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Hey Liberals, It's OK to Criticize Muslim Countries' Treatment of Gays

What the Bill Maher–fueled debate over Islam misses


Discussing the Bill Maher-Ben Affleck brouhaha over Islamic extremism, first in an interview on CNN and later in an op-ed for the New York Times, Reza Aslan has made a strong case against overgeneralization—how false and dispiriting it is for people to assume that diverse people of any faith, particularly the over 1 billion adherents of Islam, would be monolithic in their beliefs or broadly literal when interpreting their religious texts. As if to disprove CNN host's Chris Cuomo's ugly accusation that his “tone was angry," Aslan is nothing if not judicious in the Times, writing that "there is a real lack of sophistication on both sides of the argument when it comes to discussing religion and violence." 

But there is a lack of sophistication in Aslan's arguments, too, for his examples are as cherry-picked as he accuses Maher's of being. Aslan has cited many examples of diversity of experience in the Muslim world, such as the different experiences of women in Iran and Saudia Arabia versus those in Malaysia, Indonesia and Bangladesh. But he notably hasn't pointed to any examples of LGBT tolerance in countries dominated by Islam. This is probably not by accident.

Before accusations of generalizing are thrown at me, allow me this: Across North America and Europe, there is ample evidence of Muslims who are supportive of the LGBT community.  The U.S.'s two Muslim congressmen, Keith Ellison and Andre Carson, are both members of the LGBT Equality Caucus and have spoken up in favor of gay rights. Organizations such as Muslims for Progressive Values and the Al-Fatiha Foundation have done much good work helping LGBT Muslims reconcile their faith with their sexual orientation. Some moderate Muslim clerics in the United States, and even a few conservative ones, have made statements suggestive of tolerance towards LGBT people and same-sex unions (albeit with caveats.) Aslan himself is quite supportive of LGBT people.

But all of these examples pertain to people living in countries where Islam holds no influence over government. In the U.S., Canada, and Europe, there is broad cultural acceptance of LGBT people, and so the Muslims speaking out for LGBT rights there can do so in relative safety. Even if Aslan's point that “the cultural practices of a Saudi Muslim, when it comes to the role of women in society, are largely irrelevant to a Muslim in a more secular society like Turkey or Indonesia” is somewhat true, it's not really true with regards to LGBT people.

There is near unanimity of opinion regarding LGBT rights in places where Islam holds power: that it's sinful and, more often than not, punishable by law. Even in countries where consensual homosexual activity is de facto legal, there is scant evidence of an openly gay populace, let alone examples of influential voices speaking up or influencing government policy to advance LGBT equality. The lives of LGBT people in so many of these nations is characterized by silence, humiliation, shame and erasure. 

These cultural norms are deeply engrained. In most of these nations, upwards of 90 percent of people consider homosexual activity morally wrong. With these states acting as enforcers of a moral code roundly accepted by their people, even the discussion of LGBT rights is pretty much a non-starter. To paraphrase Harvey Milk, the key to increasing acceptance of gays anywhere is to increase LGBT visibility within communities. But this seems a near-impossible task in much of the Muslim world. 

Aslan is right to chastise the critics of religion who, as he writes in the Times, “scour holy texts for bits of savagery and point to extreme examples of religious generalize about the causes of oppression throughout the world." Surely criticizing any religion in the 21st century, based on a holy text written centuries ago, seems disingenuous. Still, it's not disingenuous to point out that outside of the Muslim world, holy texts do not hold that much sway over governing bodies. The Old Testament is full of extremism and violence—but no reasonable argument can be made that Israeli law adheres much to the Old Testament. Some argue that Islam's position on gays is similar to the Vatican's in many ways. But that is misleading, too. As influential as the Vatican is, it's power of governance is quite limited. Most countries where Catholicism is the majority religion do not govern based on Catholic doctrine (which is moving left as I write this). Most Islamic countries, in one way or another, do rely on Islamic beliefs as a matter of law. 

The key word here is “most.” For if we simply take away from this argument that Muslims are generally intolerant of LGBT people, or that Islam itself is to blame, we would be missing the point—and committing the same mistake that Maher did by overgeneralizing. Advances in LGBT rights in the West have only happened in the last 20 years—some might say just the last five—so it would be awfully hypocritical to fault the slow progress of LGBT rights in Muslim countries. But evidence suggests that in several countries, LGBT rights are in fact regressing, possibly in response to the West's increasing tolerance.

I do not want to diminish the real, pervasive problem of Islamophobia. A noxious mixture of fear and ignorance causes Muslims in the West—and especially in the United States—to be stereotyped and discriminated against, and sometimes physically attacked. The trouble with Aslan's arguments of late, though, is that they focus on Islam's image in America rather than on Muslims abroad who, because they're gay, are facing far worse treatment than being maligned by a loudmouth on a Friday night HBO show. It's not that Aslan's points aren't valid, but in his evenhanded comparisons of Islam to Christianity and Buddhism, he fails to acknowledge the tens of millions of LGBT Muslims who are not able to speak up or live openly the way their western counterparts are.

Acknowledging as much—that on some issues, especially LGBT rights, the Muslim world is falling behind—need not be a conundrum for American liberals. Rather than twist ourselves in knots trying not to offend, we should highlight the activist heroes inside these intolerant states who are pushing universal rights. We should advocate for more progressive interpretations of the Q'uran and Haadith. And yes, we should be unafraid, even vigilant, about condemning those places in the world where regressive attitudes persist, be they in Indiana or Indonesia.