From Linguistic Debate to Cultural Confrontation

Al-Azhar in the Face of Gayness, in Other Words, "Homosexuality"!
Egypt's Azhar Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb delivers a speech during an event in Abu Dhabi. (AFP)
Egypt's Coptic Pope Tawadros II speaks from the historic al-Muharraq Monastery, February 5, 2013. (AP/Khalil Hamra)
Credit: (Reuters)
Egypt's Coptic Pope Tawadros II speaks from the historic al-Muharraq Monastery, February 5, 2013. (AP/Khalil Hamra)

Around a week ago, in a scene that was seen as an escalation of public rejection of growing efforts to get global recognition of gayness/homosexuality, the Al-Azhar Observatory for Combating Extremism (AOCE) praised the stances of religious leaders opposed to the phenomenon. THE AOCE also revealed the convening of meetings between the Dr. Ahmed al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Al-Sharif, with leaders and heads of churches and sects in Egypt to discuss the recent wave of advocacy for homosexuality. Al-Azhar Al-Sharif called on the international community to stand up and to preserve moral and religious values. Similarly, a few days ago, the Enactus team of Al-Azhar University announced its withdrawal from Enactus activities, in refusal of its support of homosexuality. A few days ago and also in the same context, Pope Tawadros II, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark (the Coptic Orthodox Church) stressed the dangers of homosexuality.


The conflict began at the linguistic level. According to researcher Israa Mokadem, the French sociologist Michel Foucault says in his book “The History of Homosexuality” that the world’s first acquaintance with the term “homosexual” was in the late nineteenth century. Queen Victoria wanted to have men from the aristocracy then in the British society to stop having sex with males. At that time, the world had not yet come to define this type of relationship. In May 1990, the World Health Organization announced the removal of homosexuality from its list of mental disorders to become a natural sexual tendency that cannot be encouraged nor suppressed. Today, the world is witnessing a wide cultural clash over the term and the phenomenon. 

Legislations, reports and declarations of condemnation and solidarity could be seen around the world, in the spaces of art, human rights work, universities, and traditional and virtual media.

Polish President Andrzej Duda swam against the current two years ago and declared in 2020 (BBC Arabic June 14, 2020) that “homosexuality is an ideology more dangerous than communism.” The Polish president said during his election campaign that his parents' generation did not fight communist ideology for 40 years “for a new, more destructive ideology to emerge.” Duda signed a family charter as part of his electoral platform, which includes a pledge to prevent homosexuals from marrying or adopting children, and to ban the teaching of homosexuality at schools. These statements were preceded by a report by the European branch of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex/ILGA, which ranked Poland as the worst-performing EU country on gay/homosexual rights. Meanwhile, the European Commission wrote to the mayors of five Polish provinces expressing its concern over their declarations that their regions were “free from gay ideology.”


The historical origin of the conflict was a continuation of the struggle over marriage between the religious and civil frameworks. Civil registration was adopted in Europe in the nineteenth century (England in 1836, Germany in 1875), and it was a vehicle for modern state policies against the Catholic Church. By the late 19th century, civil registration had been adopted in most parts of Europe. Civil registration at that time was linked to legitimizing what already exists without adopting ideological perceptions that change the meaning and pillars of marriage. This escalated sharply in the twentieth century, and the institutions that handle registration have redefined marriage based on new legislative (parliamentary) or judicial (constitutional) references.

Researcher Dr. Amr Othman attributes one of the most important reasons for the historical inversion in the view of marriage to the so-called “sexual revolution” in the 1960s, during which sex was separated on the one hand from marriage and childbearing on the other. In this way, procreation became an option that could be controlled thanks to contraceptive pills that appeared at that time. This has led to a staggering increase in the number of people in a relationship living in the same home, an arrangement which previously had been almost exclusively for married couples. After this turn of events, marriage was no longer a means to legalize sexual relations with the aim of having children as much as it has become a mere legalization of an affection that binds two parties with the aim of obtaining benefits from the state through that legalization.

Then there was the burgeoning wave of interest in the West from the United States of America and Europe in legalizing gay/homosexual marriage which started with second decade of this century. For example, in May 2013 France witnessed the official announcement of the initiation of a full program to combat what was called “homophobia” involving all state administrations, and the entire state’s facilities: the judiciary, the police, and the health and education sectors. In a major move aimed at “internationalizing” the endeavor, the French president even appeared before the United Nations Council to announce that he had made this battle one of his most important global priorities. He then announced the endeavorto organize the International Day against Homophobia, with a French demand to adopt a UN resolution allowing transgender people to obtain "appropriate" civilian status documents! The so-called “law of marriage for all” became the center of a major social and cultural battle in France.

In one of the biggest steps in moving from registering marriage to “framing” it, the United States Supreme Court issued on June 26, 2015, a decision obligating all US states to legally recognize the right of homosexuals to marry. The decision marked the end of a two-decade pathway. In 1996, a lawsuit was filed in the US State of Hawaii to compel the state government to recognize same-sex marriage. This was followed by two Republican lawmakers introducing a bill to “defend the family” that would require the federal and state governments to refuse to recognize same-sex marriage. Then, thanks to the signature of US President Bill Clinton, there was the DOMA Law. According to a study by researcher Dr. Amr Othman, a lawsuit was filed against this law, which deemed it to be forcing the state to violate the rights of its citizens. Then a judge ruled that DOMA law violated the Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution. Other suits against the law followed while the number of US states that legalized gay/homosexual marriage increased. In 2011, another federal judge ruled the DOMA law unconstitutional, and on June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional. This means that the federal and state governments are obliged to recognize same-sex marriage, whatever state the marriage took place in, and to enable same-sex couples to enjoy all the rights of other married couples. In 2018, Switzerland enacted legislation strengthening the protection of homosexuality, within the articles of the Anti-Racism Act, by adding a discrimination clause based on sexual orientation.


In the European Parliament, parties and blocs worked to defend the rights of gays/homosexuals. An evaluation document issued in April 2019 by a group of parliamentarians with an interest in anti-discrimination mentioned the existence of a difference between Western and Eastern Europe. The majority of countries in which homosexuals can live without discrimination are in Western Europe. Britain, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Portugal and Spain score the most points on an index that includes family laws and the fight against hate crimes. The country that ranks first in the list is Malta with 90% of the requirements, and at the bottom come Lithuania and Poland with 17% and 18%.

Within the context of the complex historical relationship between the Vatican and Italy, the battle over the legality of homosexuality was multi-faceted. In November 2016, the Italian parliament approved gay/homosexual marriage in a vote described as “historic” due to the opposition of the Catholic Church, making Italy the last Western European country to recognize this type of marriage. The law, which the Italian Parliament had been studying since June 2013, grants gay/homosexual couples rights equal to those of regular couples in all legal aspects. In June 2021, in what was described as “unusual diplomatic meddling,” the Vatican vetoed an Italian anti-homophobia bill. The move aimed to punish discriminatory behavior and incitement to violence against gays and transgender people. The newspaper Corriere della Sera revealed that Bishop Paul Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States in the Vatican, handed a diplomatic “verbal note” to the Italian embassy in the Holy See. The newspaper stressed that “this is an unprecedented measure in the history of the relations between the two countries.”

In the world of social media, where everyone can produce his own discourse and gather around this discourse as many supporters as one can, a great battle erupted over the criteria for categorizing “acceptable” and “rejected.” At its core was the discourse that deals with gayness/homosexuality whether promoting it or condemning it. By virtue of the predominance of religious standards (along with conservative culture) over the culture of large segments of Arab societies, Arab content was the subject of a battle that saw the disputation by several parties. 

The Moroccan newspaper Hespress revealed that July 2020 witnessed the sending of a collective message to the Facebook administration by Arab human rights associations and civil activists expressing their concern about the “increasing hate speech against LGBT people” on the platform. The signatories of the message demanded that site’s management in the Middle East and North Africa region work to “limit the use of its platform in the dissemination of this discourse, especially from Arabic speakers.”

Days earlier, Humboldt University in Berlin canceled a lecture scheduled to be given by biologist Marie-Luise Vollbrechtbecause she believed there were only two biological sexes “due to security concerns,” Die Welt newspaper reported. According to the newspaper, the biologist sought to talk about “why there are only two genders in biology in a scientific way,” but left-wing activists protested, describing Vollbrecht’s thesis as “unscientific, inhuman, homophobic and transphobic.”


• In 1969, US police raided the Stonewall Inn in New York, a gay hotel, which sparked outrage across the country. The incident became a historic moment in the advancement of gay rights, and between 2004 and 2015, same-sex marriage became legal in all states.

• In 1971, the Netherlands is the first country to allow same-sex marriage. Since then, about 30 other countries have joined it. In the two decades since the law on same-sex marriage came into force, thousands have married in the Netherlands, accounting for an average of 1.7 percent of all marriages in the world, according to the Netherlands Statistics Office.

• In 1988, during the era of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the teaching of subjects considered to be a “promotion of homosexuality” was prohibited, and this continued until 2003.

• In May 1990, the World Health Organization announced the removal of homosexuality from the list of mental illnesses. Homosexuality became a natural sexual inclination that cannot be encouraged nor suppressed.

• In May 2013, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, spokeswoman for the French government said: “The Marriage Law for All enhances the rights of citizenship in France, and instructs the government to formulate a full program to combat homophobia involving all state administrations.”

• In June 2015, the US Supreme Court issued a decision obligating all US states to recognize the right of same-sex couples to legal union, with all that it entails in terms of enjoying all the rights of "traditional" married couples.  That is to say, the permanent bond between man and woman, through which they aim to create a family that will give birth to children to sustain life.

• In November 2016, the Italian Parliament approved gay/homosexual marriage in Italy in a “historic” vote, despite the opposition of the Catholic Church.

• In September 2017, following a concert in Egypt performed by Mashrou’ Leila, the Supreme Council for Media Regulation required that the media in Egypt accompany any statement mentioning homosexuality or “references” denoting it, (such as a rainbow), by statements indicating that homosexuality is an inappropriate behavior.

• In December 2018, Switzerland enacted a law that strengthens the protection of homosexuals, and equates fighting homophobia to fighting racism.

• In August 2019, a new course of study raised the concern of Arab families in Britain and religious people (of different faiths) who consider that teaching homosexuality is contrary to their beliefs.

• In November 2019, the novel "In the Spider's Room" by the Egyptian novelist Mohamed Abdel Nabi, which revolves around homophobia, won the Arab Literature Prize in France, presented by the Arab World Institute in Paris.

• In June 2020, Polish President Andrzej Duda said: “Homosexuality is an ideology more dangerous than communism.”

• In July 2020, in a letter to the administration of Facebook, human rights associations and civil activists from the Arab world and a group of countries in the world expressed their concern about the “increasing hate speech against the LGBT community” on its platform. They demanded that the site's administration in the Middle East and North Africa work on “limiting the use of its platform in the dissemination of this discourse, especially from Arabic speakers.”

• In June 2021, in an unusual diplomatic intervention, the Vatican vetoes an Italian bill to combat homophobia.

• In September 2021, two-thirds of Swiss voters support same-sex marriage in a referendum. About 64% supported this measure, making Switzerland one of the last countries in Western Europe to legalize same-sex marriage. The new law allows same-sex couples to adopt children.

• In 2021, same-sex marriage became legal in 28 countries:

Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Britain, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Denmark, Ecuador, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain Sweden, Uruguay, USA.

• In October 2021, President of the International Football Association (FIFA) Gianni Infantino said: “The International Football Association (FIFA) published a report showing an increase in the number of insults that players are subjected to on social media. More than 50% of players have received some form of discriminatory abuse, comments that discriminate against homosexuals (40%).”

• In October 2021, the Italian Senate canceled the vote for a bill to protect homosexuals due to the objection of the Italian right-wing parties.

• In December 2021, the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs in Egypt published a statement in which it supported a legal fatwa issued by the Al-Azhar Global Fatwa Center regarding the systematic campaigns led by international forces and organizations with their media, entertainment and singing programs, electronic platforms, recruitment of famous personalities, and other such methods to promote obscene homosexuality, and to legalize its spread in various societies of the world, including Arab and Islamic societies.

• In May 2022, the ILGA organization revealed a list classifying European countries according to their stance on homosexuality. Malta scored 92 points out of 100, followed by Denmark in second place with 73, according to assessments that included all topics ranging from hate crimes and hate speech to legal regulations. France ranked seventh at the European level.

• In May 2022, the gay flag propelled the absence of the Senegalese Muslim star of Paris Saint-Germain, Idrissa GanaGaye. French President Macron denounced the player, while the Senegalese President Macky Sall publicly supported him. Al-Azhar declared: “We refuse to pressure the player to accept homosexuality.”

• In July 2022, American gay activists demanded that NASA rename the "James Webb" telescope due to accusations of anti-homosexuality.

• In July 2022, Al-Azhar University withdraws from all global activities of Enactus due to its support for homosexuality.

• In July 2022, Pope Tawadros II, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark (the Coptic Orthodox Church), stressed the danger of homosexuality and its being a sin and a phenomenon contrary to human nature.

The writer is a researcher in political science – Egypt.



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