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Whitaker on the “Brokeback Desert” March 23, 2006

Posted by Rasheed Eldin in Homosexualists, Islam, Responses.

Brian Whitaker, who often writes interesting things about Arabs and Muslims, is very interested in the subject of being gay and Arab. He has long hosted a list of links (one-sided, and it's not my side!) about "Gay and lesbian Muslims" on his site.

He has a book coming out in May on the issue, called Unspeakable Love: Gay and lesbian life in the Middle East. Blurb:

Homosexuality is still taboo in the Arab countries. While clerics denounce it as a heinous sin, newspapers, reluctant to address it directly, talk cryptically of ‘shameful acts’ and ‘deviant behaviour’. Despite growing acceptance of sexual diversity in many parts of the world, attitudes in the Middle East have been hardening against it.

In this absorbing account, Guardian journalist Brian Whitaker paints a disturbing picture of people who live secretive, often fearful lives; of sons beaten and ostracised by their families or sent to be ‘cured’ by psychiatrists; of men imprisoned and flogged for ‘behaving like women’; of others who have been jailed simply for trying to find love on the Internet.

He now has a blog as part of the new Comment is Free collection at the Guardian. In a recent post, he tells us that "It is a pity Brokeback Mountain isn't showing in the Arab world, because it resembles current reality there."

His perspective is really one-sided, and doesn't really consider much of the religious dimension of the issue. It's worth a read for the sociological dimension, i.e. the implications of having homosexual feelings, and affirming a homosexual identity, in societies where the latter – at least – is condemned. As some comments pointed out, Whitaker may have made the Arab-West distinction a little too "black-and-white" in this regard.

I'd be interested to know more of his thoughts on the religious dilemma itself. What about the struggle that many go through just to understand their feelings, then to be confident in their identity, and to relate in the most suitable way to their Creator, considering what guidance He has revealed regarding human sexuality and behaviour? Whitaker rather takes it for granted that all his readers should accept that the modern Western understanding and attitude are the best, indeed correct, ones. Might I beg to differ?

UPDATE: Brian Whitaker has updated the sub-site about his book, which was recently launched. You can be sure that we will be getting ourselves a copy to peruse and critique (particularly the chapters about religion). A glance at his footnotes reveals reference to Scott Kugle, plus the following opinion: "Arguments equating anal sex between men with zina can be disputed. The act is physically different, as are its possible consequences…"

Out of all the comments at the Comment is Free page, I thought it might be helpful to respond to texasclaude, who criticised American Christian dislike of homosexuality by pointing out that "it was [in the past] also a sin to work on the Sabbath"… maybe it still is (from a Christian perspective)? I guess it would be clichéd to say that "Two wrongs don't make a right." I'll take this following point too, since it's so awfully common:

One must question if homosexuality is a sin, of course. I, for one, don't think that it is as how could a loving God create a person who was automatically sinful? Can a person be born a sinner? Unfortunately the Bible thumpers and bigots, even those in our highest offices, still think homosexuality is a choice. That someone would intentionally choose a lifestyle that isn't easy by any means today, even in the so-called "modern world" is beyond belief.

By all means question, but don't just dismiss. Can a Christian accept that someone would be born sinful? I'm not a Christian myself, but I suppose that notion would not be so shocking to people who do believe that children are born into Original Sin, which they are only cleansed of by accepting Christ as Saviour. Needless to say, I don't go along with that theology.

But from an Islamic perspective, we say that even if homosexual tendencies are explainable entirely by genetics etc., that does not mean that a person would be born a sinner. Sin is an action, not a state of being. Having homosexual feelings is not an action, and therefore not a sin. But nobody can deny that they have control over what they do, no matter how difficult it may become for a person to control himself.

As for the question of choosing to be homosexual, of course it is highly, highly improbable (though I suppose not impossible) on the level of feelings. But in the realm of actions and lifestyles, it is 100% a matter of choice. Is living a homosexual life easy? Sure, in many ways, no. But is it not easier, on another level, to follow one's desires than to resist and overcome them for a higher goal?

A general note: in order to conduct these debates properly, we must first agree to distinguish between actions and attractions. Otherwise, we end up muddled ourselves, and misunderstood by our interlocutors.



1. ibrahim - March 25, 2006

homosexuality is prohibited in Islam. and if one does have homosexual tendencies, control them. i am a straight guy, and i am not married – i must control myself. people have different challenges and roles in life, you think living without ‘sex/sexual actions’ for a lifetime is a challenge (assuming you can never go ‘straight’), check out the people in Africa that have to walk 5 miles a day to just get water to survive.

2. Brian Whitaker - March 31, 2006

Thanks for noting my article about “Brokeback Desert”. Although I didn’t mention the religious dimension in the article, there are two chapters covering that in my forthcoming book.
I am sure you will disagree with a lot of the things I say in the book, but I respect Straightway for drawing attention to the all-important distinction between attractions and actions in Islam – a distinction that many Muslim websites fail to make.
One of the issues that has to be addressed before it gets out of hand is the growing gays-versus-Muslims conflict (“Islamophobes” versus “homophobes” as some people put it). I hope my book will go some way towards introducing an element of common sense into that debate.

3. Rasheed Eldin - March 31, 2006

Thanks for popping by, Brian. I do hope that we can maintain some discussion on these issues, which are usually dealt with in the most superficial, sloganeering way.

On your latter point, which we might also describe as the conflict between LGBT and Islamist campaigners, I think we need to emphasise on finding a common ground on which to start talking.

I would be very interested in your feedback on other posts I have put here, as I do mean to promote principled dialogue.

4. Yousef - April 3, 2006

From what I have found it is essential that the dialogue include sound scientific arguments based on the history of the homosexualist campaign as well as the neuroscience of emotions and attractions.

5. Shareef - June 4, 2006

I havent read the book yet i am looking forward to reading, but reading the article by Mr. Rashid and the sense of negativity i caught from him..
it was said that its a choice to choose the gay/lesbian lifestyle, it has some truth to it but its not as clear crystal
i as a gay muslim am still having issues, i dont understand why am i being punished for something two men or women have agreed upon as long as they are not harming no one else. especially if its love. to me personally if i had a choice to fall in love or even be physically attracted to a girl i would but appearantly i cant. So why do i not have love and get married (it is sunnah to get married ok maybe to a woman) to a guy. how would that harm the natural of the order hence sending me to hell ?

I do understand the straight perspective of this, which makes it a huge taboo to be gay because it is just said in the Quran, or because its said in hadeeth that anal sex shakes the thorn in the Quran. However sometimes things can be interperted in certain ways, sadly i havent fully read the quran, but sometimes i think maybe that it was interpreted in a certain way to satisfy a certain generation years ago.same thing happens when i go to a friday cermon and i hear the guy clearly says that woman are the root of evil and they are the devils themselves, and that they are getting more naked by the minute and it is shameful, and putting all the blame on the women only, as far as i remember it says in the Quran that if a women is in decent then men shouldnt. because at the end of the day not all people are muslim or religious therefore not all of them are obliged to be covered up .. back to my point of intreptation the same way something was misinterpeted so that it shows woman as devils for the guys own agenda .. maybe the with regards, to homosexuality it is misintreperted .. again just thoughts and i am not in a position to make literally and accurate comments as i dont know the Quran that much but all i can say is my experiance as Gay “muslim” 23 year old who decided to accept himself as a gay person at the age of 19.

Thanks for taking the time to read the comment

6. Rasheed Eldin - June 6, 2006

Dear Shareef,

Thank you for writing your comment. I very much welcome all views, especially those that disagree with me in a considered, well-argued way. I'd like to respond to your points here.

Let me be clear first of all that I am not interested in the "straight perspective", but only the Islamic perspective, if there is one clear answer (as I am convinced there is).

"Consensual" homosexual acts (without God's consent) may not harm anyone, but that is not the basis of all Islamic rulings. Does it harm anyone if, in the seclusion of his home, a man bows his head in worship before a wooden idol he carved by his hands? No, but it is the most grievous of sins in the sight of Islam.

Homosexual acts are classified as major sins. Let me explain what this implies:
(1) They incur God's anger and make a person deserving of punishment.
(2) That punishment may come to him in the hereafter or before that. He might be sent to hell for a period of time to atone for it.
(3) He can repent from that sin at any time, just by turning to Allah and asking for His mercy and forgiveness (and obviously resolving not to continue the sin).
(4) Allah may even choose to forgive that sin without punishing the person, but nobody should be at all complacent in this regard. And this does not apply to the sin of worshipping others beside God alone, or associating partners with Him.

We should bear in mind two additional points:
(5) Some sins may require a wrong to be righted, such as theft – you must return anything stolen, if possible.
(6) Some sins – including anal sex between men – are considered societal crimes and attract a worldly punishment, either defined by a source-text or at the discretion of a judge, after due process.

Let's move on. I won't answer all your related questions here, as they are covered in some ways elsewhere on the blog. Please do browse. In particular, since you've called yourself gay but only "Muslim" in quotes, I would especially recommend this article by Mujahid:

You make a point about the Qur'an perhaps being misinterpreted. Brother, anyone is free to make a claim, but a real problem is when anyone does so for a self-serving purpose, whether that be to justify unfair treatment of women, or to justify acts that are clearly against Islam and nature. Any claimant must justify his claims with evidence, then he must be ready to face criticism also on the basis of evidence.

7. Yousef - June 6, 2006

Anyone who claims that women are the root of evil clearly has little or no knowledge of the Islamic religion. Gender fairness in the Qur’an is one of its most beautiful characteristics. One need only look at verses that deal with motherhood or with the Virgin Mary, or with Pharoah’s wife, or with the Virgin Mary’s mother. Also, the verses that deal with the relationship between spouses, as well as verses that describe pregnancy and childbirth.

You might also want to listen to some of the lectures that were pointed to earlier on this blog about “Love in Islam”. Those lectures offer a beautiful understanding of the status of women and men. Again, like Br. Rasheed pointed out…please please please brother, do not allow yourself to go astray because of things that you “feel” might have happened. If it is true that some people are misinterpreting the Qur’an, then do some research yourself and ask the scholars that clearly aren’t. You are more than welcome to keep in touch and I truly would love it if you did no matter what decision it is you make about your life. Assalamualaykom.

8. Yousef - June 6, 2006

I wanted to add another point to the birth vs. choice debate…those are NOT the only two possibilities! What about environment, conditioning, and circumstance! Those are all valid points that shape our personalities and our realities. It is our duty as human beings to sort out our lives and figure out what is going on. Things are not as simple as “birth vs. choice”.

9. Rasheed Eldin - December 9, 2006

Some readers may have wondered whether Brian Whitaker is gay himself, and I did wonder too. It’s not that important a question, otherwise I would just have asked him. Anyway, in an interview on NPR (American radio station), he confirmed that he is indeed gay. However, he said that it made no difference to his role as a journalist researching his book.


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