Can Iran condemn mass murder at a gay nightclub? The mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida in the early hours of Sunday, June 12, is the worst gun attack in modern US history and left 50 people dead and 53 injured at the hands of a self-declared ISIS supporter, Omar Mateen. The shooting is also the deadliest terrorist massacre on US soil since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.
Iran’s leaders have declared their enmity with ISIS since it swept across Iraq and Syria in spring 2014 and have a long record of condemning attacks by Sunni militant groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda. Following the Al Qaeda-linked Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris in January 2015, President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif—then in the midst of nuclear negotiations with the West—put condemning terrorism ahead of denouncing the magazine’s Muhammad cartoons (something both men did in relatively mild tones later). In 2001, both President Mohammad Khatami and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei condemned the September 11 attacks.
Iran is not the alone in extending its sympathies to Western rivals after terrorist attacks. Most countries, and not only the liberal democratic states of the West, recognize Sunni jihadist movements as a global threat. Russian President Vladimir Putin, for example, was the first foreign leader to express condolences to US President George W. Bush on 9/11 and has drawn political advantages from Bush’s notion of a “war on terror” ever since.
But whereas Putin has already offered his condolences to US President Barack Obama and Americans affected by the massacre at the Pulse nightclub, Iranian leaders have been rather quiet. More than 24 hours after the attacks, Rouhani’s last Twitter message is a Ramadan greeting, and Zarif’s last Twitter post commemorates the life of American boxer Muhammad Ali. Iran’s main English language outlet, Press TV, did mention the attacks and quoted a dry denunciation from Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossein Jaberi Ansari, but the article contained no reference to who the victims were, or where they were killed.
The Victims Who Cannot Be Named
How, Iran’s leaders must be asking themselves following an attack specifically targeting America’s gay community, do we respond to this?
Homosexuality is taboo in Iran and high-level Iranian politicians rarely discuss it. The notable exception was former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who told an audience at Columbia University in 2007, “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country.” He treated the subject as a joke and smirked at his audience as they shifted with discomfort and disapproval. In a 2012 interview with CNN, Ahmadinejad expanded on his views, saying that homosexuality is “ugly” and “ceases procreation.” On both occasions, he used the derogatory term “hamjensbazi” which means “playing the same sex.”
It appears the term may have been familiar to the Orlando killer. Mateen, a 29-year-old US-born Afghan-American who police killed as they stormed the nightclub, came from a family that spoke Dari, a variation of Persian that is one of the main languages of Afghanistan. His father, Seddique Mateen, used the term himself in responding to news of the attack. In a video he posted on his Facebook page, he said of his son, “I had no idea he was resentful in his heart and had gone to the hamjensbazi club and killed men and women there.” While he expressed his sadness and lamented that his son had carried out the killings during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, he implied that God (and not his followers) should or would punish homosexuals.
June, as it happens, is also Gay Pride Month in the United States.
Since the late 1990s, Al Qaeda and similar Sunni jihadist groups have targeted civilians with spectacular attacks in public spaces. Iranian leaders can condemn such attacks easily enough, and can hark back as they do so to the early days of the Islamic Revolution, when the founders of the Islamic Republic feared bombings by leftist factions opposed to the new regime—one of which partially paralyzed future Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s right arm.
What makes the Orlando attacks and the Charlie Hebdo attacks before them more challenging for the Islamic Republic is that, in those cases, Iran’s nominal jihadist enemies targeted symbols of liberalism: a place of sexual freedom, a raffish satirical magazine. They showed a direct interest in how people live.
Iran’s leading ideologues explicitly oppose the western conception of liberalism that entails the right to satirize religious sanctities or engage openly in same-sex relationships. As Mohammad Javad Larijani, head of Iran’s Human Rights Council and an advisor on foreign affairs to Khamenei, once told Euronews, “Our experience in the last 35 years is to create a political and civil structure – a polity as you call it in English – based on Islamic rationality, which is democratic, but it is not liberal, it is not secular.”
Nor has Iran always limited itself to the construction of such a polity within its own borders. In 1989, under the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran tried to impose its blasphemy laws on the outside world by seeking the murder of Satanic Verses author Salman Rushdie. ISIS was not the first Islamist organization to specifically target western liberals and their supposed excesses.
Over the years, Iran has gradually moderated its global stance without repudiating any of the extremes of the early Islamic Republic. Today, as Iran’s leaders – mainly Rouhani and Zarif – seek to present their country as an island of stability and a bulwark against Sunni extremism in the Middle East, they do so not as defenders of human freedom, but as representatives of a Shia Islamic state against an emerging Sunni rival. While western liberals may deplore ISIS’ beheading of journalists and aid workers, its treatment of women and minorities (both Muslim and non-Muslim), not to mention its propensity for throwing accused homosexuals from tall buildings, Rouhani is more likely to emphasize the ISIS threat to Shias and Shia shrines. He is unlikely to breathe the word “gay” as long as he lives.