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Islam and Homosexuality: The Problem Isn't Religion But Those Who Lead It

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Of the 76 countries that persecute people for their sexual orientation, Iran will let an Islamic judge put them to death; Mauritania and Yemen will kill by public stoning; Saudi Arabia and parts of Nigeria and Somalia will do it based on their interpretation of Sharia law; Sudan will kill their citizens; and Iraq will sit passively as rogue militias hunt, torture and kill LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) persons.

If we have learned anything from all this brouhaha surrounding Park51, it's that there is a need to elevate the voices of moderate Muslim thinkers. These eight countries offer eight reasons that emphasize the importance of these efforts. In many societies with Muslim majorities, there is a violent attitude towards homosexuals that goes far beyond general condemnation into promoting coercive laws that imprison and kill.

When I spoke this August with Ali Hili, an exiled Muslim from Iraq now living in London, it was evident that he has seen and heard it all when it comes to persecution of homosexuals. Ali explained how the death of one of his friends who was doused in gasoline and burned alive prompted him to advocate for Iraq's gay community through an organization that he co-founded, called Iraqi LGBT.

On a daily basis Ali's group receives information about the dangerous plight of gays back home. "I get information about people getting rounded up and stopped at check points ... people stopped by police and arrested and taken into custody and questioned." He believes that violence towards gays prospers in Iraq because "religious fundamentalists are preaching and urging their followers to target, attack and kill homosexuals."

Since the start of the Iraq war, sectarian divisions have been ripped into the fabric of Iraqi culture, and so extremist militias who are already targeting minority faith communities have absorbed this issue and are using murder and torture as a tool to enforce their morality. The Human Rights Watch released a chilling report last fall, "They Want Us Exterminated," which underscores this point. It describes how LGBT Iraqis have been held in captivity for their orientation, tortured, raped and killed by members of these groups who are propagating fear in the name of Islam. However in Iraq and beyond, there are individuals who have the power to change these draconian attitudes and systems.

Moderate spiritual voices, especially from the Muslim community, must stand up and speak out. Faith leaders must combat the radicalism that is attempting to dominate this issue. Given the hostile conditions in some countries, it is certainly a challenge to find the right forums for discourse, but it must happen on the local, national and global level. As Ali explained from his experience, "the average Iraqi person is quite tolerant towards gays and lesbians. The topic is still a taboo. It's still practiced in private." However, "the religious head-leaders are the major problem who are causing this huge wave of violence ... motivated by their personal agendas."

We have seen in recent days the scorn some moderate Muslim leaders, like Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, have faced in their attempt to promote a positive direction for Islamic thinking in their communities and around the world. But if moderate Muslim leaders do not receive the support they need, and if they do not continue to challenge this extreme behavior, these same problems to varying degrees will persist in society.

There are fundamentalist Christians, Jews and secular individuals who are similarly guilty for institutionalizing or promoting prejudicial laws and harmful behavior towards LGBT persons. However what is happening inside these eight Muslim-majority countries and states is far more extreme and radical. We cannot sit back while spiritual and government leaders continue to promote the systematic killing or persecution of any individual for the sexual orientation that God gave him or her. People of all faiths must promote that familiar idea learned at an early age, "Love thy neighbor as you would love thy self," because when it comes to homosexuality, religion isn't the problem; it's only those who use it to promote violence and hate.

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