To answer a question I hear every now and then: Yes, we do hear from Ira “Global Wire” Rifkin from time to time. If you follow him in social-media circles you know that he is doing well, especially when hanging out with his lively family.
Also, he sends us URLs and cryptic hints when he bumps into GetReligion-ish stories linked to international news. Take this Washington Post story, for example: “An openly gay candidate is running for president in Tunisia, a milestone for the Arab world.”
How important is this story? Rifkin had this to say: “This is not nothing, though I think his chances of ending up in exile in Paris (or dead or in jail) are greater than his winning.”
There are several interesting angles in this story, as far as I am concerned. All of them are directly or indirectly linked to religion. However, I’m not sure that the Post foreign-desk squad wants to face that reality head on. Here is the overture:
Lawyer Mounir Baatour officially announced his candidacy for the Tunisian presidency …, becoming the first known openly gay presidential candidate in the Arab world and heralding a major step forward for LGBT rights in a country that still criminalizes gay sex.
Baatour, the president of Tunisia’s Liberal Party, presented his candidacy to the country’s election commission a day ahead of a Friday deadline to qualify for the Sept. 15 election. He received nearly 20,000 signatures in support of his candidacy — double the required number — according to a statement posted to his Facebook page.
“This enthusiasm already testifies to the immense will of the Tunisian people, and especially its youth, to see new a political wind blowing on the country and to concretely nourish its democracy,” the statement said, calling Baatour’s candidacy “historic.”
OK, is the newsworthy hook here that we are talking about political “first” in the “Arab” world or in the “Muslim” world? Yes, I realize that the answer could be “both-and.” But that is a different answer than simply saying “Arab” and leaving it at that.
You see, there are lots of secular Arabs in this part of the world and there are also Christian Arabs. Is the key development in this story that Baatour is clashing with some kind of generic “Arab” culture or that he is challenging a nation’s legal system that is linked to Islamic law and tradition? Once again, the answer could be “both-and.”
While we are at it, has Baatour himself embraced any specific religious label? Is he a practicing Muslim? A “moderate” Muslim? Maybe a “former” Muslim who now identifies as “secular”? Is he a liberal Christian? A former Eastern Catholic of some kind? Did I miss something in the Post report that fills in this crucial blank spot in his Muslim-world persona?
The story does mention the Tunisian legal code, as in:
Tunisia, widely considered the Arab Spring’s only democratic success story, has seen civil liberties blossom since the 2011 revolution ended half a century of authoritarian rule. Freedom of expression has expanded significantly in the new democracy and previously repressed political groups have burst onto the national stage.
But LGBT Tunisians remain marginalized, and authorities have continued to prosecute Tunisians for engaging in gay sex — a crime punishable by up to three years in prison under Article 230 of Tunisia’s criminal code.
What are the origins of this criminal code? That appears to be a complex question, with some French colonial history in the mix, as well.
But read this passage carefully. What is the reason government leaders give when pushed to say why Baatour is out of line?
In 2015, he founded the advocacy organization Shams — “sun” in Arabic — which has pushed for the decriminalization of gay sex and fought the ongoing practice of authorities forcing men they suspect of having sex with other men to submit to anal examinations.
The Tunisian government has repeatedly tried to shut down Shams — most recently in February, when the government petitioned an appeals court to overturn a ruling in the organization’s favor. In its petition to the court, the government wrote that homosexuality is “contrary to Islam” and that “this association offends the Arab-Muslim sensibility of the Tunisian people,” according to an op-ed Baatour published in HuffPost Maghreb.
There are other religion hooks, such as the fact that Baatour took the dangerous step of calling for normalizing economic relations with Israel. It goes without saying that Islamists oppose his work — period. Baatour also angered some closeted LGBT Tunisians with his frank rhetoric and complex private life (he spent three months in jail in 2013, for example, after allegedly having sex with a 17-year-old male student).
But here is my main question: How can journalists leave Islam and the faith’s teachings on sexuality out of this story? I don’t think it’s enough to say that the “Arab” world is “conservative” and leave it at that.
By the way, it is interesting to note how CNN handled the crucial label in this case:
(CNN) An openly gay candidate is running for president in Tunisia, hoping to become the country's first LGBTQ leader.
Mounir Baatour announced his candidacy … for the September election, moved up from November following the death of 92-year-old President Beji Caïd Essebsi. In a statement on Twitter, Baatour said he is the first openly gay presidential candidate in the Muslim world.