Hate Crimes

Like the Taliban, America’s Middle East Allies Tyrannize Gays and Women

On March 22, 1998, 18-year-old Abdul Sami and another young man, a 22-year-old named Bismillah, were buried alive—put beside a mud wall that was bulldozed upon them—inside a stadium in the Afghan city of Herat.

The gruesome public execution was the young men's sentence, under Taliban law, of having been found guilty of engaging in sodomy. They were hardly the first to receive that kind of punishment for same-sex sexual transgressions: Just a month earlier three men found guilty of the same infraction had a stone wall collapsed on them in public just outside the city of Kandahar (purported to have had a large homosexual community before the Taliban seized power in 1996). Amazingly, all three survived and were taken to the hospital with fractures to most of the bones in their bodies; they were later given their freedom. (According to the Taliban's interpretation of Islamic law, if you survive such a punishment, you're free to go).

After the Herat executions, the official Taliban Radio Voice of Shari'a, clearly intent on sending a message to would-be sexual deviants throughout the land, proudly announced the heinous accomplishment: "Shari'a-prescribed punishment has been administered to two sodomites [in] Herat Province. The cases of the accused were investigated by the public prosecution office of Herat Province, where the accused confessed to their crimes without duress or torture."

The Taliban's treatment of homosexuality is pretty frightening stuff. But even scarier is that many of the countries being approached to join the U.S. in the fight against the Taliban don't treat homosexuals, and other citizens deemed second-class, in a drastically different way. Islamic fundamentalists and their fascistic beliefs have a grip, in varying degrees, on the leadership of many Muslim countries.

The Taliban offer what is perhaps the most extreme manifestation of discrimination against women. As has been reported in the media, women in Afghanistan are beaten to death, according to Amnesty International, for walking in public with a man who is not a relative. Women are also beaten and executed for walking alone at night, or having their ankles or wrists exposed.

The Taliban's brand of cruelty, garnering world attention in the wake of the World Trade Center destruction and the killing of more than 6000 people, is perhaps enough to make some American gay activists and feminists hawkish, ready to blow the Taliban and Osama bin Laden to kingdom come.

"We have to go out and eliminate the threat or at least significantly diminish it," says Washington, D.C., gay activist John Aravosis, who spearheaded the campaign against the antigay radio talk show host Dr. Laura. "We have to destroy the people who launched this attack [on New York and Washington]. That means military action."

The many gays and feminists involved in the antiwar protests notwithstanding, Aravosis believes that gays and lesbians may be even more red, white, and blue than others right now.

"The gay businesses had the most flags up by far," he notes of shops in Washington, D.C., the day after the Pentagon attack. "I think we're just like everybody else, but to some degree I feel there's even a little more patriotism. Gay people are forced to understand the freedoms that we do or don't have as Americans. It requires you to think about the rights you're fighting for."

The Taliban's treatment of homosexuality isn't the main reason Aravosis believes military action is necessary—it is the attack on the World Trade Center, he says, that warrants a response—but the Taliban's death penalty for homosexuality has made him increasingly comfortable with his position. "I would not shed a tear if that government should be destroyed or overthrown," he says.

On an emotional level, it's hard to disagree with Aravosis. Taking action, however, is far from cut-and-dried. Aside from the arguments of antiwar activists that torpedoes and ground troops will result in the killing of many civilians—including many of the women, homosexuals, and others being persecuted by the Taliban—the emerging coalition against terrorism is putting the U.S. in bed with several other dictatorial regimes that also subvert the rights of women, gays, lesbians, and transgendered people.

"I think we have to look at all the potential consequences to the coalition that the U.S. is trying to build, and the way it's building it," warns Surina Khan, executive director of the International Lesbian and Gay Human Rights Commission (ILGHRC). Born in Pakistan and raised in an Islamic family, Khan is more than familiar with the policies of some of the hard-line Islamic countries the U.S. has bolstered and whose abuses the U.S. has excused. While much of the Muslim world has condemned the terror attacks, views Islamic terrorists and regimes like the Taliban as having twisted the tenets of Islam, and may be more moderate toward women, on the issue of homosexuality Islam is fairly uniform across the board, as is much of Christianity. "Homophobia runs through mainstream, conservative, and fundamentalist elements of Islam," says Khan. "It's a common thread that runs through every Muslim nation."

George W. Bush has set the terms of the impending battle: the good people of the world against the "evil folks," making it appear as if every nation in the coalition against terrorism—including the U.S.—is a bastion of human rights, while Afghanistan's Taliban and any other country that doesn't join the coalition are the planet's only torturers, murderers, and supporters of terrorism. This administration, which hasn't exactly defined itself in its first 10 months as one concerned about social issues in the U.S., let alone abroad, is even suddenly talking about the Taliban's treatment of women, just as the rabidly conservative New York Post—no friend to the gay rights movement—ran a few paragraphs in the aftermath of the attacks about the horrendously antigay policies of the Taliban.

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