After the recent Slate article about “The Time He Desires,” I got a few inquiries from people to the effect of “don’t you think it’s ironic to be defending Islam with a character who would be executed in most Muslim countries?”
The questioners were not actually interested in having the conversation so much as pointing out supposed logical fallacies in liberal views, but it’s an interesting conversation to have, so I’ll have it here on the blog anyway.
First, I’m going to take their preconceptions at face value and answer the question, because no matter what the facts are about Muslim countries actually executing gay people (hint: most Muslim countries do not execute gay people, and of the few that do have the death penalty for gay behavior, only one regularly acts on it), the idea is that many Muslim countries are hostile to gay people, and that’s not false.
I’m touched by the questioners’ concern about the welfare of gay people, to start. Gay people of faith have it hard in any country; the point of the book is reconciling your sexuality with a faith that tells you it’s wrong. That could be Islam, or most branches of Christianity, or Orthodox Judaism. So the book is about faith. It’s not about countries, though there is a little bit about countries and their practices in the book–in fact, the mistake the main character has to walk back from is assuming that his home country’s practice of Islam is the only way. Muslim countries differ in their interpretations of Islam, and Islam itself is bigger than any single country.
In addition, the book is about an American immigrant from a Muslim country, so the fact that he would be persecuted in a Muslim country is exactly the point of the book. So no, even given your hypothetical world full of bloodthirsty Muslim countries, the defense of Islam with a gay character is not ironic. It is exactly the point I am trying to make: to change your understanding of Islam from being defined by a few violent individuals to being defined by the strictures that actually define it.
Now let’s take a look at that hypothetical world. It’s true that gay people are persecuted in a lot of Muslim countries, and there’s a great overview of that in The Guardian from last year. If you don’t want to read the whole article (you should though), here’s a summary: the number of Muslim-governed countries that regularly executes gay people is 1. That’d be Iran. Among other countries:
In Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen and Mauritania, sodomy is also punishable by death – though no executions have been reported for at least a decade.
Among other Arab countries, the penalty in Algeria, Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia and Syria is imprisonment – up to 10 years in the case of Bahrain. In those that have no specific law against homosexuality, gay people may still be prosecuted under other laws. In Egypt, for example, an old law against “debauchery” is often used.
These laws have a catastrophic effect on the lives of people who are unlucky enough to get caught but, despite occasional crackdowns, the authorities don’t, on the whole, actively seek out gay people to arrest them.
Wikipedia lists 45 countries in the “Muslim world” where Islam plays a role in the government to varying degrees, from forming the basis of government to being separate from government affairs. By my count from their LGBT Rights page, 31 of those countries consider homosexuality illegal, so about two-thirds. But that’s out of about 75 countries in the world where homosexuality is illegal, many of which are Christian countries (like for example the 85% Christian country of Uganda, where an American Christian pastor traveled to encourage the government to tighten their laws against homosexuality). And only two countries in addition to the Arab countries mentioned above have death penalties (Nigeria, in some areas, and the Palestinian Territories), and in both it’s unclear whether anyone has actually been recently executed.
Yes, Muslim countries are in general less accepting of gay people than non-Muslim countries. I absolutely don’t want to give them a pass on that. But I think it’s important to characterize things as they are rather than with radical hyperbole. And more to the point of my book, there is a large population of American Muslims who follow American customs in addition to their religion; there are gay populations in many Muslim countries. The picture is complicated, and taking some time to learn and understand the difference between a religion and the culture of some countries that follow that religion would not be wasted time. It was in fact with the hope that some readers would do that that I wrote a novella about a Muslim character attempting to undergo that same journey.