On June 29, Turkey’s 12th Gay Pride Parade was held on Istanbul’s crowded Istiklal Avenue. Thousands marched joyfully carrying rainbow flags until the police began dispersing them with water cannons. The authorities, as has become their custom since the Gezi Park protests of June 2013, once again decided not to allow a demonstration by secular Turks who don’t fit into their vision of the ideal citizen.
More worrying news came a week later when posters were put up in Ankara with a chilling instruction: “If you see those carrying out the People of Lot’s dirty work, kill the doer and the done!” The “People of Lot” was a religious reference to gays, and the instruction to kill them on sight was attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. The group that put the posters up, the so-called Islamic Defense Youth, defended its message by asserting: “What? Are you offended by the words of our prophet?!”
All of this suggests that both Turkey and the Muslim world need to engage in some soul-searching when it comes to tolerance for their gay compatriots.
Of course this intolerance is not exclusive to either Turks or Muslims. According to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, Turkey scores slightly better on measures of gay rights when compared with some nearby Christian-majority nations such as Russia, Armenia and Ukraine. Indeed, Turkey’s secular laws don’t penalize sexual orientation, and some out-of-the-closet L.G.B.T. icons have long been popular as artists, singers or fashion designers. Among them are two of the most popular Turkish entertainers of the past half-century: The late Zeki Muren was flamboyantly gay and the singer Bulent Ersoy is famously transsexual. Their eccentricity has apparently added to their popularity.
But beyond the entertainment industry, the traditional mainstream Islamic view on homosexuality produces intolerance in Turkey toward gays and creates starker problems in Muslim nations that apply Shariah. In Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan or Afghanistan, homosexuality is a serious offense that can bring imprisonment, corporal punishment or even the death penalty. Meanwhile, Islamic State militants implement the most extreme interpretation of Shariah by throwing gays from rooftops.
At the heart of the Islamic view on homosexuality lies the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which is narrated in the Quran, too. According to scripture, the Prophet Lot had warned his people of “immorality,” for they did “approach men with desire, instead of women.” In return, the people warned by Lot tried to expel their prophet from the city, and even tried to sexually abuse the angels who came down to Lot in the guise of men. Consequently, God destroyed the people of Lot with a colossal natural disaster, only to save the prophet and a few fellow believers.
The average conservative Muslim takes this story as a justification to stigmatize gays, but there is an important question that deserves consideration: Did the people of Lot receive divine punishment for being homosexual, or for attacking Lot and his heavenly guests?
The even more significant nuance is that while the Quran narrates this divine punishment for Sodom and Gomorrah, it decrees no earthly punishment for homosexuality — unlike the Old Testament, which clearly decrees that homosexuals “are to be put to death.”
Medieval Islamic thinkers inferred an earthly punishment by considering homosexuality as a form of adultery. But significant names among them, such as the eighth-century scholar Abu Hanifa, the founder of the popular Hanafi school of jurisprudence, argued that since a homosexual relationship did not produce offspring with an unknown father, it couldn’t be considered adultery.
The real Islamic basis for punishing homosexuality is the hadiths, or sayings, attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. (The same is true for punishments on apostasy, heresy, impiety, or “insults” of Islam: None come from the Quran; all are from certain hadiths.) But the hadiths were written down almost two centuries after the prophet lived, and their authenticity has been repeatedly questioned — as early as the ninth century by the scholar Imam Nesai — and they can be questioned anew today. Moreover, there is no record of the prophet actually having anyone punished for homosexuality.
Such jurisprudential facts might help Muslims today to develop a more tolerant attitude toward gays, as some progressive Islamic thinkers in Turkey, such as Ihsan Eliacik, are encouraging. What is condemned in the story of Lot is not sexual orientation, according to Mr. Eliacik, but sexual aggression. People’s private lives are their own business, he argues, whereas the public Muslim stance should be to defend gays when they are persecuted or discriminated against — because Islam stands with the downtrodden.
It is also worth recalling that the Ottoman Caliphate, which ruled the Sunni Muslim world for centuries and which the current Turkish government claims to emulate, was much more open-minded on this issue. Indeed, the Ottoman Empire had an extensive literature of homosexual romance, and an accepted social category of transvestites. The Ottoman sultans, arguably, were social liberals compared with the contemporary Islamists of Turkey, let alone the Arab World.
Despite such arguments, the majority of Muslims are likely to keep seeing homosexuality as something sinful, if public opinion polls are any indication. Yet those Muslims who insist on condemning gays should recall that according to Islam, there are many sins, including arrogance, which the Quran treats as among the gravest moral transgressions. For Turks and other Muslims, it could be our own escape from the sin of arrogance to stop stigmatizing others for their behavior and focus instead on refining ourselves.
Mustafa Akyol is the author of Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.