09/06/2013 06:00 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

A Flicker of Hope in the Middle East Is Extinguished


No, this is not about Syria. And I am well aware that the plight of gays and lesbians is nothing compared with the suffering of many Arabs in war-torn regions, or that of women under Islam in general. But after an Omani newspaper published an article that merely suggested that Oman was more sympathetic to homosexuals than most other countries in the region, the initial euphoria among LGBT activists was quickly muzzled when The Week not only retracted the article but published, in print and online, a front-page apology in which they announced that they "deeply and sincerely regret the article."

What I regret deeply and sincerely is that apology. Ten years ago, on my one and only visit to Oman, the first thing that happened to me was being picked up at the airport by a man who went on to show me Muscat and teach me a lot about the underground gay scene there. It's big. It's lively. It exists. And Oman certainly is more tolerant than most of its neighbors.

Yet such things cannot be said aloud in the Middle East. The intolerant climate of Islamic societies is detrimental to the welfare of LGBT people. No other religion has invented crueler punishments for homosexuality (male homosexuality, that is, as lesbians go largely unnoticed). Iran and Saudi Arabia still routinely execute gays by hanging and stoning. Under Islam, gays are ostracized, beaten, ridiculed and tortured emotionally and physically every day.

But look closely! The apology posted is not as bad as one might think. The newspaper merely apologizes for offending readers and does not mention homosexuality at all. It satisfied the strict piety of Muslims but did not specifically retract the support for tolerance. The editors must be applauded. I am sure they had no choice, and it is another encouraging sign that they are not being prosecuted.

And still there is more hope. The fact that a newspaper in the region even dared to defend a tolerant stance toward homosexuality is in itself a momentous event. It shows that independent, secular traditions persist. It shows that courage is still alive. It shows that religion is very slowly losing its brutal hold over the lives of the people. It shows that tolerance exists in Islamic societies. The flickering candle may have been extinguished, but we shall remember that it once burned, even only for a day.