Ahmed El Hady: “I Would Love To See Many Members of the LGBT Community Revolting Against the Predominant Religious Discourse but Who Will Defend Them?”

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Ahmed El Hady: “I Would Love To See Many Members of the LGBT Community Revolting Against the Predominant Religious Discourse but Who Will Defend Them?”

Egyptian neuroscientist and political activist makes a case for the secularization of politics and society as the only way to achieve LGBT inclusion 

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Sep 08, 2020

This blog is part of a series for the Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum’s program on LGBT* and Faith. Read more here: www.salzburgglobal.org/go/LGBT/blog 

Born into a very religious Muslim family in Egypt, coming out as gay was traumatic for myself and for my family at large. They could not fathom that their only son is gay. They found their own solace in claiming that this was God’s punishment for them. They did not kill me but they exposed me to draconian control in order to make sure that they keep an eye on me, that I follow all their religious rituals despite my resistance. 

Then came the Egyptian revolt of 2011; I was in Germany studying for my PhD. I took an open-ended vacation and joined the struggle for freedom and justice. I cannot describe the precious moments that I lived in Tahrir Square, the location for political demonstrations in Cairo during the 2011 Egyptian revolution, returning to a place that I thought I will never be part of. The feelings of belonging to a place that told you “you cannot be Egyptian and gay.”

In the aftermath of the revolt, many questions began to haunt me and the most crucial of them is: how can the LGBT* community become accepted by a highly religious society like in Egypt? Moving to the United States, I found the discourse of queer Islam very alien to me – not because I am an atheist from a Muslim background but because these discourses originated in the West and in a place where Muslims are a minority. It does not take into account the military dictatorship that we live under in Egypt and the fact that our legal and jurisprudence system are controlled by a singular hegemonic Sunni Islamic discourse. 

The ability to pose the crucial questions of LGBT and Islam cannot exist in an environment where LGBT individuals are in constant danger, journalists are imprisoned en masse, where the slightest critique of the hegemonic religious discourse will put you in danger and where there are tens of thousands of political prisoners. Coping with this, the LGBT community either goes into hiding out of fear or avoids the discussion all together. In some cases, a small group in Egypt translates works of queer Muslims in the United States and Europe but as I mentioned before: these works are not suited for our struggle in Egypt. We need a discourse of our own

As queer Arabs, members of the LGBT community, we learn how to survive before we even know what it is that we are surviving. We learn the socially acceptable way to walk and talk. How to wear our masculinity or femininity and how to perform each in ways that don’t land us in trouble. 

Some of us fare better than others. Some thrive, others falter. Some internalize their public personas, others the hate they receive. Some hide, others run away. Some enter straight marriages, others come out, while most live in the space in between, not crumbling yet not quite thriving either. 

Then there are those brave souls, like Sarah Hegazy, who live their truth for all to see, allowing us to dream of a reality where our sexuality does not define the extent of who we are. Maybe times are changing, we tell ourselves. Maybe we can let our guard down just a little, to flirt or to be. To affirm ourselves and test the boundaries of our world. 

Then comes the cruel wake-up call.

“In the hours and days after her death, I kept returning to that picture of Sarah Hegazy which first surfaced in 2017 after she was arrested: A young woman beaming against the backdrop of Cairo’s polluted skies and bright concert lights. She was raised above the crowds, possibly on someone’s shoulders, her arms held high. The rainbow flag she was clutching fell across her back, like a cape. She looked free. That is why the photograph was so threatening to her tormentors. Because it captured a fleeting suggestion that happiness and freedom at home might be possible for people like us.” – Ahmed El Hady

Feeling just happy and exuberant at a concert of the Lebanese rock group Mashrou' Leila with openly gay front singer Hamed Sinno, Sarah allowed herself to carry the rainbow flag for a moment, unheard of in Egypt. Sarah’s moment was rewarded with imprisonment, electrocution, sexual assault and exile. They were not only punishing Sarah but a whole generation who dreamt of freedom and justice since the 2011 revolt. Any one of us could have been Sarah, with her carefree gesture on a fun night out, drunk on delusions of hope. Sarah’s tragedy touched so many of us because her story was the extreme version of what we are all living. She fled to safety in Canada. That should have been the end of her tragedy, not a new chapter of pain. She could have prospered, some say. But those of us who flee know better. We carry our past traumas with us into foreign lands, where they metastasize. Geographic separation might provide physical safety, but the initial expulsion from our homes still ultimately tears us apart. Sarah’s death, alone in Toronto, was the confirmation of everything we fear: dying alone, away from our homes, judged and hated by our societies, even after we pass. 

Let’s imagine if President Sisi’s dictatorship over Egypt ends: Could we have a more open discussion about religion and the positioning of LGBT identifying individuals in it? As religion is a very dominant force in a society like Egypt, this discussion would be crucial to guarantee the safety and well-being of the whole LGBT community. 

As an atheist, my approach to faith has been that religions are historical events shaped by social and political forces that exist at particular times. By changing the socio-political reality, we can change the predominant discourse of a religion. This entails that faith evolves while preserving some dogmas, mostly revolving around rituals. There are many intellectuals in Egypt who tried to do this, most prominently Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid, one of the leading liberal theologians in Islam. But Nasr was declared an apostate, separated from his wife and sent to exile in the Netherlands until he died. The success of a society would be to let those dogmas only revolve within the religious institutions without influencing the public sphere. A secularized faith is one that adopts a predominant discourse in line with a modern socio-political reality while keeping the rituals in the personal sphere. In a secularized faith, the religious stories are not divine anymore but up for human interpretation and re-interpretation. 

Another important aspect that we should pay attention to is child indoctrination. A society where children are taught many or all religions as part of history classes without being forced into a single religion, is a more tolerant society for everyone including LGBT individuals. Children will grow to see that difference is natural and accepting it is important for our survival.  

Growing up in a controlling family and under the military religious dictatorship in Egypt, I had to re-educate myself to be the critical person I am today and to overcome the traumas I suffered from living in fear. I would love to see many members of the LGBT community revolting against the predominant religious discourse but who will defend them? Who will protect them from the authority of the state?

All too often in the discussion of LGBT and faith, we discuss how religious texts can be re-interpreted forgetting that faith exist in religious institutions which are embedded in a socio-political reality. My only hope is a modern and complete secularization of the socio-political reality to ensure that the predominant religious discourse is one that respects the universality of human rights. 

This might not be achievable but we have the right to dream. I hope this would be our guiding compass.

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Ahmed El Hady is an internationally recognized neuroscientist and political activist, currently studying the neural basis of decision making at Princeton University, United States. He closely works with international organizations to lobby the Egyptian government to release political prisoners and improve its record on LGBT rights.
 

As part of our program on LGBT* and Faith, we are inviting Fellows of the Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum of different sexual orientations and gender identities and of different faith communities to address the questions of what is needed for religious communities and leaders to be instrumental in promoting the wellbeing, equality and inclusion of LGBT people in faith communities and society and how do LGBT people, today and throughout history, enrich and change the religious communities of which they are a part? 

The articles and comments represent opinions of the authors and commenters, and do not necessarily represent the views of their organization or institutions, nor of Salzburg Global Seminar. We thank our blog contributors for their generosity in sharing their personal stories.

* LGBT: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender. We are using this term as it is currently widely used in human rights conversations on sexual orientation and gender identity in many parts of the world, and we would wish it to be read as inclusive of other cultural concepts, contemporary or historical, to express sexuality and gender, intersex and gender non-conforming identities.

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