Gays, Islamists and The Arab Spring: What Would A Revolutionary Do?

Maya Mikdashi Jun 13, 2011

Mix and Match Flag. PHOTO: unknown archiveThis past May, the blogger behind the “Gay Girl in Damascus” site responded to an alarmist front-page article by CNN International on the future of LGBT rights in the wake of the Arab Spring. The crux of the blogger’s response centered on the ways in which gay rights rhetoric is being used to undermine the revolutions sweeping the region and with them, the first tangible possibilities of democracy in states that have suffered under decades of brutal authoritarian rule. In the past few days, news has spread like wildfire that Amina Arraf, the blogger mentioned at the beginning of this article, is in fact a fabrication. Arraf, a self-described out Syrian-American Muslim lesbian living in Damascus, rose to meteoric stardom in the West after she posted an incredulous story entitled “May Father the Hero”, in which she claimed that an eloquent and firm speech delivered by her father shamed the Syrian secret police into not arresting her. The post got little circulation in the Arab world, with many immediately suspecting that the story was contrived. Meanwhile, Amina was hailed by none other than the Huffington Post as a “heroine of the Syrian revolution”. The combination of her sexual identity, her good looks, her impeccable English, her “moderate” muslimness, and her fantastical (and often sexual) autobiographical posts proved too potent a mix. Amina was a “honeytrap for Western liberals”, as one twitterer put it. Something palatable that they could identify with, the perfect half-white poster child of a brown revolution. While her narratives about her life as a gay woman in Syria and about being a gay Muslim captured the imagination of the west, it was her more overtly political polemics that attracted the attention of readers in the Arab world (and particularly the progressive queers among them), posts like Thanks, but No Thanks Mr. Obama and Pinkwashing Assad. One can come to many conclusions about what the unraveling Amina story actually means, but for our purposes what it demonstrates is the growing fracture between the very real, lived concerns of people living in the region and the selective, sensationalist focus of the Western media on issues in which they can see themselves reflected in, one of which is the lives of “gay Arabs” and “gay Muslims.” After worrying about “stability” in the Arab world and attempts at characterizing the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt as Islamist-inspired, Western media has turned to questioning the fate of Arab gays under would-be Arab democracies. Implicit in this question is the idea that Arab queers have fared better under Arab authoritarianism and that, given a choice, Arab queers would prefer to be under a regime that oppresses them politically but “allows” for a minimum of sexual freedom rather than be under a government that grants them political rights and might be more socially conservative.

The “gay issue” is becoming an increasingly hot topic in Western media coverage of the Arab world. In fact, beginning with the spate of gay killings in US occupied Iraq, the status of non-normative sexualities has perhaps been enfolded within a discourse that highlights the plight of “women” in Arab/Muslim countries, and the ideological, material, and military mobilization that such a discourse licenses. The already mentioned CNN article is one of several devoted to the issue of what will happen to “the gays” after the revolutions, in addition to spates of comments on many other pieces analyzing what the revolutions may mean. A critical reader might ask what lies behind this interest in gays? Where did it come from and what kinds of discourses and practices is it contributing to? What assumptions does this conversation make as to international practices of sexuality and politics, and what silences about other forms of oppression is this anxiety over the status of gay Arabs in Arab democracies implicated in?

When commentators, politicians, and journalists pose questions as to the potentially dangerous aspect of regime change in the Arab world, they are pointing to the possibility that Islamist governments may be formed in Tunisia, Egypt, or Syria. American and European fears of Islamists are certainly not because they represent a threat to personal freedoms (just look at the record of personal freedoms in Saudi Arabia, America’s strongest Arab ally) but because Western powers are afraid of what an Islamist-inspired foreign policy might look like. Simply put, the fear is that Islamist governments may realign themselves against the US/Israel camp, although, looking again to Saudi Arabia, there is little evidence to suggest that Islamism is inherently at odds with the foreign policy objectives of the United States and of Israel. In this way, gay Arabs are only the latest fodder used to fan the flames of Islamophobia in political, media, and public discourse. The idea is that Islamist governments are inherently intolerant of non-normative sexual behavior, and that that intolerance is unacceptable to the international community today. This statement, in turn, rests upon several assumptions: 1) Secular authoritarian regimes have been the protectors of women and gays in the Arab world, and 2) The international community, via the discourse of human rights, can cherry pick injustices and politicize them within a liberal discourse of tolerance. Under the twinned discourses of “tolerance” and “Islamophobia”, a state’s treatment of its gays and its women is used as a marker for “backwardness” or “civilization”. As Wendy Brown reminds us, the use of human rights abuses to justify the War on Terror speaks this violent logic; that those who are intolerant do not deserve to be tolerated [by those who both set the standard and are tasked with upholding it, when it suits them]. Homophobia within Palestine, for example, which is bizarrely presented as unique and exceptional, becomes a justification for why Palestinians are less deserving of justice, equality and a state than the liberal, tolerant and democratic Israelis.It is significant that populations such as gays, women, and Christians are being harnessed to promote fear of what will emerge post Assad, for example. In part, we should not be surprised; if the pinkwashing campaign has taught us anything, it is that Israel, by promoting itself as the protector of gay Palestinians, successfully cleaves human rights from political engagement and uses the ideological capital of “tolerance” to promote itself as a protector of freedom in a sea of intolerant, backwards, and dangerous Arabs/Palestinians. One could ask, as one Palestinian queer activist is fond of saying, is there a secret doorway in the apartheid wall visible only to gay Palestinians? In the context of the Arab Spring, this separation of human and political rights accomplishes many of the same objectives. It posits the Assad, Mubarak, or Ben Ali regime as preferable in terms of human and minority rights to the Islamist governments that may follow them. And it renders the political rights and will of all Arabs, gay and straight, male and female, old and young, citizens and non-citizens, Christian and Muslim and Jewish, a prospect that we, the secular and the liberal, should be weary of.

A focus on the dangers that Islamists pose to minority and sexual rights discourages people from asking serious questions about the structural issues that will determine the outcome of these post-revolutionary societies. The CNN article warning of the future of LGBT rights in the wake of the Arab Spring seems to say, ‘Instead of questioning the role of the US-allied Egyptian military, the IMF’s renewed interest in Egypt, or the architecture of political oppression still in place in Egypt, we should be worried about the crazy Muslims’. With little exception, the response of gay activists from the region and abroad in articles such as the ones by CNN and AP as well as in online for a such as Twitter and Facebook has been to bolster the fears promulgated by the US and the EU about the “Islamist threat” with no real or substantive understanding of what is actually taking place in post-revolutionary Tunisia and Egypt. Statements such as “gays might become the sacrificial lambs of the Arab Spring” or fearmongering about a possible “Islamist takeover” not only reinforce infantilizing and racist Euro-Americandiscourses about Arabs and Muslims, but also betray a simplistic and naïve analysis of the political and social developments taking place in the region.

After decades of just a handful of legal political parties in Tunisia (some of which were actually supportive of Ben Ali), the country’s political landscape now has 81. There has always been a strong secular political culture in Tunisia among liberals, intellectuals, and elites not unlike French laicite. Yet, a great deal of concern is focused on the Islamist Nahda party, modeled after Turkey’s AKP. Who has actually asked about the opinions, positions, and support base of the other 80 political parties? Of course, the Nahda party is powerful, but so can be coalitions of the more liberal and secular parties. There is no clear hegemony over the country’s political landscape. Unlike Egypt, Tunisia’s transitional council is civilian and truly multiparty, bringing members of the political center, the right, the left, the radical left, and the Islamists together at the same table. Such a politically credible coalition is unprecedented in the region’s history. If this productive engagement between seculars and Islamists in Tunisia breaks down, it will further throw the country into a polarized stalemate. History tells us that if put on the defensive, the most radical and conservative aspects of the Nahda party as well as more marginal Salafist groups may rise to the surface. A knee jerk fear of Islamists, partly propelled by an increasingly local and international Islamophobic secularism,  glosses over the dense realities of these countries. This Reductionism, in the midst of historic transition, dangerously narrows the parameters of the debate.

In Egypt, it is the US-funded military that is in control of the process by which the constitution of Egypt will be drafted, and without the time and space to form proper political parties and reform electoral laws, that process as it stands gives the Brotherhood an advantage as the most well organized and oldest political body. It is the military that is restricting freedom of speech and association. It is the military that is arresting people, torturing them, and trying them in military tribunals. In Egypt, it is the military, not the Muslim Brotherhood, that is playing the morality card by accusing protestors of illicit sex, prostitution, doing drugs. The military has also forced female protestors into undergoing virginity tests (what, perhaps, one could call medical rape). The Brotherhood is curiously silent on these abuses, and refused to join the recent demonstrations in Tahrir to protest violations committed with impunity by the Egyptian army. In all of the journalistic articles about the future of gay people in Egypt, not one has even alluded to the threat posed by the army, which now looks increasingly like it may strike a deal (if it hasn’t already) with the Brotherhood. Not one has spoken about the regressive, homophobic and anti-feminist platforms of other secular parties, or the calls by some civil society organizations for the military to rule with an even stronger fist. The struggle between progressives and Islamists that may ensue will be a civilian one. For now, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces is attempting to hijack the Egyptian revolution by force of arms, torture, and military tribunals, yet when it comes to gays and women, the Western press insists on placing them in a boxing ring with Islamists, as if their fate is somehow separate from that of the nation as a whole. The myopia that results from an alarmist focus on Islam as the enemy of freedom has blinded us from recognizing that a boot on our necks is a boot on our necks, whether it belongs to someone wearing a suit, a military uniform, or a turban.

Islamists are social conservatives. But that does not mean that they are necessarily unapproachable or irrational. Furthermore, gay Arabs cannot be cut out of the fabric of their societies; they are Arab, they are Muslim, Christian, conservative and progressive, soldiers and civilians, communists and capitalists, sexist and feminist, classist and revolutionary, and both oppressors and the oppressed. Islamist discourses are not ossified and stuck in the 16th century, as most Western commentators assume. They are plural, responsive, dynamic, and they represent the point of view of a large and diverse public. In recent months, there have been several statements circulated by Islamists in Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon, and other places, specifically denouncing gay marriage. These khutbas said nothing of homosexuality itself, but focused, laser-like, on gay marriage. In Lebanon, the real issue at stake had nothing to do with homosexuality. Rather the “danger” being discussed was the possibility of a civil marriage law that would allow Muslims and Christians and Jews to marry each other inside Lebanon. Gay marriage was used as an illustration of the “dangers” that were sure to enter Lebanon via a civil marriage law. One can hear the same paradoxical silence on gay people twinned with vitriolic opposition to gay marriage in thousands of Churches across the United States. Such opposition to gay marriage within Islamist groups and within the khutbas of mosques does not, in fact, irrevocably foreclose discussions on queer and sexuality-related issues with Islamists and their supporters. In fact, when a Sheikh uses the prospect of gay marriage, rather than the existence of gay people or the practice of gay sex, as a tertiary illustration (not the substance) of the dangers of secularism, we may be hearing evidence of the multiple successes of Arab gay rights movements.

Is there a possibility of a backlash against gay, minority, and women’s rights in the Arab region? Undoubtedly. In times of rapid social and political change it is often the realms of gender and sexuality that become the battlefields in which broader social anxieties are made manifest. But that backlash doesn’t have to happen. The answer is not to marginalize Islamists or fear them, but to work towards building truly participatory (politically, socially, and crucially, economically) democratic societies that will safeguard individual and collective freedoms. These would be states in which the impartial rule of law prevails, in which institutions are strong and independent, and where the human and political rights of all citizens (gay and straight, male and female, atheist and Islamist) and residents are fiercely protected by the state regardless of who is in government at the time.

We are in the midst of a transformative moment in the region’s history. It is incumbent upon us, as Arab queers, progressives, and individuals seeking to build more just and equitable societies to understand not only what is happening in the region, but also how easily gay rights can be transformed into political bargaining chip that is less emancipatory than at first glance. We should pause and think of the networks of capital, interest, and political inequality that travel with gay rights discourses and institutions from the centers of global power to its peripheries. Let us not forget how we, as queers and as women, were used as justifications for invasions (Afghanistan), the promotion of democracy at the barrel of a gun (Iraq), and military occupation (Palestine). We must learn, again, to refuse to allow parts of our personhood (sexuality, gender) to be mobilized at the expense of other parts of our personhood (the Palestinian, the Arab, the working class). We must refuse this fragmentation and self-alienation. For years, progressive queer activists have been pushing back against the use of gay rights and the mobilization of the international gay rights community to promote Israel as a liberal democracy. Such state promoted discourse seeks to obfuscate the realities of occupation, apartheid, land theft and demolitions, displacement, and racism increasingly enshrined in Israeli law. We should be attuned to the danger of a similar discourse, one which attempts to create an arbitrary and fabricated separation between human rights and “politics” and raises one above the other, being used to promote anxiety about gay and human rights in the Arab world in the event that political rights are granted to all Arabs. Gays, like women, are becoming a readily deployable tool in service of geopolitical interests that are oppressive and anti-emancipatory. As people concerned with fighting all forms, and all networks of injustice, we must not allow that to happen.

This article was originally published on

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