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Homosexuality in the Middle East

Aired June 5, 2006 - 18:00:00   ET


JONATHAN MANN, CNN HOST: The hidden homosexuals of the Arab world. Condemned by religious leaders, oppressive regimes and their own relatives, gay men in the Middle East stay out of sight.
Hello and welcome.

There is no good way to generalize about all the homosexuals in all of the different corners of the Arab world. Cosmopolitan Beirut, as you might expect, is relatively open, but even devout Saudi Arabia is in a way surprisingly uninterested in its gay community for the most part, as long as it stays very private. And yet homosexual sex is still illegal in most places, and from one country to the next homosexuals are kept in the closet by the combined weight of religion, politics and culture.

It's not easy to be gay in any part of the world, but in the Middle East it's almost like being invisible and at risk at the same time.

On our program today, gay, Arab and unseen.

Hala Gorani prepared this report for "Inside the Middle East."


HALA GORANI, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This man is breaking one of the biggest social taboos in the Middle East. A Lebanese Shia Muslim from a conservative family, Youssef openly admits that he is gay.

In a society where homosexuality is considered so unmentionable, there is no widely accepted neutral word to describe it in Arabic, and where men like Youssef are often harassed, like here, on the streets of Beirut.

YOUSSEF, GAY ARAB MAN: The gay bashing, I have been victim of that, is like what you hear it. What's really so bad, like the silly words that they give to you like.


YOUSSEF: You see, like this one, you see? Like this one, exactly.

GORANI (on camera): He just called you foufou?

YOUSSEF: Yeah. Foufou is like fag.

GORANI (voice-over): We follow Youssef to a tiny studio apartment in the Lebanese capital. He says that when he came out to his family, he was threatened.

YOUSSEF: Like, my brother told me, in three days, if you're not back home, you are dead. It was that clear.

GORANI: When he refused, Youssef says two of his brothers forced him into the trunk of a car and drove him to the family home.

(on camera): You thought they would hurt you physically?

YOUSSEF: I was hurt physically. I had a gun in my head.

GORANI: They put a gun to your head?

YOUSSEF: Yeah. It was -- it was -- now -- at the time, when this thing was happening, I couldn't think. But now I can see it. It's their honor. It's like it's their honor. It's like I'm breaking everything for them.

GORANI (voice-over): But Youssef is an exception. Most gays and lesbians we meet in the Middle East only agree to speak to us anonymously.

Like this Saudi Arabian man who asked us not only to conceal his face and distort his voice, but not to mention what city he lives in. He says he felt he had to leave Saudi Arabia because even those closest to him turned away.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Most of my best friends that I've spent more than 10 years with, just when they start to hear the rumors, they walk away from me for no reason.

GORANI (on camera): The rumor that you are gay was enough to destroy your reputation?


GORANI (voice-over): So, in nightclubs like this one, where some gays and lesbians meet to socialize, we are not showing faces or revealing locations. Lives and livelihoods, we are told, could be destroyed in an instant if we did.

So, why is there such intolerance for homosexuality in the Middle East?

Many in the majority religion here say Islam forbids it, but so do elements in Christianity and Judaism. And for Beirut-based Georges Azzi, head of the Middle East's first and only gay rights organization, in male- dominated societies there is a deeper, cultural explanation.

GEORGES AZZI, HELEM ORGANIZATION: In Western countries, a man sleeps with a man, he is a homosexual or a bisexual. In our country, a homosexual is someone who we can look down at. This guy is the feminine guy who plays the role of woman, so he's not a man, and a passive guy. So that's the definition. That's why I repeat that sexism and homophobia in the Middle East are together.

GORANI: Gays and lesbians also complain of intolerance from some Middle Eastern governments. In Egypt in 2001, authorities raided a gay hangout on the Nile called the Queen Boat arresting dozens of men on charges of habitual debauchery. Today, all signs that this boat was ever a gay meeting place are gone.

More recently, in the United Arab Emirates, 26 men were arrested at what authorities called a gay wedding. Half of them were sentenced to five years in prison, though the charges and jail terms were later reduced.

The UAE's justice minister told CNN, "There will be no room for homosexual and queer acts in the UAE. Our society does not accept queer behavior," he said, "either in word or in action."

But for Scott Long of Human Rights Watch, what motivates governments in the Middle East to crackdown on homosexuals is sometimes more political than moral.

SCOTT LONG, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH: You have all of these dictatorial, secular governments that are facing a militant religious right wing, and many of those governments try to use religion politically and try to say we're defending religious values, we're defending authentic cultural values. And that often means that they turn homophobia into a political principle and a political tool.

GORANI: In Iraq, for instance, homophobia, coupled with religious radicalism, is making life for homosexuals almost impossible. We spoke to one gay Iraqi man in Baghdad.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No. After the war, even that little sort of thin layer of security, it's gone. Everywhere in Baghdad or Iraq is pretty unsafe. It's been -- the places where it was known that gay men would gather were attacked.

GORANI: So, like in most countries in the Middle East, gay and lesbian life in Iraq happens strictly behind closed doors and increasingly on the Internet, anonymously, tucked away where nobody can see it.

And what gays and lesbians say they want is simple.

AZZI: Really, what gay and lesbian people are asking in the Arab world is very basic. They just need someone to speak with and someone to accept them. All that they are asking for is that we're different, we need to speak with someone, and we want to stop being afraid of saying what we are because we might go to prison or be rejected by our families and society.

GORANI: Back on the streets of Beirut, Youssef seems so comfortable with his homosexuality, he sometimes asks passersby on camera how they would react to having a gay son, and he certainly doesn't always get positive responses.

So, even though he's faced death threats and public insults, Youssef says he'd still rather be out of the closet than live a painful lie.

(on camera): You've come out. I mean, your family knows, your friends. You're not hiding that. You even have a pin that says, what? Say what it says.

YOUSSEF: "Let's get one thing straight, I'm not." Yeah, I'm not.

GORANI: So, you're publicizing it.

YOUSSEF: I'm not publicizing. I'm just trying to tell people that, yeah, here I am. I exist. I'm not hitting on anyone. I'm just a human being who has another sexual identity.

GORANI (voice-over): Hala Gorani, CNN, Beirut, Lebanon.


MANN: We take a break. When we come back, one of the most dangerous places for gay men is the one that's supposed to be developing democracy.

Stay with us.


MANN: The Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani is the most powerful religious figure in Iraq, the leader of its Shia majority. Several weeks ago he reportedly issued at fatwa on his Web site that said homosexuals should be killed in the worst, most severe way.

The fatwa was later said to have been withdrawn from the site, but it was a signal of a new, more dangerous time for Iraqi homosexuals.

Welcome back.

Our own Baghdad bureau tried to learn more about the fatwa only to be told that Sistani's office is denying he ever issued it. Shortly after the fatwa, though, men dressed in police uniforms shot and killed a 14-year-old boy whose been identified as a male prostitute.

The information emerging from Baghdad is anecdotal at best, but homosexuals in the city say that the boy was no means the only victim.

Joining us now to talk about all of this is rights activist Ali Hili, who is active with gay rights groups.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Let me ask you, first of all, just about your own case. You are from Iraq, but you left. Can you tell us when and why?

ALI HILI, HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST: Could you repeat that question please?

MANN: Can you tell us why you left Iraq?

HILI: The situation back in the Nineties was so difficult for most Iraqis, because of the sanctions that were imposed by the United Nations and United States government on Iraq. It was a very difficult time for everyone to live and survive in a time where we thought it was the most difficult times for Iraqis, until we see what's happening now.

I left because of different fractions of economy, fear for my life from Saddam's regime.

MANN: So, let me ask you, if things were bad then, why are people complaining about the situation now for homosexuals? Have they gotten worse? Have they gotten better?

HILI: It's got almost deteriorated very bad because of the increase in fanaticism, the increase of extremist groups and the militias who are imposing their own agenda against Iraqi society.

MANN: What are they doing?

HILI: We keep receiving reports about killing, arresting and targeting. I mean, everyone can see on the news what these militias are doing, and they are -- I mean, they are basically the police and they are the Ministry of Interior troops.

MANN: Now, the impression that we have at a distance is that some of these attacks are inexplicable. They are widespread and they seem almost certainly ethnically or factionally based, but almost random. Are gay men, are lesbian women particular victims?

HILI: Not the only victims, I would say. Liberals, secularists, even Shia prostitutes, other factions of the Iraqi community, especially the ones that are seen as liberal, free and modern, anyone who presents a different kind of -- of these religious militia's agenda, who oppose them, and they feel they are threatened by these kinds of people.

MANN: Now, under the Saddam Hussein regime, political opponents, ethnic minorities had some reason to be afraid. Were gays more open in that time? Were they better off?

HILI: I believe that under the time of Saddam there was a threat for anyone who opposed Saddam and his regime politically. I don't believe Saddam was a threat to liberal or secularists, anyone who -- don't interfere with politics and any mainstream political issues. Otherwise, if you don't mess with Saddam and his regime, you're safe.

I don't believe they -- I haven't heard any of the incidents for any woman, gay or lesbians targeted ever at that time. Never.

MANN: And so that's gotten worse?

HILI: It is getting worse and worse and worse and we keep getting reports from inside Iraq, our extensive underground correspondents keep giving us a daily report about several killings, hangings, execution for women, gay and lesbians, and others, Sunni minorities, Shia liberals, Shia secularists, you know, anyone who is not -- anyone who is not, again, helping with the new government agenda.

MANN: What is the gay community doing now in Iraq? Is it banding together? Are people simply splintering apart and staying in?

HILI: Most of the reports that we are receiving, they are trying to flee the country. Going to neighboring countries like Jordan and Syria, and basically trying their best to hide and not show any kind of appearance on the public. It's basically for everyone I believe, but particularly for these kinds of groups it is more dangerous.

MANN: Is there anyone helping them? Is there any help from outside whether to gay Iraqis who want to stay or gay Iraqis who want to leave?

HILI: No, I don't believe anyone is trying to help and in spite of the United States' State Department report in mid-May that highlighted the targeting, killing, kidnapping and the dangerous that gay and lesbians are going through in Iraq, the United States government and the Iraqi government has done nothing.

The attacks are still going on. We just received a report about five gay men have been killed by Beder (ph) organization, which is the Military wing of the Supreme Council of the Saddam Revolution in Iraq, which is the government's head part.

MANN: Some people think that after a period of time, after enormous cost, enormous bloodshed, things will get better in Iraq, that there will be a society of laws, there will be democracy. Let me just ask you if the gay community is hoping when that happens it will be a more egalitarian and open society for gay men, lesbian women.

HILI: I don't see what you see, sorry. I think the situation for everyone in Iraq is getting from bad to worse. I mean, just today we had 50 students have been kidnapped by the police in Iraq, retaliation for what's happened yesterday for 20 students being killed and shot.

That's just sectarian violence. That is an unannounced civil war.

MANN: Ali Hili, thank you so much for balking with us.

HILI: Thank you.

MANN: We take a break. When we come back, many countries, one closes. Conversation on the culture of repression.

Stay with us.


MANN: There is an accepted Arabic phrase corresponding to the English word for homosexual, (UNINTELLIGIBLE). It means literally same sex. But relatively few native Arabic speakers use the phrase. Even people who mean no harm use a variety of names for homosexuals that in any other language would not be fit for polite company.

Welcome back.

It is in that respect quite literally "Unspeakable Love," the title of a new book by the Middle East editor of the "Guardian" newspaper. Brian Whitaker joins us now from our London studios to talk about what he's learned.

Thanks for being with us.

Homosexuals are unpopular just about everywhere on earth. It there anything different about what they have endured or what they have achieved in Muslim societies in the Arab world?

BRIAN WHITAKER, AUTHOR: I think one of the differences, really, is that there's been very little progress over the last 50 years or so, whereas we've seen progress in other parts of the world. And also in some ways I think it's possibly moving backwards, as we've heard in the case of Iraq.

MANN: Let me ask you about one particular measure, because homosexual sex is illegal in a lot of countries. It's illegal in a lot of Arab countries. Are the authorities busy locking people up? Is the repression that direct and obvious?

WHITAKER: It varies considerably from country to country.

In a lot of places, really there is only a tracking down of people when there is some other reason for it. If people have been -- if somebody has made complaints, for example, or in Egypt there was a crackdown a few years ago which may have been connected with the government wanting to establish its religious credentials or possibly divert attention from other things, that sort of thing.

There can be all sorts of reasons why crackdowns happen at a particular time.

MANN: So, when you say things are getting worse, what would the measure of that be? What indication is there?

WHITAKER: Well, I think it's -- rather than just looking at the number of people arrested or so, I think you have to look at the way society has been moving as a whole. And what we've seen maybe over the last 20 years or so is a drift into a very intense religiosity in a lot of the countries.

A lot of attention is paid to religious devotion and that sort of thing, and with it, there has been a general kind of approach to stricter morals, at least in public. And I think the attitude towards gay and lesbian people is also reflected in other ways. I mean, the kind of books that are now banned in Egypt, for example, which might have been permitted 30 years or so ago. There have been a lot of similar changes like that.

MANN: Now, it seems obvious enough in a society that is embracing fundamentalist Islam that things would be tougher for all kinds of people, but let me ask you, in what you've studied, does Islam, do Islamic societies, have a traditionally virulent hatred of homosexuals in particular? Is there some strong religious strain to opposition to gay and lesbian lifestyles?

WHITAKER: One of the strange things is if you look through the history, I think there have been periods when there was possibly a great deal more tolerance than there has been in some parts of the West. If you go back to, ironically, Baghdad a lot time ago was quite famous for its liberal ways. So, it varies from time to place, I think.

MANN: We heard one human rights activist tell our Hala Gorani that in fact it's political, that it's a very convenient target for regimes that want to help themselves with a conservative constituency, and it's really just a cynical attack on a convenient minority.

WHITAKER: Yes. On the one hand, you have the Islamists who want to crackdown on gay people anyway, and then you have governments who want in a way to prove their moral credentials to the public, and so they behave in a similar sort of way. You've also got this general problem, I think, with families at a much more personal level, where gay people are often faced with all sorts of really serious problems if they tell their families about their sexuality.

MANN: Now, we're talking mostly about homosexual men all through this program. What about lesbian women? Is it the same?

WHITAKER: It can be. I think it's much more difficult to focus on that, because it's very much a male-oriented society and a lot of attention is paid to male behavior rather than women's behavior.

I think there is some evidence that an awful lot goes on between women, but really the men don't take very much notice of it, so it doesn't really come into this whole sort of religious and political arena.

MANN: Now, Ali Hili, the activist who left Iraq, said that people really are not organized in any way to defend themselves or champion their rights. Are they organized at all across the Middle East? We heard from Hala Gorani about one organization in Lebanon. Is that it?

WHITAKER: That is about it, actually. Helem, in Beirut, is the first openly functioning gay and lesbian organization in the Arab countries. There are one or two based in Israel which help Palestinians as well, but in terms of purely Arab organizations, the one in Lebanon is the only one that's know. There were some signs of kind of organization in Egypt until a few years ago, but when the arrests took place in connection with that Queen Boat, which you talked about earlier in the program, that all really disappeared and, again, it was very similar to the picture that Ali described in Iraq, where people who had been slightly openly gay then disappeared and went into hiding or went abroad.

MANN: We have just a moment left. Let me ask you, are there any bright spots in all of this? Or is the landscape just bleak when you look across the region?

WHITAKER: Well, I still like to think that probably attitudes will change at some time in the not too distant future. I mean, I think you have to look at the way satellite TV and the Internet are affecting people in the region. They're getting information from outside the region that they wouldn't have had in the past, and I think gradually this is beginning to change attitudes, particular among the educated young people in some of the big cities.

MANN: Brian Whitaker, the book is "Unspeakable Love." Thank you so much for talking with us.

WHITAKER: Thank you.

MANN: And that's INSIGHT. I'm Jonathan Mann. The news continues.



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