Gays in the Quran: NBC report raises issues but doesn't answer them

As I wrote on Friday, mainstream media in the wake of the shooting in Orlando are just starting to feel their way around the ultra-sensitive topic of Islam and homosexuality. NBC News also tried its hand, building a story as a Q&A.

But the answers are frankly what you might expect from a secular liberal news outfit:  

Islam's approach to homosexuality has been in the spotlight since the massacre at an Orlando gay club — criminal or compassionate? Prejudiced or progressive?
While ISIS death squads enforce an extreme version of Islam that punishes gays with death, the religion's history is far more nuanced. And like most relationships, when it comes to Islam and homosexuality — it's complicated.

Among the questions posed are "What does Islam say about being gay?" and "Who says homosexuality is punishable by death?" But by skewing its sources, NBC clearly tries to nudge us toward the "right" views.

The network is alert for spotting a coverage trend. As I noted on Friday, the Associated Press and other media have begun looking at 50 gay Muslim organizations that have been seldom covered. NBC News honestly reports Islamic antagonism toward homosexual behavior, saying it overwhelmingly teaches that "same gender sex is a sin."

NBC notes also how some Muslim national leaders have denounced the Orlando shootings while their own homelands jail or kill gays:

"Middle Eastern and North African countries have denounced the Orlando shooting when at the same time they criminalize homosexuality with sentences ranging from years in prison to the death penalty," said Ahmed Benchemsi, communications and advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch. "Those governments should repeal laws and abolish practices that persecute people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity."

But when the article asks, "What does Islam say about being gay?", it doesn't answer immediately. First it quotes a historian who says, "There is sexual diversity in Islam." It also says that "most scholars agree" (a close cousin to the blurring expression "sources say") that early Muslims like Al Dalal and Rumi were gay.

The story finally offers useful info: "The Muslim holy book, the Quran, tells the story of Lot and the destruction of Sodom — with sodomy in Arabic referred to as 'liwat,' based on Lot's name. Men having sex with each other should be punished, the Quran says, but it doesn't say how — and it adds that they should be left alone if they repent."

It doesn't say, but the excerpt is probably surah 7:80-81: "We also (sent) Lut: he said to his people: '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.' "

NBC likewise cites but doesn't directly quote the main source of anti-gay Islamic teachings: "The idea of the death penalty comes not from the Quran but the Hadith — the traditions or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad."

Again, a hadithic quote or two would have helped. This collection has commands such as: "If you find anyone doing as Lot’s people did, kill the one who does it, and the one to whom it is done."

However the verses may be interpreted, readers and viewers should at least get to see them.

NBC does report that at least 10 countries execute gays. But then it blurs matters:

No fewer than 40 out of 57 Muslim-majority countries or territories have laws that criminalize homosexuality, prescribing punishments ranging from fines and short jail sentences to whippings.
However, same-sex relationships are not strictly illegal in 20 Muslim-majority nations including Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Turkey, Kosovo, Jordan, and the Palestinian West Bank.

I would have liked a definition of "not strictly illegal." Does that mean socially banned but not forbidden? Or technically illegal but not enforced, as in Lebanon?

NBC also lets its scholars demur over the source of Muslim homophobic attitudes: whether they're based on religious teachings or merely the taboo nature of sexual topics in Muslim societies.  

A broader range of sources would have produced a broader NBC report. It did not, for instance, quote Farrokh Sekaleshfar, as ABC Australia did. Sekaleshfar said his remarks -- that it would be compassionate to execute gays -- were taken out of context; but public furor still drove him out of Australia in a hurry.

NBC also could have asked Irshad Manji, a lesbian Muslim journalist who has long criticized Muslim attitudes. She told CNN that journalists have "settled for mere, often hollow condemnations" of the Orlando attack from moderate Muslim leaders.

Manji recommended two follow-up questions: "What are you doing to reach out to mosques in this country and demand that they stop preaching intolerance of gay and lesbian people?" Also, "Do you acknowledge that there is a certain interpretation of Islam that does allow for these attacks to be happening?"

She concluded: "Let's put those who are crying for civil rights -- as they should be crying -- let's put them on the hot seat as well, to see how deeply they're willing to go to offer the truth and the facts."

One could say the same of mainstream media reports as well.

Thumbnail photo: Placard from Gay Pride march in London in 2008. Credit: CharlesFred, via (CC BY-NC-SA).


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