Islam’s Punitive Line on Homosexuality

At least 10 predominantly Muslim countries around the world, some of them close U.S. allies, have laws on the books that set a punishment of death for homosexuality. Among those that don’t, Egypt has conducted mass arrests of gay men, and homosexuals can face torture even in Lebanon, the Arab world’s most liberal country.

A question now is how, or whether, Islam’s posture toward homosexuality figured in Omar S. Mateen’s killing of at least 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando after claiming allegiance to Islamic State.

“God himself will give punishment to homosexuality. It is not for people to decide,” the shooter’s father, Seddique Mateen, said Monday. His words reflected a negative stance toward homosexuality that is deeply ingrained in large parts of the Muslim world—and in laws that purport to deliver that holy judgment.

In most Muslim societies, the survival strategy for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities has been to stay below the radar. Homosexuality isn’t recognized as an identity or lifestyle in Islam, and homosexual acts are forbidden, though punishments vary among the major schools of Islamic law.

While same-sex attraction has historically been tolerated in some Muslim societies, gay sex has always been illegal because it occurs outside of marriage.

“In Islamic law, all sex outside a licit relationship is forbidden, so by definition you cannot have a licit sexual relationship between two men or two women,” said Jonathan Brown, an expert in Islamic law at Georgetown University.

Homosexuality is outlawed across most of the Muslim world, according to a recent report by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, with a handful of exceptions such as Bahrain and Mali.

In practice, however, even countries where homosexual acts are illegal rarely mete out the most severe punishments, in part because Shariah, or Islamic law, sets a high standard of proof—either a confession or the testimony of four upstanding men who witnessed the act.

Gay intercourse in Pakistan is punishable by life in prison, though the government seldom sentences people, according to a 2015 report by the U.S. State Department. Being openly homosexual remains taboo on its streets, and gay couples prefer to stay underground because of public persecution and fear of violence, rights activists and lawyers say.

In Iran and Afghanistan homosexuality is banned, and harsh penalties have been enforced against it. Iran executed three men in 2011 on charges that included homosexual acts.

Afghan law penalizes homosexual relations with five to 15 years in prison. A 2015 human rights report by the U.S. State Department said police routinely harass, detain and use violence against gay people.

In Saudi Arabia, homosexuality can be punishable by death, but there haven’t been any such executions in the country’s recent history. Committing or promoting homosexual acts in public is usually punished by jail time, lashes and fines.

Authorities said Mr. Mateen made a 911 call declaring his allegiance to the terrorist group Islamic State in the middle of his shooting rampage.

Islamic State and other extremist organizations are known for an extreme hatred of homosexuals. In the territory it controls in Syria and Iraq, Islamic State has made their executions a hallmark of its bloody reign. In one instance reported by the activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, a blindfolded man was thrown from the roof of a two-story building in Iraq. He survived the fall with critical injuries and was subsequently stoned to death in front of a crowd of spectators, including children.

Regional governments are increasingly balking as global LGBT activism progresses, said Neela Ghoshal, a researcher in the LGBT Rights division at Human Rights Watch. “There seems to be this fear that there’s a global movement toward accepting people, when of a lot of these countries have posed themselves as defenders of the traditional family,” she said. “They’re trying to prevent significant actions at the global level.”

Homosexuality is legal in Turkey, but antigay sentiment is rising there. Following Sunday’s shooting, the Islamist pro-government Yeni Akit newspaper ran a headline about “perverted” homosexuals. Turkey’s foreign ministry condemned the attack.

According to Human Rights Watch, gay people struggle even in Lebanon, where the capital Beirut’s raucous club scene includes gay bars.

Authorities in neighboring Egypt have used criminal charges, including “promoting debauchery” and “contempt of religion,” to make sweeping arrests of gay men who gather in private spaces, even though no law exists explicitly banning homosexuality.

Such mass arrests have spiked under President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi with little outcry from the public, reflecting what activists say in an increasingly intolerant attitude toward homosexuality among many Islamist and secular Egyptians.

Africa is home to some of the world’s harshest antigay laws, found in both Christian and Muslim-majority nations.

Homosexual acts are punishable by death in Mauritania, Sudan, northern Nigeria and Somalia, and are illegal in 37 of the continent’s 52 nations, according to a 2015 report from London-based Amnesty International.

“Across Africa homophobia is on the rise, encouraged and protected by antigay laws,” the report said.