The Egyptian government, along with some other Middle Eastern countries, recently galvanized its campaign against LGBTQ people and their supporters. The increasing political/legal repression of LGBTQ individuals across the Middle East and North Africa, in particular, has drawn critical attention and condemnation from international organizations/ human rights watchdogs as of late.
This literature analysis will examine some of the scarce academic treatises on the political/legal status of LGBTQ identity in the Middle East, with a particular focus on North Africa. A key aspect of this analysis also involves the politically convenient interpretation of homosexuality as a ‘western’ phenomenon, motivating governments to advance heteronormative ideals through policymaking.
Certain works, such as Sexual Rights and their Discontents by Bettina Dennerlein, directly address popular religious/ideological conditions that legitimize state-sanctioned homophobia. Other works, such as a chapter from Momin Rahman’s Homosexualities, Muslim Cultures, and Modernity, delve into international abstracts, such as the framing of sexual diversity as a key feature of Western elitism and modernization.
Sexual Rights and their Discontents, (2017) by Professor of Islamic Studies Bettina Dennerlein, examines neo-conservative Islamic discourse on homosexuality in connection with religious ideations of marriage and the Egyptian “family”. In her writings, Dennerlein cites highly influential conservative Egyptian theologians, such as Yusuf al-Qaraḍāwīin, to argue that Egyptian heteronormative policies are rooted in protecting the family and sexuality from secular, “modern” notions of liberty and rights, and also from liberal Muslim critique.
Modern Egyptian theologians promote the “legitimate” ‘Islamic family which according to Dennerlein, is a form of state-validated “familism”. Normalized, sacred notions of marriage and sexuality thus permit religious authorities to directly influence LGBTQ political discourse.
Current legal statutes in Egypt, such as “Islamic Personal Status Law”, according to Dennerlein, intentionally fuse religion, gender, and the family in their interpretation of homosexuality. This written work also interestingly discusses Western “homonationalism”, and questions the true extent to which it is a driving force for Middle Eastern reactionary homophobic policies. Dennerling implies that neo-conservative anti-homosexual attitudes are not essentially and certainly not completely inflamed by transnational LGBTQI activism in the region nor are they solely targeted at activist organizations or individuals.
In the late 20th century, research on politicized Islam and homosexuality has largely focused solely on religious and juridical conditions, as well as on problems of categorization/definitions. Through Sexual Rights and their Discontents, Dennerlein contributes to such research by connecting ideological leanings in Islamic discourse to sociological constructs that produce political realities for LGBTQ individuals in Egypt.
Furthermore, similarly to many of her 21st-century academic peers, this article emphasizes the fact that sociopolitical dynamics aren’t always clear-cut. Such an interconnected yet malleable view of ideological/political dynamics does not allow for simplistic generalizations on Islam and homosexuality. “An Examination of Factors that Catalyze LGBTQ Movements in Middle Eastern and North African Authoritarian Regimes”, a 2015 graduate dissertation by Michael Figueredo, analyzes the various conduits to LGBTQ rights movements in North Africa.
He argues that recent political incidents, such as the Arab Spring, along with technological media advancements, have been important variables in an increase in LGBTQ rights movements in North Africa. His chapter on “The Social Status of Sexual & Gender Minorities” is particularly informative. Figueredo gives a description of specific legal conditions regarding homosexuality in North African countries, such as Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt. Much of his empirical findings support conventional wisdom about the status of LGBTQ individuals in the Middle East.
He does, however, compare legal conditions on a country-by-country basis, and the concreteness of legal repression. Egypt, for example, in contrast to other North African countries, goes as far as to explicitly prosecute individuals with an androgynous gender, an alternative gender, or for having no gender identity. Similarly to Dennerlein, Figueiredo’s work also explores “family codes”, as important sources of homophobic legislation.
Figueiredo, as a political scientist, furthermore delves into global political dynamics, arguing that the expansion of post-materialist rights in Tunisia is due to a desire by the government to build international legitimacy. Figueiredo’s analysis is detailed enough that he is able to outline the complexities of differing levels of law enforcement against homosexuality, for example, contrasting the more “globally conscious” Moroccan king, with his more “systemically homophobic”, government appointees.
Figueiredo’s dissertation contributes to the literature on the political status of LGBTQ individuals by empirically delineating the causes of regressive/progressive sociopolitical conditions. Though the scope of his study is limited to three case studies, he is able to manageably illustrate modern state-sponsored legal persecution and also general societal marginalization.
It is sufficiently informative. His inclusion of transnational movements, and their emboldening of LGBTQ groups/ frightening of national governments is also an important discussion. While contemporary academics today, such as Momin Rahman have also considering globalization on a social level, Figueiredo also interestingly includes possible economic motivations for conformity to the global social liberalization trend.
In Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East, (2011) journalist Brian Whitaker, through interviews and research, gives an insight into sociopolitical barriers against living freely as an LGBTQ individual in the Middle East. Particularly in the chapter “Rights and Wrongs”, he expounds on specific legal enforcement of heteronormative ideals.
Whitaker’s extensive experience as a reporter in the MENA region affords him the ability to convey the nature of social law enforcement. Personal interviews that Whitaker conducted, along with extensive human rights analyses, inform this work. Whitaker argues, for example, that in practice, the legal systems of Arab states are less dependent on the various schools of Islamic law (shari‘a) than conventionally thought.
In particular, Whitaker describes the diversity (and even absence) of legal parameters on prosecuting homosexuality. Whitaker’s descriptions range from illegitimate “tribal justice”, to legally-sanctioned executions. Whitaker also notes that many of the highly publicized homophobic executions across countries in the Middle East had one thing in common. This was that charges of homosexual indecency were almost always accompanied with other unrelated charges.
In Saudi Arabia, for example, seemingly to legitimize the execution of two gay men, other unsubstantiated charges such as raping young boys, were brought against them. Whitaker’s work on this topic is constructive in that his perspective as a journalist allows him to accurately investigate the complexities and contradictions within legal enforcement norms of various countries. His survey data also includes tangible accounts of cases that help to illustrate the variety of legal theoretical traditions for controlling homosexuality.
Interestingly, Whitaker seems to make an increasingly popular anti-homonationalist argument, by explicitly denouncing the orientalist phenomenon of using “Islamic homophobia” as an avenue to attack Islam itself as unmodern. This problematic dynamic was later brought into a more vigorous debate in Islamic Studies, in James Massad’s Desiring Arabs, in which he problematizes the recent internationalization of LGBTQ politics.
Particularly in the chapter ‘Re-Orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World”, Massad claims that the misguided political attempt to “queer” Middle Eastern countries extends colonialist impositions of Western norms on non-Western cultures. He further implies that national political homophobia is partly a rejection of Western versions of “sexuality”, and such rejection is a way of resisting Western Imperialism.
Massad identifies several human rights organizations/ intergovernmental bodies, as key players in this neo-colonialist phenomenon. Through descriptive, yet concise language, Massad amalgamates his theoretical notions into what he describes as the “Gay International”, which appoints itself a mission to protect “gay” individuals outside of the west by demanding that their rights as “homosexuals” be protected.
Massad is able to ground his theoretical contemplations with insightful, practical observations. Particularly describing subnational, Middle Eastern reactionary discourse against this agenda, Massad illustrates the dangers inherent in the promotion of the “Gay International”. Massad’s theory has provoked sharp debate within academic and activist discursive arenas, regarding if this ontologically based criticism of a Western framework of “sexual diversity” is fair.
Multiple scholars, such as Momin Rahman, concur with the viewpoint that there have been different formations of sexual identities in Muslim cultures. Rahman himself wrote Homosexualities, Muslim cultures, and Modernity, in which he addresses the phenomenon Massad outlines, as well as critiques Massad’s framing.
In the book, Rahman probes the framework of LGBTQ political and cultural activism in the west, and, in particular, problematizes the framing of sexual diversity as a key feature of Western elitism and modernization during the post-9/11 era, similarly to Massad. Rahman’s work also challenges these essentialist views by advocating for a “connected historical” context and using an “intersectional” approach to question dogmatic views of sexuality and religion that pervade Western socio-political thought.
There are important distinctions between Rahman’s work, and Massad’s (along with other writers in general), and being that Rahman’s work is partly a sociological critique of current literature, he takes time to evaluate multiple framing’s of the issue, including Massad’s. Particularly in chapter 4, “Transformations of Muslim homoeroticism,” Rahman notes that he concurs with Massad’s ideation of “homonationalist” impositions upon the Middle East.
He also similarly argues that, in the subnational level, these neo-colonialist discourse strategies actually strengthens political reactions against LGBTQ individuals in the Middle East. Rahman boldly asserts, however, that Massad doesn’t make a promising contribution to a practical strategy that reformulates these orientalist frameworks. Rahman accuses Massad and other academics who have written on the topic, of simply rejecting Western imperialist discourses, and lacking enough detail to explain the theoretical dynamics they bring up.
Rahman claims that an “intersectional’ approach is what Massad lacks. Rahman’s work, as a sociological analysis, attempts to strengthen contemporary literature on MENA LGBTQ politics by critically delving into the multivalent identities, societal constructs, and sociopolitical conditions that shape current western and global constructions of sexuality and gender.
Furthermore, Rahman’s constant critique of sociologist contemporaries and their flawed interpretations of “sexual modernity”, with his own, allows him to convey the full extent of myopia that he thinks, plagues current literature regarding LGBTQ politics and the Muslim World. “National Politics and Sexuality in Transregional Perspective”, edited by Achim Rohde and Christina von Braun, is a collection of works from different authors that deal with the intertwined identity politics of Europe and the MENA countries.
Homophobic political movements against LGBTQ individuals in both regions are discussed in this comparative study. Chapter 4 in particular, by Professor Max Kramer, inquires into the sociopolitical effects of globalization in the Maghreb (greater North Africa). Interestingly, Kramer argues in his work that young male Maghrebis can only conceive of themselves as gay only by seeing themselves as “Westernized beings”. This implies that the sociopolitical effects of the “Gay International” agenda outlined by Massad and Rahman, may have already taken a toll.
Previously prevailing subnational notions of gender and sexuality, according to Kramer, have fused with the global “international” Western-fixed ideation of sexual diversity, an intrepid claim. However, Kramer maintains that the hybrid Arab-French Mediterranean culture of the Maghreb has a much less concrete definition of the gendered “Other”, than Westerners assume. Kramer attempts to couch these discussions in terms of the post-independence homophobic ofﬁcial discourses of the North African nation-states and traditional gender segregation.
Kramer’s work contributes to the emerging field of transregional comparative sexuality studies by taking the “connected historical” approach that Momin Rahman prescribes in his book, although Kramer doesn’t explicitly say this. While the book in general aims to expose regional differences and similarities, Kramer’s chapter, in particular, brings into the discussion, transnational continuities and their effects on the relatively nebulous formations of sexuality in North Africa. The book In a Time of Torture, published by Dr. Scott Long in collaboration with the Human Rights Watch, details the governmental crackdown on LGBTQ individuals in Egypt.
Published in 2004, the alleged motive of the Mubarak regime is cultural authenticity, along with oral hygiene. According to the report, the Mubarak regime utilized internet entrapment, police harassment, and unspeakable methods of torture to advance their heteronormative aims. This report on the scope and sweep of the crackdown takes the vantage point of an international human rights organization (a category of actors that has been subject to considerable scrutiny in the field).
Long, having attended a particular trial brought against a gay man in Cairo engages in some legal theory similar to that done in Brian Whitaker’s work. Legislative strategies, according to Long, have morphed so as to suit political subjugation goals. New provisions, whenever introduced, all fall in line with patterns described by Brian Whittaker; asserting homosexual guilt by connection with other crimes.
The Arabic term di`ara is generally understood to mean prostitution in the sense of commercial sex but was replaced in legislative wording with fujur, a much broader term (translated here as ‘debauchery’), enabling much more arbitrary execution and interpretation of laws regarding that provision. Along with the examination of legal transformations, Long discusses the role of national media in advancing reactionary politics in Egypt. Sensationalized charges of decadence and immorality aid to increase sensitivity to the moral urgency in a post-colonialist society such as Egypt.
The legitimacy of nationalist, authoritarian rulers, thus can and has been bolstered through enforcement of heteronormative ideals. Through its investigative approach as a human rights report, this work represents an effort to encapsulate the subnational dynamics of “moral panics” in legal and political realms. Its emphasis on the influence of the media is also unusual in the expository literature on LGBTQ politics in North Africa.
While this work lacks salient discussion of western/transnational influences on reactionary political repression, interestingly, Long makes sure to have a paragraph that strongly disavows “essentialist” ideals of homosexuality and that the Human Rights Watch tries to avoid pushing these ideals at all costs.
This implies just how influential outside theoretical discussions/critiques of the “Gay International” maybe. Sharia, Homosexuality and LGBT Rights in the Muslim World by Professor of Islamic Law, Javaid Rehman, discusses the legitimacy of the claims for the criminalization of homosexuality under Sharia law.
While it makes normative arguments in support of a liberal theological interpretation of the Quran and homosexuality, it also highlights the politicization of this issue by the Organization for the Islamic Cooperation (“OIC”) member states in its second chapter. This unconventionally analyzes nations in the Middle East in a joint international political conglomerate.
The OIC, according to Rehman, has adopted a dismissive attitude towards the rights of LGBTQ individuals, seeing homosexuality an “abnormal sexual behavior.”Using religion as a pretext, the OIC has tried to legitimize the “othering” of LGBTQ persons in the international arena. Rehman also includes in his discussion, political reactions to actual intergovernmental legislation that attempted to acknowledge sexual diversity.
Interestingly, the OIC used existing international law to successfully pressure against new resolutions that would protect LGBTQ persons. The OIC’s opposition to the 17/19 Resolution for LGBTQ persons, for example, was legally advocated through existing resolutions against “defamation of religions” (claiming Islam would be blasphemed under enforcement of this Resolution).
This chapter from Sharia, Homosexuality and LGBT Rights in the Muslim World supplements current literature on LGBTQ politics in the Middle East, through its inclusion of political tension, mainly between the “West” (particularly the United States) and Muslim-Majority states working together in on the world stage.
Extant literature on the political status of LGBTQ identity in the Middle East is certainly not abundant enough. There is a considerable lack of focus in this arena, and the repressed nature of LGBTQ identity in the Middle East naturally limits the extent to which current treatises can be relied upon for conclusions about sexual diversity in the MENA.
The works included in this literature review, though, still represent innovative attempts to probe sexual identity politics, and engendered fruitful academic debate, whether they were theoretically-based critiques or direct sociopolitical analysis. A number of works included in this literature review have significantly contributed to (and challenged) academic understandings of MENA sexual diversity and the politics surrounding it.