2 Internal diversity in contemporary Islam
Lesbianism has rarely been illegal in Muslim-majority countries. But things have changed for men since the early nineteenth century. There are two main reasons for this.
Firstly, during the European ‘Age of Empire’, in many colonised countries, particularly those under British rule, laws criminalising sexual relations between men were introduced. These laws often remained in force when the Europeans left (Ahmadi, 2012, pp. 555–9; A.L., 2018).
Secondly, as you have seen, although Muslim legal traditions mostly accepted that sexual relationships between men were wrong, in practice they were often tolerated. In the later twentieth century, the gay rights movement developed in the West and Western governments began to decriminalise same-sex relations. This made it possible for some governments in Muslim-majority countries, Iran for example, to demonstrate their commitment to what they claimed were Islamic values (and thus win popular support) by criminalising men who engaged in same-sex relations.
As a result, in a number of Muslim-majority countries it is against the law for men to have sex with other men, and those who do may be punished by imprisonment and flogging and in some cases even the death penalty. But in other countries, Egypt for instance, same-sex relations are not actually illegal. However, police may harass and arrest gay men (and women). While ISIS was in control of northern Syria (2014–2019) some men suspected of being gay were thrown from buildings or stoned to death.
Many Muslim-majority countries, however, do not criminalise male sexual relationships, among them Turkey and Indonesia (apart from the province of Aceh in northern Sumatra where special rules apply).
This is just one example of the obvious point that Muslims do not necessarily all think and act alike.
As you watch this second extract from the interview with Dr Shah, take a few notes about the main points.
- Dr Shah draws attention to Islam’s diversity. Today and in the past, he suggests, Islam has been practised by people living in different cultures, so that for example, beyond the core practices and beliefs, Muslims have had a range of views about politics, how societies should be governed (and the way they practised their religion differed somewhat from one region to another).
- He explains that ‘progressive Muslims’ are ‘fed up’ with the authoritarianism of many Muslim-majority states, and are asserting their right to interpret Islam for themselves, and taking advantage of new technologies and social media to challenge Muslim religious and political authorities.
- He suggests that this is a difficult task because many Muslim-majority states are not very democratic. Here he draws attention to the example of the influential Saudi Arabian religious scholar Salman al-Ouda who was jailed by the government in 2017 and at the time of writing (2022) remains in prison.
- He argues that this authoritarianism is not due to Islam itself – for him it’s not religion that makes these states undemocratic and intolerant.
Dr Shah makes it clear that the relationship between Islam and democracy is a complicated one. Muslims around the world do not speak with one voice on this issue. Some argue that democracy as practised in ‘the West’ is unIslamic, but many others support democratic government and believe it is fully compatible with their religion.
If you are interested in learning more about Salman al-Ouda, also known as Salman al-Awda, there is a resource listed in the Further reading list at the end of this course.
You will recall the three characteristics of religion identified by Diane Moore with which this course began – religious traditions are internally diverse, they encompass all aspects of human culture and behaviour, and are dynamic and changing. You have seen that is true in the case of Islam.