Afghanistan's Gay Revolution Can Liberate The Muslim World
Sometimes having a perceived flaw and monstrous enemy can give you the strength you need to overcome your worst fear and position you as a defining leader for your people. Either subconsciously or by self-fulfilling prophecy this is what happened to me. I was born gay and Muslim in 1979 Afghanistan and resettled with my family to the Afghan Diaspora community of southern California in 1984. Growing up, I felt alienated by the parochialism of Islam and struggled to integrate into mainstream America.
Pursuing higher education was the only worthwhile outlet for me. After completing my studies, I returned to my birthplace, Kabul, in 2012 and worked as a professor of political science at the American University of Afghanistan. During my time away from campus, I mobilized an underground gay movement. I spent a year campaigning for LGBTI rights on social media until the Afghan government deemed I was a national security threat, forced me to resign from my post, and warned me that I would be put on trial and handed either a life sentence or death penalty, despite being a naturalized US citizen. My alleged crime: being gay and spreading acts of mischief that disrupted the social order of Islam.
Soon after I left Afghanistan in summer 2013, I came out of the closet and continued my campaign from New York City. In August of that year, my pioneering coming out went viral and I received numerous threats from Afghans, Pakistanis and other Muslims. Dissenters tried to dismiss my gay rights campaign as a struggle for power. But I hail from a family that was formerly the ruling elite of Afghanistan, and like so many closeted homosexuals, I could have repressed my sexuality and lived a double life. Instead, I risked everything to champion for LGBTI persons, who are the most vulnerable segment of Afghan society with no right to exist in Islam.
There is much discrepancy among scholars as to whether Islamic texts permit homosexuality. But Islam is what Islam does. From my own experience growing up in a Muslim household and seeing the situation on the ground in Muslim countries, I can tell you there is zero tolerance for LGBTI persons in Islam. Even in Istanbul, the Muslim World’s most liberal city in democratic, secular Turkey, the LGBT pride parade from last June was ambushed by the police with pepper spray, rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannons. The plight of gay Muslims living under Islamic States where Sharia is codified into law is much worse. Not including ISIS, there are ten Islamic states like Iran and Saudi Arabia, where killing homosexuals is permissible under the law.
In the rest of the Muslim World, LGBTI persons are fined and suffer years to life in prison. Even in the five Muslim-majority countries like Jordan and Turkey where same-sex activity is legal now, the LGBT community faces an uphill battle of gaining acceptance due to a culture of homophobia that’s entrenched in the beliefs of conservatives and traditionalists who regard homosexuality as an illness and sin. Across the Muslim World, LGBTI persons risk the fate of falling victim to honor killing by their family, militia squads, mob violence, or capital punishment by the state. Could you imagine living in a society where the laws of the land dictated, that despite having an unfixable trait, that you must be killed? This is how Islam and Islamic States treat LGBTI persons and the world turns a blind eye to this ongoing crime against humanity.
Having lived in an Islamic state that is 99 percent Muslim, I witnessed firsthand the repression the LGBT community faces. If a gay or lesbian can escape honor killing, imprisonment and suicide, they either go into exile or forced into marriages where they endure a lifetime of rape. The unluckiest end up on the streets of the Muslim World, living under bridges and dumpsters and surviving by begging, dealing drugs or prostituting themselves. The hardships facing the LGBT community in Afghanistan is a microcosm of the wholesale persecution inflicted against all minorities across the Muslim World.
At this juncture, I’ve reached the conclusion that the only way LGBTI persons can ever be accepted, the only path to freedom and equality, is for Islamic states to dismantle all the institutions—madrassas and mosques—that perpetuate the collective mental slavery and adopt Constitutions and laws that are based on humanistic and liberal values.
Some may find my measure extreme but for centuries on end, the slavery and segregation of black people in America was justified by citing biblical scriptures. If we couldn’t moderate or reform slave ownership, how can we let LGBTI persons living under the religious and political jurisdiction of Islam, suffer from an equally punishing fate?
Like a black person born during the Transatlantic Slave trade faced bondage or the inequality of segregation under Jim Crow laws, today a gay, lesbian, or transgender—born in the Muslim World can ensure both a lifetime of oppression—in captivity and criminalization—and with no emancipation in sight.
Given this grim situation, you may wonder what compels me to continue my activism in the Muslim World despite enduring years of prejudice for being Afghan and Muslim in a post 9/11 world, persecuted for trying to make peace with myself by publicizing my sexuality and renunciating Islam, being disowned by my family and nation, suffering from homelessness and poverty myself since pursuing my calling and cause, and risking death, as a fatwa victim, every time I speak up in public.
The short answer is that I live with survivor's guilt having had the chance to flee to America now twice in my lifetime, while my fellow LGBTI compatriots in Afghanistan and across the Muslim World continue to silently suffer in punishing misery.
There is a silver lining though. Now that the political battle over gay culture is virtually over in the West, the East is ripe as the new frontier in the gay rights movement. The fiercest resistance to LGBTI rights is going to come from the followers of Islam since recognition of homosexuality throws into question the existence and rationality of Allah.
Well-established LGBTI activists and organizations can empower queer Muslims to connect with global networks and be part of the discourse. Empowering the LGBT community in the Muslim World can have a huge liberalizing effect on society at large.
From all the countries in the Muslim World, Afghanistan—with its nascent civil society and transitional democracy—is the ideal incubator for a thriving LGBT community; one that can help the region escape from radicalism and completely transform our world. If you bring light to the most obscure corner under the oppressive tunnel that is the Muslim World, then you illuminate it all. With the ongoing US occupation of Afghanistan and the State Department’s commitment to work with partners in the LGBT community to promote gay rights in foreign countries, our surest bet is to create the space for dialogue so that figures like Randy Berry, the United States Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons, can travel to Afghanistan and meet with President Ashraf Ghani’s administration and the Afghan Parliament to lay the foundation at the diplomatic level for the decriminalization of homosexuality.
At the grassroots level, we must empower LGBTI activists in Afghanistan to establish community centers and non-governmental organizations that work exclusively towards the economic and social empowerment of sexual minorities. There is no other way around it. We must bravely walk into the line of fire and protect LGBTI persons in Afghanistan and across the Muslim World. The only way we can live in a world where are LGBTI persons are free from persecution is when we dismantle the institutions of mental slavery and segregation that perpetuate the tyranny in the first place.
Nemat Sadat is the first public figure from Afghanistan to come out of the closet as gay and to campaign for LGBTI rights in the Muslim World. He is writing his first novel and can be followed on Twitter @nematsadat.