Saudi Shame

Maryam Namazie
Published in Gay Times
June 2005

Gay people are routinely facing harassment, arrest, torture, flogging and execution in Saudi Arabia. It’s no wonder the gay rights group OutRage! has labelled Saudi Arabia one of the most homophobic countries in the world.

In May alone, as many as 92 men were arrested as ‘deviants’. On March 10, over 100 men were arrested after a raid for attending a gay wedding and found to be dancing and ‘behaving like women’. According to Amnesty International, 31 of the men were sentenced to imprisonment for 6 months to a year and up to 200 lashes each; four namely two Saudi Arabians, a Jordanian and a Yemeni were given two years’ imprisonment and 2,000 lashes. As is usual in Saudi Arabia, the sentences were passed in a closed session in which defence lawyers were barred. According to Human Rights Watch, the more than 70 men who had initially been released were subsequently summoned back and informed they had also been sentenced to one year’s imprisonment each.

These arrests closely follow the public beheading of Ahmed al-Enezi and Shahir al-Roubli, two gay lovers in Arar, in the north, for allegedly murdering a man who had found out about their relationship and was threatening to out them. The Saudi Interior Ministry’s statement announcing the execution said the two were found in a ‘shameful situation’, a term which is regularly used by the authorities to refer to homosexuality.

Whilst the reports are alarming, and seem to be escalating, one can be certain that these are only the tip of the iceberg. Most cases of persecution go unreported for the mere reason that the government is a dictatorship with strict censorship rules. For every report that reaches the international media and organisations, there are thousands of nameless, faceless individuals whose fate goes unreported. Under such circumstances, it is exceedingly difficult to collect facts and highlight the persecution gay people face. In the case of those arrested at the party for example, it was someone close to a defendant who alerted international organisations of the arrests and not official reports. The Saudi authorities seldom release information about arrests until after a trial and it is impossible to independently verify reports. All Saudi executions are also not systematically reported; officials continue to deny that the death penalty is applied for homosexuality ‘alone’. Of course there is evidence otherwise. On 1 January 2002, for example, Ali bin Hittan bin Sa’id, Muhammad bin Suleyman bin Muhammad and Muhammad bin Khalil bin ‘Abdullah were executed in Abha, Asir province, solely for their sexual orientation. And this is not a problem faced by gays in Saudi Arabia alone. In Iran, for example, on March 15, a government affiliated newspaper, Etemad, reported on the execution sentence of two men for homosexuality. No further reports have been received and their fate is unknown.

The abysmal situation of gay people in Saudi Arabia has to be looked at within the context of serious rights violations across the board. The beheadings of the two gay lovers in Arar brought the numbers beheaded for a variety of reasons this year alone to 24. People living in Saudi Arabia don’t have basic rights and freedoms and human rights violations are truly pervasive. Like all countries under Islamic rule, though, sexual ‘crimes’ are dealt with most severely because of their ‘shamefulness’ and ‘perversity’, especially since an Islamic state is usually most preoccupied with the control of sexuality and sex in order to assert its own ‘divine’ and ‘moral’ legitimacy.

Certainly, Islam is not unlike other religions when it comes to sex and sexuality. It is just as inherently homophobic and misogynist as other religions but there is one important fundamental difference and that is that it is a religion in power or vying for power in many countries in the 21st century. Homosexuality is condemned as ‘indecency’, ‘lewdness’, ‘degenerate’, ‘transgressing beyond bounds’ and in need of ‘punishment’ in the Koran. In the Hadith, which are the sayings of the prophet Mohammad and part of Sharia or Islamic laws, it clearly states: ‘Kill the one who sodomises and the one who lets it be done to him.’ Under Islamic Hudud laws, ‘illicit’ gay or straight sex are considered offences for which the punishment is mandatory and corporal in nature – including flogging, execution and stoning to death. These ancient religious texts become all the more relevant because they are translated into the laws of countries like Saudi Arabia and effect real live human beings. Whilst according to Amnesty International, more than 80 countries around the world criminalise same sex relations, eight punish it by death (Afghanistan, Iran, Mauritania, Nigeria – in states practising Sharia law, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, and Yemen) – all of which one might add are countries or parts of countries under Islamic law.

This doesn’t mean that there isn’t an active gay community in Saudi Arabia, Iran or elsewhere or that gay tourists will be beheaded upon entry. Despite serious repercussions, people continue to live their lives, have sex and express their sexuality. Most Saudi cities have underground gay networks, which organise private parties. Some visitors find this pleasantly surprising and therefore mistakenly conclude that restrictions and repercussions are exaggerated. They are not. Or they often consider the legal restrictions and impositions as part of the ‘people’s culture and religion’ rather than that of the ruling class’. These visitors fail to make a distinction between the regime imposing these inhuman and medieval laws and the people forced to live under them.

Of course homophobia exists everywhere including in countries that do not impose Islamic law. But Islam in power or political Islam has raised homophobia to another dimension. Those of us who have fled political Islam know full well the levels of threats and intimidation those with ‘unchaste’ and ‘perverse’ lifestyles have faced and continue to face. The political Islam behind the arrests, floggings, and beheadings in Saudi Arabia is part of the same right wing reactionary movement, which hung sweet 16 year old Atefeh Rajabi from a city square in Iran for ‘acts incompatible with chastity’, beheaded prostitutes in Iraq and recently stoned to death a 29 year old woman, Amina, accused by her husband of adultery, in Afghanistan. [As I mentioned, in many cases, we are left with only a first name or no name at all.]

This movement is also permeating into life in Britain and the west as well. Demands for child veiling, Islamic schools and a Sharia court in Britain for Muslims as well as Ken Livingstone’s love affair with al-Qaradawi are all evidence of this fact. In Saudi Arabia and Iran, political Islam kills, maims and brutalises, but here the ‘moderate Islamic scholar’ Qaradawi’s support for women’s ‘modesty’ and his condemnation of sexual acts as ‘perversions’ are deemed mere abstract questions of freedom of speech or academic/theological debates. Don’t be fooled. They are all part and parcel of the same movement and implement Islamic rules as soon as they have any power. [By the way, it was also an ‘Islamic scholar’ who issued the sentence for Amina’s stoning to death in Afghanistan.]

The rise of political Islam here in Britain is affecting countless women, gays, and others who have sought refuge and safety in Britain from it. Moreover, whilst the UK government has close relations with countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, it continues to refuse and deport its victims. Just last year, Hussein Nasseri, 26, a gay man who feared he would be executed if he were deported to Iran killed himself after the Home Office turned down his second appeal for asylum.

To make matters worse, any attempt to criticise Islamic laws and states are now being deemed racist and Islamophobic. Even the Saudi government itself has labelled criticism of its policies and practices as such. Clearly though, the targets of racism and discrimination are human beings not beliefs or ideas belonging to or attributed to them nor social or political movements associated with belief systems. Such labels are often used by Islamic states and their apologists in the west to silence any criticism and opposition.

Nonetheless, the Saudi government and its likes need to know that the world is watching them when they abuse rights with such impunity. They cannot be allowed to torture, imprison and behead gay people and others under cover of secrecy and carry on with business as usual with western governments such as the UK government, which has military links with the kingdom. Most importantly, though, those being abused and violated need to know they are not alone. That they are not just nameless, faceless individuals languishing in prison or facing torture and execution. They need to know that there are other people all over the world who will not stand by and remain silent.

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