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Anissa Hélie
Muslim Religious and LGBT Strategies

in WORLD, 14/08/2006

Threats and Survival: The Religious Right and LGBT Strategies in Muslim Contexts

The turn of the nineteenth century, Europeans referred to same-sex relationships as the “Persian disease,” the “Turkish disease,” or the “Egyptian vice.” In an interesting reversal, many conservative voices in Muslim contexts nowadays attribute homosexuality to “Western depravation”—and call for sanctions.

This shift in homophobic discourse demonstrates that the construction of “sexual difference” may vary significantly, shaped as it is by historical and political considerations. It used to echo advocates of colonialism, who sought justification for imperialist expansion in “native” perversions. Now, it serves the interests of the Muslim Religious Right, which (selectively) denounces globalisation as a source of social evils to better silence alternative opposition.

Sustained pressure by feminist and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) activists has succeeded in bringing the issue of “sexual diversity” to the forefront. Yet the recent past is marked by both landmark achievements and worrying trends. This paper explores the last decade—from the early 1990s onwards—and recalls some of the gains made at the global level. It also examines how these gains are currently threatened by the strengthening of the Religious Right. While the focus is specifically on Muslim contexts, Muslim fundamentalists’ efforts need to be located alongside those of their not-so-strange bedfellows, such as the Vatican and the Christian Right.


The long, winding road to emancipation

One major global trend emerging from the current situation has actually been positive: sexual diversity is no longer invisible. Legislators have started protecting the rights of sexual minorities—at least on paper. In recent years, South Africa and Ecuador became the first countries to expand the basis for discrimination to include sexual orientation, and to incorporate anti-discrimination provisions in their Constitutions (New Internationalist, 2001).

However ambivalent one might feel about the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) personnel in the military or about the struggle for “gay marriages,” it is still a measure of equality that several countries now recognise same-sex couples’ civil partnerships. Although these countries are overwhelmingly Western, activists in Vietnam and Mexico are lobbying for similar changes.1

Medical authorities had to give in too: in 1992, homosexuality ceased to be listed as a disease by the World Health Organisation (WHO). However, transsexuality remains stigmatised through the diagnosis of gender identity disorder (GID), which is still considered a mental illness today.

Activists were also successful in their efforts to broaden the human rights agenda so that it began to address various violations faced by LGBTI people. Mainstream human rights organisations took note—since 1991, Amnesty International’s mandate includes the protection of individuals persecuted on the grounds of their sexual orientation. Though established only a few years ago, the Human Rights Watch now has a dynamic LGBTI programme.


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by Anissa Hélie
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