|Ayaz Marhoni and Mahmoud Asgari|
By Benjamin Weinthal
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s lethal homophobia requires strong medicine. The international campaign to stop the stoning of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a woman who was sentenced to death for alleged adultery, shows that the Islamic Republic of Iran is vulnerable to a human rights pressure-point campaign.
While Ashtiani could still face execution, the global effort to influence a change in the behavior of the pariah regime in Tehran has forced Iran’s rulers to temporarily backpedal from their medieval practices. Replicating that concerted drive could deliver another potent dose of behavioral therapy to force the regime to recoil from its ongoing eradication of the Iranian LGBT community.
The opening salvo in a human rights movement to end violence and bias against LGBT Iranians ought to originate from President Barack Obama, who was initially wishy-washy and aloof about human rights when Iran’s regime viciously cracked down on its civilian population during the fraudulent 2009 election.
This past September, however, the Obama administration, to its credit, imposed precedent-setting human rights sanctions against eight top-level Iranian government officials for committing torture, rape, violent beatings, and unlawful detention of Iranians. The sanctions aim to penalize only a slice of the Iranian military apparatus and regime responsible for crushing the pro-democracy protests against the doctored election results in 2009. But it is a fresh beginning.
As Gay City News reporter Doug Ireland has exhaustively documented over nearly six years, Iran’s mullah regime is pursuing a strategy of eliminatory homophobia. Iran outlaws all same-sex activity, prosecuting male same-sex intercourse with the death penalty and lesbian sex with 100 lashings for the first three instances, but execution after that.
The long-overdue December release of the Human Rights Watch report “‘We Are a Buried Generation’: Discrimination and Violence against Sexual Minorities in Iran” bolsters Ireland’s reporting and captures the pressing need for human rights sanctions targeting Iranian rulers. (See Ireland’s story on the HRW report, “Human Rights Watch Scorches Iran Over Anti-Gay Violence.”)
Efforts by human rights watchdog organizations like the Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor contributed to HRW breaking its eerie longstanding silence about the intensifying repression of LGBT Iranians since Ahmadinejad took power. NGO Monitor highlighted the skewed priorities of HRW, such as fundraising in violently homophobic Saudi Arabia and devoting the bulk of its Middle East resources to investigating the region’s only democracy — Israel — which guarantees LGBT rights and freedoms for Jewish and Arab Israelis.
Professor Gerald Steinberg, president of NGO Monitor, told me, “Human Rights Watch continues to be driven by an anti-Israel bias and lack of focus on real human rights issues in the Middle East, including women’s rights, religious freedom, and sexual freedom. Ignoring the plight of the Iranian LGBT community for many years is indicative of what HRW founder Robert Bernstein repeatedly condemned — HRW has abandoned its mission to pry open closed societies, to help individuals in those societies who lack the infrastructure to fight for their rights.”
Bernstein wrote a scathing 2009 indictment of HRW’s wrongheaded approach to the Middle East on the New York Times op-ed page. The thrust of his thesis is that closed and authoritarian societies, like those in the Muslim world, should be the principal focus of contemporary human rights organizations, and not open, vibrant democracies.
The record is replete with examples demonstrating that Islamic countries are the most repressive and violently homophobic on the planet. Ahmadinejad’s denial of the existence of Iranian gays during his Columbia University speech in 2007 brought to the fore the West’s massive human rights blind spot. The Iranian president’s denialism was of a piece with his policy of extinguishment. Why is the West running scared of tackling Iranian genocidal rhetoric and activity against gays?
Take the example of openly gay German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. In an interview with the tabloid Bunte last year, he offered the following justification for not traveling with his gay partner to Saudi Arabia and other Islamic countries: “We want to encourage the idea of tolerance around the world, but we don’t want to achieve the opposite either by acting imprudently.”
This form of misguided social and political correctness actually achieves the opposite of tolerance and greenlights new waves of gay executions. The bottomless pit of cultural relativity — in place of universal human rights standards — is precisely what authoritarian Islamic regimes invoke when defending their harshly repressive anti-LGBT policies and incurably dogmatic Sharia law practices.
In sharp contrast to the soggy sexual minority appeasement politics of most Western leaders toward Iran, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a UN speech in late 2009 that included a blistering attack on Iran’s human rights record. “Wherever they can, they impose a backward regimented society where women, minorities, gays, or anyone not deemed to be a true believer is brutally subjugated,” he said.
In a stunning low point in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s posture toward Iran, she tweeted last October a birthday greeting to Ahmadinejad when he turned 54. It was a great source of embarrassment for Americans concerned with global democracy.
The modern LGBT community — and Western democracies — must confront revolutionary Iranian Islamist ideology. Europe’s 26-year dual strategy of “critical dialogue” and “change through trade” has flopped and produced a more jingoistic Iranian regime. Some gay intellectuals dangerously misjudged the destructive energy of Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1979 Islamic revolution.
The late gay poet Allen Ginsberg, in the 1980s, said, “I shouldn’t have been marching against the shah of Iran because the mullahs have turned out to be a lot worse.” He did not intend an endorsement of the Pahlavi monarchy; rather, he showed commendable intellectual honesty and self-reflection about his failure to see the hatred of gays that so often animates Islamist movements. In a 1994 interview with the Progressive magazine, Ginsberg said, “They all want to eliminate or get rid of the alien, or the stranger, or the Jews, or the gays, or the Gypsies, or the artists, or whoever are their infidels. And they’re all willing to commit murder for it, whether Hitler or Stalin or Mao or the ayatollah…”
Dr. Emanuele Ottolenghi, a leading Brussels-based expert on European Union-Iranian relations and a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, in his 2010 book “Iran: The Looming Crisis,” noted the “enthusiastic support for the revolution” that the late gay French philosopher Michel Foucault voiced in a series of 1979 articles in Italy’s daily Corriere della Sera. In those articles, Foucault waxed lyrical about the “historical significance” of Khomeinism and “its potential to overturn the existing political situation in the Middle East and thus the global strategic equilibrium… Islam — which is not simply a religion, but an entire way of life, an adherence to a history and civilization…”
How can the US and its international partners influence a sea change in Iran’s murderous policy toward its LGBT population?
First, the State Department should appoint an LGBT czar to investigate the persecution of the global LGBT community, with embassies collecting data and evidence, particularly in closed societies. The findings must be incorporated into State Department country assessments, with recommendations on how to address the documented homophobia.
Second, human rights sanctions should target Iranian officials for their enforcement of its anti-LGBT policies and Islamic law aimed at sexual minorities.
Third, public squares or streets in the US and European cities should be named after the two Iranian teenagers, Ayaz Marhoni and Mahmoud Asgari, hanged in 2005 for what was likely consensual same-sex intercourse.
Fourth, the US, the EU, and non-EU countries like Switzerland should dramatically liberalize their asylum laws to offer greater protections to LGBT Iranians fleeing the Islamic Republic.
Finally, the West should pump significant funding into pro-LGBT and pro-Iranian democracy organizations seeking to combat Iran’s ubiquitous discrimination and violence against its LGBT citizens.
Benjamin Weinthal is a Berlin-based journalist and a fellow at the Iran Energy Project of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.