Open Letter to Senaid Kobilica, Head of Islamic Council of Norway (Islamsk Råd Norge): Some questions

Mr. Kobilica,

Your interview given to Dagsavisen (21.08.09) on the issue of homosexuality has baffled me intellectually and saddened me emotionally, as I am sure it has many others. Under the pretext of refusing to be swayed by negative critiques and propaganda against Muslims, you have become an instrument of reinforcing and internalizing the same negative stereotypical one-size-fits-all views you want to reject. You have shown no readiness, for theological or other reasons, to unapologetically condemn, as unforgivable human rights violation, the death penalty against homosexuals, and firmly and clearly denounce the rulings of “Islamic” Law which condemn homosexuals to death. You have been, the truth must be told, consistent and shown great integrity in defending what should have been mercilessly denounced and you have done and continue to do that in the name of Islam. You have, unwittingly I hope, condoned the killing of homosexuals in other parts of the world.

My question to you, Mr. Kobilica, is why can you not, as leader of a Norwegian institution, condemn in the strongest possible terms the death penalty for homosexuals in other (Muslim) parts of the world? Does your refusal to condemn death penalty reflect an inherent value in Islam or is it a cultural prejudice? I am sure you know that since the Islamic revolution, the Iranian government has executed more than 4000 people accused of homosexual relations. In many countries, homosexuality is punished by death (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Mauritania, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen) and in many others with incarceration, or corporal punishment, as in Bahrain, Qatar, Algeria, Maldives, etc. In some countries (Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Mali, etc.), homosexuality is not prohibited as such, but gays can be condemned for offending public morality, as happened in Cairo on May 11, 2001, when 52 men were arrested on board the Queen Boat Nightclub, anchored in the Nile.

I am convinced that you realize the inherent contradictions in your system of values and beliefs or, at least, the public face of your beliefs? You condemn in all its forms the harassing of homosexuals. You have said, “We do not accept violence, harassment or threats against gays, and strongly oppose this type of behavior. It is against Islamic values to expose others to such assaults” and that you respect homosexuals as human beings.

Nevertheless you have not shown the slightest willingness to dissociate yourself, the institution that you lead and, finally, Islam, from doctrines that condemn to death people for engaging in consensual homosexual relations? You say: “Det er noen i Islamsk Råd som mener at vi ikke bør uttale oss om hendelser utenfor Norges grenser, mens andre synes vi kan og må kunne kommentere saker utenfor Norge. Inntil vi har fått avklart dette internt, vil ikke IRN ta avstand fra dødsstraff for homofili i andre land enn Norge. Det er rett og slett ikke innenfor vårt mandat”. How is it possible that you have respect for homosexuals but you do not condemn the policies, laws and doctrines that put them to death? May you be kind enough to explain to us what kind of respect you have in mind?

What shall we hear in your message, Mr. Kobilica? Which of your two stories is the true Islamic story and how do you reconcile the two stories? Why is death penalty for homosexuals worth saving or even fighting for? Again, I have no doubts that you believe that Islam is a universal religion and that its values too are universal? If you believe in the universality of Islamic values and norms, how then do you reconcile the fact that in Norway Muslims should suspend the universal belief in the death penalty for homosexuals while Muslims in other countries should not?

Your refusal to condemn death penalty for homosexuals implies that you consider it to be/have a universal islamic value. Your readiness to make a non-issue of death penalty in Norway, however, implies one of the two choices: either you negate the universal dimension of the death penalty as an islamic norm, in which case it becomes a local custom and Muslims thereby have nothing to lose by giving it up. This, however, contradicts your uncompromising refusal to condemn it. Your refusal to condemn it implies that it is an islamic universal value, and that your call for its suspension in Norway is not justified theologically but politically, i.e. the constraints to respect the law of the country. It also implies that theologically the right thing to do is death penalty. So, I presume, you call for moratorium. Again, the call to moratorium can be understood in two ways: moratorium as a temporary solution until the right conditions are propitious for its suspension or that, from a gradualist perspective, it is a step in the direction to its complete abolition. The first interpretation is political while the second is theological. We do not know with certainty what Mr. Kobilica has in mind.

You have said that you cannot outright reject the death penalty because that is an internal theological matter and need a theological response. Fair enough. But I am afraid that you are not theological enough, that your theology is not theological. I have a precise reason in mind here: Your theological statements will not resolve believers’ religious dilemmas regarding homosexuals. You will at best create a schizophrenic split in the believer. I must say that I find your oscillation ethically dishonest and intellectually unconvincing.

An ideology or a religion that commits itself to the belief, even if on purely theoretical level, that certain people must be put to death and, not only that but, chooses to remain silent in the face of executions committed by different Muslim regimes under the pretext that Islam forbids such relations faces some serious problems which need urgent solutions. The failure to address them damages not only Islam’s standing and relations increasing the polarization of lasting estrangements but it also condemns Islamic theology to intellectual stagnation.

Tolerance and respect make sense only if they create space for practices of the few who live differently from the majority mores and traditions. Tolerance for those ways of life we find abhorring, to the extent that they do not constitute a threat to the security and the welfare of other people. Mr. Kobilica, you would have to tell us what is the crime that justifies the death penalty against innocent people, the crime that makes it so difficult for you condemn and dissociate yourself from?

To fully grasp the absurdity of your contradictory claims, I invite you to consider the penal code systems that legitimize death penalty for murder. These systems and the people that support death penalty do not claim to respect or tolerate the murderers’ ways of life and value orientations. They are absolutely categorical that such ways of life cannot be tolerated because they constitute real danger to the life of other people. Mr. Kobilica, I would like to know what is the danger that homosexual practices constitute to other, heterosexual, people?

You have often asserted an excommunicative dogma that Islam and homosexuality are incompatible, that one cannot be a Muslim and homosexual at the same time. I find this deeply polarizing statement unfortunate, antagonizing and in need of further revision. You confuse trite theological statements with (non-existent) historically informed (the dimension of historicity proper to the religious texts) and hermeneutically sensitive (the recognition of the plurality of ways of being a Muslim) theological debates that should have taken place in the Muslim world and among Muslim theologians wherever they happen to live. I understand your commonplace theological statements as being part of the problem of the Islamic theology, not of its solution. This is what I read in your unwillingness to condemn and dissociate yourself and the institution you lead from death penalty for homosexuals. There must be a space for various interpretations of Islam, interpretations that come from other sources than the European Council for Fatwa and that cannot be policed or blackmailed into silence because you have chosen to monopolize the meaning and the values of Islam. Surely there are other interpretations of Islam which while may agree with yours in considering homosexual relations to be a moral failure, avoid prescribing any form of legal retribution. The fact that the law must not contradict morality does not mean that it is situated on the same level as morality.

No one is against the subjective or even theological beliefs that hold homosexuality to be a sinful deviation. No one can impose a moral view on another group or “force believers to perform intellectual contortions so that they can prove they are in tune with the times”. What we should all be against, however, is to prescribe or tolerate punishments to people who live differently or have different value orientation from ours.

I remain skeptical, and you, Mr. Kobilica, have to prove the opposite, that one can believe as an article of faith that death penalty for homosexuals is a theologically justified norm and simultaneously claim to have respect for homosexuals. Your message is ambiguous and inconsistent. What is an ordinary Muslim to make of these self-negating double messages: he or she is told respect homosexuals but also reminded that they are criminals who deserve death penalties. It is the death penalty part of the message, Mr. Kobilica, which sets the agenda for the intolerant treatment and harassing of homosexuals.

Sead Zimeri

About albphilosopher

Sead Zimeri has studied Philosophy, Islamic Philosophy and Religion, International Politics and Psychoanalysis. He is currently the project coordinator of "Islam and the Liberal Society" at the Liberalt Laboratorium (LibLab) thin tank in Oslo, Norway. http://www.liblab.no
This entry was posted in Dagbladet, Homosexuality and Islam, Islam, Sead Zimeri and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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