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The Postcolonial Left's Blindness to Islamic Homophobia

For Western LGBT rights activists to support Hamas's continued rule over Gaza is hypocritical in the extreme.

· 8 min read
The Postcolonial Left's Blindness to Islamic Homophobia
A man seen holding an anti-LGBT placard during a demonstration in Indonesia, 9 November 2018. Alamy

A version of this piece first appeared in Queer Majority here.

When left-wing pro-Palestine protestors recently went viral with signs reading “Queers for Palestine”, their attempt at creating an “intersectional” political coalition was broadly mocked for ignoring (or demonstrating a lack of awareness of) how dismal it is to be LGBT in Palestine. In an effort to downplay the virulent and legally institutionalized homophobia in Gaza, British leftist Owen Jones tweeted the following:

Echoing talking points from academics like Sa’ed Atshan, pro-Hamas organizations such as the Institute for Palestinian Studies, and publications like the British outlet Gay Times, Jones’s tweets attempt to shift the moral responsibility for systemic homophobia in Gaza. Correcting the record on the death penalty in the interests of accuracy is fair enough. But to downplay such a retrograde system in defense of Hamas reveals the game many self-described “anti-imperialist” leftists are playing. As you can see above, the tweet was quickly annotated by Twitter’s crowdsourced fact-checking feature, “Community Notes”:

While it is true that the British Empire introduced anti-LGBT laws in its colonies, those laws are not valid anymore as the Mandate ended in 1948. Israel was also part of it, and no such laws exist [there] anymore. Today, most countries with those laws are under Sharia, like Gaza.

Indeed, Palestine’s rankings on LGBT acceptance from institutions like UCLA and Georgetown are dismal, and Hamas’s Islamic fundamentalist ideology predates the British Empire’s 40-year presence in the region by over 1,000 years. As Armin Navabi recently wrote, this ideology “harbors a brutal dogma that is antithetical to the liberties and rights championed by LGBT activists.” Hamas’s attitude toward homosexuality comes not from the British, but from their fundamentalist Islamism (just as Britain’s formerly homophobic laws were inspired by conservative Christianity). As Hamas strategist Mahmoud Al-Zahar told Reuters in 2010, “You [in the West] do not live like human beings. You do not even live like animals. You accept homosexuality. And now you criticize us?”

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The eruption of war between Israel and the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, following the most deadly attack on Jews in generations, has ravaged the lives of millions. The war has also upended several of our assumptions about just how much brutality and bigotry the Western Left is willing to excuse in the service of Critical Social Justice and “decolonization.” The massive suffering caused by imperialism is beyond dispute; however, we should not overstate its role in shaping the social attitudes of people who were once the subjects of imperial whim. It is true that the effects of colonialism can long outlive any empire, but there comes a point at which invoking the legacy of past imperialism to excuse modern problems denies the agency of colonized people.

Islamic homophobia is an issue that goes beyond terrorist groups like Hamas. While the Quran’s language regarding homosexual and bisexual behavior is somewhat ambiguous, the hadiths, the canonical sayings and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, contain many straightforward prohibitions. In practice, this results in both official and extrajudicial persecution of LGBT people throughout the Muslim world. LGBT Palestinians face extreme ostracism, are sometimes forced to flee as refugees, and even risk being kidnapped and beheaded. The authorities also ban the activities of LGBT rights groups. And it isn’t just LGBT Palestinians who are oppressed by Hamas in Gaza. The oppression of women is an intrinsic feature of Sharia law. Human rights researchers rank the Palestinian territories among the worst places in the world to be a woman. For Western activists ostensibly concerned about marginalized groups to effectively support Hamas's continued rule over Gaza and to deny Israel the right to self-defense against the terrorist organization is hypocritical in the extreme.

The leftist claim that British imperialism is to blame for the present-day Islamic homophobia is quickly debunked by comparing how LGBT people are treated in Gaza versus how they were treated in Britain last century. True, same-sex behavior was once criminal in the UK, but that law was repealed in 1967. Some LGBT individuals were persecuted by the British government in the recent past—most famously Alan Turing, who was chemically castrated and subsequently committed suicide. This is deeply shameful. But no one was strung up on a crane or had his head sawn off for having sex with another man. The oppression LGBT people face in Gaza is not the result of Hamas helplessly following the century-old statutes of the defunct British Empire.

The land that today encompasses Israel and the Palestinian territories was controlled by the British from 1918 until 1948. The British attempted to create two states, one for Israelis and one for Palestinians, but the Palestinians rejected the proposal. As a result, the British turned one of the states over to the Israelis, who promptly faced a war from seven different Arab countries and territories—a war which they won. Jordan annexed the West Bank in 1950 and decriminalized homosexual behavior in 1951. In Egypt-controlled Gaza, however, LGBT Palestinians received no such reprieve.

Israel was attacked by its neighbors again in 1967—resulting in another war that the Israelis won—and the Gaza Strip was under Israel’s full control until 2005. Hamas subsequently received a majority of votes in Gaza, kicked out the more moderate Fatah party that was part of the Palestinian unity government, and broke away from the West Bank in order to rule Gaza without democratic dissent.

The British had been gone for more than 50 years by then. In any case, Hamas chose to go above and beyond existing anti-LGBT legislation. They opted to have different laws from the West Bank—specifically Sharia law. In the tradition of the Taliban and Islamic State, Hamas imposed strict rules on women and, with the help of religious police, they persecuted non-Muslims, and rooted out anything they perceived as a vestige of Western culture (including homosexuality). The British colonial authorities had been notoriously brutal. Hamas were worse. They abducted and tortured gay and bisexual residents of Gaza.

LGBT rights are virtually nonexistent throughout the Muslim-majority world, many parts of which the British never colonized. Hamas is a jihadist organization. Does anyone really think that, in the absence of an old British legal framework, Hamas would have behaved any differently?

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Western leftists like Owen Jones, who see themselves as fighting for “decolonization,” are animated by a Critical Social Justice-inspired vision of the world that divides everyone into “oppressors” and “oppressed.” In this worldview, anything associated with white people or the West is invariably categorized as oppressive and Western nations and governors are always the oppressors. This distorted view of the world is characterised by what Swedish sociologist Göran Adamson calls “masochistic nationalism.” Like the chauvinistic nationalist, the masochistic nationalist sees their nation as the center of the world—but instead of thinking of it as the world’s unique hero, they see it as its singular villain. This enables them to indulge in the kind of shallow self-criticism that makes them feel morally superior, while ignoring the realities of history and international relations.

Categorizing people as oppressed ignores the fact they have the agency to make moral or immoral choices, just like anyone else. This soft bigotry of low expectations patronizingly holds them to lower ethical standards. For all their shortcomings, liberal democracies recognize and defend human rights—including LGBT and women’s rights—to a greater degree than any other regimes in history. We should hold everyone to that standard.

Source: Our World in Data

It is possible to recognize the injustices imposed on Palestinians by the Israeli government, while also recognizing that Hamas is a fascist, theocratic regime hell-bent on genocide and global jihad—a regime that criminalizes being LGBT and executes even its own commanders on the mere accusation of gay sex. There can be no “free Palestine” or “Queers for Palestine” unless we first free Gazans from Hamas.

George Orwell once wrote that “however much you deny the truth, the truth goes on existing, as it were, behind your back.” Hamas have consistently oppressed the Palestinian people. By launching terrorist attacks on Israel from civilian areas in Gaza, Hamas put millions of lives in danger—further demonstrating its disregard for the welfare of the Palestinians under its rule. Instead of facing this reality, too many on the Western left twist themselves into pretzels to find ways to blame Hamas’s failings on others (including their own Western nations). Instead of advocating for the removal of Hamas, which would actually improve the lives of Palestinians, they place their own masochistic nationalism at the center of the issue.

Often, they even claim that LGBT activists who pinkwash” Israel’s misdeeds by referencing Israel’s LGBT rights are engaging in a form of colonialism by expecting Palestinians to live up to our “Western” standards. The irony is that these “decolonialists” are imposing their own uniquely Western framing onto the Middle East. In appropriating a foreign conflict to further their own self-centered agenda, they are—to use their own hyperbolic and hypocritical jargon—being cultural “colonizers.” But worse—far worse—their tortured logic has made them useful idiots in the service of the viciously homophobic Islamist far-right.

The original version of this piece appeared in Queer Majority, a publication that champions the sexual rights and freedoms of consenting adults, while eschewing identity politics and retaining a firm commitment to free speech and liberal values.   

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