This article discusses the most important popular arguments supporting, opposing, or expressing hostility towards homosexuality in Arab culture. The article also tackles important popular tactics used to defend or condemn homosexuality. What are the popular arguments presented and tactics used in these intellectual confrontations?
1. Evading confrontation
The main popular tactic used by many opponents of homosexuality is evading confrontation and circumventing the topic. They avoid the subject by downplaying the necessity of tackling the issue of homosexuality for the time being.
People with this attitude would justify their take on the matter by stating that discussing homosexuality in present day Syria shows lack of insight as it blinds people from seeing more important issues that Syrians are struggling with locally and abroad. So, is it acceptable to leave the real problems aside to tackle a secondary issue like homosexuality, knowing that it only affects a limited number of people?
When responding to this tactic, it is very important to find out how the person giving the arguments actually perceives gay rights. This is necessary because the significance, context and basis of this tactic differ depending on the person’s actual opinion on homosexuality. When responding, it is important to focus on the idea that fundamental rights are complementary, so there is no hierarchy for non-derogable rights. The oppressed must be in solidarity instead of falling into the abyss of competing for misery. Ideally, advocating for gay rights should go hand in hand with advocating for a culture of rights in society. It should be at least harmonious with and not contradictory to calling for rights in other contexts. When calling for the rights of certain factions and social groups, it is highly important that it be based on an inclusive human rights system. Such a system must value the ethical need for people to have equal rights as they are distinct individuals whose dignities, freedoms, and fundamental rights must be respected. Moreover, situations leading to depriving some individuals of equal rights must be treated with discretion. This is the complementarity among fundamental rights.
Arab human rights advocacy is full of contradictions resulting from the lack of complementarity in theory and in practice. For instance, some might oppose one dictator but support another. Others call for the rights of Muslim minorities in Europe yet refuse granting ethnoreligious minorities full citizenship rights in predominantly Muslim countries. In brief, some people call for ending oppression in some places while justifying the same behavior elsewhere.
The idea of complementarity of rights could help restrict the possibility of imposing the idea of a hierarchy of priorities when it comes to matters of human dignity and fundamental human rights. The idea of complementarity of rights is not based on favoring or choosing some rights over others. On the contrary, it draws its essence from the deep relationship between these rights. Thus, advances in some areas would increase the possibilities of advances in others. Complementarity of rights helps reduce the racism in anti-racism discourse. It is important to note that anti-racist discourse supporting the rights of certain groups could easily slip into racist discourse towards other groups when it is not grounded in a clear, inclusive, and complementary system of rights. It is somewhat common for the discourse of supporters of women’s rights, LGBTQI rights, or children’s rights to include discriminatory comments about men, oriental people, or Muslims. The conviction that rights are complementary and not hierarchal pushes the oppressed to unite and cooperate instead of competing for developing more compelling narratives to prioritize their case over others. Nonetheless, this conviction could be harshly put to the test in reality since the competition for higher prioritization could result in choosing to support some rights at the expense of others.
2. Homosexuality is a western trend and a marginal phenomenon not worthy of supporting and/or defending
Opponents of homosexuality and those who adopt the tactic of evading confrontation do not consider it valid for condoners of homosexuality to justify their position with imagined or real oppression against the homosexual community. They consider such justifications as a mere and misplaced appropriation of a popular western trend that does not take into account the priorities, discretions, and values of the Arab culture and does not care about the other pressing issues that people in the region are facing.
Claiming that defending homosexuality is a misplaced appropriation of a European or western trend shows a clear lack of understanding that needs to be rectified. First, it assumes that homosexuality is a relatively rare phenomenon outside of the western world and that it is wrong to suggest a similar qualitative and quantitative presence in the Muslim and Arab world. Moreover, it suggests that the number of homosexual individuals is relatively small and that such individuals do not suffer as much as their western counterparts; therefore, they do not and must not have the same demands. When responding to such claims, it is important to start with establishing the distinction between the existence of the phenomenon and its public visibility. Weak visibility or sometimes invisibility of the phenomenon in the public sphere does not mean it is actually inexistent or uncommon. Homosexuality is present in many communities and has a long history, yet the strength of its public visibility fluctuates depending on the level of openness and acceptance of some societies. The fact that homosexuality still exists in societies despite the oppression it faces shows that it is not a passing or secondary trend and its level of visibility depends on the extent of oppression it faces. Most of the time, the likelihood of an LGBTQI individual to come out depends on the gravity of the expected reaction from their family and social entourage. It also depends on the legal protection guaranteed to them by authorities. This reality gives us better insight into the lack of visibility of homosexual individuals and their supporters in the public sphere. In Egypt for instance, a law criminalizing homosexuality was recently passed. Yet, just because such individuals no longer express themselves publicly, it does not mean that their number has decreased. Meanwhile, the legal protection for homosexual individuals against discrimination in the public sphere and the acknowledgement of gay rights have increased their visibility in Western Europe nowadays compared to the past. Based on these facts, the predicted or real number of homosexual individuals in the Arab/Muslim world should not affect our view of their cause. We must neither treat the issue with less importance nor dramatize it based on the numbers. Knowing that Kant denied all human beings happiness if it were at the expense of one child, how could we accept the suffering of a large number of people and morally justify it by saying that we should prioritize others who are suffering more?
The global and historical existence of homosexuality disproves the theory that supporting or adopting homosexuality is a matter of imported trends and imitation of others. Even if we admit that pro-gay discourse is influenced by the events in the western world at the theoretical, legislative, and policy levels, this does not mean that homosexuality is not international, human, and a transnational phenomenon. All shared universal human thoughts and values started in one area or another, but their regional or local dimension did not stand in the way of international recognition transcending boundaries set by borders, partisanship, geography, and politics. It is illogical for Islamists opposing homosexuality and gay people to use western values as an argument to justify their attitude and refute its international and universal human dimensions. Incidentally, those Islamists do not believe that the fact that Islam started in Mecca and the Medina makes its message less universal, human, or morally noble.
3. The problem is not the existence of homosexual individuals, it’s their public visibility
Some opponents of homosexuality claim that their issue with homosexual individuals is not about sexual orientation, it’s about their visibility and marketing for their values in the public sphere. Based on this, some would acknowledge the principle that homosexual individuals have the right to exist. Yet, they would prefer that homosexual individuals do not exaggerate their homosexuality and enjoy it in the public sphere. It is therefore better to keep a low profile and their differences to themselves as much as possible in public.
Clearly, because such demands reduce homosexuality to sexual desires, they do not reflect the presence of a real need for homosexual individuals to enjoy visibility and come out in the public sphere. When responding to this attitude, it is important to highlight that being gay is part of a person’s distinctive identity and lifestyle. Through embracing it, the individual pursues an existence that is in line with his feelings, desires, values, and aspirations. For this reason, one can neither reduce homosexuality to a mere sexual desire nor deny homosexual individuals the right to sexually engage in satisfying their desires. The public presence of homosexual individuals, their celebration of their identities, and the normalization of their moral and material presence in the public sphere are all part and parcel of the rights they should enjoy not only as homosexual individuals but also, more importantly, as human beings.
The suffering of homosexual individuals should not be underestimated because they are subjected to a great injustice in this world based on their identity. Moreover, this suffering should not be reduced to the denial of sexual desire. Sexual orientation is not simply a different sexual desire, it is a lifestyle and a formula of existence. Homosexuality is linked to the person’s life in general, to what they do, say, and wear. It is also reflected in the way the person interacts with society and their approach to males and females.
It is difficult to understand the suffering of homosexual individuals if we have not been in their shoes. Yet, imagination could allow us to try walking in their shoes and predict how we would have felt in similar situations. To do so, I suggest to those interested in understanding what it is like to be an oppressed homosexual individual to imagine themselves forced to publicly act like they belong to the opposite gender whether it is male or female. To complement imagination, one should learn about how homosexual individuals themselves perceive the situation when possible. This is the best approach to understanding the otherness of the homosexual individual.
4. Homosexuality is an unnatural and transcends the innate
Apart from the "beating around the bush" approach and attempts that could be partly justified or entirely unjustified to avoid a clear position on homosexuality, the most popular and powerful argument used by opponents of homosexuality is the affirmation that homosexuality is abnormal and unnatural. It is surprising that some people resort to the concept of the "natural" given that it is one of the most problematic and controversial philosophical concepts.
It is necessary to pay attention to the labels we use in this context and to the moral and cognitive load that each of them carries. Qualifying homosexuality as abnormal and a deviation is not merely an objective description as most opponents claim. It actually involves moral statements that harshly condemn homosexuality. Such concepts are "thick concepts", meaning that they are labels, evaluation, and judgements at the same time. In this article, we avoided using offensive terms like "fag" as they are judgmental and negative.
The term "homosexuality" is lighter as it shows less bias and a stronger descriptive connotation. However, terms like “fag” or “sexual deviation” carry negative connotations. It is therefore necessary to think and reflect on these concepts before even considering them.
The previous rules could be applied to the concept of the natural or the innate because it is also a thick concept by excellence. When resorting to this concept, people of different cultures and languages tend to give it positive connotations. It is possible to understand the positive connotations of the concept of what is “natural” through pointing out synonyms or antonyms for it. What could be an equivalent to “natural” is not just what is cultural, it could be distortions, deviations, perversions, and many other concepts with negative connotations. This negativity is implied when opponents of homosexuality use words like unnatural, deviation, and perversion when discussing this topic. Such mentality is even clearer when words like fag are used. When discussing whether homosexuality is natural or not, it is important to consider both connotations, implications, and real meanings. If homosexuality is qualified as unnatural in this context, it would imply that it is also immoral, and that it opposes natural human physical and mental states. To justify qualifying homosexuality as “unnatural”, some focus on the normal quality of heterosexual relationships to highlight the abnormal quality of homosexual relationships. Opponents of homosexuality also highlight the physiological elements of males and females. There are two genders; male and female, and each needs the other to complete it. They also mention that the genital component is also different yet complementary.
Male and female genitals are the primary center of sexual desire for men and women. Consequently, each can contribute to the sexual arousal of the other, helping both parties achieve the desired sexual fulfillment. Arguments against homosexuality highlighting its unnatural and immoral aspects reach their peak when sexual encounters are linked to procreation. The nature of this process is necessarily dependent on the sexual encounter between males and females, not same-sex partners. On this basis, they deduce that homosexual encounters cannot be natural or moral as they do not result in reproduction. At a first glance, this theory seems convincing and strong to some extent despite the fact that some information regarding this theory is inaccurate and wrong. People who use this argument try to come across as objective and scientific, yet they are shocked when they find out that even science has stopped categorizing homosexuality as unnatural or as a perversion since the eighties of the past century. It is very difficult now to find any medical or scientific institution in medically and scientifically advanced countries that would adopt such inaccurate claims. When this is pointed out, it is not rare for people using such arguments to start-after having tried to be objective and scientific- the veracity and accuracy of those scientific claims. They might even suggest that such claims are a reflection of ideological and political trends that are not scientific.
We are not arguing here about the credibility of the science behind the nature of homosexuality, and we do not deny the idea that it might have been influenced by ideological, political, and moral trend. We are only trying to underline the flaw in attempts to prove the idea that homosexuality is not natural or moral and the inaccuracy of the data being circulated in this regard.
When responding to this theory and its arguments, it is first important to focus on the fact that heterosexual relationships are considered natural does not mean same-sex relationships are not. The assumption that nature is linear and not supportive of diversity is a metaphysical claim that is not supported by evidence and is illogical. Sexual diversity is natural so is homosexuality. The main difference between the two states is the fact that heterosexual relationships are more common. Yet, this predominance does not make homosexuality less natural or unnatural. Homosexuality, just like heterosexuality is linked to physiology, hormones, and orientation. Hormones and orientation are natural factors resulting from a person’s physiological and emotional state.
Those opposing homosexuality might go with the previous arguments to reach what could be considered as their biggest argument which states that there is a natural genital link between heterosexuality and reproduction. They consider that the absence of a similar link in same-sex relationships confirms the idea that homosexual relationships are unnatural and immoral.
Despite the fact that this argument appears strong, it cannot sustain any critical debate. Although it is true that some people engage in sexual relationships for the sake of reproduction, it does not mean that sexual intercourse is a condition to fulfil this goal. Many people engage in sexual intercourse even if they do not want to or cannot reproduce for one reason or another. In reality, people’s sexual existence shows that it is not essentially linked to having children. Given these facts, we cannot assume that homosexuality is unnatural or immoral. Juts like heterosexual couple, homosexual couples engage in sexual practices for purposes other than reproduction.
Homosexuality rights’ advocates may accept, for debate purposes, the argument saying that homosexuality is abnormal. Yet, they will emphasize, on the one hand, that the unnatural does not imply immorality. On the other hand, they note that the world unnatural here has cultural implications and does not mean fag, pervert, or abnormal. It is worth remembering here that, in such a context, ethics and the underlying judgments belong primarily to what is cultural, not to what is natural or innate in man. On this basis, the opponents of homosexuality cannot use nature and immorality as an argument. If they do, they would have to morally condemn morality itself, because it is, in some sense, unnatural and even a perversion.
5. On the inability to respect gay individuals: the distinction between feeling respect and behaving respectfully
Opponents of homosexuality may have to reluctantly accept that homosexuals have rights equal to those of heterosexuals because their opposition is no longer credible or legal. In their countries, customs, and societies, it is commonly accepted to view homosexuality as immoral and unnatural. Yet, many protest against being asked to respect homosexuality and homosexuals. They even insist that they cannot do so and that they cannot get rid of the feeling of extreme repulsion from the idea, its followers, and advocates.
When solving this common idea, it is first important to leave out morality when discussing people’s feelings. The moral rules apply to willful behavior. As long as a person cannot change or control it, they cannot judge it at least from a moral perspective. This point needs to be highlighted because advocates of homosexuality often start using negative words against whoever has a different opinion or mentality.
Even if we feel compelled to pass judgements against those who repel against homosexuality even if they do not express it or say anything hurtful, we must change our perspectives. These people are victims of a culture and society. They are not guilty of cruelty against homosexuals. Understanding and empathy are certainly needed at the time, not the exchange of repulsion or claiming that those people are morally inferior because of their opinion.
It is necessary in this context to differentiate between two meanings for the word “respect” in order to clarify what is meant by the expression “the need to respect gay individuals”. The notion of respect might mean two different things: feeling respect and behaving respectfully. Out of principle, opponents of homosexuality who are unable to accept it emotionally and intellectually are asked to respect it. They are expected to behave respectfully even if they do not feel it.
Behaving respectfully with the other who is homosexual in this case means treating them as autonomous individuals and accepting that no one has the right to interfere in the decisions they make regarding their personal private and public lives as long as that person respects and is governed by the same laws.
Respect, in that sense, is required of others, regardless of whether they agree or disagree with the concerned person or their feelings, values and ideas in this regard. Failing to respect others undermines their dignity and considers them incapable of deciding what is right for them. Respect is the most valuable asset, in case of deep disagreement among people. If people agree on a certain matter, it would be relatively easier for harmony to prevail, and it is not then difficult for each person to respect or accept the other.
If a huge disagreement on values exists, respecting the other different person becomes more difficult, thus, more pressing, necessary and valuable. It seems that respect, which homophobes can show to homosexuals, is harder but more refined, ethically-speaking, compared to respect among homosexuals or from pro-gay individuals to homosexuals. It is noteworthy that the condescending attitude that some people have towards homosexuals is sometimes felt by homosexuals towards themselves and their sexual orientation. Therefore, when faced with this attitude from straight people, the homosexual person must show some understanding and spiritual honesty that resembles admittance to guilt. The espouser of that attitude should not be judged, as long as their opinion is not manifested in negative behavior towards the different other.