KABUL — If there is anywhere in Afghanistan where one might look for signs that the country is becoming more accepting of gay men and lesbians, the fine arts department at Kabul University would seem like a good place to start.
Paintings and sculptures line the hallways, and Kabul’s creative class uses Internet-connected smartphones to keep up with homework — and the future that awaits some of them beyond Afghanistan’s borders.
But when asked about his views on homosexuality, cinema student Mirwais Osmani cringed while saying there are “not any gays” in Afghanistan.
“It’s 100 percent against Islam,” said Osmani, 21, who grew up in Kabul, a city where younger residents now watch Hollywood movies, listen to rap music and spend hours surfing YouTube. “Afghans have no tolerance toward the gay people.”
Indeed, despite being heavily subsidized by U.S. taxpayers, Afghanistan remains one of the world’s most hostile countries for gay men and lesbians, according to human rights groups. Even in areas under the control of the Afghan government, gay sex remains a crime, and thousands of men are currently imprisoned for sodomy, according to Afghanistan’s Supreme Court.
In recent days, the taboo nature of homosexuality within Afghanistan, and the Islamic faith, has been thrust into the U.S. political debate after Omar Mateen killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Florida.
Mateen, who was killed by police after his rampage at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, was the son of Afghan immigrants to the United States.
The attacker’s father, Seddique Mateen, has said his son might have been homophobic and was angered after he recently saw two men kissing in Miami. But according to media reports, Omar Mateen was seen visiting gay bars and using gay dating apps.
In a speech Monday, GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump argued that America’s gay community needs to be wary of Muslim immigrants because they may bring anti-gay beliefs into the United States. Similar concerns are creeping into the immigration debate in Europe.
In many Islamic countries, as in the rest of the world, younger residents in urbanized areas are gradually showing more acceptance toward homosexuality.
Afghanistan, however, will probably remain decades behind that trend, according to analysts.
Although many Afghans said they are repulsed by Omar Mateen’s actions, The Washington Post didn’t have to look far to find sympathy for him.
“If he entered a gay club, he should have killed 2,000 of them,” Shakir Wahid, 25, said as he sat on a sidewalk in Kabul’s central Shar-E-Now neighborhood.
Mateen “has done the right thing,” added Kochai Sangar, a 19-year-old tailor.
“It’s a kind of jihad. How is it possible for men to be with men?”
But history offers plenty of evidence to suggest that physical attraction among members of the same sex does exist in Afghanistan, including the country’s struggle to combat rampant sexual abuse of minors.
Yet in a country where 99 percent of Afghans practice Islam, both religion and culture are causing Afghans to disavow the word “gay,” said Abdul Waheed Wafa, executive director of the Afghanistan Center, which studies local culture.
“As long as religion rules, this will not change,” said Wafa, adding that it took “200 years of secularism” for the U.S. Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage last year.
Wafa noted that the only Afghan known to have come out as gay while living here, Nemat Sadat, was forced to flee the country in 2013 because of death threats.
In an interview Monday with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Sadat called on the international community to pressure Afghan President Ashraf Ghani into “decriminalizing hate” in Afghanistan, where the criminal code calls for “long imprisonment” for same-sex relationships.
The U.S. State Department declined to comment, citing safety concerns, but said it is “committed to supporting LGBTI rights and integrating LGBTI programming into its global development portfolio.”
Those steps, however, would probably be met with considerable resistance here in Afghanistan.
“Thank God, we are Muslims and a Muslim nation and do not accept gay people,” Nasir Sulimanzada said while sitting in a Kabul barbershop with five friends, who shouted “No, no, no” when asked if Afghanistan has any gay residents.
There are some Afghans — especially those who travel frequently or go abroad for education — who say they see some signs the homophobia is starting to wane, at least in Kabul.
“Since 2001, more people understand about privacy,” said Hasseeb Aria, 24, who works as a flight attendant for Afghanistan’s Safi Airlines. “But of course, education is needed first, because if people do not understand their rights, they won’t understand privacy.”
“Most Afghans, once they go out of this country, they will get knowledge and know about this,” added Jawad Ahmad Khushal, 27, also a flight attendant.
At Kabul University, groups of young men sprawl on campus grounds under towering pine trees — their heads and feet resting on each other. Reaction to homosexuality, however, was often visceral. “Muslims have only two options: Either be gay or a Muslim, because you can’t be both,” said Enayatullah Yaser, an agriculture student.
He and other students justified their opposition to homosexuality by expressing confusion over how same-sex marriages in the United States involve “equal power,” suggesting their belief that one partner in a marriage has to be dominant. That same reasoning causes Afghan men who have sex with men to disavow their sexuality by arguing they were dominant in the relationship, said Kevin Schumacher, Middle East and North Africa program coordinator for OutRight Action International, a global advocacy group.
Before there can be gay rights in Afghanistan, he added, there needs to be “talk about straight rights,” including women forced into arranged and abusive marriages.
It won’t be easy.
Asked whether he thinks someone can be born gay, Abdullah Danish, an assistant physics professor from southern Afghanistan, responded, “There might be people who are natural gays.
“But thank God, we have Islam to tell us what is right and what is wrong,” he added.
Mohammad Sharif and Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this report.