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Benjamin Weinthal: How to fight homophobia in the Middle East

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“The Islamic State organization, which has executed dozens of gays, replicates the anti-gay policies of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen and Qatar, to name just some of the most dangerous countries … Only one Middle East country grants sexual liberty to LGBTs: Israel.”

Benjamin Weinthal: How to fight homophobia in the Middle East

January began with more horrific news for LGBTs in the Middle East. The Islamic State executed a 15-year-old Syrian boy suspected of being gay by tossing him off a rooftop in the eastern Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor. Such reports are not new, or rare.

The time is ripe for Canada and the United States — two countries where the march of progress has secured marriage equality for LGBTs — to confront lethal homophobia and persecution in the Arab world and Iran.

Just last month, the Empire State Pride Agenda in New York, an important LGBT human rights NGO, announced that it will disband because it achieved its goals of LGBT equalities over its 25-year history. This was a mistake, in large part because the battle for LGBT protections requires advocacy in Muslim-majority countries.

Canada, to its credit, seeks to provide priority resettlement to Syrian LGBT refugees because of their dire plight. But it can do much more to influence a change in anti-LGBT behaviour in the Middle East.

The row between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran over mass executions in the kingdom and the torching of the Saudi embassy in Tehran is a significant opportunity for the West to end the death penalty for LGBTs. The Islamic State organization, which has executed dozens of gays, replicates the anti-gay policies of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen and Qatar, to name just some of the most dangerous countries.

According to a 2008 British WikiLeaks dispatch, Iran’s regime executed “between 4,000 and 6,000 gays and lesbians” since the Iranian revolution in 1979. Even Arab countries that on paper limit punishment for homosexuality to prison sentences seek to exterminate their LGBT communities.

Danny Ramada, a gay Syrian who was granted asylum by Canada, said in November, “Legally speaking, in Syria homosexuals (can be punished) for three years in prison. Three years in prison are, to be honest, a death sentence.” In written testimony to the U.K.’s parliamentary inquiry on the refugee crisis, Subhi Nahas, an openly gay Syrian refugee, wrote, “In 2011, at the start of the uprising in Syria, government media launched a campaign accusing all dissidents of being homosexuals.”

Only one Middle East country grants sexual liberty to LGBTs: Israel. An odious campaign called Pink Washing attempts to discredits Israel as part of the larger BDS (Boycott, Sanctions, Divestment) movement targeting the Jewish state. Sadly, LGBT progress in the Middle East is largely limited to Israel. The case of Payam Feili, a gay Iranian poet, provides a telling example. Feili, a prolific writer who has authored nine books, fled to Turkey in 2014 and arrived in Israel in December.

He was tortured during the so-called reform administration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Iran’s security forces subjected him to detentions, harassment and a writer’s blacklist. He survived 44 days of gruelling captivity in a shipping container.

Feili saw the deceptive nature of Rouhani’s campaign victory in 2013: “Nothing essential has changed. The structure is still the same. It’s a play, a comic and ugly performance. They’re relying on the naïveté of people to be able to succeed.”

In late December, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the first openly gay lawmaker from his conservative Likud party, Amir Ohana, at his swearing-in ceremony in the Knesset. Traditionally, new MPs are welcomed by fellow lawmakers, but Netanyahu sought to make a point with his personal address.

“I am happy to accept him in our ranks. Ohana has a rich past in security and is the head of the Likud Pride Group. I accept him with appreciation and pride,” said Netanyahu.

When Arab and Iranian parliaments are mature enough to have LGBT MPs, there might, just might, be stability and peace in the Middle East.

While many European parliaments, which support LGBT rights, have unilaterally recognized a Palestinian state, they have ignored disturbing remarks from PLO representatives. When asked if gays will be tolerated in a Palestinian state, the PLO ambassador to the U.S., Maen Rashid Areikat, said in 2011, “Ah, this is an issue that’s beyond my (authority).”

All of this helps to likely explain why an LGBT film festival organized by Aswat-Palestinian Gay Women could be held in Haifa in Israel this year, but not in the Ramallah, the capital of the Palestinian Authority.

What can Canada and the U.S do to improve the conditions of LGBT communities in the Middle East? First, they can provide funds for NGOs seeking to end anti-gay policies in Muslim-majority countries. Second, Canada and the U.S can impose human rights sanctions on individuals and regimes involved in anti-LGBT persecution. Third, economic sanctions should also be considered as part of a pressure-point strategy to change conduct. Lastly, the U.S and Canada should reject nominations from anti-gay Middle East countries to all UN human rights fora.

Progress comes slowly. But with help, it can come.

Source: National Post
Twitter.com/BenWeinthal

Benjamin Weinthal is a fellow for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. 

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