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The LGBTQ Community in Muslim-Majority Countries

In December, the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar brought to light a subject that periodically gains international media attention: the laws regarding homosexuality in Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) countries. In the case of Qatar, what began as public outcry against the Qatari government advising against rainbow flags at soccer matches turned into public protest from soccer teams. Teams from across Europe, such as Belgium, Germany, and England, either planned or attempted to wear OneLove Armbands in protest of Qatar’s stringent laws against homosexuality.


The media attention on Qatar has brought on larger conversations about the treatment of LGBTQ people in the MENA region. Beyoncé received backlash after performing in Dubai, which has anti-LGBTQ laws similar to Qatar’s, and the story of the death of Eden Knight, a young trans person living in Saudi Arabia, gained globalmedia attention.


But these laws are not universal across Muslim-majority countries. In early 2022, the Malaysian Federal Court ruled that a proposed law, which would have banned same-sex intercourse, was unconstitutional.


Even in the MENA region, these laws vary from country to country. In Jordan and Turkey, same-sex intercourse isn’t explicitly illegal, though there remains a stigma against it. In Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon, the enforcement of morality or public indecency laws — which are most commonly used against same-sex couples — are irregularly practiced, offering LGBTQ individuals more freedom than in countries such as Qatar or Saudi Arabia, though these individuals and couples are often forced to keep a low profile.


These conversations raise the questions: how did these laws come to be in some MENA countries and why are some Muslim-majority countries more accepting of their LGBTQ residents than others?


To gain more insight into this topic, Georgia Voice spoke to a professor of Islam and religious studies who has examined this topic in the past. The professor, who asked to remain anonymous due to potential backlash from community members or a travel ban from a Muslim country, has earned master’s and doctoral degrees in the subject of religious studies.*


This professor noted that, like every other region, the Middle East has always had gay people living there, adding that these laws have actually changed over time to become more strict. What changed to make so many countries criminalize being gay since the 20th century? The answer, according to the professor, is colonialism.


Many countries in the MENA region were either directly colonized — such as Iraq, Algeria, Morocco, Syria, Jordan, and more — or indirectly faced threats and an unwelcome influence from Western countries, having elections meddled with or subjected to military presence from Western countries.


This colonialism, direct or indirect, made many countries lose parts of their culture or fear that they would lose part of their culture, the professor said. Thus, in an effort to remain different from Western countries, many picked what the professor described as “fault lines” to distinguish themselves from Western countries and cultures. One of the fault lines, which the professor described as “arbitrarily picked,” was homosexuality.


In some countries that were colonized or experienced unwelcome Western influence or presence, topics such as secularization, the legalization of marriage equality, or even certain tenets of feminism were viewed as “Western ideals,” and to support these causes was to support the colonizers.


In these countries, the professor says there’s “a crisis of being culturally colonized.” Therefore, these “fault lines” that they earlier described also became markers of being “good” or “pure” Muslim countries.


Additionally, in countries that were directly colonized — like Pakistan, where homosexuality is criminalized — the original penal codes that made being gay illegal were written by the colonizing country.


Another factor that leads to these highly restrictive laws is how theocratic a country’s government is; in other words, how much a country includes the doctrines of Islam into its constitution and laws. Saudi Arabia and Iran include Islamic religious law in their constitutions, with Iran functioning as an “Islamic Republic” since 1979 and Saudi Arabia adhering to Salafi Islam, one of the more conservative branches of the religion. In other countries like Qatar, the strong cultural ties to Islam lend to these laws.


Still, the professor says that the arbitrary nature of anti-gay laws is quite clear in countries such as the United Arab Emirates, where homosexuality is illegal in the constitution but the consumption of alcohol is not.


The professor added that this is not just an issue in majority-Muslim countries, but in many countries where the doctrines of an Abrahamic faith (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) are included in the constitution or the culture.


So, what does the future of gay rights look like in some of the aforementioned countries? The professor says that they can’t predict the future, but that time may bring change, though they don’t know how quickly or slowly it may come.


“The Muslim community needs to come to their own understanding and acceptance of homosexuality,” the professor said.


*Editor’s note: credentials were confirmed by Georgia Voice.