Tag Archives: Islam

Gay History: Why My Own Father Would Have Let IS Kill Me

The group that calls itself Islamic State (IS or Isis) has a special punishment for gay people – it kills them by throwing them off high buildings. Taim, a 24-year-old medical student, tells the story of how he only escaped this fate by fleeing from Iraq to Lebanon.

In our society, being gay means death. When Isis kills gays, most people are happy because they think we’re sick.

I first realised I was gay when I was about 13 or 14. I too thought homosexuality was a sickness and I just wanted to feel normal. During my first year of college, I started having therapy for it. My therapist told me to tell friends that I was going through a “difficult phase” and to ask for their support.

I’m of Muslim background but my ex-boyfriend was from a Christian background and I had a bunch of Christian friends, whom I used to hang out with. In 2013 I got into a fight with a fellow student, Omar – who later joined Isis – about hanging out with Christians. A friend of mine told him to go easy on me because I was going through a hard time, having treatment for being gay. That’s how people knew. I think my friend’s intention was noble but what happened as a result ruined my life.

Still from an IS video

In November 2013, Omar attacked me with two of his friends. I was just walking home after a really lovely day. They beat me, threw me to the ground and shaved my head, saying to me: “This is just a lesson to you for the moment, because your father is a religious man. Watch what you do!” He meant that I wouldn’t be killed then and there out of respect for my dad, because I’m from a religious family.

I left town for a few days and didn’t go to university but then I went back, and in March 2014 I made Omar angry again, this time by suggesting that non-Muslims shouldn’t have to pay the “jizya”, the tax paid by non-Muslims to a Muslim government. I was washing my hands in the university bathroom when he and others attacked me again. They came at me from behind, but I recognised one of them from his green watch. It was the same group. They kicked me half-unconscious. I was barely able to walk and stopped going to university for a month.

Then, in the middle of final exams, Isis took over. Omar called me and asked me to repent and join them. I hung up the phone.

Taim with shaved head

On 4 July, a group of fighters from Isis came to my home. My father answered the door and apparently they said to him: “Your son is an infidel and a homosexual and we have come to carry out God’s punishment on him.”

My dad is a religious man and luckily for me he was able to tell them to come back the next day, to give him time to find out whether the accusation was correct. He came inside the house and started screaming. Finally, he said: “If these accusations are true, I will hand you over to them myself, happily.” And I just stood there, not knowing what to do and what to say, or how to defend myself.

I was in shock. But my mother decided that I should leave the house immediately, and she started working on getting me out of Iraq for good. It was midnight and she said to me: “We’re leaving right now.” She took me to her sister’s house. The next day she booked me a plane ticket to Turkey and got me a visa. But I had to travel via Erbil and they wouldn’t let us into Kurdistan. I stayed in a village near Erbil for two weeks, trying to get in but I never managed it. I tried to leave via Baghdad but there were clashes on the road and the driver wouldn’t go on. I tried to get out so many times, and failed.

Eventually, in August, after weeks in hiding, my mum arranged somehow for me to get to Kirkuk, driving there through fields and on unpaved roads. From there, I went to Sulaymaniyah. I’d planned to go to Turkey but the first available flight was to Beirut and I didn’t need a visa – so here I am.

If I’d stayed, Isis would have come for me and killed me the way they’ve killed others. If Isis didn’t get me, members of my family would have done it. A few days after I left, I learned that my uncle – my father’s brother – had taken an oath to cleanse the family honour.

Recently, I received an anonymous Facebook message – but my mother thinks it was from my uncle. It said: “I know you’re in Beirut. Even if you went to hell, I would follow you there.”

All I want now is to be in a safe place, unreachable by my dad or anyone with extremist thoughts. I want to be safe, to be free, and to be myself – to get my degree and start living… I just want to start living.

Human rights lawyers from the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project have helped me get refugee status and are working on getting me resettled in another country, where I want to continue my studies. Here I’m living in one room, the size of my bathroom back home. I’m in limbo.

I think I will recover eventually but there will always be a memory of this dark period when I literally had to run for my life to avoid being killed. It was very stressful, but luckily I made it.

I’ve lost contact with most of my family. A month after I fled, my younger brother sent me a Facebook message saying: “I have had to leave town. The family is shattered and it’s all because of you.”

I was angry and didn’t reply. But then on New Year’s Eve I missed him, so I wrote to him, saying: “It’s not my fault that I was born this way. They (Isis) are the criminals.” And after that we had a long conversation on Facebook about our childhoods.

I’ve not spoken to my father. What he did was very hurtful. He’s my father. He’s supposed to protect me and defend me, no matter what. But when he said that he’d hand me over to Isis, he knew what they were going to do to me. He knew. Maybe in the future I can forgive him, but right now I don’t even want to think about him. I want him out of my life.

I talk to my mum every week, though. It’s hard for her because there’s no network coverage and she has to go out of town to get a signal. She’s the most amazing woman in the whole world. She’s cultured, respectful – very bright. She loves me and when she was trying to smuggle me out, we never discussed my homosexuality. She was just focused on getting me to safety. Because she is my mother, I think she always knew that I was gay. But all I felt from her was her love, her ultimate love. I never said goodbye to her because when I actually managed to escape, there had been so many failed attempts that I was sure I would be back and see her again.

All I need is a hug from her.

I still have gay friends at home but we’re not in contact any more, for their own safety.

Earlier this year one of my best friends, who stayed behind, was killed.

He was thrown off the main government building.

He was a great man – a very kind person. He was 22 years old, a medical student, and he was really calm and really smart – a bit of a genius. He used to talk to me about the latest scientific discoveries.

He always got straight As. You never saw him without a book.

We met first online – gay Iraqis hang out a lot in online communities – and then face to face. In person, he was quite quiet – but online he never stopped talking. Sometimes he would chat until the power went off and we lost the internet. He shared his deepest secrets with me. As gay men, we all had to lead secret lives. But he was the kind of person you love to talk to.

I don’t know how he was outed because he was very careful – but maybe through a text or online message. When Isis capture people, they go through all their contacts.

The last time I saw him in the flesh was a few days after Isis took over our town, but we continued talking online until I fled.

When I first saw the pictures of him, I can’t describe what I felt. The video images follow me in my nightmares. I see myself falling through the air. I dream that I’m arrested and then thrown from a building – facing the same fate as my friend.

It was devastating to see him go in that brutal way. He was blindfolded but I knew it was him from his skin tone and from his build. It looked like he died immediately but a friend told me he didn’t – perhaps the building wasn’t high enough. The friend said he’d been stoned to death.

I wanted to break down. I couldn’t believe it. One day he was alive, active, just living his life.

And now he is gone.

Isis are professional when it comes to tracking gay people – they hunt them down one by one

Even before Isis arrived, I was living in constant fear. There are no laws to protect you. Militiamen were killing people in secret, and no-one would say anything. To them, we’re just a bunch of dirty criminals they need to get rid of because we bring God’s anger and are – as they see it – the source of all evil.

For the past few years it’s been really, really hard. There were militiamen or security men who – if they found out someone was gay – would arrest him, rape him, torture him. There were lots of murders supervised by the Iraqi army. Videos came out of people being burned alive or stoned and you can see soldiers there. I have seen a video where some gay men had ropes put around their necks and they were dragged around the streets and people were throwing stones at them and when they were half-dead they were set on fire. Some people had their rectums glued up and were then left to die in the desert.

Before Isis, I think that maybe the power of my family protected me. But let’s assume that Isis disappeared this second, the threat to my life would be just as serious, now that I’ve been identified as gay.

The difference now is that Isis has only one horrible method of killing people – throwing them off buildings and, if they don’t die, stoning them. I know that if Isis had captured me, that would have been my fate.

What’s also changed is that the media are focusing on what Isis is doing, because it’s Isis. And Isis films everything and releases the video and says: “We killed these people for being gay and this is their punishment according to our Holy Book.”

Isis are also professional when it comes to tracking gay people. They hunt them down one by one. When they capture people, they go through his phone and his contacts and Facebook friends. They are trying to track down every gay man. And it’s like dominoes. If one goes, the others will be taken down too.

We have feelings and we have souls – stop hating us just because we’re born different

It’s devastating to see the public reaction to the killings. Usually, when Isis posts pictures online, people sympathise with the victims – but not if they’re gay. You should see the Facebook comments after they post video of the killings. It’s devastating. “We hate Isis but when they do things like this, we love them. God bless you Isis.” “I am against Isis but I am totally with Isis when they kill gays.” “Amazing news. This is the least that gays deserve.” “The most horrible crime on earth is homosexuality. Good job Isis.” “The scene is ugly but they deserve it.” “Those dirty people deserve Isis.”

And there are thousands of people agreeing with these comments full of hate. That is what is so disturbing. This is the society I fled from.

Islam is against homosexuality. My father made me study Sharia law for six years because he wanted me to be a religious man like him. There is a hadith [an ethical guideline thought to be a saying of the prophet] that instructs gay men to be thrown off a cliff and then it’s up to a judge or the Caliph to decide if they should be burned or stoned to death.

Imam and Islamic scholar Dr Usama Hasan from the Quilliam Foundation says there are many hadiths and traditions ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad and his disciples on the subject of punishment for homosexuals. “However, all are disputed and there has never been any consensus on them, especially since they seem to contradict the Koran, 4:15-16.” He adds that some scholars have argued that Muhammad could not have given any such ruling since no confirmed case of homosexuality was ever brought to him.

I think Isis is throwing gay men from buildings because our society hates us and it’s a way of gaining support.

I try not to look at Isis’s videos. But to be honest I do look for their martyrdom videos. I want to see if I can see Omar, the man who ruined my life.

I worry a lot about the gay men still left there. I have dozens of friends who can’t leave because they can’t afford to. But, after our friend’s death, I said goodbye to them online and blocked them, for their own safety.

I’m speaking out to honour my friend who was killed – and for the gay men I know who are still in Iraq. I want Iraqis to know that we’re human beings, we’re not criminals. We have feelings and we have souls. Stop hating us just because we’re born different.

I was lucky to get out. I saved my soul. But what about them? Will they be lucky enough to survive? And, if they survive, will they recover from the trauma of being hunted? It’s a disaster. They’re all targets.

Taim told his story to the BBC’s Caroline Hawley. Taim is not his real name, nor is Omar the real name of his persecutor.


Gay History: What It’s Like To Be Gay And A Muslim?

The Orlando shooting was a hate crime against gay people – even if, once it emerged that the attacker had been a Muslim, many people claimed this as a terrorist attack rather than a hate crime. And, in an important sense, this was also a terror attack, since its aim was to spread fear in the LGBT community.

Since the massacre there has been a lot of speculation about Islam and homosexuality and there are fears that one man’s despicable act of terrorism could fan the flames of Islamophobia and other forms of social exclusion, leading to discord and unrest in an era of elevated Islamophobia.

It is difficult to define the “Islamic position” on homosexuality, as a monolithic phenomenon, simply because Islam is a very diverse faith group with some 1.6 billion followers on six continents. In most Muslim countries, homosexuality is illegal and in some countries, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, it is punishable by death. But in others, such as Jordan and Turkey, homosexuality is not considered a crime.

Most Islamic scholars are in agreement that homosexuality is incompatible with Islamic theology. They tend to draw on the story of Lot in the Koran (also in the Old Testament) which recounts the destruction of the tribe of Lot allegedly due to their engagement in homosexual acts as “evidence” for God’s condemnation of homosexuality. Many scholars also cite the Ahadith (statements attributed to the Prophet Muhammed) that are condemnatory of homosexuality. Theological and legal condemnations of homosexuality can engender perceptions at a social level that homosexuality is wrong and that it should not be permitted.

Muslims on homosexuality

In 2009, a Gallup survey revealed negative attitudes towards homosexuality among European Muslims. In France, 35% of Muslims viewed homosexuality as “morally acceptable” (versus 78% of the general public). In Germany, 19% of Muslims viewed it as morally acceptable (versus 68% of the general public). In the UK, none of the Muslim respondents viewed homosexuality as morally acceptable (versus 58% of the general public who did).

Earlier this year, a survey commissioned by Channel 4 was conducted among a random sample of 1,081 individuals who self-identified as Muslim. The results found that 18% of the British Muslim respondents agreed that homosexuality should be legal in Britain while the majority (52%) disagreed. Conversely, only 5% of the general public thought homosexuality should be illegal. Furthermore, 47% of the British Muslim respondents indicated that they did not believe that it was acceptable for a gay person to become a teacher. These data suggest that there are low levels of acceptance of homosexuality in Muslim communities in the UK.

However, qualitative interview data can provide more nuanced understandings of what Muslims think and why they might hold these views.

In my research into attitudes concerning homosexuality among samples of first and second-generation British Muslims of Pakistani descent, I found that attitudes tend to be largely negative. Although research into attitudes towards homosexuality in the general population points to demographic variables, such as age and level of education, as key determinants of the nature of attitudes, this has not been the case in my own work with British Muslims. Muslims of various ages, education levels and socio-economic backgrounds have participated in my studies and generally perceive homosexuality in negative terms. In substantiating these attitudes people often draw on holy scripture. As one 54-year-old woman said:

It says it in the Koran that it’s wrong and sorry I’m not the one who made it. It’s what the God revealed to the Prophet so it’s the truth and that’s my belief system.

Many interviewees draw upon holy scripture as the basis of their views regarding homosexuality. There appears to be a desire not to “re-interpret” holy scripture – to accommodate homosexuality – because of the divinity of its origin. Moreover, there was a fundamental rejection of essentialist arguments concerning the origins of sexual orientation – that people are born gay and that they do not “choose” to be gay – and interviewees often argued that people had “chosen” to be gay. One 28-year-old man said:

God doesn’t create gay people. It’s a path they’ve chosen and that’s an incorrect path according to our faith.

Indeed, previous research has shown that believing the essentialist argument regarding homosexuality is correlated with less discrimination and greater acceptance.

What does the Koran say about homosexuality? Lord Harris/BritishMuseum, CC BY

First-hand relationships

Although many British Muslims may disapprove of the concept of homosexuality, several individuals reported positive first-hand experiences of contact with LGBT people. A 45-year-old man said:

Homosexuality is wrong, I believe … I have a gay neighbour and he lives with his partner. He’s a very nice guy – both of them [are]. They are very respectful. We consider them friends.

Some people spoke fondly of their LGBT friends, neighbours and acquaintances, suggesting that first-hand contact may challenge homophobia which exists at an abstract, conceptual level. It is also vital to stress that the Muslim interviewees overwhelmingly rejected violence against LGBT people. As one woman put it:

Violence and hate crimes are un-Islamic. We are not supposed to kill or hurt others, as Muslims. No, they can’t have it both ways so they won’t be accepted in our community but it’s for God to punish, not us.

It was difficult for British Muslim interviewees to accept homosexuality given the overwhelming “evidence” of its prohibition in Islam. Individuals simply had no positive theological frame of reference given the absence of LGBT affirmative voices at an institutional level. This led some individuals to view endorsement of homosexuality as a violation of their religious faith and its norms:

Being gay is un-Islamic and so is encouraging it.

Put simply, the acceptance or endorsement of homosexuality was perceived as contravening key tenets of Islam.

Gay Muslims speak out

Clearly, the stigma attached to homosexuality in Islamic communities can have profound effects for those Muslims who also self-identify as gay. For almost a decade, I have been researching the social psychological aspects of being Muslim and gay. In view of the generally negative attitudes towards homosexuality in Muslim communities and the silence that can surround discussions of sexuality, most of my Muslim gay interviewees have manifested a poor self-image and low psychological well-being. Many view their sexual orientation as “wrong” and, thus, express a hope to change it in the future. One young gay Muslim man said:

It’s [being gay] wrong, really, isn’t it? … In the mosque we’re told that Shaitan [Satan] tries to tempt Muslims because he is evil and he makes us do evil things. I know that doing gay things is evil but I hope I’ll change my ways and take the right path soon … It’s all about temptation, really. Life is a big test.

Those gay Muslims who conceptualise their sexuality as immoral and wrong can understandably struggle to derive self-esteem, which is key to well-being. They may come to view their sexual orientation as “evil” and resist it. Some attempt to change their sexual orientation, sometimes by entering into marriages of convenience. This conceptualisation of homosexuality stems from their understanding of the Islamic stance on it. Said by a 28-year-old man:

What the Prophet said was right and that’s always going to stand, yeah. Men having sex with other men was wrong in his eyes. He hated it.

It is easy to see how belief in the negativity of homosexuality from the perspective of one’s faith (which, in countless studies has emerged as an important identity among British Asian Muslims) could cause some gay Muslims to develop internalised homophobia and, in some cases, to doubt the authenticity of their Muslim identity.

Sadiq Khan, mayor of London, received death threats after voting in favour of same-sex marriage. Daniel Leal-Olivas / PA Wire/Press Association Images

Gay Muslims may cope with this internal conflict in a number of ways. While some hope to change their sexual orientation and to “become” straight, others may deny that they are actually gay:

Maybe I’m not bisexual because I’ve never been with a woman but I can’t call myself gay either … I refuse to do that because I just don’t feel gay.

Crucially, in making sense of the “causes” underlying their sexual orientation, some gay Muslims were of the view that they had “become” gay as a result of their social environment and consequently blamed British society:

I’m gay because I was brought up here [in Britain] but I reckon if I’d been brought up in Pakistan then I would have turned out straight because this doesn’t happen that much there. Like I haven’t heard of any gays in our village. Here there are clubs and that and so I just kind of fell into the gay culture.

We tend to attribute aspects of our identity that we see as undesirable to external factors. This is a means of protecting one’s sense of self from threats. Some of the gay Muslim interviewees in my studies have identified British (or Western) culture as the reason for their sexual orientation.

Reconciling homosexuality and Islam

Many individuals of religious faith struggle to accept homosexuality given the centrality of heterosexuality to faith life, according to most faith groups. Muslims are no exception. Individuals use all sorts of strategies for protecting their sense of identity and some of these strategies can actually have poor social and psychological outcomes. Social psychologists have long argued that intergroup contact is a good starting-point for improving relations between different social groups.

Universities are obvious contexts in which different groups can come together – LGBT and Islamic student societies on university campuses could collaborate with the aim of increasing inter-group contact between Muslims and LGBT people (and indeed those who identify with both categories).

Of course, inter-group contact needs to be characterised by positive images of the outgroup. So there needs to be much more discussion of homosexuality in Muslim communities – which will admittedly be difficult given the cultural taboo around sexuality. Faith and community leaders should broach the topic. My view is that people need to be exposed to LGBT affirmative images. This has already happen to some extent.

As I’ve written elsewhere, the Eastenders storyline concerning Syed Mehmood, a gay Muslim character who struggles to come out to his parents, generated some discussion in the British Muslim community and led some individuals to acknowledge the existence of homosexuality within their community.

Coming out: Syed from Eastenders on Twitter. Twitter

This is a positive step forward and one that can be built on. Similarly, there needs to be more acknowledgement and acceptance of faith groups in LGBT contexts which tend to be secular. In my research, I’ve also found that gay Muslims can face Islamophobia on the gay scene, which can hinder their sense of belonging in these spaces.

In addition to improving relations between groups, it is likely that this exercise will have positive outcomes for well-being among those individuals who self-identify as Muslim and gay. Growing up in an environment in which you are led to believe that your sexual orientation is wrong, sinful or symptomatic of mental illness can lead to profound social and psychological challenges, including internalised homophobia, low self-esteem, depression and, in some cases, suicidal thoughts.

The reasons underlying the horrendous attacks perpetrated by Omar Mateen in Orlando may never be fully understood. But if it is true that he was a closeted homosexual – it was reported that he had used gay dating applications and frequented gay bars, including the one that he attacked – he clearly had a very difficult relationship with this aspect of his identity. There is already some empirical evidence that homophobia is associated with homosexual arousal, which suggests that homophobia might be a means of distancing homosexuality from one’s sense of self.

Could it be that his actions were in part a result of his internalised homophobia? Did he attack the LGBT community in an attempt to distance his own sexuality from his sense of self?

In any case, we as a society have a responsibility to acknowledge diversity and to allow people the space and opportunity to self-identify in ways in which they choose. We have a responsibility to challenge prejudice (of all kinds) when it shows its ugly face. We have a responsibility to support and protect minorities who are vulnerable to marginalisation and exclusion. Sometimes this will be challenging particularly when it means that we have engage with sensitive issues such as religious norms and customs but we must persevere – for the sake of freedom, peace and well-being for all of society.