Sunday, 22 January 2012

'Homosexual panic' grips Tunisian politics

111019 Tunisian Islamists, unity activists sta...
Image by Magharebia via Flickr
Source: Gay Middle East

By Dan Littauer

Tunisia’s new interior minister, Ali Larayedh, has been embroiled in controversy and scandal as a leaked video allegedly shows him in a gay prison sex video. This scandal has outraged and inflamed public opinion regarding homosexuality which was already jittery due to the electoral political tactics that used sexuality in order to discredit various opponents.

18 January, a 45 minute long black and white video, dating from 1991, showing two men having sex, was posted on YouTube.  The occasional close-up on one of the men’s faces resembles Ali Larayedh, the current interior minister and a member of the ruling Islamist party Ennahda who won last years’ October elections after the first Arab spring rebellion which deposed dictator Ben Ali. The poor quality of the video makes it difficult to determine the video’s authenticity, or whether Larayedh is actually in the video.  The video on the site was quickly removed, although it is still available on file-sharing sites.

In 1990 Ali Larayedh was arrested by Ben Ali's police for his activity as a member of the then illegal Ennahda party and was sentenced to 15 years in prison after a show trial. He alleges that he has been tortured while serving his jail sentence, while in 1992 his wife was sexually assaulted during an investigation at the Ministry of the Interior.

The alleged video of Ali Larayedh from his time in prison was posted shortly after an announcement by the Tunisian government that three arrest warrants had been issued for senior officials at the Ministry of the Interior. Tarek, Tunisian Editor for Gay Middle East notes that “the security forces of Tunisia have largely remained intact since the time of Ben-Ali and thus many of its personnel are potentially hostile to the Ennahda party.” In other words, the video may have been leaked by someone in the Ministry of the Interior, or perhaps former a high-ranking police officer, wishing to undermine Ali Larayedh by further inciting public opinion using a tactic dubbed “porno politics” by Tunisian activist Ahmed Manaï.  According Manaï’s book, book, “Tunisian Torture: The Secret Garden of General Ben Ali”, tactics to discredit political opponents through exposing sexual scandals, and in particular homosexual ones were used by the deposed Tunisian dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, during the early 1990s.

The background to this scandal is important to note.  Two days before this incident (16.1.12) Naji Behiri, the brother of the Tunisian Minister of Justice, Noureddine Behiri, was released from prison under presidential amnesty, despite allegation from his hometown that he raped a young boy. Tarek attests: “A wave of public anger erupted across the nation accusing Ennahda party of being at league with homosexuals and paedophiles, terms that were used interchangeably.  Highly homophobic comments were posted on related news articles and throughout the social networking sites, mostly asking that Naji Behiri remains in prison and tried and punished for sodomy.  Conspiracy theories of homosexual corruption and cover up within the Ennahda party have become commonplace.”

These two scandals have ignited a kind of “homosexual panic” according to Tarek. Many people have been voicing their opinions that the Interior Minister should resign as his behaviour contradicts Islamic values while others even called for him to be indicted for violating Article 230 of the Tunisian penal code that punishes homosexual acts between consenting adults with up to three years imprisonment.  Public discourse has been saturated with conspiracy theories that the ruling party is rife with homosexuals, protecting gays/paedophiles or failing to protect Tunisia from a homosexual epidemic. Mocking satires such Ennahda is a “fag” party, “they are all shaz (fags in arabic) in Ennahda”, are “quite commonly heard in the streets of Tunisia” stated Tarek, “often  conflating the terms ‘paedophilia’, ‘homosexuality’, ‘sodomy’ and ‘Islamists’ intentionally.”  The picture to the left, spread via Facebook, depicts two veiled women are portrayed kissing, while on the right it reads: “Legal fags/Haraam fags” with the logo of the Ennahda party below.

In an attempt to stop such allegations, Samir Dilou, a spokesperson for the Tunisian government, claimed the video was an attempt at a set-up and that the private life of politicians should not be used as a political weapon. All the Tunisian political parties condemned what they called an unjustified attempt to discredit the minister. Tunisian media has not published even one frame shot from the video.

However the current wave of “homosexual panic” and homophobia can be traced to the pre-election campaigning. Firstly to discredit the preceding dictatorship, the party claimed that the deposed Ben Ali and preceding dictator Habib Bourguiba encouraged homosexuality, prostitution and vice which would be swept clean should Ennahda be elected.

During this period nationwide marches entitled أعتقني aatakni (“Leave me alone”) were held in support of the secular parties and against the islamsits.  Supporters of Ennahda used the fact that in some of these marches the PEACE rainbow flag (often used in Italian rallies) were waved, alleging and ridiculing that aatakni are in fact gay pride marches. For example in the following poster the viewer is asked to “spot the pictures of Tunisian aatakni from a variety of ‘aatakni’ marches worldwide”, which Israeli gay prides (pictures 2,7), gay pride marches (4,5,8) and Tunisia (1,3,6), where in picture 6 the logo of the secular and tolerant Modern Democratic Pole” (MDP) is almost equated with the star of David.  Thus creating and associative link of aatakni=fags=zionists, i.e. bad and morally corrupt/suspect, which was spread via social networking sites such as Facebook and twitter.

Opposing political parties were signalled out using this “homosexual panic” tactic.  For example in this Photoshop edited picture the banner of the Socialist Party has been altered to read "sodomy is the basis of the republic", most likely sodomy replaced the word “freedom.” Tarek testifies “many banners reading ‘give us freedom, we want freedom’ were reworked replacing ‘freedom’ with ‘sodomy’ on blogs and facebook pages of supporters of the Ennahda party.” 

Supporters of Ennahda did not stop there and vilified leaders or public figures they saw as opposing to their political ideas via scandalous allegations as to their sexuality or support of “social vices”.  Most notably this was the case with Dr. Olfa Youssef a famous female intellectual, writer, psychoanalyst and director of the National Library of Tunisia. She is a public figure that appears on TV shows and writes many articles regarding freedom, women’s rights and human rights in general. She was consistently called a lover and supporter of prostitutes and fags. The Facebook page where the picture above was posted is entitled “Against Olfa Youssef who says liwat (sodomy) is not haraam”.

It thus appears that the current “homosexual panic” has its roots in the campaigns started by supporters of the Ennahda party against competing parties.  The islamists used far more public and forceful tactics than the old style Ben-Ali “porno politics” that formed the probable basis of the Ali Larayedh scandal.  This was done by linking unpopular subjects which were previously taboo, like homosexuality and prostitution, to spread fear, rumours and ridicule of opponents. Such discourses were in turn used by the opposition during the two recent scandals of Naji Behiri and Ali Larayedh, which found an already receptive public which has been continuously imbued with bigotry throughout the electoral campaign.   Tarek explains: “what shocked me most is the readiness and enthusiasm that opposition supporters that champion Human Rights and democracy have readily adopted such homophobic discourses previously used by the islamists against the islamists Ennahda party.  I did not expect them to use this as a weapon, it created a kind of public consensus and consciousness of homosexuality as something evil and sick”.

Tarek despairingly notes that “the main victims of this ‘homosexual panic’, are unfortunately, the Tunisian LGBT community.  In public discourse homosexuality has now become synonymous with paedophilia and hypocrisy, entrenching further negative stereotypes.  Under Ben-Ali dictatorship we were invisible, with the occasional scandal and harassment, but this increased negative and smear campaigning has inflamed public opinion and brought immense fear to gays and lesbians living in Tunisia.”  The one ray of hope is that all the political parties have now committed themselves not to use any such tactics further. “This I hope will be a lesson for Ennahda, since they let loose this tactic only to find it rebounded on themselves. I really hope this realisation is going to last.”
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  1. Great story! True, half true or not, good for LGBTARABSI awareness in the M.East! I hope It's also available in Arabic . The more people talk publicly about society, the better ! Even negative thoughts can make people think it over and start discussion. The only way to progress !

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  3. Tarek despairingly notes that “the main victims of this ‘homosexual panic’, are unfortunately, the Tunisian LGBT community.


    But we live in a culture where "That's So Gay" is an insult (and another bullied gay teen committed suicide this week :-( ), so we can't very well look down on Tunisia.

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