Speaking Out Against Hate: A Note to Americans from a Yemeni Muslim Student

Can we have an honest conversation; Yemeni to American ?

Though many of you want to believe that Muslims are peaceful and they should be treated justly, I understand that at the same time you can’t make sense of all the atrocities committed in the name of Islam — so-termed “Islamic fundamentalism,” “terrorism,” and “radical Islam.”

I feel you all. Because, as a practicing Muslim, I am also confused, frustrated, and outraged. But I believe most of you don’t know enough about Muslims.

The absolute majority of Muslims in the world are hardworking and lead peaceful lives. But unlike many of you, many live in societies plagued by poverty, political instability, social and political oppression. This is a reality I know very well. Growing up in the Muslim-dominated Yemen, I witnessed fifteen wars; wars waged by Muslims against Muslims. For me, it would have been futile to seek an explanation in religion. I knew there was more to the story of what led Yemen and the broader Middle East to where it’s today.

Worsening political and social conditions are sufficient to create troubled individuals in any society. Added to that is the humiliation that these individuals feel when their countries — once proud civilizations — are intruded upon by foreign forces. They can’t stop these intrusions by undertaking serious negotiations, or by imposing effective economic sanctions, or by fighting back with mighty armies.

So a very tiny minority of those who are frustrated, wrongly and tragically resort to radical measures in response; seeking legitimacy in misconstrued sacred texts and traditions to substantiate their actions. And these acts of terror committed in the name of Islam have killed far more Muslims than non-Muslims.

Americans, you know that anger isn’t productive and hate leads to more hate. Responding with hate against all Muslims creates more of those troubled individuals, and reproduces the same narrative that created them in the first place; completely negating the values upon which this nation was founded.

Your country is at the forefront of societies that teach the world what it means to co-exist, what it means to be truly a diverse place. The American experiment has not been perfect, and is not perfect now, but it is an experiment in forming a “more perfect union.” That is a noble experiment indeed. Your nation has shed so much blood in the past so that the values of freedom and equality will prevail. My father, who has never set foot on this great land, sent me here not only to receive a quality education but also to learn those values in hopes they might one day echo in my war-torn Yemen.

I urge you not to let, for example, Donald Trump’s dystopian view of America and of Muslims win. The America that Trump promises isn’t an America that inspires the world, not an America that inspires America, and not an America that my father ever would have wanted his daughter to seek enlightenment in.

I, a Muslim student in America, am with you in mourning for the lives lost in Orlando, in San Bernardino, in Paris, in Yemen, in Syria and other places. And I am with you in speaking out against hate and injustice because I want your society to continue being exceptional in its diversity and progress, and to be a role model for other societies, including my own, to emulate.

Born in Syria to Yemeni parents, Safaa al-Saeedi grew up in Yemen. She graduated from Duke University in 2015 with a degree in political science and economics. Al-Saeedi is currently working as a visiting research scholar in Asia and Arabia studies at Duke. She will be joining Northwestern University in the Fall as a PhD student in political science. She is very interested in Middle Eastern affairs and aspires to contribute to original scholarship that addresses issues of political and economic development in the Arab world, particularly Yemen and the Arab Gulf region. See also her piece in Duke Magazine “Across a Divide” about her ‘double life’ in Yemen, and in the U.S.

ISLAMiCommentary is a public scholarship forum that engages scholars, journalists, policymakers, advocates and artists in their fields of expertise. It is a key component of the Transcultural Islam Project; an initiative managed out of the Duke Islamic Studies Center in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations (UNC-Chapel Hill). This article was made possible (in part) by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s).

Other web sites and print publications may re-publish this article as long as there is source attribution (author and ISLAMiCommentary) and a link back to ISLAMiCommentary. ISLAMiCommentary will be ceasing production on June 30, 2016, with the end of the grant that supported it.

‘Living in a State of Perpetual Trauma’: An American Child Psychiatrist on the Impact of the 2014 Attack on Gaza

San Francisco Bay Area child psychiatrist Bahar Hashemi, MD, has been volunteering in Palestine for the past 10 years, mainly in Jerusalem and the West Bank cities of Hebron, Bethlehem and Ramallah. Following the seven-week Israeli military attack on Gaza that began on July 8th 2014, she developed a mental health initiative for an international NGO, the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund (PCRF). In September 2015, after waiting a full year for a permit to enter Gaza, she made the first of three trips there connected with the initiative.

From the U.S., Hashemi had worked remotely with the PCRF to develop screening questionnaires and trained a team of social workers in Gaza to carry out a survey (in November/December 2014) of 986 children who had been impacted by the attack.

Her most recent trip to Gaza was in mid-April 2016 to present findings from the screening and subsequent interventions at a large international mental health and human rights conference sponsored by the 26-year-old Gaza Community Mental Health Program.

The conference, which brought together 800 people from several countries, including activists from Palestinian-focused NGOs, a United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) representative, and physicians, psychiatrists, researchers, and students, focused on the connection between mental health and human rights and the “significant impact” of the Israeli Occupation, the Gaza blockade, mass unemployment, continuing military operations, and the internal Palestinian political divide on Gazans’ mental health.

In this interview with Dr. Hashemi, conducted via phone and email nearly two years since the 2014 attack on Gaza, we talked about what she learned about the effects of perpetual trauma on the children of Gaza, how she got interested and involved in aid and advocacy work there, and why Americans should care about the work that she and others are doing there.
What did you learn from the Nov./Dec. 2014 PCRF screenings? How were the children mentally affected by the Gaza attack?

We did a screening of 986 kids. 53.6% fulfilled the full criteria for PTSD and 30.1% for both PTSD and depression. Two-thirds (66%) had at least one somatic symptom – abdominal pains or headaches or bed wetting. These symptoms reflect the overwhelming burden of trauma symptoms experienced by children in Gaza. Even if they did not fulfill full criteria, every child screened experienced some symptoms. What became clear through these screenings is that it was impossible to go through the trauma (of the 2014 Gaza attack) and not be affected.

What was the follow-up to the screenings?

Of those children we screened, we identified the most affected high-risk children and referred them for various types of treatment, including with the locally-based Gaza Community Mental Health Program (GCMHP) and the Center for Mind Body Medicine (CMBM), an American NGO with a local chapter in Gaza. Our local social workers served the function of providing the referrals, working with the families, and meeting other needs such as providing psycho-education and helping families overcome logistical barriers to treatment (i.e. transportation, child care, etc.).

Last summer, we identified 120 of the most affected children from the screening to enroll them in three mental health summer camps in North, Central and South Gaza. In addition to typical summer camp activities, the children also had daily mind-body-skills activities. This was very well received by kids and the families; getting their buy-in to continue this treatment upon completion of the summer camps. The children received weekly sessions following the camp for 10 weeks and then monthly for 10 weeks after that; we had a near 100% retention rate.

Of the children who were enrolled in the camp, more than 91% of them had positive symptom reduction following the completion of 10 weeks of follow-up treatment.

We will complete a second outcome measurement for the completion of the 10 months of monthly follow up treatment this summer. When I went to Gaza, I oversaw the logistics of the programs that were running with our local collaborators (GCMHP and CMBM), conducted field visits for challenging cases and ran seminars for the social workers and mental health professionals.

This summer we will also begin another set of summer camps for 200 additional kids identified through the screening.
Were kids also dealing with their parents’ mental trauma? I imagine that could have been an extra stressor?

Absolutely. However, it is also important to point out the protective aspect derived from the sense of community and the strength of family systems. Families are extensive and provide a large support network, which for children who were left orphans after the military incursions, this becomes very important. But there’s been such disruption to the family that I think we have to take a look into what the impact of that is in the long term, and we just don’t know at this point. Also there is not a single parent who is unaffected by the trauma, in addition to needing to provide a sense of security (false sense of security in many ways) for their children. Often times, getting treatment and promoting wellness is seen as a luxury for many people in Gaza.
Were you dealing with some kids who had lost family members?

Too many. I’ll give you an example of a visit to two of our kids from the screening. It was a brother and sister, age 5 and 6, the only two surviving members of 17 family members living in their home. Their entire immediate family was wiped out; leaving them to move in and live with their aunt. Their aunt told me a story about her children who, as children often do, would tease her nephew and niece in an argument. They teased, “You don’t even come out of our mother’s womb, you’re not even part of our family.” She said that afterwards her nephew came up to her weeping and said, “Is that true, did we not come out of your womb, auntie?” She said she responded to him by saying, “Yes it’s true you didn’t come out of my womb but you all came out of my heart.”

To me, this was a great example among many, from mothers and fathers being more psychologically in-tune than I had anticipated. Her instinctive response came from a place of deep love and compassion, which has helped to sustain and rebuild the children’s spirits.

Are the symptoms the kids had similar to what you would see in another post-traumatic stress situation? For example in another war, or in a shooting at a school?

In some instances, yes, there can be some overlap as far as what you would see. However, by virtue of the perpetual nature of trauma experienced by kids in Gaza, we cannot conceptualize trauma in the same way in this context. Our definition of disorders manifesting from traumatic experiences is post-traumatic stress disorder. The use of the word “post” is simply inaccurate and does not encompass what people in Gaza are facing.
So the flare-up is over, but the broader war isn’t over. Can you speak to those two levels of trauma?

There is sort of that initial impact, that’s pretty intuitive. And I think it’s similar to the way that people experience trauma in various other contexts but what’s different about what’s happening there is that there’s this perpetuity of the trauma; that it’s happening over and over again. An eight-year-old has experienced it three times and there is a constant anticipatory fear of it happening again. There is nowhere else like Gaza in this regard; that underlying fear simply does not exist anywhere else. This makes it challenging to understand and to promote healing.

One of the most important aspects of healing and moving past trauma is to be able to provide a sense of security. It is important for a parent to be able to provide that for their child, to say yes, something really terrible happened but we’re safe now things are ok now, this is behind us.

I am so impressed by parents and how they are able to keep that strength and provide that sense of security, which is, given the historical context, a false sense of security. The people of Gaza live in heightened fear of being attacked on a continuous basis. And there’s no escape. People do not have a choice to be able to move freely in and out of Gaza. It is essentially an open air prison; they have no choice but to try to redefine what normal is in this context.

Despite what they are up against, the spirit of the people of Gaza is truly remarkable. There is a pervasive and infectious resiliency, strength, compassion and love for one another and their community.

Do you think that those kids that had treatment are going to be OK or do you feel they are not OK because of the anticipation of what could happen?

I am an optimistic person who wants to believe that these children will persevere. They can have hopes and dreams like all other children. But it is hard to imagine, in this context, with the violence continuing as it does, that this will be achieved for most children in Gaza. For now, our goal is to help them reintegrate back into as normal of a life as is possible; to get back into school, to be functioning within their family systems, to eat well and sleep well. Are they at risk for developing symptoms again after another round of violence? Absolutely. Will their minds be at peace in the interim knowing this is a very real and likely occurrence? I am not sure that is realistic.
Did anything prepare you for what you saw a year after the July/August 2014 attack on Gaza?

Even as somebody who goes out of their way to see what is happening there, I don’t think there’s really much that could prepare me for what I saw. There is nothing that can prepare someone to see the destruction first hand, to speak to children who lost mothers, mothers who lost children, fathers who lost wives. But I think there’s some comfort that comes from interacting with people who embody strength and resiliency in beautiful ways. There is this warmth and generosity in Gaza that’s unlike anywhere I’ve been.
Do you have a personal connection to Palestine?

I grew up in a household where it was important to learn about social and political issues and be aware of the world outside of our lovely but rather homogeneous suburban community. So it was fitting that I went to university in an environment which was very diverse, giving me the opportunity to meet people from all around the world. It was during those years that I became more connected and interested in global issues, particularly in the Middle East. While living in Washington DC, I heard Rachel Corrie’s parents give a talk at a museum benefit and I remember feeling so moved by them. They are two American parents whose daughter was killed by a bulldozer as she was peacefully protesting Israeli home demolitions, still speaking out against injustices and advocating for peace. I knew I wanted to do more there, and it was in medical school when I took my first trip to Palestine. Spending time there, listening to stories and experiencing the infectious warmth of the people there, I knew my connection to the people there would never fade.

My positive experiences in Palestine only strengthened my commitment to address larger mental health needs there, not only to alleviate suffering but also to raise awareness and provide a voice for a people who have endured unimaginable trauma and injustice. I see this work as a responsibility and a privilege, to provide care and advocate for a people who are marginalized and often forgotten.
What impression do you think Americans who are not in your field have about your work and the suffering of the children of Gaza?

(As far as) people outside of the field and people who are not really aware of what’s happening in Palestine, they are often surprised to learn about the work I am involved in and the context in which I am working. In addition to direct patient care, I do think it is important to help raise awareness here at home where these issues are not discussed very often. I think that most people you find do want to know even if they haven’t been informed or haven’t been easily provided with this information. From my perspective I shouldn’t be there, this kind of work should not exist. The trauma is manmade. There shouldn’t be a place for it in our world. This is what surprises people, when they learn about the true impact of what’s happening. To know that the decisions we are making is perpetuating what is happening over there.
By ‘we’, you mean the U.S. government?

We all have a role to play. By not speaking up against injustices, we become complicit supporters of our government’s foreign policy. I think there are always people who have their minds and hearts closed, but for the most part people do want to understand what is happening to be more informed.



ISLAMiCommentary is a public scholarship forum that engages scholars, journalists, policymakers, advocates and artists in their fields of expertise. It is a key component of the Transcultural Islam Project; an initiative managed out of the Duke Islamic Studies Center in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations (UNC-Chapel Hill). This article was made possible (in part) by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s).

Other web sites and print publications may re-publish this article as long as there is source attribution (author and ISLAMiCommentary) and a link back to ISLAMiCommentary. ISLAMiCommentary will be ceasing production on June 30, 2016, with the end of the grant that supported it.

Pim Valkenberg on the 50-Year Legacy of ‘Nostra Aetate’; Its Impact on Catholic/Jewish/Muslim Relations

Has Nostra Aetate – the Catholic Church’s declaration on relations with non-Christian religions — stood the test of time? Passed by a wide margin at the Second Vatican Council and promulgated on October 28, 1965 by Pope Paul VI, this powerful document rejected all forms of anti-Semitism and prejudice or hostility toward Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus. The declaration encouraged Catholics “to recognize, preserve, and foster the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among the followers of other religions.”

Fifty years later, in May 2015, The Catholic University of America School of Theology and Religious Studies and the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops gathered scholars, Church leaders and their partners in interreligious dialogue to mark how the Nostra Aetate has shaped the Church’s ecumenical outlook and outreach.

The collected papers of this conference form the basis of a new book published by The Catholic University of America Press: “Nostra Aetate: Celebrating Fifty Years of the Catholic Church’s Dialogue with Jews and Muslims.”

The book is edited by Pim Valkenberg, professor of theology and religious studies at The Catholic University of America, and Anthony Cirelli, associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Valkenberg discusses Nostra Aetate’s impact and relevance today in this exclusive interview.

How significant is Nostra Aetate in the history of the Catholic Church? And, how revolutionary was it for its time?

I think that Nostra Aetate is quite significant in the history of the Church, since this is the first time the Catholic Church explicitly reflected on its relationship with other religions. The relationship with other religions was not on the original agenda of the council, and it was only scheduled on the program because Pope John XXIII was convinced that the Church should explicitly distance itself from the “teaching of contempt” that laid a heavy burden on the Church’s relationship with the Jewish people. That is, whenever the Church said something positive about its own mission and message, very often it went together with something negative about the Jewish people: they rejected Christ, read their Scriptures wrong, denied the grace of God, etcetera.

The original idea of Pope John XXIII was to write about the Church’s relationship with the Jewish people only, but bishops from the Middle East and Asia said that the Church’s relations with Islam and other religions should be included as well. (Pope John XXIII died during Vatican II and Pope Paul VI took over.)

Nostra Aetate was passed by 2,221 votes to 88 by the assembled bishops? What were the specific reasons for opposition to the document?

First of all, 88 is not a big number; it is less than a half percent. The French theologian Yves Congar wrote in “My Journal of the Council” that the opposition to the final document was much less than the opposition to several of its stages. Yet there were bishops who found the document unacceptable because it said something really new in its positive approach to other religions, and therefore they judged it was not in continuity with the venerated tradition of the Church (just like the document Dignitatis Humanae on human dignity and religious freedom). These are still the Vatican documents least liked by ultra-conservatives.

How influential was the tragedy of the Holocaust in the crafting of Nostra Aetate?

Very influential. Nostra Aetate was originally conceived as a document to improve the relationship with the Jewish people. It was after a meeting with the French Jewish historian Jules Isaac that Pope John XXIII decided to give the Secretariat for Christian Unity the assignment to craft a document that would help to overcome the theology that made the Holocaust possible. The “teaching of contempt” did not cause the Holocaust, but it had contributed to a European culture in which the Holocaust could become a grim reality. In that sense, you can say that the Holocaust occasioned the document.

What had been the history of Catholic-Jewish relations before Nostra Aetate was drafted?

Apart from the “teaching of contempt” that I just mentioned, the relationship between Catholics and Jews was characterized by super-sessionism, which is the idea that the Church had superseded the Jewish People in its covenantal relationship with God. Since God had started a new relationship by sending his own Son who sealed this relationship with his death on the cross, and since Jews did not want to accept this new reality, the Church was of the opinion that the Jewish people were no longer in a faithful relationship with God. Another important notion that needed to be corrected in Nostra Aetate was that the Jewish people took responsibility for killing God (Deicide), and therefore were liable and could be punished by the faithful. This led to pogroms in many parts of Europe during the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance period. However, there have always been theologians who believed in the lasting validity of the covenant between God and the Jews, and this point of view finally prevailed, on the basis of Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapters 9-11.

How would you characterize the historical relationship between the Catholic Church and Asian religions?

It is hard to characterize the relationship between two religions in one sentence, and it is even harder when we are discussing the religious reality in Asia that is so complex and knows so many different cultural and religious contexts. But if there is one notion that still burdens the relationship, it is the notion of mission. The history of mission efforts to most Asian countries has been connected with the history of colonialism and in my contacts with Hindu dialogue partners (for example) it became clear to me that they still wish for an official moratorium on missionary efforts in order for them to build trust and to engage in official dialogue with Catholics.

How would you characterize the attitude and relationship of the Catholic Church toward Islam and Muslims before Nostra Aetate? How did the document accelerate and deepen dialogue between Catholics and Muslims?

From the beginning the relationship between the Christian Churches, both in the West and in the East, and the new religion of Islam has been quite tense. This has partly to do with the rapid spread of Islam, and partly with the fact that this new religion claimed to be a confirmation and a return to the original revelation of God. Christians could not accept that claim — in a similar way Jews did not accept the Christian claim to be a new covenant partner with God — and therefore they characterized Muhammad as an imposter and his revelation as a fraud. While it is certainly true that there have been more dialogical encounters between Christians and Muslims, in most cases polemics and apologetics dominated the mutual relationships.

In the twentieth century a more positive approach to Islam began to be entertained by members of religious orders and mystically inclined scholars of Islam. Nostra Aetate could use these more positive approaches and build on them by acknowledging that Christians and Muslims together worship the one God, Creator of heaven and earth, and that they share an important part of the history that God began by calling Abraham. Muslims are also acknowledged in their veneration for Jesus and his virgin Mother. The positive tone of Nostra Aetate certainly built the basis for many dialogue initiatives that followed, often coordinated by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

How did Nostra Aetate resonate in the United States?

The best way to see the influence of Nostra Aetate in the United States is to look at the dialogue initiatives taken by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. It began with the Bishops Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs together with the National Association of Diocesan Ecumenical Officers in the 1980s. In the beginning most of the attention was directed at ecumenical dialogues and the dialogue with different Jewish groups – even though some of these dialogues had already been initiated before the Second Vatican Council, for instance in the 1920s and 1940s. Outreach toward other religions began in the 1980s and a regular threefold regional dialogue with different Islamic organizations started in 1996. Dialogue with representatives of other religions, such as Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs is less formalized, even though the fiftieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate in May 2015 and then the visit of Pope Francis to the United States in September 2015 served to solidify these relations and to start some new initiatives.

What ecumenical programs and initiatives did Nostra Aetate spark around the world?

There is, obviously, a lot going on in the world. Maybe the most important observation that I could make is to relativize our Western perspective: in many Asian and African countries dialogues and other forms of encounters have been going on long before Nostra Aetate, often initiated by missionaries. Often the non-Western rite Catholics are very engaged in these initiatives. This is one of the reasons why bishops and theologians from these countries were instrumental in crafting the text of the document. After its promulgation in 1965 the Catholic Church started to work together with the World Council of Churches and sometimes also with Evangelical groups.

In the West, we have seen the rise of a sizeable number of dialogue initiatives, some more theological in nature — such as the Catholic-Muslim Forum that was initiated by the Muslim signatories of the “Common Word document” — and others more spiritual in nature, including the initiatives of the InterMonastic Dialogue groups with Buddhists in Asia, or the World Day of Prayer for Peace initiated by Pope John Paul II in Assisi in 1986. At the same time grassroots dialogue is the necessary basis of the more official dialogue initiatives.

How has Pope Francis underlined and emphasized the importance of Nostra Aetate in the ecumenical work of the Catholic Church?

It has been clear from the beginning that interreligious dialogue is very important to Pope Francis, as can be seen in his unprecedented initiative to take a Jewish and a Muslim friend from Argentina with him when he went to visit Jordan and Israel. He also invited the presidents of Israel and Palestine to pray with him for peace. He also released a video message in which a Jew, a Catholic, a Hindu, a Buddhist and a Muslim all state that they believe in love. In the book that we published, Dr. James Fredericks has written more explicitly about the “dialogue of fraternity” that Pope Francis promotes, mainly in dialogue with Buddhists.

eminenceDo you think that Nostra Aetate, if introduced today, would still have been adopted?

That is a very interesting question!

On the one hand, I think it is certainly true that the religious landscape has changed so much that certain expressions that were quite new fifty years ago are now old-fashioned. For instance, Pope Paul VI founded a new Secretariat for non-Christians in 1964 but in 1988 its name was changed into the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue which sounds quite different. In that sense I think that the reality of religious pluralism is much more prominent now than it was fifty years ago, and a new council would certainly need to pay considerable attention to relations with other religions in the same way as it gets attention now in every papal visit.

On the other hand, I think that the third paragraph on the Church’s relations with Muslims would be considered naïve if it was introduced today. For instance, the idea that we should “forget the quarrels and hostilities of the past” and “work together to foster social justice, moral welfare, and peace and freedom for all humankind” is true now more than ever – if you read “forget” as “not repeat”, that is – but at present this statement could not have been written in this way after everything that has happened in the last fifteen years.

So, from my perspective, Nostra Aetate has succeeded in its primary goal, namely to improve relations between Catholics and Jews.

As far as the Church’s relationship with Islam, the situation is the most complex. On the one hand, there is a wealth of institutional contacts and so we are no longer strangers. Yet, my constant worry as a theologian is that we have made no progress at all with the main theological questions between us. Of course it would be naïve to think that we could solve these questions after fourteen centuries of disagreement. But if theological dialogue is not so much about agreeing with one another as it is about negotiating the differences and learning how to disagree in a fruitful and respectful way, I must say that we have not learned much. And finally, yes, there is the violence between us that makes me think that no European parliament today would adopt the text of the paragraph of Nostra Aetate on Islam.

I am very grateful that the Church still stands behind this text and I am grateful that it says a couple of things – including the conviction that Christians and Muslims together worship the One God — about which many Christians now feel justified to doubt. If a professor at an Evangelical college can be dismissed because she says that Muslims and Christians worship the same God (quoting Pope Francis, by the way) I am glad that Nostra Aetate said what it said fifty years ago.

What did you learn while researching the history of Nostra Aetate that you didn’t know before? Did anything surprise you?

The thing that struck me most when doing my research is that almost nobody could have foreseen this document when the Council started. In the volumes that summed up the wishes of the bishops concerning the matters that should be discussed, almost nothing about other religions came up.

Historians and political scientists have described the council as an event with its own logic, but Catholics believe that this must have been the work of the Holy Spirit. What surprises me, reading the document once again after fifty years, and after some twenty-five years of personal experience in dialogue, is how much we can still learn from this document and that is reason to celebrate. However, the fifty years since Nostra Aetate have brought us an awareness of the human, often violent, sides of religion as well and therefore we need to work harder to build bridges and to gain a better understanding of the problematic sides of religions as human phenomena.

Joseph Richard Preville is Assistant Professor of English at Alfaisal University/Prince Sultan College of Business in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. His work has appeared in The Catholic Historical Review, Journal of Church and State, The Christian Science Monitor, San Francisco Chronicle, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Tikkun, The Jerusalem Post, Saudi Gazette and World Religion News.

Julie Poucher Harbin is Editor of ISLAMiCommentary (based at Duke University) and is a correspondent with Religion News Service. She’s a career journalist who’s also worked with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in Bosnia and Afghanistan, International Medical Corps in Lebanon, NBC News in Moscow and Washington, National Public Radio, and The San Diego Business Journal.


ISLAMiCommentary is a public scholarship forum that engages scholars, journalists, policymakers, advocates and artists in their fields of expertise. It is a key component of the Transcultural Islam Project; an initiative managed out of the Duke Islamic Studies Center in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations (UNC-Chapel Hill). This article was made possible (in part) by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s).

Other web sites and print publications may re-publish this article as long as there is source attribution (author and ISLAMiCommentary) and a link back to ISLAMiCommentary. ISLAMiCommentary will be ceasing production on June 30, 2016, with the end of the grant that supported it.

The Roots of Homophobia and Anti-Gay Sentiment in the Muslim World (by Ali Olomi)

In March 2016 Payam Feili, a young Iranian poet, took refuge in Israel because he faced persecution in his home country for being openly gay. Feili’s situation is not unique for many LGBTQ individuals in the Middle East. Homosexuality is a crime in nearly two dozen Muslim countries carrying severe punishments in ten of those counties.

While it is tempting to ascribe this to Islam, the historical context is more nuanced and complex.

The status of LGBTQ rights in the Muslim world today is perplexing given that Islamic history is characterized by its relative tolerance of sexual diversity and same-sex desire.

Though homosexuality as an identity and category is a predominantly modern construction, gay, lesbian, transgender, and intersex individuals have always been present in history.

From the time of Prophet Muhammad on, intersex individuals known as mukhannathum lived in Islamic society and occupied publicly visible, though sometimes marginalized spaces. Many of these individuals, like Gharid and Al Dalal, were openly gay and had lovers. They enjoyed positions as musicians and intermediaries between men and women in the role of matchmakers. In both Umayyad and Abbasid history, gay individuals were not only present, but quite public. The first time they faced state violence was at the hands of Caliph Sulayman ibn Abd-al Malik. The 10th century historian, Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani writes in his Kitab al-Aghani that Sulayman had all the mukhannathum castrated, not because of their sexual desires, but because their music had distracted one of his lovers while she was attending him.

The writings of al-Isfahani along with Ali ibn Nasr al Katib’s Jawami’ al-ladhdha provide abundant evidence of the tolerance of same-sex relationships both male and female. For much of Islam’s history the sin of liwat, which refers to anal penetration, is defined as not sexual deviation vis-à-vis same-sex desire, but rather as sexual violation — a similarity shared with the early history of sodomy in Christian thought. Liwat was perpetuated by individuals we would today identify as heterosexual. Interpretations of liwat as the equivalent of homosexuality is a characteristically modern phenomenon that projects backwards an anachronistic definition given that the premodern world did not commonly identify people based on sexuality.

Yet, despite this history, it is undeniable that the current Muslim world has a tense relationship with homosexuality. The question then is how did the current climate come about and how to understand its nuances rather than assuming that Islamic teachings are unequivocally hostile toward homosexuality.

The 13th century Islamic scholar, Ibn Taymiyyah is one of the earliest thinkers to take a harsh stance against gays in the Muslim world. Ibn Taymiyyah associated all male same-sex desire with liwat, an idea that broke with the teachings of previous scholars. Ibn Taymiyyah feared the decline and eventual collapse of the Abbasid Caliphate. He saw the Islamic world being threatened both by invading Mongols and by strife from within. Shortly before his birth, Baghdad and Bukhara, the two cultural and intellectual centers of the Islamic world, were razed to the ground by the Mongols with its citizens put to the sword and its books to the torch. The loss of both cities sent ripples of fear through the Muslim world. As a young boy Ibn Taymiyyah himself had to flee his home city of Harran in Anatolia when the Mongols invaded.

The loss of Baghdad and Bukhara left a lasting impression, shaping a world view of militant defense — he famously declared jihad against the invading Mongols when they pressed towards Damascus.

Ibn Taymiyyah lived in a time of great anxiety regarding the potency of Islamic rule, where Sufism, philosophy, art, and tolerance for same-sex relationships were perceived as foreign adaptations of Greek and Persian culture that needed to be purified if Islam was to survive. He viewed the presence of these so-called foreign adaptations as the source of internal strife and weakness that left the Islamic world vulnerable to the Mongols. This idea of foreignness and anxiety about power is an enduring theme in the history of anti-gay sentiment in the Middle East.

Ibn Taymiyyah’s more militant and puritanical interpretation of Islamic law not only targeted gays, Sufis, and Shi’a, but also advocated for the death penalty for blasphemy and apostasy (Though he certainly was not the first to apply the death penalty to blasphemy and apostasy, he popularized its use among mobs and crowds.) Many of his Mamluk patron governors however would disregard his rulings in favor of clemency. In Egypt and Damascus, he faced backlash from the majority of scholars and theologians for breaking with legal precedent and scholarly consensus — leading to his eventual arrest.

Though Ibn Taymiyyah was a popular scholar, his view equating all homoeroticism with liwat did not take immediately. Even as late as the 18th century, liwat was still considered sexual violence. The Iraqi scholar Mahmud al-Alusi references bandits who used sexual violence (liwat or sodomy) as an act of revenge known as akhdan li al-atha’r. This was done min ghayr shahwah bihim ila dhalik, or without any sexual desire. The intent was to “make courageous men into women” or yu’annithu al-buhm al-dhukur.

In other words, liwat, being considered as sexual violence, originally had nothing to do with sexual desire or gay people.

The three dominant Islamic empires, Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal all had relatively tolerant and accepting views of same-sex desire. In 1858, the Ottoman Empire officially decriminalized homosexuality as part of their Tanizmat (more than a century before the US or UK would), which legally acknowledged the de facto reality. Ironically, at that time, European visitors saw tolerance of same-sex desire as evidence of Islam’s backwardness.

The French traveler, CS Sonnini, who visited Ottoman Egypt remarked, “The inconceivable appetite which dishonored the Greeks and Persians of antiquity, constitute the delight, or, to use a juster term, the infamy of the Egyptians. It is not for women that their ditties are composed: it is not on them that tender caresses are lavished; far different objects inflame them.”

European readers treated to travel journals and stories from the orient (the Middle East) envisioned it as a place of sexual delights and people of exotic tastes who did not have the modern sexual values and gender norms that epitomized European progress.

The decline of the Ottoman Empire revived old anxieties about the potency of Islamic civilization. As European technological advancement empowered its imperial prowess, some in the Muslim world turned to Europe for inspiration. Muslim reformers saw European heteronormative cultural values as part of the process of modernization.

Two types of reformers emerged from the declining Ottoman world: reformers who sought to emulate Europe and reformers who saw Islam in Ibn Taymiyyah’s militant view as the key to restoring Islam.

The ideological inheritor of Ibn Taymiyyah was the 18th century Arabian reformer Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Like Ibn Taymiyyah, he lived in a time when Islamic power was waning and when the Muslim world was slowly being invaded, this time by Europeans. He led a militant reform movement against what he saw as foreign influences and Ottoman decadence. He purified Medina of the mukhanathum who had for centuries guarded the tomb of Prophet Muhammad. He drove out the Sufis, and equated same-sex desire with liwat and adultery; making both punishable with lashes or death. Additionally, he adopted Ibn Taymiyyah’s stringent restrictions on divorce making it harder for couples to divorce.
Rifa’a al-Tahtawi was a famed Muslim reformer in Egypt who sought to bring European ideals and values to the Muslim world.

Rifa’a al-Tahtawi was a famed Muslim reformer in Egypt who sought to bring European ideals and values to the Muslim world.

Ibn Abd al-Wahhab spent as much time disrupting the pilgrimage caravans from the Ottoman heartland as he did on his anti-Ottoman reforms. His version of Islam as militant Arab tribalism resonated with the national aspiration of his political patrons, the House of Saud, setting the stage for the birth of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia — a kingdom that would legitimize Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s view of Islam, transforming it from a marginal movement into a hegemonic force. Fueled by Saudi money, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s interpretations of Islam, including his stance on homosexuality, put down roots across the Muslim world. For the nascent kingdom, Wahhabi Islam was a tool to keep the populace in check and project its power abroad. An alliance between Wahhabi clerics and Saudi royalty fanned suspicion of society’s others — including homosexuals, Sufis, and Shia — while the two dominant classes enjoyed the prestige of power.

The anti-gay sentiment of both Ibn Taymiyyah and Ibn Abd al-Wahhab essentially erased Islam’s history of tolerance. And their militant stance on homosexuality runs parallel to their militant interpretation of jihad.

European sexual values also influenced both the thinking of Muslim reformers on homosexuality and the laws put in place in Europe’s colonies. The 19th century Egyptian reformer and modernist Rifa’a al-Tahtawi writes, “Amongst the laudable traits of their [European] character is their not being inclined toward loving male youth and eulogizing them in poetry, for this is something unmentionable for them and contrary to their nature and morals.” Al-Tahtawi mirrors the views of CS Sonnini, the French traveler, on homosexuality.

After the First World War, European powers divided up Ottoman territories into mandates and wrote penal codes that remain relevant today. The adoption of European sexual attitudes was an act of modernization codified in colonial law.

Some Case Studies

Tunisia is a pluralistic and progressive democracy, yet homosexuality is illegal in the country. The criminalization of homosexuality is not rooted in Sharia, but in the 1913 French colonial penal code — a fact that challenges the prevailing generalization that anti-gay sentiment in the Middle East and anti-gay laws are based on religion or a product of Islamic law. In fact while the secular government upholds the anti-gay penal code, Rached Ghannouchi, the founder of Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda, actually opposes the anti-gay law on the grounds that the law does not “follow people in their private life.” He goes on to say, “We do not approve of it [homosexuality]. But Islam does not spy on people. It protects private life. Everyone should live their lives as they wish. And everyone is responsible for it in front of their creator.”
King Amanullah Khan of Afghanistan, a proponent of modernism, adopted European garb and promoted European gender norms.

King Amanullah Khan of Afghanistan, a proponent of modernism, adopted European garb and promoted European gender norms.

The same can be said about British Mandate Palestine. As a former Ottoman province, homosexuality was decriminalized in 1858, but the 1936 British Mandate Criminal Code bans homosexuality in Section 152. In Afghanistan, it was the modernizing King Amanullah who not only adopted European dress, but sexual mores, and banned homosexuality.

Similar anti-gay laws are found in many non-Muslim African countries like Ghana whose penal code is rooted in British colonial law; and Liberia, which emerged out of the American Colonization Society, and has anti-sodomy laws modeled after the US’s own anti-sodomy laws which were struck down by the Supreme Court in 2003. Cameroon’s section 347 of its penal code, which states that “sexual relations with a person of same sex is punishable with a six month prison term,” is a relic of its French colonial past.

In contrast, homosexuality is legal in Muslim Mali where French colonial law was overturned in favor of a new constitution in 1991.

Jordan, which was also under British Mandate, is another Muslim country in which homosexuality is legal. This is because Jordan overturned its colonial penal code in 1952. Chapter two of Jordan’s Constitution protects consensual non-commercial sex between consenting adults which includes adults of the same sex.

In Iran, the country of Payam Feili, people are acutely aware of the European perception of Iran’s tolerance for homoeroticism recounted in travel journals and novels like The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan. Throughout its modernizing period in the 20th century, homosexuality was increasingly considered taboo in Iran but only officially banned after the 1979 revolution installed the Islamic Republic of Iran. Articles 108 to 134 prescribe various punishments for homosexuality from lashes to the death penalty. These laws are used to criminalize homosexuality, but are also applied to dissidents whether they are “guilty” of it or not. The crime of homosexuality is often added to the list of other crimes, regardless. Yet, the very same Islamic Republic of Iran also recognizes transgender people and will pay for sexual reassignment surgery. In 1985, Ayatollah Khomeini as Iran’s supreme authority, issued a fatwa that sanctioned into law sex reassignment surgery.

In Conclusion

Growing European hegemony equated modernity with a rejection of homoeroticism in favor of a society based on the heteronormative Victorian family. Modernizers and reformers in the Muslim world gradually adopt the mores of European modernity which saw homosexuality as a social and psychological disorder. In a twist of historical irony, the tolerance that was once deemed backwards is now a sign of progress.

In response to declining Islamic power and anxieties about gender norms, both religious and modernist reformers reinterpreted liwat from its traditional understanding as transgressive violation to a sexual identity, i.e. homosexuality. Islam’s more nuanced past has been reimagined — with homosexuality either deemed a foreign Western interpolation or as evidence of backwardness.

While it is tempting to see the current treatment of LGBTQ individuals in the Muslim world as the natural and logical result of medieval Islamic theology, the history reveals a far more complicated reality in which anti-gay sentiment is born out of a matrix of colonial, modern, and puritan anxieties about gender, progress, and power grafted onto religious interpretations of liwat.

Perhaps a revival of traditional Islamic sexual ethics is the answer to overcoming these anxieties.


Ali A. Olomi is a historian, writer, and Ph.D student at the University of California Irvine where he studies the history of the Middle East and Islam, specializing in topics of religion, gender and sexuality, cultural and intellectual history, and colonialism. In addition to his academic work, he writes articles putting contemporary politics into historical context. He Tweets at @aaolomi.

The above piece is a follow-up to a piece Olomi wrote for ISLAMiCommentary — Same-Sex Relationships & the Fluidity of Marriage in Islamic History in July 2015.

ISLAMiCommentary is a public scholarship forum that engages scholars, journalists, policymakers, advocates and artists in their fields of expertise. It is a key component of the Transcultural Islam Project; an initiative managed out of the Duke Islamic Studies Center in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations (UNC-Chapel Hill). This article was made possible (in part) by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s).

Other web sites and print publications may re-publish this article as long as there is source attribution (author and ISLAMiCommentary) and a link back to ISLAMiCommentary.

Ideologues in Charge in Israel: What Can Palestinians and Israeli Arabs Expect Next?

What does the latest political shift to the Right within Israel’s ruling coalition portend for Palestinians and Israeli Arabs ? Signaled by the May 26th appointment of two-time Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman as Defense Minister, this shift to the Right is at present more symbolic than policy-oriented. But in a country where there is a powerful relationship between rhetoric, symbols, and political-military action the situation could change quickly.

For Israel’s Jewish majority, not much in their daily lives will change. But for the country’s Arab citizens, who comprise some 20% of the state’s eight million inhabitants, political and military decisions made by a more ideologically-driven government ruled by extreme nationalists will have serious implications. And while it is is too early to predict what the implications will be for the Palestinians — both within Israel proper and within the Territories — one doesn’t need the gift of prophecy to see that the fallout will be negative.

In the first few days of this latest shift rightward there were indications of what both the Israeli Arabs and the Palestinians can expect. Netanyahu’s appointment of Lieberman put a governmental stamp of approval on the inflammatory rhetoric and harsh military measures that Lieberman advocates.

Lieberman, who served in the Israeli Army as a corporal, replaces decorated general Moshe Yaalon. Yaalon, like almost all of Israel’s previous defense ministers, is a career soldier. Lieberman, in contrast, is a career politician. And Israelis from an array of political parties are wondering if this signals a move away from military professionalism to ideologically-driven decision making. Organizing among his fellow Russian immigrants to Israel Lieberman founded and led his party Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is our Home) in the late 1990s. Their first campaign slogan was “no loyalty, no citizenship,” a reference to what Lieberman deemed the questionable loyalty of Israeli Arabs.

Though outgoing Defense Minister Yaalon was a member of the Likud party, Prime Minister Netanyahu, leader of the party, dismissed him from his post in order to bring Lieberman’s party into an expanded coalition and increase the government’s parliamentary majority. Yaalon, who joined the Likud as a result of his disillusionment with the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians, was perceived as ‘tough’ on security issues, but he was very much a pragmatist. Lieberman and his allies on the Right — including the religious right — do not strike observers as either realists or pragmatists, but as ideologues.

Announcing his resignation Yaalon said: “I fought with all my might against phenomena of extremism, violence and racism in Israeli society that threaten its fortitude…. these forces are trickling into the military. Senior politicians in the country have chosen incitement and divisiveness of the Israeli society instead of unifying and connecting.”

What was Yaalon referring to in these remarks?

His Israeli audience understood that the extremism Yaalon referred to is both the overall escalation of extremist rhetoric within the country, and, more immediately, the support by Lieberman’s secular party and by politicians of Settler-affiliated Jewish parties of extreme violence committed by settlers and soldiers. In March, in an encounter in Hebron, an Israeli soldier subdued and captured a Palestinian fighter who had attacked another Israeli soldier. And after the fighter was subdued he was shot in the head and died. This was contrary to the IDF’s official code of conduct, and the soldier was subsequently charged with the shooting and ordered to stand trial. In April a military court charged him with manslaughter.

General Eisenkot, the army chief of staff, made a public issue of this enforcement of the military code. The right-wing reaction was well-described by The Jerusalem Post: “Politicians – including Lieberman – rushed to the support of the soldier, and criticized Eisenkot and the army’s decision.”

Though the IDF and its chief of staff have a permanently high approval rating among Israeli Jewish society, Lieberman’s criticism of Eisenkot was widely echoed and supported. Some even wanted to declare the accused soldier a national hero. This was the context within which Yaalon commented to reporters a few days after his resignation that “Israel had lost its moral compass.” By celebrating the action of the soldier, Yaalon implied, Israel was jettisoning its moral code.

In Israel one expects a comment of this sort from a spokesperson of the country’s beleaguered Left, but not from a Likud minister.

Lieberman’s support of extreme measures comes as no surprise to students of Israeli politics. Among the most egregious of his many rhetorical attacks on Palestinians, and on the Arabs of the other Middle Eastern states, was a statement he made in 2001 when he was serving as Minister of National Infrastructure, one of the many government posts he has held. At the time, Israel and Egypt, though nominally allies, were at odds over Egyptian support for Yasser Arafat and the PLO. According to a 2009 article in The Telegraph, “in 2001 he (Lieberman) was quoted as telling a group of ambassadors from the Former Soviet Union that if Egypt and Israel were ever to face off militarily again that Israel could bomb the Aswan Dam.”

Last year, at an election rally in the coastal city of Herzliya, then-Foreign Minister Lieberman threatened Arab-Israeli citizens who were “not loyal to the state.” He said: “Those with us, should receive everything in terms of rights…those against us, it cannot be helped, we must lift up an axe and behead them – otherwise we will not survive here.”

Knesset member Ahmad Tibi of the “Arab Movement for Change” party called for an investigation and referred to the pugnacious Lieberman as the “Jewish Islamic State.”

Tibi, a Palestinian physician who has called for an international boycott of Israeli institutions, has long-been a thorn-in-the-side of the Israeli right and the rightward-trending political center. Lieberman’s secular-nationalist party has long-called for Tibi’s expulsion from the Knesset.

Tibi describes himself as “Arab-Palestinian in nationality, and Israeli in citizenship” and has directly challenged both Lieberman’s rhetoric and Netanyahu’s emphasis on Israel as the “home of the Jewish people.” Tibi has called on Israelis to conduct the affairs of state as a “state of its citizens” and not as a state that has an ethnic Jewish character.

But what does it mean to say that Israel is “a Jewish state” and what are the implications of that “Jewishness” for its non-Jewish citizens ? This question has, of course, been raised many times since the 1948 establishment of Israel — but Netanyahu’s recent rhetoric, which Lieberman has taken to a new level, demands that the Palestinians accept Israel as a “Jewish State” — not, as Tibi and his Arab and his Jewish supporters would suggest, a “state of its citizens.”

In the last two decades, since the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the ascendance of right-wing rhetoric and policy, Israel has moved far beyond the possibility of being a “state of its citizens.” It should come as no surprise then that a recent poll conducted by American social scientists shows that “Israeli Arabs generally do not think Israel can be a Jewish state and a democracy at the same time.”

And it is in this unequal confrontation between the supporters of Tibi and the much more powerful supporters of Lieberman and Netanyahu that lies one of the glaring paradoxes and contradictions of Israeli society.

Within the borders of ‘official’ Israel, parliamentary democracy of a limited sort still operates. And the Arab citizens of Israel have legal rights — though they are not always honored. That democracy does not extend into the Palestinian Terroritories and the Golan. Unlike the Israeli Arabs, the Arabs of Gaza, the West Bank and the Golan are essentially stateless in both international and local terms. Under Lieberman’s influence, the army and other arms of the security state will likely be given more leeway and be subject to less civilian control than before.

Two factors highlight the essential contradiction between Israel’s claim to be democracy and the actual political situation within the country and the territories it controls: the second-class status of its Arab citizens, and its forty-nine year subjugation of the populations of the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan. These contradictions have long been masked by the illusion that the Israeli occupation is ‘temporary’ and that therefore a two state solution is possible.

In the 1970s and �?80s such a solution was rendered difficult by Israeli settlements and the Palestinian response to them, and in the mid-�?90s a possible two-state solution was rendered null and void by the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. But illusions die hard, especially for American policy makers.

Today, in 2016, the US-driven solution to the outcome of the 1967 War — the much-vaunted two-state solution — looks like nothing but a mirage.

The policies of Lieberman and his allies — some of whom are now speaking of Lieberman’s aspiration to become the country’s next prime minister — would seem to confirm this, and doubtless comes as a major disappointment to Arab citizens, Palestinians under Israeli control, and to many Israeli Jewish progressives who have had the courage to stand up for the rights of their fellow-citizens and stateless Palestinians.

Shalom Goldman is Professor of Religion at Middelbury College and a regular contributor to ISLAMiCommentary. His new book is “Jewish-Christian Difference and Modern Jewish Identity: Seven Twentieth Century Converts.” (Lexington Books, 2015)


ISLAMiCommentary is a public scholarship forum that engages scholars, journalists, policymakers, advocates and artists in their fields of expertise. It is a key component of the Transcultural Islam Project; an initiative managed out of the Duke Islamic Studies Center in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations (UNC-Chapel Hill). This article was made possible (in part) by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s).

Other web sites and print publications may re-publish this article as long as there is source attribution (author and ISLAMiCommentary) and a link back to ISLAMiCommentary.