ON 18 July 2012, Opposition Leader and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) adviser Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim told the High Court that the law should discriminate against homosexuality. The irony, of course, is that Anwar is possibly the world’s first deputy prime minister-turned-opposition leader to have been twice charged and twice acquitted of homosexual sodomy. Perhaps this explains the caveat in Anwar’s testimony – “We Muslims should support the sanctity of marriage and we should not punish innocent people,” he said, when cross-examined.
In other words, confirmed homosexuals can be hunted and penalised, but innocent, heterosexually married people like Anwar should be spared by anti-homosexual crackdowns.
Anwar’s testimony was connected to comments he made to the BBC after being acquitted of the second round of sodomy charges in January. In greeting this good news, Anwar said Malaysia’s “archaic laws” should be reviewed – clearly in reference to anti-sodomy provisions in the Penal Code. Nevertheless, in the same interview, Anwar again maintained that homosexuality cannot be condoned and heterosexual marriage must be protected.
What is the big deal about Anwar’s stand on homosexuality? Sure, he speaks out against racism, detention without trial and corruption, but is he inconsistent for insisting that homosexuality remain criminalised? Does it matter that Anwar’s stand on homosexuality is no different from Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s? After all, Najib heads the Barisan Nasional (BN), whom Anwar’s Pakatan Rakyat (PR) blames for violating a wide range of democratic principles.
“Homosexuality” and authoritarianism
The fact is, “homosexuality” has become a potent weapon in Malaysian politics ever since former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad sacked Anwar for sodomy and corruption in 1998. The latest example of this is the homophobic baiting of Bersih 2.0 chairperson Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan by various state and non-state actors. Ambiga herself is not homosexual, but she came in the line of homophobic fire for agreeing to launch the subsequently banned Seksualiti Merdeka festival in November 2011.
From this perspective, “homosexuality” is a way for the authoritarian Malaysian government and its supporters to stifle dissent – and a very powerful one.
Of course, the label itself is only politically potent because it can rely on considerable social hostility towards sexual minorities in Malaysia. One only needs to think of the violent threats against Azwan Ismail when he came out as gay in late 2010, or the numerous violent attacks against transsexual women over the years. Some might say this is a chicken-and-egg question – did social homophobia enable political homophobia to emerge, or was it the other way around?
This question, however, assumes that we can divide the “political” and the “social” cleanly. The truth is that society is made up of interacting institutions and networks. In all likelihood, social prejudices inform government policies, while government policies often entrench social prejudices.
In this sense, Anwar’s position on homosexuality, as a Muslim and Malay Malaysian, is understandable – he is, after all, a product of his own society. Even PKR does not have a stand on anti-sodomy laws, despite the party’s own adviser being targeted by these laws. Najib’s and even PAS spiritual adviser Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat’s hostility towards sexual minorities is understandable, too.
But is it inevitable?
Perhaps one way to examine this apparent consistency between the likes of Anwar, Najib and Nik Aziz is to compare it with the apparent consistency of “gay rights” in the West.
“Homonationalism” and global politics
In October 2011, UK Prime Minister David Cameron threatened to cut aid to countries that still criminalise same-sex intimacy. In December 2011, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised to promote gay rights globally. Numerous Western lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups lauded these announcements. Finally, world leaders were rectifying the wrongs perpetrated against a minority that had been vilified for too long.
If only these demands were truly consistent. After all, Cameron is the same prime minister who is worried about British Muslims, specifically young Muslim men, and their supposed connection to extremism. And almost immediately after Clinton’s rousing gay rights speech, President Barack Obama decided that detention without trial at Guantanamo Bay would continue indefinitely.
Again, these pronouncements did not occur in a vacuum. Academic researchers have noted how “gay rights” rhetoric is increasingly used to feed anti-Muslim sentiments in Western Europe and North America. Queer theorist Jasbir Puar calls this phenomenon “homonationalism” – the Western state’s ability to recruit support from its LGBT citizens for its nationalist projects. She has also noted the right-wing turn in some Western LGBT movements.
This phenomenon becomes particularly dangerous when Western governments use these strategies to control other parts of the world, specifically former colonies. As a parallel example, former US President George W Bush claimed that his 2001 invasion of Afghanistan was meant to save poor, burqa-clad Muslim women from the Taliban. The irony is that Bush was certainly not elected for his feminist credentials. Indeed, some have instead called this syndrome “white men saving brown women from brown men”.
Certainly these actions by Western powers are alarming. After all, the US can bomb countries it accuses of not respecting women’s rights – there’s a precedent now. What’s to stop it from bombing a country that criminalises homosexuality?
It is even more unfortunate that these shenanigans play into the hands of repressive postcolonial governments, with their “LGBTs, etc., are Western threats” rhetoric. They use the threat of Western domination to justify their own human rights abuses. But does it mean there is no room for challenging anti-homosexual laws in countries like Malaysia? Does it mean that Western governments must stop protecting LGBT human rights?
The answer to both questions is no. However, we must examine the consistency of any struggle claiming to combat discrimination. The truth is, it is possible to campaign against multiple discriminations, including Islamophobia and homophobia, and there are groups already doing this.
Take the Nothing Holy About Hatred campaign, an interfaith effort to combat homophobia in the UK, which includes British Muslim representatives. Or United Against Fascism, dedicated to combating Islamophobia and homophobia in Britain. And lest we think homophobia is a uniquely “Muslim” problem, a 2011 poll found that British Muslims were actually highly supportive of the UK’s advances in LGBT rights.
Certainly it is easier to voice this consistency in countries like the UK, where there are functioning albeit flawed democratic institutions protecting civil liberties. The authoritarian BN government in Malaysia, on the other hand, stifles dissent on a variety of issues, not just homosexuality. But this is perhaps what makes Anwar’s stand even more disappointing. Since 1998, he has had numerous opportunities to develop a credible vision for a democratic Malaysia in which we can respect difference, no matter how distasteful some might find this. Instead, he continues offering an alternative that is not different from the BN’s – on this score, at least.
Still, the future of Malaysian democracy is not in Anwar’s hands alone. It never was. The rakyat can and do speak up, and are getting less afraid to include sexuality in their discussions to make Malaysia more democratic and inclusive.
Shanon Shah is a doctoral candidate in theology and religious studies at King’s College London.