Freedom is not only about elections: in Western democracies it is seen as an individual personal right, subject to a just rule of law. It can only exist and flourish in a social and political climate of tolerance which has to be constantly cherished and vigorously preserved. This has been borne in on me by one of the most harrowing and degrading books to come my way recently – Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East by Brian Whitaker (Saqi Books, 2006). It is harrowing because it vividly recalls a phase of my life, half a century ago, when I was in a similar, though less perilous, situation to many of those the author describes in Middle Eastern countries today; and it is degrading because it so vividly depicts the bigoted intolerance and cruelty of human beings who have too much power, fanatically held groundless beliefs, inadequate knowledge, and too little innate kindness.
It is also about a kind of holy humbug which is peculiar to systems of religion - not just Islam, but Judaism and many Christian denominations as well - which claim direct insights from their preferred god in order to justify laws, social codes, and behaviour which even the perpetrators must know in their innermost hearts are inhumane and senseless. How strange it is that those who believe in a loving spirit-god reckon the sins of the flesh to be so much more heinous than those of the spirit - sins which they themselves manifest all too often through implacable cruelty, lack of charity, and vicious hatred. These repulsive attitudes aren’t the sole preserve of Islam, but in the present age they are especially intractable in a religion which is still more rigidly bound by literalist interpretations of its scriptures (maybe because it is several hundred years younger than the other two).
As I pointed out in an earlier post, homosexuals are, by and large, a peaceable, inoffensive lot who just wish to get on with their own lives as they choose without interfering with or interference from others, and who are unlikely to get militantly aggressive even when viciously attacked: an ideal victim-target, in fact, for the pharisaical holier-than-thou, "thank God/Allah we are not like these people", bigots of all religious stripes who seek a public platform on which to strut their superiority to the common herd.
For much of my life I have fought publicly and strenuously against this primitive bigotry towards same-sex lovers, which largely emanates from religiously motivated folk. So far as Christians in the UK are concerned the battle has been largely won, and in the United States vehemently anti-gay protesters are dwindling in numbers and increasingly marginalised. But now we in the West have in our midst a growing population of Muslims whose preachers and government ministers in Islamic countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia think nothing of advocating torture, stoning, and hanging for those who are caught in the act. At an official level, at least, homosexuality is fiercely persecuted throughout the Middle East.
The hypocrisy of all this is staggering, as in addition to their sexism and male chauvinism Arab men in particular have always been notorious for their widespread indulgence in same-sex activity. Yet in these countries, and even in Britain, gay Muslims live in fear and are mostly unwilling to speak out about their predicament. Even so, throughout North Africa and the Middle East, as this book makes abundantly clear, there is a vibrant gay life, albeit no visible gay culture. Even under such oppressive regimes, a few seeds of openness have started to sprout in recent years, though in Islamic societies the concept of ‘gay liberation’ is almost universally dismissed – even by those who make love to others of their own sex - as decadent Western cultural imperialism. As the ongoing tussle in various UN and other international forums between Western democracies and the 57-state strong Islamic Conference who strenuously seek – sometimes with the connivance of the Roman Catholic Church - to water down the post-World War Two Universal Declaration of Human Rights shows, homosexuality and equal rights for women are both crucial sticking points in the contrasting Western and Islamic concepts of what human rights are.
Whitaker gives a fascinatingly well-informed analysis of the social, political, and religious differences over these issues in and between Muslim countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Iran - differences which extend to the attitudes of the gay people (hardly yet forming a ‘community’) in these countries. He recounts some horrifying stories of official and family-inspired cruelty and persecution, and also remarkable instances of great bravery and defiance on the part of those who have been brutalised, and in some cases had their lives ruined and even ended, because of their refusal to conform to traditional Islamic mores. One finishes reading Unspeakable Love stunned and dismayed by the primitive morality and sheer sadism of all too many worshippers of Allah, and at the same time heartened and humbled by the personal bravery of those who refuse to deny their own natures despite almost intolerable pressure.
Fifty years ago there was similar, though not quite equivalent, ignorance, bigotry, and official persecution of homosexual men in Britain. No one who was born after about 1960 has any real conception of the atmosphere in which I and others like me lived – as if we were resistance fighters in enemy-occupied territory. Most regarded the legal and social hazards as a theoretical risk about as serious as being knocked down by a bus when crossing the road. But there were increasing numbers of casualties, and the minority who were caught up in legal proceedings, or were ‘outed’ to their families and employers, had their lives wrecked, usually irretrievably. Following publication of the Wolfenden Report in the 1950s a few of us set out to change this state of affairs, and after ten years of hard struggle we succeeded in achieving the first step along a long road to legal equality and social acceptance. Would a similar reform movement be even conceivable, let alone remotely successful, in Muslim countries in the foreseeable future? One simply doesn’t know. The potential, and the mechanisms, for significant or swift social change in Islamic countries are, on the surface at least, lacking. The notion of an Islamic Wolfenden Report seems bizarre. However, contemplating the increasing interaction between people around the world stimulated by modern communications, and especially the internet, Brian Whitaker ends on a cautious note of optimism, and a guarded “Perhaps”. One can only hope he is right.