You Must Be Joking
Iranian president Ahmadinejad
made some interesting statements during his
visit to the US two weeks ago.
While he seems to have modified his views
on the Holocaust - he now partially accepts
it - he made the outrageous but amusing statement
that there are no gays in Iran. This elicited
spontaneous laughter from his audience. Like
many other people in the Arab and Muslim world
he is unable or unwilling to see the elephant
in the room.
Gays and lesbians have been part of the fabric
of those societies just as they have been
in the West and elsewhere in the world. As
long as they kept their sexuality away from
the public square, a societal version of don’t
ask-don’t tell, they were left alone.
References to homosexuality abound in Persian,
Turkish and Urdu literature, both old and
contemporary. Emperor Babar, the founder of
the Mughal dynasty in India in 1508, wrote
candidly about his homosexual exploits in
his autobiography (Tuzk-e-Babri). Ismat Chughtai,
perhaps one of the greatest Urdu fiction writers
of the 20th century India, wrote about lesbian
love in her short stories.
Had he bothered to read Mr. Ahmadinejad would
have found ample references to homosexuality
in the history and literature of his own country.
In his 2005 book ‘Saudi Arabia Exposed’,
John Bradley, a journalist who has lived in
Saudi Arabia, writes about a thriving gay
community in that country. Somehow the Puritanical
Wahhabi establishment has decided to turn
a blind eye to all the cruising that goes
on in public places in all major Saudi cities.
If asked about the presence of homosexuals
in their country they would also deny it exists
in the kingdom.
A recent documentary about gays and lesbians
in the Arab and Muslim world has brought the
issue in the open. Six years in the making,
the documentary that is titled ‘A Jehad
for Love’ was filmed clandestinely by
Pervaiz Sharma, who is a gay Indian Muslim
living in America. It chronicles the societal
and family taboos against homosexuality and
the extreme hardship they endure in their
daily lives. Those who are brave enough to
be open about their sexuality pay a heavy
Mr. Sharma was surprised to learn that despite
being shunned, sidelined, persecuted and despised
by the religious hierarchy, most of them cling
tenaciously to their faith.
Homosexuality has been part of human experience
since the dawn of history. It has been only
in recent years that the subject has been
brought out in the open in the Western world.
Political and social activism on gender issues
has led to widespread recognition and acceptance
of homosexuality as an alternate lifestyle.
While open discussion of gay rights still
makes many heterosexuals uncomfortable, an
open public debate on the subject has had
a positive effect.
The biggest stumbling block in the acceptance
of gays and lesbians by the ‘mainstream’
is the misplaced belief that gays and lesbians
have a choice in their sexual orientation.
Like the psychiatrists who until a few decades
ago classified homosexuality as a disease,
they refuse to accept that a majority of gays
and lesbians are born that way and have no
choice. For some this realization comes after
years of living in ambiguity and agony. If
it were a simple matter of choice then why
would otherwise intelligent men and women
subject themselves to a life-long ordeal of
public humiliation and castigation?
Science has yet to identify a ‘gay gene’
that would explain homosexuality on firm scientific
grounds. It is a complex interplay of myriad
factors that certainly include biology as
well as cognitive and environmental factors.
Scientists have observed homosexual behavior
in a large number of animal species. They
run the whole gamut from primates to bison
to elephants to giraffes to lions including
fruit flies. The point is not that we as the
‘highest life form’ should know
better. It is because some people are wired
that way. It is not far fetched to think that
God in His infinite wisdom has rolled the
dice a bit differently for some of His creation.
Like the Iranian president, all major religions
refuse to see the elephant in the room. At
any given time in a religious congregation,
may it be a mosque, a church or a temple,
5 to 10% of worshipers are gay (that is the
range of prevalence in general population).
Perhaps instead of damning them to eternal
hell fire we could show some compassion for
and understanding of our fellow human beings.
Science will eventually catch up with this
phenomenon. I wonder if religion will follow