Pavez Sharma, an Indian filmmaker, author, and journalist, addresses the 1st Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.
Some of the largest and most bitter battles in this new century are going to be fought on the front lines of religion. Generations that will follow us will deal with the consequences of rising extremism in every faith. And I feel that this is not just limited to Islam, but it’s true of Christianity and Judaism as well.
The case of Islam, of course, becomes further problematized because there is no one kind of Muslim in the world. There’s more than a million Muslims. They offer and occupy very different cultural, geographic and linguistic spaces. And certainly around the case of homosexuality, there is very little agreement on what to do with the homosexual.
I want to take the brief opportunity given to me here to talk a little bit about torture, and about cruel and inhuman treatment, and about the case made for it and against it in three nations, where I have done an extensive amount of research and filming. These would be Egypt, Iraq, and Iran.
Islam has been mostly silent on homosexuality for 1430 years of its history, with notable exceptions when it has been celebrated in the arts, in the courts of the Ottomans, in the Persian Empire, and even through the poetry of Abu Nawaz, who is now presently buried in what has come to be present day Baghdad. A great deal of the modern condemnation, or the 20th century condemnation, of homosexuality in Islam comes after the end of colonialism when new nations are carved up in the Middle East. And the discussion moves from the culture into the bully pulpit of the mullahs. Many nations with Muslim majorities, like India, like Pakistan and Bangladesh, end up with colonial laws against sodomy, which are based on Victorian morality and not necessarily on Sharia law. In fact, I want to point out that even yesterday in the news, Somalia is apparently implementing Sharia law. But the smallest number of Muslims in the world actually live under non-Sharia laws, and are punished and penalized according to laws that are inherited from colonials after they left about what to do with sodomy, and homosexuality.
In Egypt in 2001, the supposedly secular government of dictator Hosni Mubarak arrested 52 gay men in what came to be known as the Cairo 52 on a nightclub called the Queen boat, which is more than the Nile. What followed was a pogrom that lasted more than a year when gay men were trapped on the internet, and sent to prison without trial and tortured and made to confess their sins of Fajr, which is an Arabic term, or debauchery. Mr. Mubarak has always been avowedly anti-Islamic. But once again, he was using a vulnerable minority to prove to the resurgent Muslim Brotherhood in his country, that he too could be a defender of Islamic values. I feel that this event in Egypt was the single biggest intervention carried out by a state against homosexuality in modern history.
Recently, also, in fact, over the last couple of weeks after a New York Times article, there are reports that in Iraq, following a fatwa issued by Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani in 2005, death squads of the Shia corpse militias have killed more than 60 men for being gay. Now, gay is a very loose term that I use, and certainly in Arabic, it might not find easy translation. As we speak. I know friends from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, who have just arrived in Baghdad, and they are trying to ascertain whether these claims of 60 men being killed in Baghdad are true. There is also concern that the killings have escalated in recent months. However, I wonder, in a nation like Iraq, where the law of the jungle is the norm, and where human life has ceased to have any importance at all, how much do we benefit by talking about the killing of homosexual men and taking that to the headlines in the Western media. And I think that’s an important concern. To see whether we need to single out the killing of homosexual men in Iraq, or whether we need to look at it in the larger spectrum of human rights violations that continue to this day in Iraq by the regime that has come in power because of the US occupation.
Finally, Iran, where I have spent a lot of time and where the degree of misrepresentation by the always eager and ignorant LGBT groups and lobbies in the West has been completely astounding. Now Iran clearly does have the death penalty for homosexuality, whether consensual or non-consensual, under its post-1979 enshrinement of Sharia law as the law of the land. But much has been made recently about cases whose authenticity is extremely debatable. And it is hard to determine, including the killing of two men in Mashhad in 2005 for tajavos, or rape, which is an Iranian word that talks about rape. The men were hung and a massive outcry followed because they were allegedly gay. To this day, the circumstances of the case, whether it was the rape of a 13 year old by minors, or whether it was consensual homosexual sex and therefore, could be called gay, remain murky and have not been proven. Clearly the hanging itself was definitely a cause for outcry since Iran’s mullahs were once again sending a strong message to the world about how they will treat delinquent juveniles. Last year 21 year old Maquon Musadeh was put to death for the crime of again raping three boys when he was 13. To this day, the details of that case also remain extremely hard to ascertain.
Now we cannot under any circumstances condone the Iranian regime, which leads the world in executing people for offenses committed as children. However, the fashion in which Iran has been vilified by LGBT lobbies in the West, who often fall into the problematic right-wing American agenda of bombing that nation, to me remains extremely problematic. The question therefore, for me is how much do we need to search for gay identities when we are talking about countries like Iran or other countries in the Muslim world?
All of these questions are dealt with in great detail in my film, A Jihad For Love, which is available outside. And in the last year, it has been seen by more than a million people in 35 countries. And as much as I know, it’s the first time that the question of Islam and homosexuality is directly addressed in the same film. And I hope that some of you take this opportunity to watch it and to discuss some of these issues. Thank you.