass-roots organizing in non-Western countries is capable of emerging organically and that there are homosexual and gender-variant equivalencies to those found in the West that have not been colonially imposed.
It would seem that the latter view is, at this moment in history, the more tenable one. This comes in light of Al-Azhar’s willingness to see the Orlando victims as human beings, rather than continuing to reduce gay people to punishable sex acts. The recognition of the humanity of the victims and the unlawfulness of their killing (as explicitly stated by the Sunni peak legislative body, Al-Azhar) is not merely political strategizing. But even if it were, it could not have been possible if Al-Azhar and its companions did not know how to speak the language of common humanity and to hit at a universal human desire to life, safety and the inviolable dignity of the person.
Samar Habib is a writer, researcher and scholar. She is the author of “Female Homosexuality in the Middle East” and the editor of “Islam and Homosexuality.” She lives in California.