HTS 2041: The Modern Middle East

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The Land of Sand and Sodomy


Today, identifying as a homosexual is decreasingly being seen as a negative stigma, especially in the West. This is evident in the gay marriage case that is right now being pushed through the American Supreme Court. This is even evident on Facebook. Look at your Facebook and I’m sure you’ll find friends that are supporting gay marriage because they’ve changed their profile picture to this:


 In America, homosexuality is seen as an identity rather than a behavior. It is seen as being who you are or what you are. However, what is homosexuality like in the Middle East?

To begin with, in Saudi Arabia the legal code is based off of sharia, or Islamic law. This means that it is illegal to smoke, drink, go to discos, or mix with individuals of the opposite gender who are not related to you. Therefore, people spend most of their time with individuals of the same gender. Now face it, we all have the desire for pleasure. It’s part of being human. It is only an inevitability that sexual relations between men or between women is to occur when they are segregated! But what is “gay”? This is an incredibly important question, because there is a disparity in the definition of homosexuality between the West and the Middle East. Being attracted to someone of the same gender is not seen as being “gay” in Saudi Arabia. It is recently being seen as normal, a phase that we pass through as we grow older.

In the Middle East (unlike the West), homosexual behavior is an act, not an orientation. Sexuality itself is not distinguished between heterosexual or homosexual, but between taking pleasure and being used for pleasure. This can be simplified into being a top or a bottom. There are no negative stigmas attached to a top, whereas being a bottom is looked down upon since that is traditionally a woman’s role. A top is not considered gay because that role is for the dominant partner. Thus, the act of having sex with another man in Saudi Arabia has little to do with “gayness”. It is only to satisfy a desire or need, and does not strip the man of his masculinity if he is the top. If he is the bottom, it is assumed that one day he will leave that role behind and take over the role of top.

Abubaker Bagader, a human-rights activist in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, describes homosexuality as “something one might pass through. It’s to be understood as a stage of life, particularly at youth.” Using this view of sexual behavior, homosexual acts are fostered by the segregation of the sexes, shifting the stigma onto bottoms and allowing older men to excuse their younger behavior as mere youthful transgressions.

With all that said, wouldn’t people still be afraid of committing homosexual acts when the legal code of the country is based off of sharia? The answer is: not really. The truth is that there are no rules about homosexuality within the Koran. Zero. The Koran even limits the power of the Saudi religious police, the mutawwa’in, to only being able to punish people who publicly commit sinful acts. This means that anything done in private is fine as long as it stays private. Out of sight, out of mind. The only true reference to homosexuality in the Koran is the story of Lot, where men in Lot’s town lust for male angels and as a result have brimstone rained down upon them. This is all that exists in the Koran in regards directly to homosexuality. Therefore, in regards to the Koran, homosexual acts need only concern a believer and God.

The only other Islamic text that talks about homosexuality is one of the hadiths. It says “Those whom you find performing the act of the people of Lot, kill both the active and the passive partner.” This hadith is the only reason to be fearful of being found guilty of homosexual acts in Saudi Arabia. While most religious scholars find this hadith to be unreliable, the school of legal thought which is the basis for law in the Saudi kingdom accepts it. Thus, if you are going to be gay in Saudi Arabia, it is best to stay in the closet.

ImageWith that being said, how will Saudi Arabians’ idea of “gay” be changed by increasing globalization and exposure to the West? Will they still consider themselves straight individuals who choose to sample other individuals of the same gender due to segregation? Or will they adopt the idea of “gay” being an identity as it is in the West? Only time will tell.




  1. chai164 says:

    This is really interesting! One of my friends visited the middle east for an international conference for all the national chapters of a student organization. He said that just before he was leaving, one of the guys he had met tried to kiss him on the lips. When my friend backed away, the Arab guy was incredibly insulted and left the room. Then they had to later talk about it and sort it out and explain that it was a cultural difference and not meant to be an insult.

    So, clearly, the reaction to homosexuality or what are considered homosexual acts are completely different. Maybe it would be pretty easy to be gay and not be frowned upon. Especially since all sexual activity is treated the same and kept behind closed doors, it might not matter if you’re with a homosexual partner or not.

  2. flambert3 says:

    I never knew anything about this but I guess this being hidden as you point out is one of the reasons

  3. tnatoli3 says:

    The topic is a sensitive one. Despite the Facebook demonstration with profile pictures and recent congressional movements, I would not call all views to the subject in the West as being civil. I was surprised that the beliefs in the Middle East were as lenient as you described. I watched the TV series Homeland and there was the story line how the Saudi embassy official was guy and they used this to blackmail him like it was a strong sin in his belief system. I guess this shows how everything on TV cannot be believed.

  4. shaimsn says:

    Really interesting article. It’s impressive to see that homosexuality is an act and not an orientation.

    I went ahead and researched further, and came up with this.

    The rights of the homosexual people (at least the ones that LGBT stand for) are unrecognized in Saudi Arabia. I know that LGBT movements originated in the West, but in today’s world it’s periodically being accepted by societies throughout the globe.

    It’s pretty interesting to see the state policies taken by the state of Saudi Arabia.

  5. kledbetter6 says:

    I had no idea that the restrictions on homosexuality in Saudi Arabia were rather lax, though I do believe it is correct to point out that this may change if a significant portion of the population adopts homosexuality as an identity. Often there are far less laws in place regarding a topic before society becomes open about it and discusses what to do about it. Though Westernization might lead to the increased prevalence of LGBT communities in Saudi Arabia, perhaps by the time this occurs, LGBT rights will be more commonplace, and there will not be a huge debate in Saudi Arabia over laws about homosexuality.

  6. Kaitlyn Johnson says:

    This was really eye-opening. If anything, I expected homosexuality in the Middle East and more generally, in Islamic Societies, to be more frowned upon and persecuted than here in the United States. It gives me hope that since other nations with strong religious and moral values built into their state can accept homosexuality and move past it, that one day (soon) America might be able to see it in the same light.

    Thanks for the great post!

  7. Perhaps the laws against homosexuality is lax in Saudi Arabia because of just how marriage is over there. It seems to me that they just “assume” it to be frowned upon, so it’s very rare to see homosexuality cases anywhere. I do agree that the term being “gay” will be adapted by middles eastern countries just as it is in the west. I don’t think it will happen anytime soon.

  8. sstephenson3 says:

    As a person with many relatives and friends who are LGBT, I have to say that I find this point of view highly offensive. Not only does it completely ignore that there are inherent genetic differences between gay and straight people (yes that’s right, there is such a thing as a “gay gene”), but it also describes feelings of attraction and affection towards the same sex as a “transitory phase”. Needless to say, this point of view, while enlightening to the Middle Eastern mindset, has no place in an actual discourse about the rights of homosexuals, as it is in no way based upon facts and more about cultural prejudices.

  9. nathenj65 says:

    I was very surprised with this article i have never even thought of the differences that might be around the world on the outlook on what is gay. This is a very different theory but i feel like it mostly has to do with the cultural thoughts of the country that is being talked about.

  10. Jeffrey Lester says:

    Great timing on this post. And what an interesting take on homosexuality. I never realized the subject could be interpreted in so many ways. I have learned in sociology that there is a difference between homosexuality as a behavior and as a trait. It seems that the societies in the Middle East seem to skirt the idea of people actually being homosexual and not merely exhibiting those tendencies. I think the social segregation is the main purpose of this, so it is hard to argue with their logic from their point of view.

  11. jkipp3 says:

    Wow, I had no idea that sexual relations between men was acceptable in Muslim culture. Really interesting how fundamentalists of different religions can disagree on such a topic.

  12. I really like this post!!! Yeah, I have seen many friends changing their pictures into the symbol recently because of the current debate about gay marriage. I personally support gay marriage, because it will change nearly nothing: heterosexual people would not change to homosexual suddenly because of this law. The Arabians are right, that having sex with the same sex is only an act, that there should be not difference between having sex with a woman and a man. The key is that people have sex, and sex is an act, that’s all. I do not really understand that why people have to debate about an act for decades.

  13. mjuren3 says:

    It was very surprising to me as well to learn that the Middle East and particularly Saudi Arabia do not have laws frowning upon homosexuality considering what conservative societies they are. From the article it appears that the topic of homosexuality in the Middle East is viewed as a very private thing almost in the same way as the now repealed U.S. military policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. This is a foreign concept to me, having lived my whole life in America where one’s sexuality is a very open and public thing.

  14. I’ve been keeping up with the LGBT rights movement in Africa and I think it’s so hard because I feel like women’s rights came first in the U.S., and that they generally come before LGBT rights. I wonder when and if homosexuality will be viewed as an orientation rather than an act in developing countries.

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