How Did Homosexuality Become So Offensive to the Muslim World?

It wasn’t always this way.

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
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Men, draped in a rainbow flag, embrace ahead of a candle light vigil for victims the mass shooting at the Pulse gay night club in Orlando, June 13, 2016.
Men, draped in a rainbow flag, embrace ahead of a candle light vigil for victims the mass shooting at the Pulse gay night club in Orlando, June 13, 2016. Credit: Adrees Latif, Reuters
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

In the 1820s, Egyptian scholar Rifaa al-Tahtawi visited Paris and remained there for several years. After his journey, he wrote about the lifestyle of the French, and the Europeans in general.

An important Islamic scholar, Tahtawi reported on the patriotism of the French and their recreational and eating habits. He devoted special attention to a surprising fact: European men love only women.

He noted with amazement that they don’t tend to love young boys, and – unlike the poets in his own country – refrained from writing poems in praise of their beauty. To the point where, he claimed, the French language doesn’t enable a man to write “I fell in love with a boy.”

For the French, claimed Tahtawi, “That’s one of the most offensive things. They don’t mention it in their books and refrain from it as much as possible, and one doesn’t even hear conversations about this subject.”

To contemporary eyes, Tahtawi’s impression may seem strange. But it was quite reasonable in his day.

Even European scholars described the Muslim world as a place where homophilia was accepted and common – as opposed to the situation in the Christian world.

British travelers claimed that the “Sodomite tendency” that was accepted in ancient Greece flourished in Egypt and the East.

An Ottoman illustration from the 19th Century book 'Sawaqub al-Manaqui' depicting two men having sex.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Manuals depicting sex scenes between men

Indeed, there were sex manuals and illustrated books in the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century depicting sex scenes between men.

And the system of patronage that lay at the foundation of the empire’s political establishment was based largely on homoerotic relationships.

In recent decades, the Muslim world has been viewed as a homophobic space where the LGBT community is persecuted.

This description is not unfounded: People from the LGBT community – and especially those who are out of the closet – really are in danger in most Muslim countries.

Recently, the situation has worsened even in secular regimes like Egypt, but especially under the rule of the Islamic State group, where men identified as homosexuals are cruelly murdered.

Last week’s massacre in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando marked a new and horrifying stage in exhibitions of Muslim-fundamentalist homophobia, which regards LGBT venues as targets for violent attacks.

This tragedy is likely to affect the sense of personal security among members of the LGBT community, who, in any case, are threatened and exposed to violence everywhere in the world.

We can also assume that it will reinforce Islamophobia in the LGBT community, which is already on the rise in Europe.

This may be a good time to ask how we arrived at the present situation. The Koran prohibits homosexuality, but no more stringently than the biblical book of Leviticus or Paul’s Epistle to the Romans in the New Testament.

Moreover, despite the severe prohibition in the Koran, love and sex between men was very common in Islamic culture.

For example, 15th-century Egyptian historian Al-Maqrizi noted that “among the Mamluke rulers, love of men became so common that the women in the empire began to envy the men and to wear elegant hats in order to imitate them.”

Israeli historian Yaron Ben-Naeh says that, despite the severe Koranic prohibition, “mutual erotic attraction between people of the same sex was seen as a natural feeling and did not arouse guilt feelings or shame among those involved.”

It’s important to note that pre-modern Arab society was not tolerant of “homosexuals.” That’s because the concept “homosexual” appeared in Europe only in the second half of the 19th century, and until the early 20th century there was no such concept, or anything similar, in Arabic-Islamic culture.

Attraction to boys did not usually prevent men from marrying women and sleeping with them.

‘Not necessarily gay’

Given this, what caused homosexuality to become so offensive to the Muslim world?

Some scholars blame Western imperialism. Prominent among them is Joseph Massad of Columbia University, who claims that global LGBT organizations (whom he calls “The Gay International”) force Western homosexual identity on men in the Middle East, who until now did not consider private erotic encounters with other men as a mark of identity.

As a result, nationalist and Islamic movements now consider homosexuality a Western influence – and fight it accordingly.

Massad claims that this is the reason why the Egyptian police raid LGBT parties in Cairo – not because of the sexual behavior of the participants, but because they are adopting a “gay” Western identity.

He sees the international LGBT organizations as being chiefly responsible for the violence directed at Arab and Muslim men identified as homosexuals.

This argument is controversial: Many gay Arabs reject the claim that any international organization forced this identity on them. Massad’s critics also argue that he is idealizing the sexual regime that existed in the Arab world before the “invasion” of Western homosexuality.

An example of this can be found in the words of a Moroccan, cited by Samir Ben-Layashi of Tel Aviv University in an article he wrote for Haaretz in 2008. “It’s true that it’s not hard for a 70-year-old European gay man to start up with a young boy in Marrakesh, but that boy is not necessarily gay. That’s what many people don’t understand. He’s doing it because of a biological or material need, most of the time both,” wrote Ben-Layashi.

All this is not necessarily related to the alleged motives of Orlando mass-murderer Omar Mateen, who was born and grew up in the United States.

Yet still, it’s hard to deny the unfortunate fact that it is actually the increased visibility of the LGBT community in the public sphere that leads to a violent homophobic counterreaction in various places around the world.

That’s true not only in the Muslim world, but also in Russia and many countries in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe.

In Christian Africa, homosexuality is described by public figures and journalists as an “anti-African” lifestyle that is imposed forcibly by the wealthy northern countries.

Identification with America and the West

Gay Pride parades have now become the main carnivals in European and North African metropolises, and the Tel Aviv municipality is adorned in the Gay Pride colors along with the flags of the United States and Israel.

But this identification causes damage as well: Homosexuality is now identified with Western-ness or American-ness, and therefore arouses hostility among those who oppose the West.

To his or her detriment, the body of a gay person has become a battlefield in the war over Western values.

We need to remember that, for long periods of time, the situation was actually reversed: Homosexual practices were persecuted in Europe and enjoyed relative legitimacy in the Muslim world.

As a first step on the path to reducing the tension surrounding the LGBT issue, it’s important, therefore, to mention that tolerance toward the LGBT community isn’t in essence a part of Western culture.

The LGBT community can only lose by being placed in the line of fire in the clash between the West and Islam.

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