By Mustafa Akyol
Last weekend, Istanbul hosted its 12th LGBTI Pride Parade. Thousands, not just members of the LGBTI community but also “straights” defending their rights, marched in the city’s busiest street, Istiklal Avenue in Beyoğlu. Unfortunately, the colorful parade was cut short when the police began dispersing people with water cannons and batons. This police attack was surely authoritarian and unlawful, even by Turkish standards. No wonder the statement by the government sounded ridiculous, saying that “there could have been provocations” had the police not dispersed the crowd.
Why did the police really not allow the parade, which was held before without any trouble? Perhaps it was because of Ramadan and half-naked gays on streets (whose views went viral on the web) in the holy month were too much to stomach. Whatever the reason, it was wrong to disallow the parade.
One does not need to be a genius to see this wrong has something to do with what is called “homophobia,” which also comes out as discrimination or violence against gay people. Notably, this is a universal problem and certainly not exclusive to Turkey or the broader Muslim world. (According to a 2014 study by ILGA, or the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, the LGBTI human rights situation is worse in Russia, Ukraine and Armenia than in Turkey.)
Yet in Turkey and the broader Muslim world, religion has something to do with negative attitudes towards gays. In fact, Turkey’s laws are secular and there is nothing that penalizes homosexuality and its public expressions. But laws are one thing, public perceptions are another one and the latter is deeply informed by religion.
Islam’s take on homosexuality, like Judaism and Christianity, is rooted in the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which is narrated in the Quran as well. The traditional interpretation of the story is that homosexuality is a grave sin condemned by God. Although there are some reformist interpretations of the story, this is that mainstream view and it is not likely to change anytime soon.
In other words, it is hard to argue that Islam does not consider homosexuality as sin. However, it is possible to develop a more lenient attitude towards sinners, from within the Islamic point of view. After all, there are so many other sins that the Quran condemns — such as adultery, arrogance, greed — yet, we live with people who commit these sins. We are, perhaps, one of these very sinners.
In other words, the distinction I would like to introduce to Muslim thought is the oft-repeated distinction in the Christian tradition between “sin” and “sinner.” Our right to disapprove sin should not be grounds to despise the sinner, let alone to persecute him or her. It is, after all, not us mortal humans but God who will judge all deeds in the world to come.
I have been offering such arguments in Turkey and some “religious conservatives” seem convinced, whereas many are not. But that is normal: Social attitudes on such matters change only slowly and gradually and there is not much to do other than try to open up minds.
Meanwhile the LGBTI activists can help their own cause better, in my view, if they give a bit more thought to social norms. Refraining from extreme obscenity in their parades would be wiser; if they want to overcome the negative image society already has of them. And skipping Ramadan may be a better idea, if they don’t want to give ammunition to hate-mongers who use religion as their battle cry.