Will Islam affect future for Egyptian gays?

Anyone who closely followed the events of the Arab spring knows that the demonstrations that rocked Egypt and other lands drew a unique and highly complex mix of people into the streets in opposition to the regime of President Hosni Mubarak.

The public faces of these events were young, urban and, by the standards of the region, “liberal.” Some could even be called “secular” — some, but not many (check the confusing, but fascinating data from a well-timed Pew Forum survey).

Now the Washington Post has jumped behind those early images to ask a logical question: How have these events affected the lives of gays and lesbians in urban Egypt (as opposed to smaller cities, villages and rural areas)? In particular, what does the future look like for homosexuals in light of the large majority of the population that has, to one degree or another, Islamist views about governance?

This news feature is, as you would expect, packed with urban details. But here is a crucial passage — featuring the voice of Kholoud Bidak, a 33-year-old lesbian — dedicated to a crucial fact:

On Jan. 25, the day the demonstrations began, Bidak remembers spotting a large group of young gay men with tweaked eyebrows, shiny lip gloss and skinny jeans among the protesters. The next time she saw them, on Jan. 28, the day security forces cracked down most violently on the revolt, the men had ditched the glam and braced for battle, carrying vinegar and onions to make the sting of tear gas bearable.

“I think being queer played a huge part,” she said about their motivation to protest. “It was useful for us to be visible and prove that we’re here, that we’re human beings, that we do exist. You can see us.”

Bidak said she spent several days fighting alongside bearded members of the Muslim Brotherhood. As she perfected the art of assembling molotov cocktails using plastic bottles, some of her comrades didn’t realize she was a woman.

Days after Mubarak’s Feb. 11 ouster, Egyptian women expressed hope for greater rights. Fundamentalist Muslims started plotting a political comeback. Coptic Christians spoke of a more visible role in society. Although gays celebrated largely in silence, many began feeling somewhat empowered.

The goal, you see, is open acceptance in Egyptian society and in its law. The story makes that clear.

So if that is the case, and large slices of the Egyptian people are on the record as saying that Egyptian law and life should be based on the Koran and Islamic teachings (several competing views of sharia are in play), wouldn’t it be logical for this story to offer some factual material on how Islam views homosexuality?

I ask this question with the assumption, of course, that there is no one, iron-clad view of the subject. I assume that the increasingly visible Salafi minority has somewhat different views from the slightly less conservative Islamic Brotherhood. I know that the Coptic Orthodox would teach that homosexual acts are sinful, but would almost certainly have differing views on how this would be addressed in the nation’s laws. A crucial question: Are there any Muslim voices in Egypt that openly favor gay rights to any degree?

Behind this looms a more basic question: What are the specific sources in the Koran and Islamic tradition that are being debated, when these issues are discussed? How about one or two sentences or even paragraphs that offer insights into these facts?

How does a reader grasp the serious, practical hurdles that are facing these activists without a few of these facts?

Do not look for them in this piece. Instead, readers are merely told:

… (For) Bidak and many other Egyptian gays, the enthusiasm has fizzled. Islamists, all but certain to become politically powerful in the coming elections, have been calling for a strict religious state; dogmatic politicians have been ascendant in Tunisia, which is among the most liberal of Arab nations.

Meanwhile, Egypt’s security forces, now run by military chiefs, are resorting to tactics the old regime used to silence critics.

Once again, what is missing? What is missing is even the most basic facts about religion, law, tradition, etc.

Once again….

IMAGE: Cairo nightlife

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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.

  • Jerry

    Sigh. Once again, it’s trivially easy for a reporter to find out quite a bit about Islam and LGBT people by starting with, what else, Wikipedia.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    You’re right, even though I’m not a Wiki fan.

    Any one of 25 easy Google searches will do the trick in seconds — including the one I put in the post.

    What causes such a hole in an important story like this one?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Yo, Jerry. That Wiki item is waaaaaaaayyyy better than the norm. Thanks for the link.

  • http://www.aleksandreia.wordpress.com Hector_St_Clare

    Ah, more of the brilliant wonders of democracy, I suppose. Where are all those dumb people who were burbling about how the Egyptian Revolution was read by hip, secular students?

  • http://abitmoredetail.wordpress.com R.F. McDonald

    It _was_ led by those social strata, and to be a successful mass revolution it had to include as many factions as possible including religious conservatives.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    What do your comments have to do with the journalism issues in the article or the post?

  • http://www.aleksandreia.wordpress.com Hector_St_Clare


    Well, I’d suggest they have everything to do with it. The cultural liberals in the mass media thought that democracy in Egypt would be a good thing, and they thought that the Egyptian revolutionaries were a bunch of cool, latte-drinking liberals just like them, and they didn’t think that religion is actually a powerful influence on people’s behaviour, in Egypt or anywhere else. So they slanted the news stories and opinion pieces to reflect those ideas. Now, of course, we are starting to see that those ideas were nonsense.

  • http://abitmoredetail.wordpress.com R.F. McDonald

    I can’t speak for Hector, but mine–implicit, I admit–is that when you open up the public space for discussion every faction gains a voice for good and for ill. Expecting conservative voices not to be represented in a discussion on gay rights anywhere in the world when it becomes possible–imaginable, even–to talk about these things doesn’t make sense.

    “A crucial question: Are there any Muslim voices in Egypt that openly favor gay rights to any degree?”

    Weren’t the protesters referred to in the article presumably Muslim? Or are you talking about an explicitly religious authority? A bit unclear, here.

  • Jerry

    Hector St Clare repeats the typical right wing talking points that implies that the Declaration of Independence is just for Americans but does not apply to foreigners. But I have read reports about how the middle-east uprisings are inspired by our example such as American independence inspires the Arab Spring

    Perhaps I’ve missed it, but I’ve not seen any reporting on American reactions to the Arab Spring by any criteria, including religious differences. It would be interesting to see a survey about how many support the Arab Spring and how many are aware that they might make different choices for a government and laws compared to us. And, of course, do these numbers vary by religion.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Actually, I’m not a super big fan of the Declaration of Independence either, and I’m distrustful of liberal democracy in general, not just in Egypt. That would take us way too far afield though, and has nothing to do with journalism, so let’s leave it at that.

    I think that you’d find that Christians tend to be much more skeptical of the Arab Spring, but I would agree it would be interesting to see.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Tmatt, you said, “Now the Washington Post has jumped behind those early images to ask a logical question…” Why is that a logical question? I’m sure there are plenty of other minority groups in Egypt and throughout the Islamic world, but it doesn’t appear that the MSM are asking this kind of “logical question” about them. Is it, perhaps, that for the MSM, riven as it is by secularists who believe the homosexual agenda is the civil rights movement of our era, this is a logical question? What about the lives of Copts or Assyrians or other ethnic and religious minorities? (Minorities, by the way, that probably outnumber the homosexual minority.)

  • Mike O.

    Thomas A., you can find many stories about Copts during and after the revolution online. The Assyrians, you are right though, are a completely forgotten people in the aftermath. But I think you may be suffering from a bit of paranoia (a.k.a the destroyer) if you think this single article is the ultimate arbiter as to what is or is not considered newsworthy.

    You also brought up sheer numbers. Even if the number of homosexuals in Egypt is one-half of one percent of the poplation that’s still tens of thousands of people. But forget numbers. Sometimes articles can directly be about a few people but can be representative of many more — especially when it comes to human rights.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Mike O., I am not suffering from any paranoia whatsoever. Nor do I think this single article is the ultimate arbiter of what is considered newsworthy. I’ve been in the news business for far too long (20 years) to have that kind of delusion.

    I asked a simple question — why is the question the Post asked a “logical question”? How is it “logical” that reporting on a revolution in an urban area such as Cairo leads to reporting on homosexuals? I’m sorry, but I can’t make that connection.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    The Post article asked A logical question.

    It is not THE logical question, let along THE ONLY logical question.

    It’s a logical human-rights question. GetReligion has offered LOADS of commentary on coverage of the Copts, for example, and others.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Tmatt, I didn’t say “THE” logical question let alone “THE ONLY” logical question. I just want to know why it is a logical question at all.

  • Mike O.

    Thomas A., it is a logical question based on Jerry’s link above. Depending how things turn out in Egypt, homosexuals may be free to work/live or could be imprisoned or killed. Now even if you think that the “homosexual agenda” has gone too far, that they shouldn’t be allowed to marry or adopt, and that it’s an abomination can I assume that you don’t think it’s right to throw them in jail, torture them, or hang them? Many people do, and that’s part of the reason this article was written.

  • An Arab

    Its an interesting issue to tackle, but alas, it will always be presented from a slanted perspective. Traditionally, and according to available texts, the scholars of the shariah did not find homosexuality as necessarily sinful. Remember, this is a perspective that is pre-Victorian in many ways (alas the scar of that era!) so that in a sense, attraction to the human form – regardless of gender – and tempered by either femininty or masculinity, was the norm. Indeed, we have some of the more famous Ulema – I think Imam Abu Hanifah (Im not completely sure though) – being faithfully described by his students as loving youthful male forms. Hence, it is striking to note that one can differentiate between the nature of the attraction, and the act itself, which is sinful. This accords I suppose with the Islamic perspective on sex generally – it is good, and as some scholars state, it is a form of worship in its own right – but to do it outside the bounds of the Law, is unacceptable.

    Personally, I think the debate regarding the place of homosexuals in Muslim societies, if it is conditioned by cool-headed debate, will take on the following trappings: Acceptance and recognition of its reality in the private space, an acknowledgment of its possibility as a “sexual identity”, and an emphasis on the supremacy of privacy (which is a cornestone of the Shariah system anyway.) It follows that a person can proclaim a “gay” identity publically, but not for instance, speak of his/her sexual exploits in the public space (In the same manner as any person speaking of a sinful act in the public space.)

    These are my own thoughts on the matter as a gay individual and practicing Muslim. I should add that there are certainly some scholars in the West – such as Sherman Jackson and Tariq Ramadan – who are trying to strike an interesting balance on the matter. We do not, and should not, tackle the issue from a Western/liberal perspective and how it understands the individual, but from an indigenous and Islamic perspective.

    Just wanted to share my thoughts.