By OREN ADAKI & DAVID ANDREW WEINBERG
Middle Eastern media recently reported that the administrator of Saudi Arabia’s largest online network for lesbians was harassed and intimidated into closing up shop. The network, which reportedly had more than 4,000 participants, was described by some as a vice ring, but appears to have been just a networking site for consensual, same-sex relationships among Saudi women.
This incident is just the latest reminder of Saudi Arabia’s dismal record on LGBT rights, a topic that was regretfully absent from President Obama’s agenda during his recent trip to the sexually stifled kingdom.
The State Department advises LGBT travelers that consensual intercourse between same-sex individuals is “criminalized in Saudi Arabia” and that “potential penalties include fines, jail time or death.” The department also notes the possibility of “flogging” and documented that in 2012 the regime’s strident religious police declared that LGBT individuals would be banned from public schools or universities.
Our research has found that the Kingdom’s official curriculum continues to indoctrinate the next generation against LGBT rights. High school textbooks currently in use suggest that the most important debate about gay people is how best to murder them. When the State Department recently discovered as much from a taxpayer-funded study, it unfortunately chose to withhold its results.
Authorities in the region like to paint homosexuality as a foreign imposition. Saudi Arabia’s neighbor Kuwait made headlines recently for saying that all six monarchies in the Gulf would explore using intrusive medical testing to make it harder for LGBT individuals to visit the region. And yet, ironically, because the Gulf monarchies have such strict laws against the mixing of men and women, many believe that daily life in some ways encourages social and sexual relationships between same-sex partners.
Even before the recent dismantling of the Kingdom’s online lesbian network, more than 40 gay and transgender individuals were reported arrested in the Saudi city of Jeddah since President Obama’s visit in late March.
And when the president arrived in Saudi Arabia for his meeting with the king, that morning a widely republished Friday sermon at the Grand Mosque in Mecca specifically singled out the LGBT community for condemnation.
Imam Salah bin Humeid’s March 28 sermon at the Grand Mosque lashed out at homosexuality as an affliction that “seeks to strip man of his humanity” and inevitably “darkens and covers the soul.” He also claimed that homosexuality “violates the sanctity of Allah, kills chastity, and slaughters virtue.” He described organizations and legislation accepting this lifestyle as “frightening and terrifying,” insisting that being gay is at odds with common sense and “normal souls.”
Islamic scholars debate whether or not the Quran explicitly prohibits men having sex with men, but Bin Humeid clearly chose to emphasize the most homophobic possible theological view. He also made claims about contemporary society that were both offensive and factually erroneous. For instance, Bin Humeid claimed that homosexuality is outlawed by all religions (it’s not). In addition, he argued that 68 percent of all LGBT people suffer from public health maladies as a result of their behavior, including HIV/AIDS, herpes, hepatitis, gay bowel syndrome, and “feelings of inferiority that could lead to homicide or suicide.” He even declared that because homosexuality makes human beings “lower than a beast,” public health organizations should focus on preventing the “crimes” of gays and lesbians, not striving to address public health threats to the LGBT community.
This bigoted sermon was not delivered at any old house of worship — it was given by a longtime regime figure and adviser to the king from the pulpit of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, where the Saudi regime appoints the imams.
It is also reported that the Ministry of Islamic Affairs regularly vets sermons before they are delivered in important Saudi mosques.
The Obama administration broke new ground in 2011 by recognizing that “gay rights are human rights.” However, senior administration officials have ceded that the president did not raise human rights issues of any kind during his meeting in March with the king. And there apparently has been no high-level, public critique of Saudi Arabia’s intolerance toward gays since then from either the embassy in Riyadh or the executive branch.
America is not alone in downplaying its concerns about Saudi Arabia’s systematic human rights abuses, including against the LGBT community. On the same day as President Obama’s visit and Bin Humeid’s sermon, retired heads of state from Germany, Australia, Japan, Malaysia and Brazil were guests of honor at the Saudi King’s center for religious tolerance based in Vienna. Apparently none of them raised public concerns about this religious intolerance.
But as Saudi Arabia’s superpower patron, America has a special responsibility to help the royal family do better. As Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” So, when a U.S. ally broadcasts state-sponsored hate on the day our president comes to visit, it deserves more than turning a blind eye.
Oren Adaki is a research associate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. David Andrew Weinberg is a senior fellow at the Foundation.