By James M. Dorsey
A cacophony of outrage and condemnation greeted Mithly, the Arab world's partly European Union-funded only gay magazine, when it hit the internet and underground 'newsstands' in Morocco for the first time.
Targeting the gay community in Morocco and Europe as well as Arab gays, Mithly, a play on the Arabic words for homosexual and 'like me', can only be sold under the counter in Morocco and the Arab world. The overwhelming majority of its readers access it online. For safety and political reasons, the groundbreaking magazine's editorial staff is based in Spain as are its servers.
While Mithly hopes to steer debate in Morocco and the Arab world about homosexuality into calmer, more rational waters, it does not want to rock the boat in a country where authorities are among the more relaxed in the Arab world because of tourism that has attracted a high-end gay community. Gay activists fear that a more open Mithly presence in Morocco could further fuel Islamist and populist protests and force the government to crack down in a bid to prevent the Islamists from gaining the high ground.
Like everywhere in the Arab world, homosexuality in Morocco is illegal. Homosexuals can be jailed for up to three years for what Moroccan law describes as 'lewd or unnatural acts with an individual of the same sex'. Islamist agitation has already increased homophobia in Morocco in recent months. 'The constant attacks on homosexuals by the Islamist parties and newspapers worry us,' says Mourad, a Mithly journalist.
Yemeni cultural magazine, Al-Thaqafiya, was forced to cease after publishing a film review that described homosexuality as 'part and parcel of our society'. The magazine sparked protests in parliament; the Paris based reviewer, Hamid Aqabi, says he has received death threats.
Homosexuality in Yemen is punishable by death. But with the Yemeni government preoccupied with fighting Al Qa'ida and defeating southern secessionists, gays have more to fear from religious vigilantes. Three men suspected of being gay were shot dead in 2008 in the Yemeni province of Shabwa. Death squads have abducted, tortured, and executed hundreds of Iraqi gays with only a cursory response from authorities. Their abused bodies are dumped in public places as a warning.
Kif-Kif, the Madrid-based Moroccan organisation for lesbians, transsexuals and homo- and bisexuals and publisher of Mithly, estimates that some 5000 people have been jailed in Morocco or forced to emigrate because they are gay. Conservatives have demanded that Mithly be banned and that homosexual 'sleeper cells' be hunted down like terrorists. 'Homosexuality is against the future of humanity,' said Mustapha Khalifi, editor of the conservative newspaper Attajdid. Khalifi called on the government to 'ban this publication that hurts the Islamic values of the Moroccan society'.
Attajdid, widely seen as an Islamist mouthpiece, campaigned unsuccessfully against a planned concert by gay British pop star Elton John in Rabat. The newspaper claimed the singer's performance was part of a plot to 'homosexualise' Morocco.
Following in Attajdid's footsteps, the Egyptian musicians' union sought to prevent John from performing in Cairo, but failed. John played to a packed house and great applause. 'How could we allow a gay, who wants to ban religions, claimed that the prophet Jesus was gay and calls for Middle Eastern countries to allow gays to have sexual freedom?' complained union leader Mounir al-Wasimi.
Mithly said on its website that discrimination against gays in the Arab world stemmed from 'ignorance and misunderstanding'. Kif-Kif President Samir Baragachi sees Mithly as a platform on which sexual minorities can express themselves. He hopes the magazine's name will eventually replace more derogatory references to homosexuals such as shazz, the Arabic word for pervert or deviant, or zemel, a Berber expletive for gays.
'Mithly will do wonders for publicising and creating a society that begins to learn about our community,' says an Egyptian lesbian activist. 'We are not asking for special rights. We are demanding being treated equally with tolerance,' Gaymaroc.com described Mithly as 'a breath of fresh air for a gay community that's criminalised and discriminated against'.
In a rare expression of religious dissent, one Moroccan religious figure, Sheikh Mohamed el-Said, conceded that Mithly's assertion that discrimination stems from a lack of knowledge could be true. He called on the religious community to keep an open mind. Although he believes gay people are 'not right in the mind of God', the Rabat-based cleric admitted that 'I don't know much about their issues and believe that we should be open to reading and learning about others within our society.'
El-Said said that 'too often do Muslim leaders become scared of what is different. We need to re-examine our own beliefs before we place judgments on an entire group of people.'
Mithly, whose website steers clear of provocative graphics opting instead for features, local and international news, short stories and poetry, is not the first homosexual magazine in the Arab world. An attempt in Lebanon in 2005 failed after publishing three editions, but a Lebanese gay website, Bekhsoos, has been up and running for the past three years, as has GayMiddleEast.com. Mithly promises in one of its next editions to tackle one of the Arab world's more taboo subjects: the high suicide rate among homosexuals.
James M. Dorsey is a freelance journalist who has covered ethnic and religious conflict for the past 35 years for publications like The Christian Science Monitor and The Wall Street Journal.