Thursday, August 28, 2008

Hate in a god’s name

A shocking article in Newsweek has documented how gay people in Iraq actually had it better under Saddam Hussein than the current US-backed regime. The reason? Religious fanatics, self-appointed morality police and good old-fashioned hatred and bigotry all rolled into one seething cesspool. Hussein kept the fanatics under control, but the current regime in that country can’t and wouldn’t if it could.

According to the article, there’s a deeply and widely held bigotry in Iraq, where no one considers the human rights of gay people to be important or worth protecting. Even supposedly well-educated Iraqis share the zealots’ contempt for gay people:

"These people are not welcome in the society because they are against the social, natural and religious rules," said one well educated Iraqi who did not want to be identified more closely… A handful of gay men told NEWSWEEK harrowing stories about being cast out of their homes or savagely attacked by the storm troopers of virtue: Shia extremists among Badr Corps operatives (many of whom are now in the Iraqi Security Forces) or groups like the Mahdi Army, and sometimes both. But when told of such atrocities one Iraqi acquaintance blamed the victims, calling them "the lowest humans."

We in stable, peaceful Western democracies often get smug about such things, suggesting that Islamic states are uniquely brutal in their zeal to impose religion. That’s a gross delusion. The world over, gay people have been victims of violence from religious zealots of all kinds: By Hindus in India, by Jews in Israel and by Christians in the US and Europe. Add property crimes to the list and there’s barely a country anywhere in the West where gay people haven’t been singled out by religious extremists.

We can try and comfort ourselves by nodding in agreement at the thought, “Yes, but those are the acts of extremists, not the mainstream.” Try telling that to the victims of violence in the name of religion.

Rational people of faith have a choice. They can remain silent in the face of anti-gay bigotry, or they can stand up for what they know is right. Not many heterosexual Christians will do that, apart from the handful trying to promote progressive Christianity. How many ordinary, church-going Christians would be willing to challenge their church pastor when he or she goes too far? How many will object when a co-worker makes an anti-gay joke or slur? How many will donate time or money in support of gay people (like in the California campaign for marriage equality) or to a pro-gay politician? Some will, and some do, but the vast majority remain silent on all counts.

I haven’t talked about this before, but it’s that silence that ultimately drove me from religion. I advocated strongly for the rights of religious people (including those with whom I sharply disagreed), only to find that even supposedly liberal Christians wouldn’t stand up for me and my community when we needed it most.

See, I can deal with christianist extremists: I know they hate me, and many will tell me so to my face. What I can’t deal with are those who profess to be Christian and hate me behind my back while pretending to be supportive.

We get the same thing in the secular world, of course: Supposedly liberal politicians feign support, then, once in power with our votes and campaign help, they tell us to “be patient” and “the time isn’t right”. So, hypocrisy and dishonesty aren’t unique to the religious.

But I expect more from the religious folk I used to call friends. There’s a continuum that leads from an individual mainstream preacher making an anti-gay sermon, through to frothing fundamentalists crusading against us and on to those who would attack or kill us in the name of their god. And that’s why I keep exhorting rational mainstream Christians to do something—anything—to stand up to bigotry. As Edmund Burke observed, the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.

For the love of your God, do something. The alternative is, ultimately, the evil like that in Iraq. If good people don’t choose, the extremists will choose for them. It really is that simple.

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