In-depth: Homosexuality Across Religions And Cultures, And A bid For Secularism

Posted on March 30, 2012 in Specials

By Karmanye Thadani:

With Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, a Christian version of the Taliban in Uganda in the sense of being an army of religious fanatics out to establish an ultra-theocratic regime, forcibly recruiting children and killing innocent civilians to achieve that end, hitting headlines in the international media, this perhaps being the biggest human rights issue over the past few months globally, I was reminded of a bill proposing capital punishment for homosexuals that was introduced in the Ugandan legislature back in 2009, which shows that while the Lord’s Resistance Army was a very extremist organization, the prevailing democratic regime was not free from religious dogmas either, like Pakistan where the Taliban’s version of what the State ought to be is very hardline, but even the prevailing regime has its own defective, easy-to-misuse blasphemy laws, for example.

Homosexuality has been an issue that has been debated in our country too for quite some time, and these debates acquired vigour after the Naz Foundation case in which the Delhi High Court decriminalized homosexuality, saying it would not fall within the scope of unnatural sexual intercourse under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The voices we heard in the media were the liberal voices (which I personally agree with), that argued for homosexuals just being different, but by no means, anti-social elements, and that therefore, they do not deserve to be punished but to be treated with dignity as much as any other citizen of the Republic of India, which proclaims itself to be a secular democracy, which means that the State shall not be governed on the lines of any religion and the liberty of every individual citizen shall be respected. So, if a citizen of India wishes to choose a person of the same gender as his/her sexual partner, it is his/her choice and what any religion has to say should be regarded as irrelevant. Yes, religious communities are governed by personal laws in India, but there are also secular (non-religious) legislations that people can prefer over their personal laws, say when it comes to marriage, a Hindu or a Christian can prefer the Special Marriage Act over the Hindu Marriage Act or the Indian Christian Marriage Act, as the case may be.

As regards the frequently raised questions of homosexuality being unnatural or being antithetical to Indian culture, liberals point out that homosexuality exists among various other species like lions and zebras as well, and as regards Indian culture, the ancient Indian texts like the Kamasutra mention not only homosexuality but also marriages between homosexuals, besides emphasizing that culture cannot be more important than rights; else, sati, untouchability etc. can also be justified on the grounds of culture! However, whatever may be the views of modern-day Indians about homosexuals, and I have encountered quite a few of them, including that homosexuals are diseased or somewhere mentally disabled, I haven’t come across any Indian advocating a genocide of homosexuals.

However, in Uganda, a legislation making homosexuality punishable by death was in the pipeline, but fortunately did not materialize, thanks to the international uproar against the same. However, in Iran, homosexuality is indeed already punishable by death and thousands of homosexuals have been executed. The question is – why? On what basis can this be justified? Who says homosexuality is a crime? Ask the person supporting such a law in Iran or Uganda, and his answer will be – God Almighty!

Indeed, that will be the answer. Both the Bible and the Quran, books I greatly respect personally but don’t agree with in several respects, do have a very critical attitude towards homosexuality, unlike the Hindu scriptures. Christianity is the majority religion of Uganda, with a following of more than 80% of the population, and the bill came into being after some conservative Evangelical Christians from the United States organized a conference in that country pointing to homosexuality as being irreligious (many people wrongly associate fanatic tendencies only with Muslims, but Christian extremism is still a problem the world is grappling with; take Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda or the Irish Republican terrorists who are Catholics wanting to separate Northern Ireland from Protestant-majority England or the Catholic fanatics responsible for blasts in abortion clinics and night clubs in the United States, and even those responsible for the 1996 Olympic blasts or closer home, clerics from the Baptist sect of Protestant Christianity encouraging secessionist movements ad forced conversions of Hindus to their faith in Tripura and Nagaland!). So, it would be useful to examine in the given context what the Bible actually has to say about homosexuality. The Old Testament, revered by Jews and Christians alike, carries the following verse –

“Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination.” (Leviticus 18:22 KJV)

This is an instruction from the Almighty to His followers, but does not make any mention of any kind of punishment, though it is enough to make people with extremist tendencies regard homosexuals as enemies and kill them. However, there is another verse in the same Old Testament that talks of a penalty, in fact, the death penalty, in very clear terms. Here it is –

“If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” (Leviticus 20:13 KJV)

However, the question is the relevance of these verses for today’s Christians. As regards Jews, it does not matter, simply because the only country with Jews in majority is Israel, and homosexuality is not punishable there at all (fortunately, I would say!). So, are the Old Testament verses relevant for today’s Christians in the post-New Testament era? There are two schools of thought about this. Most Christians would argue that the Old Testament period was the period of law, when God Himself introduced very crude, stringent laws since man was not very civilized by then, but the New Testament period was the period of grace, and the Old Testament regulations lose their relevance after the advent of Jesus. However, does the New Testament explicitly say this? No! In fact, evidence suggests that the earliest Christians in the Middle East continued to adhere to various Jewish customs and practices, though when Christianity was exported to Europe, the Europeanized Christianity wasn’t such. Anyway, it may be noteworthy to see what the New Testament itself has to say on the point. Let’s have a look at this quotation of Jesus from the New Testament —

“Think not that I am come to destroy the law of the prophets; I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.” (Matthew 5:17)

At least, prima facie, this verse implies that the Old Testament laws were to continue to remain relevant. However, many Christians argue that this verse only means that while the underlying spirit of the laws is relevant, the punishments prescribed are not. This means that while homosexuality would still remain a sin in the eyes of God, there is to be no punishment for the same. This makes sense, for it is difficult to imagine Jesus, a man who emphasized love and non-violence so much, to approve of killing people merely on the basis of their sexual orientation, especially when he raised his voice for the rights of the Samaritans.
However, there are Christian sects that very ardently regard Old Testament rules to be completely relevant, to the extent that they follow the Jewish dietary regulations (kosher), which is similar to the Islamic halal, and hence don’t eat pork, and they even observe Saturday as their holy day like the Jews and not Sunday like other Christians. For such Christians, homosexuality must definitely be punishable by death.
Indeed, the secularization (separation of religion and state) of Europe during the Renaissance period started because of the renewed European interest in ancient Greco-Roman thought, with its polytheistic and democratic traditions, and it would be a mistake to regard the Bible as a book laying down the foundations of secular governance i.e. governance wherein religion would have no role to play in State affairs. And even in the Renaissance period, we know how Portuguese Christian invaders forcibly converted Hindus in Goa and grazed Hindu temples to the ground, erecting churches in their place, though to be fair, the Bible nowhere sanctions religious intolerance, as is clear from the ‘good Samaritan’ parable and the following verse — “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18), but these activities of the Portuguese show that Christians, like any other major religious community, have their own record of religious intolerance, despite reform movements. But coming back to the point, we still see that if religion, in this context, Christianity, would have a role to play in State affairs, certain interpretations of the religious texts can be used to legitimize what we would regard as per our modern understanding gross human rights violations, like killing homosexuals.

Let’s also have a look at the situation in Iran. Iran is overall a fairly modern country where women are not compelled to wear burqas but it is mandatory for them to wear headscarves, though no Islamic country except Saudi Arabia and Iran has any laws imposing any kind of hijab. There is no threat to the security of the religious minorities in Iran, except the Bahais, and there is a seat reserved for the Jews and Zoroastrians respectively in the Iranian Parliament (even Ayotullah Khomeni ensured that his anti-Zionist stand should not be taken to mean antisemitism, spilling over to mean any sort of contempt for Iranian Jews). They are allowed to join the army, and even make schools to teach their religion and hospitals in the name of their religion. Demands by clerics to stop coeducation have been rejected by the government and unlike Saudi Arabia where women aren’t allowed to drive, in Iran, they participate in professional car races competing with men. However, as mentioned earlier, Iran has a draconian law when it comes to homosexuality – it is punishable by death. Let’s now see what the Islamic texts have to say about homosexuality. The Quran does criticize homosexuality, making it clear that it is sinful, but nowhere does it mention any punishment for the same. We can have a look at the Quranic verse directly dealing with homosexuality –

“Do ye commit lewdness such as no people in creation (ever) committed before you? For ye practice your lusts on men in preference to women: ye are indeed a people transgressing beyond bounds.” (7:80, 81)
This verse nowhere talks of any legal punishment being prescribed by God, like the one we saw in a Biblical verse, though the Quran does mention punishments for offences like murder, rape, adultery and theft, and also says that if the victim is willing to forgive the perpetrator, he/she can be forgiven, and that God really appreciates kindness and forgiveness. However, our understanding of Islam cannot entirely be based only on the Quran, though there are ‘Quran only’ Muslims too, who refuse to regard anything contained in any other text as of scriptural value. Most other Muslims do also believe in the Hadiths, quotations of Prophet Muhammad, outside the Quran. However, the Hadiths can be broadly classified as those belonging to compilations by the Prophet’s companions and those which are quotations attributed to the Prophet mentioned in random sources, often in later periods of history, the authenticity of which Muslims generally consider highly doubtful. There are two Hadiths not from the compilations of the Prophet’s companions, which make a mention of homosexuality. One just condemns it. That one is as follows –

“When a man mounts another man, the throne of God shakes.”

However, there is another one advocating the death penalty. Here it is –

“Kill the one that is doing it and also kill the one that it is being done to.” (in reference to the active and passive partners in gay sexual intercourse)

But the question is – can a Hadith outside a compilation by any of the Prophet’s companions be taken seriously enough in a matter as grave as awarding capital punishment? We may also look at what the major schools of Islamic jurisprudence have to say on this. The Hanafi school strictly prohibits any physical punishment for homosexuals, though the Hanabalite school advocates punishment.
Again, in any case, if religion and State were to be separated (which is the real meaning of secularism and not the State embracing multiple religions!) and if every individual’s liberty were to be respected with laws being based on our modern understanding of rights and duties rather than what may perhaps be commands from the divine, the question of executing homosexuals would have never arisen. Homosexuality apart, hardline theocracy was epitomized by the Taliban, which even made listening to music an offence!

Yes, the heritage of every civilization has some religious baggage, but that the humane and tolerant aspects of that religious baggage need to be promoted as the contribution of that civilization to humanity as universal values, rather than making that religious baggage the foundation of a nation-state in the modern world. An Arab can very well be proud of the story of Prophet Muhammad going to inquire about the health of a woman who threw garbage at him daily, and thus won her over, or the stories of the Prophet’s always keeping his promises or the nobility he exhibited towards those who had tried to kill him, and even his lack of communal bias in punishing a Muslim who had robbed a Jewish gentleman’s house. An Indian can be proud of Harishchandra’s always speaking the truth, Ram’s obedience, Karna’s generosity and the likes. But why would you go back in time and make laws based on your understanding of scriptures? I would rather evaluate scriptures based on my understanding of morality and see what I have to learn from them, rather than blindly do as they say at the cost of ending up doing something I would otherwise regard wrong. After all, these books became scriptures only because those figures in history were able to convince people by their greatness; so, the point is that something isn’t right because a man regarded great says or does it but rather that a man is great because he says or does something meaningful. These religious figures have made their mark on human civilization for posterity, but why must we base our morals and laws today based blindly on what they had to say? They were rebels in their own times, fighting the existing order, and we insult their revolutionary spirit by freezing in a static mold our understanding of what they presumably said.

Human rights and democracy can truly exist, therefore, only if the State is secular. Secularism is not about the rights of people of the minority religions only; in fact, it is basically about the State not having a religious character. Those otherwise progressive people supporting the cause of India becoming a Hindu state do so as a result of reverse antagonism to Islamist terrorism (I deliberately use the term ‘Islamist’ and not ‘Islamic’ because not only do the Quran and Hadiths nowhere advocate terrorism, jihad only being a defensive war in case of the deprivation of the right to practise one’s faith or forced displacement with strictly no room for killing women, children or even those non-Muslim men not inflicting harm on Muslims, and actually convey the message of peace, religious tolerance and human brotherhood) and forced or incentivized conversions by some Christians (again, the Bible nowhere sanctions the same), but they fail to realize that theocracy easily allows extremists to take the reins of the national leadership in their hands and subvert democracy and individual liberty, and if that were to happen, we may set in motion a historical process culminating in a Hindu version of the Taliban, which may not impose sati or institutionalize untouchability, but could indeed declare intra-gotra marriages punishable by death (in line with the ‘honour killings’ by the khap panchayats), bar girls from going to pubs (remember the attacks on girls in a pub in Mangalore by the Sri Ram Sene in 2008?) and ban the celebration of Valentine’s Day (in 2008, an Archies store was attacked only for selling Valentine’s Day cards) despite the open and heterodox character of the Hindu faith, with no single, objective truth and which does not have any supposedly divinely ordained politico-legal framework.