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.
The fact is, some of the countries the U.S. is now cozying up to have oppressive laws and policies frighteningly similar to the Taliban’s. In Pakistan, the U.S.’s newest ally in the so-called war on terror, homosexual acts between men or women are crimes punishable by death. Though the law is rarely enforced, it is used as a threat to intimidate people and as a blackmail tool by the police. In Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar, laws against homosexual acts are enforced with prison sentences of three to 10 years. In the United Arab Emirates and Yemen, both male homosexuality and lesbianism are crimes punishable by death.
Women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive, must get written permission from a male relative if they want to leave the country, and cannot walk outside without being accompanied by a male relative. Male homosexuality in Saudi Arabia is punishable by death. In 1996, a man was reportedly beheaded as a punishment for homosexuality. Last year, nine transvestites were subjected to 2600 lashes each in public, violating a UN convention Saudi Arabia signed that prohibits torture for performing “deviant” sexual acts, and were sentenced to several years in prison as well. (Police had caught the men on surveillance cameras dressing in women’s clothes.)
In Egypt, women run the risk of losing their citizenship if they marry a non-Egyptian. And 52 men accused of “practicing debauchery with men” have been on trial in Cairo over the past several months in a spectacle that has received international attention. The two main defendants have been charged with “forming a group that aims to exploit the Islamic religion to propagate extremist ideas.”
The men had been arrested inside and outside a riverboat disco, the Queen Boat, that was raided last May. “This disco had a policy of admitting single people—most places only admit couples,” says Scott Long, ILGHRC’s program director. “The police targeted men who they thought were effeminate or men who were alone.”
The arrests are part of what appears to be a crackdown by the Hosni Mubarak government that some believe is an attempt to distract Egyptians from the serious problems plaguing the country, while also pandering to Islamic fundamentalists by suppressing an increasingly visible gay community. A month before the disco raid, in April, reports emerged of men having been entrapped by police on the Internet as well: Posing as potential sexual partners, police met with men who were seeking sex online and then interrogated them, a tactic similar to the crackdowns on supposed pedophiles in the U.S. A month earlier, an Egyptian computer engineer was sentenced to three years in jail, and an accountant to 15 months, for engaging in the scandalous act of advertising for sex on the Internet.
Some of the Cairo 52 have reportedly been tortured and abused in jail, coerced to confess by use of electric shock treatment, and are being tried in State Emergency Security Court, a special court system that was created specifically to deal with terrorists and criminals who pose threats to national security. A 15-year-old boy who was swept up in the raid at the Queen Boat has already been tried, found guilty, and sentenced to the maximum penalty of three years in prison. The court ruled that he was guilty after a medical examination had showed he’d engaged in “debauchery.”
The trial of the Cairo 52 resumes this month. There are fears among activists that Mubarak’s government, wanting to appease angry Islamic fundamentalists while it sides with the U.S. against the Taliban and Bin Laden, has cracked down even further on suspected homosexuals and that the fate of the Cairo 52 will be worse than previously thought.
“The ‘war on terrorism’ is seen in parts of the Middle East as an attack on Islam,” Khan explains. The government of Egypt, trying to appease the religious right’s opposition to Egypt’s participation in such a ‘war,’ is ready to step up discrimination against homosexuals. Long adds that reports are surfacing of additional arrests. “I just got a note from Aswan saying a number of men were arrested in their flat,” he says.
In August, Congressman Barney Frank and 34 other members of Congress sent a letter of protest to the Mubarak government, as have UN officials. But while activists say the state department under the Clinton administration was more vocally proactive on antigay human rights abuses around the world, prior to September 11 there was no pressure on Egypt by the Bush administration, and it’s doubtful there will be any now.
It’s understandable that the U.S. needs Egypt as an ally in isolating the Taliban; It’s not in the U.S.’s best interest if Egypt experiences internal strife that might destabilize its government at this critical time. But the U.S. most certainly can—and must—speak up about Egypt’s and other countries’ human rights abuses at the same time that it forms a coalition against terror. What, after all, is the U.S. fighting for when it claims to be preserving freedom and democracy?
“Egypt is already an ally—it’s more than an ally, it’s basically a client state of the U.S.,” notes Long, referring to the fact that Egypt is the second largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid (Israel being the first). “We fund the Egyptian government, and that’s why Egypt is joining the coalition. If we’re going to use that relationship to engage with them on terrorism, we should not be afraid to use it to engage with them on human rights. These are 52 human beings. They range from young students to engineers to doctors to lawyers to construction workers, and they’re facing persecution. They should not be further victims of September 11.”