How the Middle East Moved From Tolerant of Homosexuality to a Battlefield of Anti-Gay Violence

This post is also available in: Español

Muslim culture isn’t inherently anti-gay: The Quran says nothing about homosexuality, and Islamic history is filled with text openly depicting homosexuality as a beautiful, matter-of-fact thing. Nevertheless, the Middle East has since become synonymous with anti-gay violence. What happened? Well, a historian from The Economist blames three things for Middle East homophobia, and explains why Western Pride parades and marriage equality won’t help.

The Colonial British and French brought homophobia to the Middle East.

During the 1800s and 1900s, British colonialism effectively turned one-fourth of the world anti-gay, installing anti-gay laws in Egypt, Iraq, Cyprus and eight other Middle Eastern countries. France did the same in Syria.

Middle East homophobia
Former British colonies around the world (Middle East inset at upper right) — click to see a larger version

But when Britain left, only the countries of Jordan and Bahrain repealed those British anti-gay laws. Later, conservative Sharia laws (based largely on ahadith, sayings controversially attributed to the Prophet Muhammad and his companions) continued the colonial period’s anti-gay legacy.

In the 1980s, the rise of Islamic Fundamentalism ruined everything.

While America and Europe were busy fighting for gay rights amid the HIV epidemic of the 1980s, conservative Islamic politicians were busy associating homosexuality with “Western moral decay” being exported into the Middle East.

By combining anti-gay sentiment with resentment against the West for its Middle East war-mongering, this helped stoke social tensions and bring anti-gay Muslim leaders to power.

Middle Eastern skirmishes ruined everything

After the overthrow of Iran’s pro-Western monarchy in the late ‘70s, the newly established theocracy made homosexuality a capital offense. Following the U.S.-led Iraq Invasion of 2003, Islamist militias have hunted down and killed gay men via stoning, throwing them from buildings and torture.

And though the 2010 Arab Spring created a short-lived era of peace for gay Egyptians, The Economist says, “Since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime came to power in Egypt in 2014, arrests of gay, lesbian and transgender people have risen fivefold in an apparent bid to stave off conservative critics.”

While Muslim Americans support LGBTQ equality more than conservative Christians, a 2013 Pew Research Centre survey on Middle East homophobia found 97% in Jordan, 95% in Egypt and 80% in Lebanon believe homosexuality should be rejected.

In short, the power vacuums made it easy for violent anti-gay forces to come in and do their bidding. Even in countries like Egypt where homosexuality isn’t illegal, vague laws against sexual “deviance,” “immorality” and “indecency” allow anti-gay police to abuse LGBTQ people with impunity.

Western LGBTQ values won’t stop Middle East homophobia.

Local activists, like Khalid Abdel-Hadi, founder of a Jordanian gay and lesbian online magazine called My.Kali, says Middle Eastern LGBTQ people are not campaigning for Western-style Pride parades and same-sex marriages. Those often backfire in such conservative communities, he says.

Rather, they’re looking to empower online communities where LGBTQ people can safely find each other and strategize as the Middle Eastern queer community finds its way.

What are your thoughts on Middle East homophobia? Sound off in the comments.