Hossein Shariatmadari, the managing editor of ultra-conservative daily newspaper Keyhan, recently called an American university professor “a promoter of homosexuality”— and unexpectedly came under attack for doing so.
Mohammad Motahari, a cleric and vice-chancellor of a religious research foundation, wrote a long letter to the paper, sharply criticizing its managing editor for the publication’s tendency to issue these kinds of attacks. “I do not understand why Keyhan cannot go a day without calling somebody a spy, a homosexual or a mercenary.” Motahari may not be well known outside Iran, but he is the son of an influential ayatollah who was a founder of the Islamic Revolution.
The recent controversy came about when Kelly James Clark, Senior Research Fellow at the American Kaufman Interfaith Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was invited to speak at Mashhad’s Ferdowsi University about religion and its origins on June 6.
The lecture was canceled after a group of students protested, arguing that it should not go ahead because Clark promotes homosexuality. The Tehran Times also reported that the university “pressure group” had accused him of being a “Darwinism theorist” and of having met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu several times.
Keyhan seized the opportunity to engineer the controversy to its advantage, saying that Clark had accused Iran of violating human rights, driving his own agenda to “Americanize Islam”. Furthermore, the article said, he supports homosexuality.
“They are about 30 percent right,” Clark told IranWire in an email exchange from Los Angeles. “While I’ve defended the right to gay marriage in a couple of Huffington Post blogs, I’m not a campaigner. I do defend evolution and argue for its compatibility with both Christianity and Islam. I’ve never met Netanyahu and am not an agent of Americanizing Islam. I’m not even sure what that means.”
Clark had been invited to speak on religion and the sciences of origins. He was also scheduled to deliver a second lecture entitled “Liberty and Tolerance in an Age of Religious Disagreement.”
“I probably should have done that one first,” he says. “I was not aware of any of the accusations while I was there. I only learned about the conservative factions later. I also learned that Iran’s Hezbollah vetted me and did not find me worth protesting. I was aware that people complained and that my lecture was canceled. I found out only 20 minutes before my lecture”.
Instead of the word “homosexuality”, Iranian hardliners prefer a to use a more pejorative term, hamjensbaz, which can be literally translated as “playing the same sex”. The word carries negative connotations in Iranian culture and it most often been used to humiliate homosexuals.
“Modern, sort of upper class Iranians, when they talk about same sex relations in a European or American sense, use the word ‘gay’ because there isn’t a term in Persian that doesn’t connote there being an active or passive partner,” says William Beeman, professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota and a Middle East specialist with a focus on Iran. “[While] hamjensbaz doesn’t tell you anything about passive or active partners, it’s something that was coined in the last 20 or 30 years.”
Whatever the term, hardliners use insinuations of homosexuality to attack their opponents and attract public attention. For this reason, homosexuality is one of their favorite subjects.
“It’s a way to totally discredit somebody,” Beeman says. “It doesn’t matter what else they have done in life, if you can make the case that they are a passive homosexual—those playing the active role are not particularly denigrated in the society—that will more or less destroy their reputation in many, many circles. People will say, ‘Yes, he’s a great scholar, yes, he’s a great artist, but...’ Then the person has to go about proving that it isn’t true, and the more they try to prove that it isn’t true, the more it seems that it is. It’s very pernicious.”
Iranian hardliners apply such attacks to international bodies as well as individuals. This April, the European Parliament passed a resolution on violations of human rights in Iran. Iranian officials and fundamentalist figures focused specifically on one part, a section of Article 14 of the resolution that condemns “the repression and discrimination on the basis of religion, belief, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.”
Leaders of Friday Prayers and MPs claimed that, in appearing to highlight violations of human rights in Iran, the European Parliament was really wanting to promote homosexuality. Hardliners know that Iranian society is not ready to accept homosexuality with open arms, so they attempt to discredit all EU debate by highlighting Western and international support for gay rights. They have also tried to discredit Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran, using the same tactic.
Beeman sees the Iranian MPs’ approach as part of a widespread global phenomenon. “The Arabs also object, the Saudi Arabians also object,” says Beeman, “There is a lot of social repression, even now, in many, many parts of the world, and people usually use religious justifications to do this.”
And yet, Beeman says, there is little in Islam to support the prohibition of same sex relations. “In Islam,” he says, “there really is nothing at all. In fact, there’s more in the Bible than there is in Islam about the prohibition of same sex relations.” While some prohibitions have been passed down as Islamic law, he says, “it just doesn’t really hold up in historical terms.”
Not Only the Hardliners
Hardliner ire is not limited to homosexuality within the borders of Iran. Last year, prominent hardliners spoke out against the annual Eurovision Song Contest, which was held in the Republic of Azerbaijan in 2013. They condemned a side event of the contest, the gay parade, and warned Azerbaijan authorities about it. Mohammad-Reza Mahdavi Kani, chairman of the Assembly of Experts, which has the power to choose Iran’s Supreme Leader, called the event “the parade of faggot beasts.”
More famously, former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad regularly enjoyed attacking homosexuality. "In Iran we don't have homosexuals like in your country,” he told an audience at Columbia University in September 2007. Ahmadinejad has referred to homosexuality as the cause of mental and social ills in television interviews. And, in 2009, during a victory speech following the presidential election, he compared homosexuals to thieves, claiming that some of his opponents had pandered to such “filth” to get their votes.
But it is not only hardliners who publicly criticize homosexuality. In his letter of complaint to Keyhan, the cleric Mohammad Motahari himself used a pejorative term for homosexuals and praised Professor Clark for being anti-gay. Earlier this month, Ali Motahari, brother of Mohammad Motahari and an MP, called homosexuals “deviants” and compared homosexuality to bestiality.
“I did hear that Mohammad Motahari courageously and patiently defended me against the attacks,” Clark says, “[But] since I can’t read Farsi, I wasn’t sure what he wrote about me. In all of my writings on gay rights—and there aren’t many of them—I defend the civic virtues of tolerance and liberty and argue against any religious majority seeking to legislate their own religious and moral beliefs. I think the very rights that protect gay people are the rights that protect the freedom of religion.”
Motahari’s letter went on to criticize Keyhan for interviewing Thierry Meyssan, the French journalist and gay activist whose book The Big Lie argues that the attacks of September 11 were carried out by a dissenting group with links to the US military. Motahari also criticized Iranian state television for regularly interviewing Mayssan about September 11 attacks.
Though Iranian authorities have a shared stance when it comes to homosexuality and regularly attempt to turn homosexuality into a social and cultural epithet for humiliation, this sentiment is not entirely due to political rivalries alone. Religious beliefs are an important factor in how they view and judge homosexuality.
“In formal terms,” Beeman says, “there may be a prohibition against same sex behavior, but when you talk about the behavioral practice in Iran, there is a great deal more flexibility. But if you press people, they will immediately go back to some kind of written doctrine and try to defend that.”
Beeman also says that there is tremendous variation in Shia Islam according to what grand ayatollah believers adhere to. “There are 66 of them. Every single one of them has a different opinion about Islamic law. There is no single interpretation in Shiism at all.”
In recent years the reformist figures who otherwise criticize the government have not taken any steps to support homosexuals or homosexuality. At best they have remained silent, not for the benefit of homosexual people, but to save themselves from attacks from hardliners.
“Of course, [the prohibition against homosexuality] is inscribed in the constitution of the Islamic Republic,” Beeman says, “but you can also argue that [that reflects] the mind of Khomeini, who was just one of the grand ayatollahs. Really that was just one line of thinking. If the doctrine of velayat e faqih—that gives [supreme leader Ali Khamenei] his authority—is revised, then everything will change.”