Magazine article The Spectator

Arabian Nights

Magazine article The Spectator

Arabian Nights

Article excerpt

Islamic societies are less antithetical to gay sex than you might think

Recall the media coverage at the height of the Jimmy Savile scandal, times it by about a thousand, and you get an idea of the hysteria currently surrounding gay men in Egypt. That's not an arbitrary analogy. The social ramifications of coming out as a 'gay man' in most parts of the Middle East are the same as for some chap on a council estate in Barnsley declaring in a packed pub at closing time that he has a 12-year-old girlfriend. Two detained gay rights campaigners who waved the rainbow flag at a recent Cairo pop concert, and thus provoked the clampdown, are presently learning that the hard way.

Their unprecedented public LGBT activism took place during a performance by a rock group called Mashrou' Leila, whose Lebanese singer Hamed Sinno is one of those baffling individuals who feels compelled to tell the whole world that he is gay every time he opens his mouth. Amid 24-hour news coverage, the security forces -- by using internet dating sites, scouring social media and talking to local snitches -- arrested 60 allegedly gay men. Obviously, that's 60 too many. We should recall, though, that Egypt is a country of 95 million people, and those arrested mostly deny being gay. So either the police were not making much of an effort to round up the queers, or -- more likely -- there are in fact almost none in Egypt.

Of course, that's not the same as saying that there are no Egyptian men who engage in gay sex. As someone who lived in the country for more a decade, is fluent in Egyptian Arabic and has written a book on the country that includes a chapter on male prostitution, I can testify quite emphatically that the exact opposite is true. And therein lies the rub, as it were.

Hamed Sinno, the lead singer of Lebanese band Mashrou Leila (image: Getty)

Western correspondents filing dispatches about gay persecution in Egypt and the wider region are ignoring the more nuanced reality. Just as predictably, bigots determined to show how Islam restricts sexual freedom are also having a ball. But the latter especially are wide of the mark. The Koran singles out sex between men as a transgression, but uniquely in the Islamic holy book, proscribes no punishment. And there must be four independent witnesses to the act of anal intercourse (all other forms of gay sex seem to have escaped Allah's attention). So it's just a warning not to have sex in the middle of the street. Even then, for those caught, social rehabilitation is encouraged. Elsewhere, the Koran describes 'cup bearers' awaiting the faithful in heaven: beautiful, beardless, servile youths who never age or defecate. The implication is that they will be forever young, handsome, ready and willing. It's almost enough to make a stubborn atheist contemplate deathbed conversion, just on the off-chance.

Hence the lack of witch-hunts throughout Islamic history. And from the 9th until the early 20th century, the love object in Arabic poetry was nearly always a beautiful boy. With the exception of Isis's crumbling caliphate, the carefree attitude largely continues today, and is only threatened by the encroachment of western gay identity politics.

To illustrate how, I can give two of the countless examples I witnessed. …

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