Singling out Islam or religion in general misunderstands where homophobia comes from and why it persists, argues Amy Thomas.
The mass murder of LGBTI people at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida in June was a homophobic hate crime. But yesterday’s homophobes are trying to drape themselves in the rainbow flag to use the attack to drum up Islamophobia.
They point to the attacker’s religion, Islam, and his claim of allegiance to Islamic State, to argue that Islam is uniquely homophobic. That the shooter Omar Mateen had no connections to organised terrorism has given them no pause.
Article after article in the Murdoch papers has “uncovered” Muslim homophobia, and attacked Malcolm Turnbull for inviting an Imam who had made homophobic comments to his Ramadan Iftar.
This is shameless manipulation of anti-homophobia to fuel racism. Many of the same writers in the same papers cheered on Turnbull’s gutting of anti-LGBTI bullying program Safe Schools.
Singling out Muslims is part of an ongoing project by right-wing ideologues to push the idea that there is a problem with Islam as a whole.
It is this mainstream Islamophobia that has bolstered Pauline Hanson. Her shocking video response to Orlando, channelling Donald Trump and calling for a ban on Muslim immigration and likening Muslims to pit bulls, helped propel her into the Senate.
The danger of such a response was obvious as soon as the devastating news of the attack broke.
First Turnbull refused to mention it was an anti-gay crime. Even when he did admit it, he called it, “a hatred of the freedoms…that we all enjoy”, and talked up the bombing of Iraq and Syria. In the US, Hillary Clinton declared the need to, “redouble our efforts to defend our country”.
Islamophobia has been used to justify wars and explain terrorism relentlessly in the West since 9/11. Muslims face racist hate, including attacks on the streets, discrimination in employment, and police harassment.
That’s why Islamophobia has to be opposed.
It was a major mistake that the vigils in response to Orlando across Australia, including one organised by the Socialist Alliance in Newtown, Sydney, did not make a serious effort to invite the Muslim community or explicitly deal with Islamophobia.
A speaker who condemned the Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—was given a massive cheer and nothing was said in response.
We must reject the idea that Islam, or religion in general, is to blame for homophobia.
There is no evidence that Muslims in Australia are more homophobic than other religious people. More than that, we cannot explain the oppression of LGBTI people in the West, or in Muslim majority countries, through religion.
Part of the immense irony of the Islamophobic backlash is that it is being pedalled by those famous for their hatred of LGBTI people. Miranda Devine, for instance, is famous for blaming the 2011 London urban riots on equal marriage and a “fatherless society”!
When Penny Wong and her partner had a baby, Devine used the occasion to moan that straight people were now being forced into the closet.
Even after Orlando, hard right Liberals and columnists like Andrew Bolt are blaming Turnbull’s election trouncing on his personal support for equal marriage and arguing for a return of arch social conservative Tony Abbott.
These are the people holding back LGBTI rights—not Muslims.
Disgracefully, some homophobic MPs have tried to blame migrants for their stalling on equal marriage. Anti-gay marriage Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells claimed in August 2015 that, “The silent majority [against equal marriage] includes our multicultural and multi-faith communities for which marriage and family values are very important and are strongly supported.”
But a poll from September 2015 found that 60 per cent of those born overseas support equal marriage. Polls consistently show that those least likely to support equal marriage are white men aged over 55 or high school boys.
Public support for equal marriage is at its highest level ever. The latest Fairfax/Ipsos poll has support at 70 per cent.
While it is hard to find data breaking down homophobic views by religious belief in Australia, a 2003 survey by the Australia Institute found Baptists the most homophobic, with over 60 per cent agreeing with the statement that homosexuality was immoral. In “Other religions” including Judaism and Islam, only 40 per cent agreed with the statement.
There is no evidence of higher homophobic hate crimes in multicultural areas. There are actually higher instances in rural Australia, which is less multicultural.
Capitalism, not religion
Yet while many reject the idea of solidarity from Trump, Devine or Turnbull, it is common to think that Islam, and other religions, are responsible for homophobia and should all be equally condemned. But this misunderstands the role of homophobia in society.
It was the Hegelian philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach who first said that “religion is the root of all evil”. For him, religious beliefs were the root of conservatism that held society back. But this cannot explain where such beliefs come from in the first place.
Marx, writing in response to Feuerbach in 1845, explained (unfortunately referring to humanity as “man”), “Man makes religion; religion does not make man. Man is the world of man, the state, society. This state, this society, produce religion.” In other words, religious ideas are the product of society, not the other way around.
That’s why religion is malleable and can express a number of conflicting ideas, both regressive and progressive.
Islam was a religion of pride and resistance for Muhammed Ali and Malcolm X, but it is religion of repression for the Saudi ruling class. Christianity can be a religion of hate for Cory Bernardi but something different for those Christians (the majority) who support same-sex marriage and refugee rights.
Homophobia is no doubt a staple of conservative religious organisations, like the Westboro Baptist Church in the United States that picketed funerals of Orlando victims.
But these groups are a product of the homophobia of capitalist society. Homophobia persists because it serves the interests of those who have power in society. To quote Marx again, “The ruling ideas in society are in every epoch the ideas of the ruling class”.
In pre-class societies and some class societies predating capitalism, there is evidence of different ideas about gender and sexuality; in some cases a “third gender”, in others, socially acceptable sex and relationships between people of the same sex.
It was capitalism that created homophobia as we know it today.
In the late 19th century, the British ruling class became concerned about the conditions for women and children in the factories, which were destroying working class families and threatening the reproduction of the labour force.
The ruling class worked hard to establish the ideal of the nuclear family, with strict gender roles for men and women.
Women in the family were to stay home and take on the burden of raising the next generation of workers. The ruling class has benefited because women perform this task within the family unpaid.
Gays, lesbians, transgender people and those who broke these norms were seen as a threat. In fact the very notion of a “homosexual” person, rather than just a set of acts, emerges at this point in history, laying the basis for LGBTI people to be oppressed and excluded.
As capitalism spread throughout the world, so did homophobia. The British exported it throughout their Empire.
Christianity, too, has played a particular role in enforcing homophobia in the West. But these attitudes ultimately persist because of the benefit to the ruling class as a whole.
Though the more far-sighted members of today’s ruling class want to incorporate LGBTI people into the family and support same-sex marriage, this does not mean an end to the family structure or the associated repressive gender norms that fuel homophobia. Nor has the battle for equal rights been won.
In the US, more than 200 anti-LGBTI bills have been introduced in 34 states in 2016. In Indiana and Mississippi businesses can refuse service to LGBTI people. A majority of states have no protections for LGBTI workers. And the “bathroom bill” in North Carolina stopping trans people from using public toilets that match their gender identity has garnered international outrage.
It is this homophobia, generated by capitalist society, which drove the massacre in Orlando.
Colonialism and homophobia
Many point to homophobic repression and laws against homosexuality in Muslim countries to argue that Islam is especially homophobic. But state-sanctioned homophobia in these states is inseparable from their Western colonial history.
Anal sex between men was banned through the whole British Empire in 1861. That empire included countries now part of the “Muslim world”—Pakistan, India, Iraq, Palestine, Oman, Egypt, Sudan, parts of Malaya, as well as non-Muslim countries in Africa and the Caribbean.
In many cases, anti-gay laws still on the books in former colonies are colonial laws.
Such discrimination had not existed in the same way before. As Brian Whitaker points out in his 2011 book, Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East, Arab societies were seen as more tolerant that other societies in the past: “Evidence of…previous tolerance can be found in Arabic literary works, in the accounts of early travellers and the examples of Europeans who settled in Arab countries to escape sexual persecution at home.”
That reputation for tolerance persisted into the colonial era. Famous gay male figures like author E M Forster travelled to the Arab world to meet men in the 1910s.
Many of the leaders of the struggles against colonisation after World War II were Western educated. They accepted the homophobia of their previous masters and incorporated it as part of the ideology of the new capitalist states. Many were influenced by Stalinist politics and the idea of state-led development.
But Stalinism was homophobic and homosexuality was illegal in the USSR. (Poet Allen Ginsberg was famously kicked out of Cuba for calling Fidel Castro “cute” in 1965, then kicked out of Eastern bloc country Czechoslovakia for his “obscenity”).
This history explains why it is not in exclusively Islamic countries where LGBTI people face severe oppression. Secular Arab states like Syria and Egypt outlaw homosexuality. LGBTI people in Syria are both targets of Islamic State and Bashar al-Assad’s army, which is known for torturing gay men.
Former colonies like Jamaica, Kenya and Uganda are predominantly Christian and are some of the world’s most dangerous places for LGBTI people.
In Christian countries in Africa, Western evangelicals have stoked homophobic violence and opposed the use of condoms to deal with the HIV/AIDS crisis.
LGBTI people experience horrific oppression in autocracies like Iran and Western ally Saudi Arabia, where being gay can mean the death penalty. Such repression goes along with autocratic rule based on binding the population together through religion.
As a result of the history of colonialism and imperialism anti-Western sentiment is popular. This means that the solution to homophobia cannot come from outside or above.
As Whitaker explains, “attitudes towards homosexuality have become entangled in international politics…Cultural protectionism is one way of opposing Western policies that are viewed as domineering, imperialistic, etc., and so exaggerated images of a licentious West, characterised in the popular imagination by female nudity and male homosexuality, are countered by invoking a supposedly Arab morality.”
Western activists lining up with their own rulers to condemn Islamic and Arab societies can only help reinforce this dynamic. This is the effect, for instance, of Israel promoting itself as an LGBTI-friendly destination in order to “pinkwash” their apartheid policies in Palestine.
All the freedoms enjoyed by LGBTI people in Western countries are the product of the struggle for rights that began with the Gay Liberation movement at Stonewall in 1969. It is movements like this—emerging through struggle from below—that can liberate LGBTI people around the world.
And unlike many modern LGBTI organisations, the Gay Liberation movement was infused with anti-capitalist politics that saw oppressions as linked and solidarity between struggles as crucial.
That’s why they took their name from the National Liberation Front in Vietnam.
Today, the conditions for LGBTI in Muslim majority countries mirror those in the West prior to the emergence of the Gay Liberation movement.
Whitaker reports about how gay family members in countries such as Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon, are often referred to psychiatrists to be cured. Such a practice was common in Australia and other Western countries before it was targeted by the gay movement.
You wouldn’t know it from the anti-Muslim coverage of Orlando in the mainstream press, but Muslims around the world have expressed their solidarity with the victims in Orlando. An Australian statement, signed by dozens of Muslim organisations and individuals read in part, “The LGBTI community has a long history of experiencing prejudice, vilification and violence… There is no justification for such homophobia”. It contained a special appeal to LGBTI Muslims.
Muslims in Orlando held a prayer vigil, and a Muslim organisation in Florida raised over $100,000 for the victims in donations from Muslims.
LGBTI organisations need to stand with Muslim communities against racism.
Like in the film Pride, depicting the story of how LGBTI activists stood with striking British miners, extending such solidarity can help break down any homophobic ideas that do exist.
This is the unity we need to fight our common enemy. We can’t let them divide us.