Doing Queer Politics Between Islamophobia and Political Islam

In Europe, queer migrants from the Global South face homophobia, racism, and Islamophobia. At the same time, many of them are also long-distance participants in struggles against Islamophobia and homophobia “back home.” But the goals of these struggles can diverge greatly, depending on national and regional contexts. How do migrant activists envision a queer left politics in Europe that is both internationalist and unites them with others?

Nisrine Chaer and Zuleikha Mirzazadeh

The discourse on sexual politics in Western Europe is deeply skewed towards Islam being seen as a source of homophobia. It is based on an alleged incompatibility between backward Islamic values and progressive European ones. This discourse racializes Muslims in a way that is specific to Western Europe (as well as other Western contexts), as it draws its force from centuries of colonialism. As Deepa Kumar argues, the ideology of anti-Muslim racism has roots in the earliest periods of Europe’s colonization and racialization of the world. Emerging in the modern era, Orientalist ideologies that marked Muslims as racially inferior later morphed into Islamophobic and imperialist policies under the global War on Terror, and into the scapegoating of (Muslim) migrants trying to reach Fortress Europe. Such racist ideas are embedded within much of the support for LGBT rights in Europe.

Yet, responding to this problem is no simple task. Many queer migrants from the MENA region have first-hand experience with the blatant homophobia of the Muslim majority societies they left behind. This motivates them to remain active in opposing anti-queer Islamism. At the same time, the activist political spaces they are part of in Europe also include migrants from countries like India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and China. In these countries, homophobia is compounded by structural forms of Islamophobia that exclude and persecute Muslims. Hence, in building a queer left politics in Europe, activists face the challenge of acknowledging these divergent local and transnational realities while also building solidarity across different experiences and national contexts. To address this challenge, we need a materialist perspective that can help us formulate an internationalist politics that avoids lapsing into identitarian divisions. To make this case, we bring together some of our research insights and activist experiences.

In Europe, public critiques and condemnations of Islam by MENA queers risk becoming ideologically complicit with racist tropes. They can be construed as being aligned with right-wing, anti-Muslim groups and liberal Islamophobia in the European context. However, the important disjuncture is that Islam does not occupy the same position of power in Europe that it does in the MENA region. Hence, critique of political Islam cannot be expected to take exactly the same form in Europe as in Muslim majority contexts, especially those in which political Islam is state doctrine or where Islamists vie credibly to rule.

Queer Muslims who come to Europe from countries like India, Myanmar, China, Sri Lanka make redundant a narrative built on the opposition between “Islamophobic West” and “Islamist East.”

In June 2020, Sarah Hegazy, a lesbian and communist activist from Egypt died by suicide in Canada, her country of asylum. Hegazy was detained for raising a rainbow flag during Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila’s concert in Cairo in 2017. For that, Hegazy was publicly smeared, tortured, and sexually assaulted in Egypt’s prisons, an experience that forced her into exile. In the hours following her death, social media platforms in Egypt and elsewhere in the MENA region erupted in a smear campaign against Hegazy and those who expressed solidarity with her. A cursory Google search of her name yields results about her supposedly dedicating her life to spreading immorality and debauchery. Several articles also discuss how taking off her hijab led to her “degeneracy” and later suicide.

In her own writings in Arabic, Hegazy describes the torture she endured in prison and how her interrogator conflated her communism with her homosexuality, revealing how both are criminalized by the Egyptian state. In one piece, she explains how state violence in Egypt is entangled with extremist Islamist morality:  

“Islamists and the state compete in extremism, ignorance and hate, just as they do in violence and harm. Islamists punish those who differ from them with death, and the ruling regime punishes those who differ from it with prison. […] The state, and the ruling regime in particular, is puritanical. As I was being arrested from my home, in front of my family, an officer asked me about my religion, about why I had taken off the veil, and whether or not I was a virgin.” 

Similar to many queer MENA refugees in Europe, Hegazy’s politics remained focused on opposition to political Islam. During Nisrine’s research in Lebanon and the Netherlands, he met several queer and trans refugees who took this position. These people came from different countries in the MENA region and had different class backgrounds. Some belonged to religious/ethnic minorities (e.g. Kurdish and Christian) while others were Muslims, including some non-religious migrants with Muslim backgrounds. Much like many of Nisrine’s queer and trans friends who live in Lebanon and the MENA region, the fight against European Islamophobia was secondary for them. Vocalizing one such perspective, a Lebanese transgender refugee in the Netherlands told Nisrine that she believes her experience of transphobic violence is linked to a pervasive Islamic extremism, both in her own family and in her surroundings in Lebanon. She therefore described feeling alienated from the activism against Islamophobia in the Netherlands as it underemphasized the link between political Islam and transphobia.

A queer left politics in Europe that is truly internationalist must account for the multiplicity of connections that queer migrants from the Global South have to Islam.

On the other hand, there are also many Muslim migrants from places in the Global South who have come to Europe from contexts where they lived as religious minorities. Queer Muslims who come to Europe from countries like India, Myanmar, China, Sri Lanka and other parts of Asia are not only marked for their gender and sexual difference. Often, they have also been recipients of state sanctioned, systemic forms of Islamophobia already in their countries of origin. Their experiences make redundant a narrative built on an opposition between “Islamophobic West” and “Islamist East.”

In non-MENA Global South contexts like India, Muslim minorities are often viewed with suspicion and coded in the social imaginary as “foreigners”; fifth columns working against national interests. Such labelling can result in a curtailment of their civil rights, pushing many to migrate. When queer migrants from Muslim minority countries arrive in the West, as refugees or otherwise, these politically minded queer activists can become frustrated by joining leftist spaces that are dominated by migrants from the MENA region and therefore deprioritize the transnational struggle against Islamophobia.

A queer left politics in Europe that is truly internationalist must not only include a cross-contextual perspective that addresses both Islamism and Islamophobia. It also has to account for the multiplicity of connections that queer migrants from the Global South have to Islam. While doing this, it must find bases for solidarity between these migrant activists and social movements in Europe.  

We must avoid cartoonish opposition to political Islam, as this is not only the sentiment that has been weaponized to justify the military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The over-simplified opposition to political Islam has also been used as a cover for the crimes of Assad in Syria and Sisi in Egypt by allowing such figures to present themselves as secularists and the only “moderate” alternatives to violent Muslim extremism. All the while, Assad’s violence has made refugees of half the Syrian population, and Egypt (where Hegazy was imprisoned) is one of the top beneficiaries of US aid after Israel, receiving USD 1.43 billion in foreign assistance in 2020. This makes it necessary for an internationalist left politics of sexuality to be sophisticated. It must do the difficult work of waging critiques against the international hegemony of Islamophobic discourse without letting political Islam off the hook.

If we consider these diverse experiences with religious fundamentalism and oppression outside strictly identitarian lines, many Global South migrants are victims of the same systems of oppression.

We must be aware of how the international discourse against political Islam in the MENA region is often misused to discipline minority Muslims in the Global South. We saw this play out in the first quarter of 2022, in Southern Indian state, Karnataka. Hijab wearing students were banned from attending schools and universities on grounds of uniform compliance. Those defending the judgement in public discourse ignored the fact that the ban effectively kept girls and young women out of educational institutions. Some even employed the arguments of MENA activists, who campaign against compulsory hijab in a completely different region and context. They claimed the ban of the supposedly un-feminist hijab was a form of progressive women’s liberation.

The complexity of how religious fundamentalism operates in different contexts often gets lost in leftist political discussions of anti-Islamophobia is Europe. “Islamism” and “political Islam” are part of common parlance, but is there a notion of “political Buddhism” in internationalist leftist spaces? The Tamil minority of Sri Lanka (largely Hindu) and Rohingya Muslims are both ethno-religious minorities that are victims of ethnic cleansing and genocide facilitated by Buddhist supremacist politics. Acknowledging these complexities does not necessarily fragment or over-complicate analyses. Rather, it opens up possibilities for solidarity that are essential to articulating a coherent left politics.

If we consider these diverse experiences with religious fundamentalism and oppression outside strictly identitarian lines, many Global South migrants are victims of the same systems of oppression: political and fundamentalist constellations of ethno-religious supremacy. In Western contexts, our task is to make this part of a queer politics that helps us avoid talking over and against each other. A key part of this task may be to critically question queer identity as a necessary basis for sexual politics.

Being queer is not necessarily conducive to a shared leftist politics.

Something Zuleikha observed through experience in activist spaces in Europe is how trans and queer people lose their race, ethnicity, class, caste – that is, their belonging to all ‘other’ social categories – as they become more involved with queer politics. This is a dangerous form of identity politics, where social markers other than queerness seem to disappear. Instead, it is assumed that queers automatically subscribe to a progressive politics. In reality, however, many queer migrants seek to align themselves with right-wing politics or the benefits of privilege. European homonationalism is well known and debated within queer circles in Euro-American contexts, but the nationalist politics of some MENA queers remains unacknowledged. Such a politics is adhered to by Iranian queers using claims to ethnic Persian supremacy to mobilize against the Islamic Republic’s homophobia, queer Arabs who espouse various forms of Arab nationalism to the detriment of Amazigh, Kurdish and Christian minorities, and queer Turkish AKP supporters performing iterations of Islamic nationalism. Being queer is not necessarily conducive to a shared leftist politics.

A materialist perspective helps envision a queer politics that has the potential to get us past the restrictive question of whether and how much to be with or against political Islam. According to Evren Savci, Islam cannot be understood as occupying a pure place of indigeneity in the MENA region that is outside the domain of political economy. Based on the Turkish context, Savci argues that the modern Turkish-Islamic political history and morality has been produced in conjunction with neoliberalism. More specifically, Savci contends that under the rule of AKP, sexual politics is a territory where the logic of free market capitalism, the work of state securitization and Islamic morality are interlaced. Focusing on political economy is useful because it helps us get a fresh take on the topic and shift the terms of the debate. This approach prompts us to imagine different possibilities that emerge from the paradoxes of political Islam and its diverse lived realities. It allows us to understand how our struggles are interconnected under global capitalism.

This perspective is important for highlighting how sexual politics, class formation, and global capitalism influence one another, thus challenging the idea of homophobia as merely the product of regional and/or religious cultures. Such a culturalist logic is dangerous because it conceals how global capitalism has helped produce the contexts of material precarity in the MENA region where homophobia and moral panics thrive. Moreover, as argued by Rahul Rao, the claim about the violence of colonial laws must be understood and buttressed without attributing the totality of queer predicaments in the Global South to such a colonial legacy. We need to account for the transnational production of queerphobia in the Global South in a manner that recognizes the agency of the postcolonial elites in these contexts, given their role in adopting and re-purposing homophobic laws from the colonial era and even in promulgating new oppressive laws.

A politico-economic lens allows us to take seriously the materialist dynamics that have produced political homophobia in the global South.

As we discuss the responsibility of local elites in co-producing these conditions, we should avoid slipping into Orientalist accounts of “homophobia” that construct the Global South as a location of homophobia. A politico-economic lens allows us to see the resonances in these two seemingly antithetical tendencies and to take seriously the materialist dynamics that have produced political homophobia in the global South.

To understand how sexual politics plays a role in the advancement of neoliberalism and simultaneously the propagation of Islamophobia, our analysis can learn from feminist work on migrant women’s labor through the lens of social reproduction theory. Such work shows how Western European countries have resorted to the instrumentalization of women’s rights in the service of neoliberal, nationalist, and Islamophobic agendas. As Sara Farris explains, the ideological imperative to ‘save’ Muslim women from their ‘backward’ culture has played an economic role in recent European migration and integration policies. These have enabled women’s migration and entry into care and domestic work in order to elevate the status of white European women by freeing the latter from the burden of social reproduction.

Discussing the importance of material reality over ideological arguments, Jules Gill-Peterson states the following about anti-trans laws (in the context of the USA): “Instead of treating trans people’s lives as a battle over abstract moral or ethical principles, we can oppose transphobia on material grounds, full stop. And we can demand resources like housing, education, and healthcare for trans people because we demand them for everyone.” Another crucial point she makes concerns the importance of uniting social and political groups under coalitions rooted in shared material precarity, so that mobilizing can take place across issues of race, disability, immigration, wages, voting rights, and prison abolition. Illustrating this succinctly, she says: “There are overlapping moral panics about race and sexuality, but also a common anti-democratic project of material dispossession.”

Rather than organizing around identity or pivoting our discourse on ideological arguments, a progressive, plural, leftist politics must pay attention to political economy and the material conditions under which people live. Rather than contouring a pro or contra stance regarding political Islam vs Islamophobia we must seek out political frameworks that reflect and help build solidarity between experiences of marginalized groups of people across gender, sexual, religious, ethnic, national, racial, and geopolitical divides.

Nisrine Chaer is a researcher and organizer who lives in Lebanon and the Netherlands. His research interests lie at the intersection of queer anthropology, migration studies, transgender studies, Middle East and cultural studies. He graduated from the Gender & Ethnicity Master’s at Utrecht University where he wrote his thesis on queer activism in Beirut. In 2017, he co-founded Sehaq Queer Refugees Group, a refugee-led grassroots leftist organization in Amsterdam that works on creating safer spaces for queer & trans refugees, centering Middle Eastern & North African experiences and politics. Currently, he is working on a PhD project at Utrecht University about geographies of home with a focus on MENA queer & trans migration in the Netherlands and in Lebanon. Twitter handle: @nisreen__el.

Zuleikha Mirzazadeh is a PhD scholar, working in the Global North. Her research interests are diasporas and migration, with a focus on the linkages between West Asia and South Asia, interrogating notions of identity, belonging, citizenship, class, gender, borders and transcultural sociality. She also works on and writes about the connections between gender and sexuality, exploring contestations and negotiations surrounding the embodiment of oppositional categories, under frames of queer identity politics.