When news of Saudi Prince Saud Abdulaiziz Bin Nasir Al Saud being found guilty of murdering his aide and possibly being gay made headlines, I figured then that the discussion of homosexuality in the Muslim world had unofficially shifted from the private realm to the public one. Knowing the silent and largely hostile attitude towards homosexuality, I actually felt uncomfortable for the Muslim world, as well as Saudi Arabia, for being squarely placed in the spotlight for a taboo topic.
According to Prosecutor Jonathon Laidlaw QC with regards to the murder trial in London, when Saudi Prince Saud Abdulaiziz Bin Nasir Al Saud “…denied being a homosexual to try to hide the ‘abusive undertone'” of a relationship between the prince and the victim, Bandar Abdulaziz, it is possible that he genuinely did not consider himself to be a homosexual.
Laidlaw said, “The bare fact of his [the prince’s] sexuality would ordinarily be of absolutely no relevance to a criminal trial, but in this case it is clear that the defendant’s abuse of Bandar was not confined simply to physical beatings.” In other words, a history of sexual abuse in the relationship between the Prince and his servant, inevitably led to an assumption of the accused’s sexual orientation.
While doctrine, scripture, and negative social stigmas have led to public condemnations of homosexuality and homosexual relationships, with punishments ranging from fines to execution depending on the country, the fact remains that the locals in every town know exactly where the gay districts are thriving. These underground hangouts are not only “making-do” with the legal status quo of the country, but their existence implies there is no problem in remaining tucked away in the Middle Eastern/Muslim closet.
Michael Lungo, author of Gay Travels in the Muslim World, discussed his impressions in an interview with the Jerusalem Post, “…identity can be nebulous and fluid, more so in Muslim countries than in the West. Things are not defined in the East as they are in the West: Some gays and men who have sex with men within Muslim countries might not readily accept the label of homosexual.”
Civil rights narratives are defined by the presence or absence of words like “freedom” and “choice,” but homosexuals in the Middle East appear to find such freedom without the government or the legal system protecting their sexuality. In fact, the cloak of invisibility works to their advantage because they are engaged in behavioral acts, not identity politics. In an NPR interview John Bradley, author of Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis cautioned against using western terminology in trying to understand the homosexual landscape in the Middle East; he explained that there is an existing paradox when it comes to societal movements, where “the more you push political agenda, the more you risk creating a backlash.”
Parvez Sharma, director of the film Jihad for Love, also participated in the interview, pointing out an even deeper dimension of invisibility amongst homosexuals in predominantly Muslim countries – gay Muslim women. His documentary largely featured men because women are further cast off into the shadows due to gender segregation policies. These policies keep them from joining those underground hubs or functioning in some sort of camouflage in street life because they often remain in the domestic sphere.
So according to Sharma and Bradley, when Ahmedinejad told the audience at Columbia University that, “We don’t have homosexuals like in your country,” it may not have been a denial of the existence of homosexuals in Iran, but rather a comparison of the gay communities in the West against those in the East; meaning, that they differ. Still, the former possibility makes sense when we come to understand what existence and visibility mean for homosexuals in the Muslim world.
Herein lies a profound paradox: while people like American Parvez Sharma decided to come out after 9/11 to represent a diverse Muslim population, the gay population in countries like Morocco was being told to “remember their place in the shadows” of society. This dichotomy has created a peculiar twist in the greater Muslim community’s mission to make known the Muslim identity to the West- by being as candid, visible and engaged as possible from the individual to the community. Gays in the Muslim world are in one sense “coming out of the closet” for the recognition of their religious identities (in other words, now more aware and assertive their Muslim identities as a result of addressing stereotypes after 9/11) but still remaining undercover when it comes to their gay “un-identities.”
In the arguments that eventually reached the verdict this past Tuesday proclaiming Prince Saud guilty for murder, Prosecutor Laidlaw made it a point to highlight the bite marks on Abdulaziz’s body that had an “obvious sexual connotation,” although this information was “not a factor in his [the victim’s] death.” The mention of this irrelevant piece of information demonstrates Western society’s need to isolate and draw a solid line around a person’s identify–be it his/her economic, political or sexual identity– all in an effort for it to make sense in the public arena, whereas Middle Eastern culture prefers, for better or for worse, to leave such matters in a state of flux without pinning a permanent label on the person.
Shazia Kamal is a contributing writer to Altmuslimah. This article previously appeared in the Newsweek/Washington Post religion blog, On Faith.