Gay Saudi diplomat fears for life?

So here is your assignment. Read the top of the following story in the Los Angeles Times and try to spot the religion ghost.

The headline: “Gay Saudi diplomat seeking asylum says ‘they will kill me openly.’ ”

In a public plea for help, a Los Angeles-based Saudi diplomat said he is seeking asylum because he believes his life will be in danger if he is forced to return to his country.

The diplomat, who gave his name as Ali Ahmad Asseri, sent an e-mail to news organizations saying that Saudi officials had refused to renew his passport, revoked his health benefits and effectively terminated his position as first secretary at the consulate in Los Angeles after learning that he is gay and friends with a Jewish woman.

“My life is in a great danger here, and if I go back to Saudi Arabia they will kill me openly in broad daylight,” Asseri wrote in the
message, a copy of which was provided to The Times. … Asseri, who has been in the U.S. for five years, has fled his West Hollywood apartment and is in hiding, according to supporters.

“I am severely angry that I have been forced to be in this situation because of my personal life,” Asseri said in the e-mail. “It’s not fair and I will not let it go.”

Asseri’s lawyer, Ally Bolour, told NBC News — which first reported the story Saturday — that his client applied for asylum on the grounds that he is a member of a “particular social group” that would subject him to persecution if he returns home.

OK, if you said the “ghost” is the friendship with the Jewish woman, you need to read on. You’ll find out that she is merely a political problem, since the assumption is that she is an Israeli spy.

If you said that the “ghost” is that Asseri’s homosexuality is a problem under Islamic law, it appears that you would be wrong again. At least, according to this story, his case has little or nothing to do with religion. This entire standoff is rooted in politics and culture. After all, readers are told:

Homosexuality is illegal in Saudi Arabia. An Amnesty International report cited a 2002 case in which three Saudi men were executed after being convicted of homosexual acts. The most recent U.S. State Department report on human rights in the country cites a 2007 newspaper report that said two men had been flogged 7,000 times after being found guilty of sodomy. …

Asseri’s religious views could also put him at risk in Saudi Arabia. … Asseri acknowledged in the e-mail that he is not a practicing Muslim, although he said he believes in God.

So here is the big question: Is this man appealing for “political” asylum or “religious” asylum? Here’s another hot question: When the U.S. State Department is dealing with the realities on the ground in Saudi Arabia (please click here), what is the difference? You can see that reality in the following paragraph in the story:

In July, Asseri posted an appeal to King Abdullah on http://www.alsaha.com, a popular Arabic website, in which he railed against the “backwardness” of Saudi officials and “militant Imams who defaced the tolerance of Islam.”

Here’s my point. As we saw in another recent case (discussed here at GetReligion), the lines between culture and religion are increasingly beginning to blur in cases that center on appeals for asylum. U.S. officials may hesitate to admit the obvious — that this gay man faces persecution under Saudi laws — because granting his appeal might open the door for other cases that are rooted in other violations of Islamic law, such as conversion to another faith or acts of alleged blasphemy by centrist or liberal Muslims.

As a rule, U.S. officials are squeamish about that hot-button word — persecution. Admitting that persecution is real implies that some nations have more religious freedom than others and conceding that point would seriously complicate the lives of many diplomats, many of whom just do not “get religion.”

But that doesn’t mean that journalists have to ignore the obvious, as well. If journalists who read this weblog have doubts about what I am saying, all they need to do is call a Baha’i leader, or an organization that focuses on religious freedom, or even a gay-rights group that is active at the global level.

Is this a political story? Yes. Is it a cultural story? Yes. Is it a religion story? Yes, of course. Deal with it.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • dalea

    Gay press has been covering this for decades. Here is a story that traces the current situation back to a 1994 asylum request:

    http://gayrights.change.org/blog/view/will_the_united_states_step_up_to_help_gay_saudi_diplomat_avoid_potential_execution

  • Mollie

    Really interesting take, TMatt.

  • Dave

    If I recall correctly the “asylum from persecution” meme was invented in response to threats to foreign anti-Communists from their own Communist governments. The diplomats have always been queasy about extending it to gays in a country like Saudi Arabia, women fleeing genital mutilation, and the like — cases that both ask the government to act on the fact that there is so damn much persecution in the world having nothing to do with Communism, and to set a precedent for a flood of refugees with no plausible means of support.


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