Currently, around 100 gay men and women have been hunted down, detained, tortured and even killed in the Chechen Republic — a republic of Russia. The leader of the republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, is promising the extermination of gays in the region by the beginning of Ramadan, according to PinkNews. This swift and violent suppression of LGBT individuals by local police and militia groups incited a powerful outcry from LGBT organizations around the world, drawing further criticism toward Russia’s legal stances on homosexuality. And while Russia does have restrictions on what the government labels “homosexual propaganda” — any media or materials supporting homosexuality or homosexual relations — and civil unions, there are two facts about this mass incarceration and extermination that seemingly go unnoticed: that the internment of homosexuals has only been occurring in Chechnya under Chechnian authorities, and that Chechnya is 95 percent Muslim by population.
This horrific treatment of LGBT individuals is not uncommon in the Islamic world. Eleven countries — all predominantly Muslim — uphold the death penalty for homosexual acts. Seventy-two countries also enforce punishment for homosexual acts, most whom also contain a mainly Muslim population. This expansive, collective homophobia across the Islamic world has lasted for centuries without challenge or reform since Islam’s inception.
Acts of violence against LGBT individuals are not uncommon in these countries. In Iran, 30 allegedly homosexual men were recently arrested at a party and, according to the Washington Blade, are expected to receive degrading anal examinations. Gay men in Iran face a choice: execution or forced gender transition to the opposite sex. Imprisonment is also common, with sentences ranging from forced labor to several years in prison. Torture is also a constant reality, with gay prisoners facing worse punishment at the hands of their peers and guards in prisons due to their orientation. And there is the ever-looming threat of being outed by their parents, which would result in mob justice, lynching and honor killings. These threats to life and the pursuit of happiness impact gay men in Muslim dominated communities everywhere.
This violence is not isolated to Muslim-majority countries. The number of anti-gay and anti-trans bashings in Europe has grown since the beginnings of the current migrant crisis, and large sections of European cities and entire neighborhoods have become majoritily Muslim. These communities are distinctly hostile to LGBT individuals both inside and outside of those communities. Here in America, we’ve had our own acts of violence as well, the most recent one being the Pulse nightclub shooting that left 49 gay men and women dead. It was surprising to me to hear large media outlets decry the attack as an act of racism due to the victim’s ethnicities, but seldom as an act of religiously-motivated violence. This was a prime moment where the LGBT community and its allies could join forces with liberal Muslims to combat Islamic extremism and homophobia in the Muslim community. However, apologists repeat the same, disarming lecture on how religious extremism is a minority of Islam while the majority is peaceful. But what did that do about the inherent homophobia that persists? Answer: it did nothing.
Yes, Muslim community leaders and several countries denounced the attack, and most Muslims in America do not commit routine acts of violence against LGBT individuals. But imams and clerics will continue to spout the same laws and beliefs about homosexuality — as long as they remain unchallenged. Even though acts of violence in Muslim minority counties are few, the ideological base of the religion still upholds problematic ideas about LGBT individuals and their place in the religious community — to be specific, that they are not welcome in said community.
It is important to single out Islam for its violation of LGBT rights. Although Christianity and Judaism have committed suppression and torture of gay men historically, religious reform and challenging of fundamentalist narratives is becoming common in these religious communities. In most westernized countries, there is also a distinct separation between church and state. However, despite the influence of a few liberal Muslims, most Muslim religious communities still hold fundamentalist views on sexuality and gender equality. The politicization of Islam in politics also complicates this, as liberal and conservative groups alike are quick to respond to challenges towards the Muslim faith as being Islamophobia or insensitive, shielding Islam from criticism altogether.
As a gay man myself, this is deeply concerning and troubling. Preventing certain religious beliefs from being publicly criticized — letting them go unchallenged — only enables the oppression of LGBT individuals and others targeted by these religious groups. Further, the fact that liberal “allies” of LGBT rights are simultaneously defending a large, conservative and Abrahamic religion from criticism or theological challenges to their oppression of sexual and gender minorities — that they’re supposedly allies of — is disgustingly hypocritical. If this level of religious oppression — in terms of torture and organized violence — came from Christianity or Judaism today, most Americans and Europeans would be up at arms with widespread condemnation of both faiths. However, Islam appears to get a free pass in the mainstream media, constantly being hailed as a “religion of peace” — a slogan first coined by George W. Bush after the 2001 terror attacks. Liberals turning a blind eye to this religious oppression puts the progression of LGBT rights movement, especially in Muslim-majority communities, at odds with its own supporters. Not to mention at odds with a large and expanding theological oppressor.
The recent atrocities in Chechnya is not an isolated case. Homophobia, no matter what religion perpetrates it, is still homophobia. It is the duty of liberal and moderate Muslims to question their religious authorities and scriptures when they preach hate or bigotry. It is also the duty of LGBT allies — if they wish to be considered allies — to encourage this behavior and empower liberal Muslims who represent progressive stances in their communities. Organizations like Muslims for Progressive Values have made fantastic headway for inclusivity in Islam and create a dialogue necessary for religious reform.
Finally, it is time for the LGBT community to recognize that there is a longtime problem with Islam and homophobia. Calling it out is not Islamophobia but instead criticizing religious fundamentalists who threaten our lives and prevent us from fulfilling our pursuit of happiness around the world. Hopefully, one day the violence perpetrated by Muslim fundamentalists will become history in the Muslim world — but this can only become reality through understanding, challenging long-held beliefs and envisioning a brighter, more diverse future.