Last Friday the Doha News website did something rather shocking – at least, by Qatar's standards. It posted an article entitled: "What it's like to be gay and Qatari". Attached to the article was a note from the editors explaining their decision to publish it:
"Doha News is aware that any extra-marital affairs in Qatar are illegal, and we do not advocate breaking the law. It seems that many people are upset about this post because it shares a view they do not agree with.
"Please understand that our intention is simply to foster communication, and the opinion piece is the view of one person who wanted to share what it’s like to be gay in Qatar."
The article – by a young man using the pseudonym "Majid" – talked of gay Qataris who disguise their sexuality by being loudly homophobic in public and then travel abroad for forbidden pleasures. It talked of others who appease society by getting married and raising a family: "They put a Band-aid on a wound. The wife will get conjugal visits and the men will just go their own way," he wrote.
I feel like my country hates me ... If I had a choice, if there was a magic pill I could take to make me straight, then I would take it. I don’t want the misery of this life.
I am in constant turmoil and anguish – how do I reconcile who I am with my faith that says I shouldn’t exist? I am the worst of the worst, I am vermin.
I don’t wish to impose anything on anyone, but I also don’t want to live with paranoia and I don’t want to feel like a birth defect.
I don’t want to raise the rainbow flag from the roof – I don’t see that compatible with this country. But we need to find our own way.
I want people to accept us. Live and let live – you don’t have to like me but you don’t have to persecute me.
Yesterday, Doha News had a second article – by Jassim al-Maadadi, a 25-year-old engineer. It was wrong for the topic of homosexuality in Qatar to be discussed in an article by Doha News, Maadadi said:
"I believe that talking about it in the media brings legitimacy, be it directly or indirectly, to a topic that is considered by the law and religion of this country to be illegitimate. Discussing this topic in public introduces a grey area on the matter that essentially does not exist ... there is no grey area in Qatar’s view on homosexuality."
In response to "Majid", Maadadi said his experiences living abroad had not changed his opinion of homosexuality:
"I tried to stay away from gay people when possible. With that said, when I lived in those countries, I lived in societies where homosexuality was accepted. So I had to live by their rules, and not intervene."
On the same basis, he suggested others should respect Qatar's intolerance of gay people: "I don’t think that is too much to ask."
But Maadadi didn't totally accept the idea – very widespread in Muslim countries – that homosexuality is "a choice" (and, by implication, a sin that should be punished).
"Some people do it because they want to adhere to a western trend that has been celebrated by western media in recent years, while others might not have a choice. In the case of the latter, I believe that it is something psychological and that it should be medically treated."
Among the educated classes in the Middle East this is often seen as a modern or progressive view, and it keeps countless psychiatrists employed even though the scientific evidence is that homosexuality cannot be "cured" and attempts to do so may be harmful.
"I also believe that many families are failing to prevent their children from being exposed to homosexuality. With the presence of the internet, learning about things like this is just a click away ...
"I do not believe that children will automatically become gay once they learn about homosexuality. However, I think that if they do find out about it at a young age, they may begin to sympathise with it. This could then have an effect on their personality."
Maadadi also reminded Majid of "the culture which he is a part of, the religion which he represents, and the country which he is from. Qatar is a Muslim country, and in it homosexuality is not tolerated."
The effect of saying this is to deny the possibility of change and deny anyone's right to press for change. "Majid" should put up and shut up because he happens to have been born in Qatar. "Majid" is also, apparently, required to act as a representative of Islam – a matter in which he was probably never given a choice. Qatari law does not allow him to leave Islam and in theory he could be executed if he did.
Opening up debate
These two articles by Maadadi and "Majid", and the discussion threads attached to them, provide an interesting snapshot of current Arab debates about homosexuality. The fact that such debates are taking place at all – and with a variety of Arabs joining in, both gay and straight – is a significant development.
Back in 2004-2005, when I was writing my book, Unspeakable Love, about gay and lesbian life in the Middle East, homosexuality was still very much a taboo subject. It was invariably condemned on the rare occasions that mainstream media broached the topic and news reports of arrests and court cases spoke cryptically of "shameful acts" and "deviant behaviour".
During Egypt's notorious Queen Boat trial in 2001 there was virtually no public support inside the country for the 52 men accused of "debauchery". Even the most prominent local human rights organisation refused to speak out, fearing that to do so would damage its reputation.
It was a very different picture in 2014 when TV reporter Mona Iraqi instigated a police raid on a Cairo bath-house and, after boasting about her achievement on Facebook, faced a huge social media backlash.
This change has probably been influenced in part by western debates about same-sex marriage and gay clergy but the effect has not always been positive. The Saudi religious police, for example, learned of a connection between rainbows and gay rights and began suppressing "emblems" of homosexuality inside the kingdom. More importantly, though, the growth of social media over the last decade or so has given an outlet to voices that previously went unheard. Changing attitudes is a slower process but in some parts of the region that is happening too. The picture below is from a Mashrou' Leila concert in Lebanon earlier this month.
But where does Qatar stand in all this? In that context it's worth recalling President Obama's remark in 2011 that the Emir (since retired) was eager to promote reform and democracy everywhere in the Middle East – except in Qatar.
Qatar's TV international station, al-Jazeera, behaves in a similar way with its gay coverage. Search its website and you'll find plenty of sympathetic stories about gay people in the US, Russia, Bangladesh, Turkey, Kenya, etc, but somehow the plight of gay Qataris seems to have escaped its attention.
In religious terms, Qatar is Wahhabi like Saudi Arabia and attitudes among the more traditional sections of its society are very similar. Unlike Saudi Arabia, though, Qatar purports to be modern and open to the world, endlessing hosting international conferences (not to mention the 2020 World Cup).
Sex outside marriage is illegal in Qatar and, under the current penal code, sodomy between men is punishable by up to three years in prison. However, unlike some countries (such as Egypt), Qatar doesn't systematically use the law to persecute gay people. Even where such laws are not much used, though, their existence has other adverse effects by legitimising acts of discrimination and sometimes creating opportunities for extortionists.
Although Qatar's criminalisation of homosexuality has often figured in debates about its hosting of the World Cup, "Majid" doesn't mention it as a major problem in his Doha News article; the attitudes of people around him seem a far more immediate concern.
Qatar's history of anti-gay lobbying
The most alarming aspect is that far from challenging these attitudes the Qatari regime has a long history of promoting them at an international level. It does so by making alliances with organisations in the west which oppose gay rights, often under the guise of protecting "familyvalues" or developing "inter-faith dialogue".
Qatar's latest move in this connection was to join the recently-formed "Group of Friends of the Family" (GoFF). In February this year, Qatar (along with Egypt and Belarus) persuaded GoFF to demand the withdrawal of a set of UN-issued postage stamps celebrating LGBT rights.
Qatari meddling in this area goes back a long way, however. In 2004, Doha hosted a conference to "defend the family" and fight progressive social policies at the United Nations. Officially opened by Sheikha Mousa bint Nasser al-Misnad, a wife of Qatar's ruler at the time, it was largely organised by the Mormon church and participants included the late Cardinal Alfonso Trujillo, who campaigned against condoms on behalf of the Catholic church, and Mahathir Mohamad, the dictatorial former prime minister of Malaysia who had sacked and jailed his deputy for alleged homosexuality.
Another participant was Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Qatar-based Islamic scholar who became famous through his appearances on al-Jazeera television. At the time, Qaradawi was also supervising the IslamOnline website which made a particular point of explaining to its readers "the fact" that "homosexuality is a matter of choice".
Sheikha Mousa, meanwhile, has acquired a reputation in the west for "good works" and has even been described as "the enlightened face of a profoundly conservative regime". But besides donating a million dollars to a charity founded by former US president Bill Clinton, she established al-Aween – Qatar's first centre to combat "deviation from acceptable social behaviour" and "provide specialised treatment for all kinds of behavioural deviation".
In an article on al-Aween's website a senior consultant in psychiatry called Dr Abdul Alim Ibrahim explained that the development of gay rights in some countries is the result of pressure from "powerful homosexuals" and is "not based on scientific studies".
However, Dr Ibrahim did think the Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe, "went too far" in describing gay people as lower than pigs and dogs.