Jeff Sharlet on The Economist’s report about Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill

On July 1, The Economist published an article regarding Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Cleverly titled, Slain by the Spirit, the article offered some parts truth and some parts falsehood to craft a misleading narrative about the current status of the bill. For instance in a paragraph on the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, the writer said:

A Ugandan Pentecostal preacher, Martin Ssempa, for instance, has mined a rich seam of homophobia in Uganda to help build up his standing. He and other Pentecostals pushed for the tabling of an anti-homosexuality bill in the Ugandan parliament, which advocates spying on gays and proscribes imprisonment for sodomy.

This section is true. Martin Ssempa, Julius Oyet and Stephen Langa did push for the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, prior to the bill’s introduction. However, making the narrative misleading is the following sentence.

Earlier versions of the law called for the death penalty in some instances.

There is only one version of the bill. It has not been amended. This morning, I asked Parliamentary researcher, Charles Tuhaise, if there was any truth to the rumor that the bill had been amended. He said, “To the best of my knowledge, these rumours are unfounded.” Tuhaise further elaborated that “committees have no mandate to amend a Bill, but to present their proposals to the House in a report read by the Committee Chair.” The Anti-Homosexuality Bill is currently in committee and has not been scheduled for a second reading.

Further unraveling the Economist piece, journalist Jeff Sharlet offers additional facts and fresh reporting with this guest post.

The strange moves of The Economist

Jeff Sharlet

The reverence with which so many upper-middle class Americans read The Economist has always puzzled me. There’s much to admire about the magazine, but it generally performs the same function as Newsweek, boiling down events into centrist conventional wisdom, facts be damned. A report in the July 3, 2010 issue, “The religious right in east Africa: Slain by the spirit,” is a case in point. I’ve been reporting on the religious right anti-gay movement in Uganda from here in the U.S. and from Kampala for nine months now, so I’m in a good position to see The Economist’s strange moves; I wonder what I’d make of the article that follows it, on Somalia’s elections, if I were as informed on that story. But one needn’t have expertise to debunk The Economist’s report; a Google search would do it, especially if you landed, as you likely would, on the well-documented blogs of gay activist Jim Burroway or evangelical scholar Warren Throckmorton.

The biggest error is The Economist’s declaration that the bill no longer calls for the death penalty. That’s propaganda put out by the bill’s defenders. In fact, as I learned by asking the bill’s author, Ugandan Member of Parliament David Bahati, it does. (I’ll be publishing those interviews in my forthcoming book, C Street.) Bahati acknowledges that the death penalty may drop out of the final version; but it hasn’t yet, and it’s dangerous for The Economist to say as much.

Just as dangerous — and puzzling — is The Economist’s contention that “support for the anti-homosexuality bill in the Ugandan parliament has fallen away after Mr. Ssempa and other preachers accused a rival Pentecostal, Robert Kayanja, of sodomy.” Does a plummy accent excuse Economist writers from fact checking? Ssempa and “other preachers” — most notably Rev. Michael Kyazze and Rev. Moses Solomon Male, both of whom I interviewed at length — accused Kayanja of sodomy months before the bill was introduced. Indeed, it was those accusations, and banner headline articles such as “Kayanja Reveals His Homo Secrets” in the April 29, 2009 edition of the wildly popular Red Pepper tabloid that helped drive popular support for the bill. I haven’t been in Kampala since May 2010, but when I was there, I did not meet a single person who wasn’t gay who didn’t support some variation of the bill.

What’s holding it back is international pressure, not the assertion of The Economist’s imaginary centrist norms. And that’s a more complicated story, since the international pressure does take an awfully pushy form — Germany’s offer of $148 million, for instance, if Uganda promises to shelve the bill, Sweden’s threat of an end to aid if Uganda doesn’t. And then there are the folks I write about in C Street, the American “followers of Jesus” who empowered the bill’s author, Bahati, in the first place. The passage of the bill would be a disaster for them, since they’re so intimately linked to it (Bahati is the secretary of the Ugandan branch of the organization, and its other chief backer in government, ethics minister James Nsaba Buturo, is chairman). Some of them, such as Senator Jim Inhofe and Senator Tom Coburn, both of Oklahoma, have been preaching the anti-gay gospel for so long and with such venom that it’s hard to take their disavowals seriously. Others, such as activist Bob Hunter, seem genuinely horrified by the bill. They’ve been putting quiet pressure on the Ugandan government, “behind-the-scenes,” as Hunter describes his work.

If such pressure can prevent the genocide that’s been proposed in Uganda — the bill’s backers describe it as a first step toward the eradication of homosexuality altogether — I think it’s justified. But democratic? Not exactly. Of course, it’s in response to the anti-democratic style that has long defined American and European relations with postcolonial Africa, the purchase of policies amenable to the West with foreign aid, with few questions about who actually benefits from those funds. Usually, those policies have to do with the extraction of resources, the location of military bases, or “coalitions” (the terrible bombing that just killed 74 in Kampala was in response to Uganda’s role as a proxy force for the U.S. in Somalia and its troops in Iraq). Sometimes, it has to do with what in the West are called “socal issues,” i.e., basic public health, such as the pressure put on Uganda by American politicians to de-emphasize condoms as a response to HIV. This time, the pressure is on over a bill that is murderous — in the service of a homophobia that all sides in this debate admit didn’t exist in Uganda before America’s exportation of  its culture wars.

Not so, according to The Economist which sniffs disapprovingly at the tacky Pentecostals. “The influence of the American Christian Right is often overstated,” it declares (true, but it’s  still enormous).”Then there is the question of class… The cabal of civil servants, soldiers and businessmen who dominate the golf and social clubs of Nairobi and Kampala… are mostly Anglican and Roman Catholic and are unlikely to be swayed by the casting out of demons.” There is indeed a class issue, but it’s not as simple as that. The bill’s main backers, Bahati and Buturo, are Anglican, and their extremely anti-gay pastor is Archbishop Luke Orombi, linked to Falls Church Episcopal, one of the upper crustiest churches in America. Bahati and Buturo (both elites in every sense) both told me they believe in demons and connect them to homosexuality. If that doesn’t square with the Church of England familiar to Economist writers, perhaps they’d better do some more reporting before they declare that all is essentially well with the good men of golf clubs in charge.

CORRECTION – 7/20/10:

In “The Economist’s Strange Moves,” I made a clumsy move, myself, identifying Falls Church (Anglican) as an Episcopal congregation. It was, when I visited in 2002. But my friend the Rev. Michael Pipkin, Priest-in-Charge of the current Falls Church (Episcopal), writes: 

“three and a half years ago The Falls Church abandoned The Episcopal Church, attaching themselves to the Anglican Church of Nigeria over issues of Biblical Authority and Sexuality… in the process, they kicked out several of their members who wished to remain Episcopalian, and thus my congregation, The Falls Church (Episcopal) continued on in exile (worshipping across the street in a Presbyterian Church, waiting for a major property dispute to settle).  They are currently referring to themselves (somewhat inaccurately) as The Falls Church (Anglican), though the Archbishop of Canterbury and other “Anglican” groups have not recognized them.”

I recognize the irony of my mistake in a piece taking The Economist to task for its lack of fact checking. Sorry, Falls Churches. But the two main points stand unaltered: 1. The Economist’s suggestion that Anglicans don’t engage in spiritual war as culture war is absurd; 2. I was just writing a quickie blog post; The Economist is a major international magazine, and should have gotten it right the first time.
Ok, now I’ve made my correction. How about yours, Economist?
(End of article – My comments resume in italics below)

Thanks to Jeff for allowing me to post his reaction to the Economist article and this insight into the religious background of the backers of the bill. I should note that on some of the issues here, I have no settled opinion (e.g., Falls Church Episcopal) but agree with Jeff that the Economist article is irresponsible in suggesting that the death penalty has been removed from the bill. When I visited the National Prayer’s Breakfast’s African suite in February, several Ugandan backers of the bill told me that the death penalty would be removed when Parliament resumed session in the Spring. They mocked my concerns over it saying that the bill would be amended and that the bill would be softened. However, nothing has changed.

The focus on the death penalty is unfortunate. While the existance of the death penalty in the bill gets attention, exaggerated rumors of it’s removal lull bystanders into a sense that the situation is improving and all is well. Canyon Ridge Christian Church is a prominent illustration. Because Martin Ssempa says he no longer supports the inclusion of the death penalty, they view him now as if he never supported it, even though he did. Also, by touting Ssempa’s confusing stance as justification for maintaining their support for him, they imply that 20 years in a non-existent rehab facility is reasonable and humane improvement.

While I have no personal experience with Falls Church Episcopal, I should note that it, like Canyon Ridge Christian Church is a Willow Creek Association member church. Given the relationship between Luke Orombi and many American Episcopal churches, some of which are Willow Creek Association members, it becomes even more important that the WCA take a position on the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. The public position would not be to try to influence a foreign government. Providing leadership to member churches would be sufficient.

Prior posts by Jeff Sharlet:

The Fellowship (AKA The Family) opposes Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill

David Bahati: Lou Engle expressed support for Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill

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  • Maazi NCO

    There is no need to be hysterical here. Everyone in Uganda and even the clever pro-gay journalists of the Economist know that the death penalty provision in the Bahati Bill will not survive parliamentary scrutiny. The only people who stubbornly hold onto the “kill-the-gays” propaganda is the Euro-American Gay Lobby for obvious reasons. But then, I am sure you can carry on with effective propaganda without including falsehoods such as “gay genocide” or “death penalty”. It should—of course— be noted that your propaganda is only receptive to the ears Westerners who already have pre-conceived notions of African people. Your propaganda has no effect on the Ugandan people who are determined to protect their culture from Western debauchery.

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  • Tyler

    Thanks for this post!

    I have always been confused about the idea of “exporting homophobia” that Mr. Sharlett and the NYT december piece on the bill uses… though I don’t dismiss it as untrue… any idea of when this process of export began? What role did Livley play in this process? I have found records of his ties with Uganda as early as 2002, but what other actors have worked to export American culture wars in Uganda?

    Also, I’m wondering if you have read Philip Jenkins’ “<a href="”>Unholy Communion: The African War Over Homosexuality” in The New Republic from 2007, which would seem to contradict the idea of exporting. What do you think?

  • Pr Moses Solomon Male

    NCAHSAU

    NATIONAL COALITION AGAINST HOMOSEXUALITY & SEXUAL ABUSES IN UGANDA

    P. O. Box 11902 Kampala, Uganda

    26th November 2010

    Press release

    LET HOMOSEXUALS AND THEIR ACTIVISTS STOP DECEIVING FOREIGNERS

    Since the introduction of the much controversial anti homosexuality bill, 2009, homosexuals worldwide have condemned Uganda for witch hunting homosexuals. When the Rolling Stone weekly started publishing their pictures already posted on the internet and appearing in various media, they made noise and sued it. And now foreign media and homosexuals are here to advance their cause, blackmailing our government, misinforming the world about the situation on the ground.

    We had always respected foreign media as accurate but now realize that it is prone to manipulation and abuse. What has featured are lies fed to the world which we want to clear as follows:

    1. Persecuting homosexuals: It is wrong and totally unfounded to make such a claim and publish it in any form. Let all those claiming persecution adduce empirical evidence to the effect. I, Pr Martin Sempa and others in our team have on many occasions debated with homosexuals at public forums, even before the media and in the presence of the Police, intelligence and other agencies. None of the homos has ever been harassed. Where on earth do they get such brutalization? I need to assure the world as follows:

    • No homosexual has been persecuted. Our campaign focuses on criminals who target little children below the 18 year age of consent, especially children in schools. For those who have chosen to take that sexual route, we call upon to quit.

    • No homosexual has been raped, abused or killed by mobs because of hatred. In fact, many relatives of homosexuals have bleeding hearts that their loved ones are indulging.

    • We have parents of homosexuals who have been mistreated by homosexuals.

    • On the contrary, we have homosexuals using state machinery to harass their victims and the good Samaritans. This has happened in the Pr Kitaka, Pr Kiwewesi, Pr Kayanja and other homo cases.

    • Where victims have come up to report, they have been persecuted, framed and arrested, or their offenders have been alerted to take pre-emptive action, or even to flee.

    Therefore, blacklisting homos is not bad since even in countries like the USA, Britain, Netherlands, etc wanted criminals are listed even if they haven’t harmed anyone. In Uganda, homosexuality is an offense against the order of nature. People ought to know who these homosexuals are lest they took advantage of little children. I doubt there is a country that can entertain criminals on its territory.

    2. Homosexuals are indeed satisfying their homosexuality urge on under-age children who cannot consent to the act. Where on earth can such be tolerated? Isn’t the Catholic Church worldwide in trouble because of such acts by it priests? Claiming that pedophilia is different from homosexuality is just an attempt to mislead the public away from the issue. When a man always sodomizes minors, and is regarded as a pedophile, it doesn’t remove the fact that the action qualifies him / her for a homosexual.

    3. We demand that Juliet Mukasa (Victor Mukasa) tells the world in which ‘American-style Pentecostal’ church she was striped naked by a pastor and his male assistants during a deliverance prayer session at the alter, then carried into a room, locked up and gang raped for a week, as she told Jeff Sharlet and the story featured in Harpers Magazine, Sept 2010. See excerpts attached.

    Her story is a lie intended to win sympathy of rich homosexuals to give her money and other opportunities.

    Just like for Victor Mukasa, homosexuality is a business and lucrative job for many homosexual activists living in Uganda where economic opportunities are few and highly competitive. It also gives many opportunities to hook up with rich homosexuals worldwide who can help them to get the almost impossible Western Visas. To beat the odds therefore, many people fake up all sorts of stories and it doesn’t matter even if they tarnish the image of their country.

    To reverse such a scenario:

    • Let Western governments remove stringent visa requirements for Ugandans and see if many people will still call themselves homosexuals.

    • Let people be financially empowered to be able to meet their financial needs.

    4. It is wrong to claim that I, Pr Sempa, Kyazze and Kaira were investigated for accusing Pr Kayanja Robert of homosexuality. It is not us who accused him. It is the young men who accused him of sodomizing them and the Police killed their cases and wrongly turned against us and them, detaining some. But they have not accused any of us in that matter. They simply framed up Pr Kyazze and Kaira. We will win that case.

    Finally, we appeal to all Ugandan and international homosexual communities and their sympathizers in the media to stop deceiving the world about the situation on the ground.

    In NCAHSAU, we must continue to stand for the voiceless children taken advantage of during their times of need and later harassed by homosexuals no matter what it costs.

    For God and our country.

    Pr Moses Solomon Male - Leader

    Tel 256-772-479386 / 256-702-196511 malearch@yahoo.com

    Excerpts from Jeff Sharlet’s article, STRAIGHT MAN’S BURDEN

    The American roots of Uganda’s anti-gay persecutions

    That featured in Harpers Magazine of September 2010

    Juliet Mukasa raped in a Pentecostal Church

    “Like Blessed, Juliet Mukasa knew as a child that she was attracted to childrenof the same sex. And like Blessed she’d been raised Catholic but had joined an American-style Pentecostal church, hoping that in the music and the dancing and the Holy Ghost—the ecstasy— she would fi nd the resolution of her desires. But Juliet Mukasa was not as skilled as Blessed at leading two lives. Dressed like a girl, she couldn’t think. A pastor determined that she was possessed by a “male spirit” and asked his flock to help him heal her. As women in the pews swayed and sang for Mukasa’s liberation, the exorcism took place at the altar, boys and men from the church laying on hands and speaking in tongues. They took her arms, gently then firmly, and stripped her. Slowly, garment by garment, praying over each piece of demonically polluted cloth. She’d bound her breasts. They bared them. “I cried, and every time I cried they would call it ‘liberation.’ ” They slapped her, but it was holy slapping, and when she stood before them naked, the men’s hands roaming over her and then inside, they said that was holy too.

    Then they locked her in a room and raped her. For a week. This is considered a corrective; a medical procedure, really; a cure. When it was all over, the pastor declared that the church had freed Mukasa. Maybe, in a sense, it had. Victor Mukasa no longer believed there was a demon inside him. The demons were in the church.

    Mukasa became a man and an activist, determined to prevent what had happened to him from happening again. In 2003, he cofounded Freedom and Roam Uganda, an organization for lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and intersex human rights. In 2005, Ugandan police, led by government officials, raided his house. They didn’t find him. But a friend, Yvonne Oyoo, was there. They took her to the station. You look like a man, they said. We’re going to prove you’re a woman. They stripped her, fondled her breasts.

    Mukasa fled. But in hiding and then in exile, he planned. The plan wasn’t lesbian, it wasn’t gay, it was . . . human, Blessed would say. It was a citizen’s plan: Mukasa sued, and never was a lawsuit more like a gift of the spirit, the romance of the rule of law.”

  • Richard Willmer

    Male

    The vast vast majority of victims of child abuse (in UG, as elsewhere) are girls; the vast vast majority of gay people do not abuse children.

    Anyone can cite the odd horrible case (often only alleged, often involving some kind of so-called ‘pastor’, it would seem) – I’m afraid that means little in terms of political propaganda, dreadful though every true case of child sexual abuse is (and I am myself aware of one such alleged case in UG – but I can’t talk about that, of course).