The Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led rebel force that includes Arabs and Christians, just said it has “deep respect for human rights, including the rights of homosexuals.” In a region where homosexuals face severe hatred and even death penalties, those words are rare and powerful.
The statement came in response to reports that a new LGBT unit was established in Syria to fight ISIS alongside the Kurds. The Kurds clarified that these fighters are from outside Syria and do not belong to the Syrian Democratic Forces coalition, but they did not want this clarification to be mistaken for a rejection of human rights for gays.
“We in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), while emphasizing our deep respect for human rights, including the rights of homosexuals, we deny the formation of such a battalion within the framework of our forces and we consider this news to be untrue,” said the director of their media office.
The LGBT unit, named The Queer Insurrection and Liberation Army, is part of the International Revolutionary People’s Guerilla Force. Press reports refer to them as either communist or anarchist. Their Twitter account has the communist Red Star.
“We believe as queers in the Middle East that one of the most radical acts we can do is to announce our existence to people and governments who have and continue to claim that we do not exist,” the spokesman for the LGBT unit said.
The forces’ Twitter account shows a strong desire to fight Turkey’s Islamist government, particularly in Afrin in northwestern Syria. The Erdogan regime regularly targets the Kurdish forces there, accusing them of being part of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party terrorist group, more commonly known as the PKK.
The Syrian Kurds’ statement in support of human rights for homosexuals is astonishingly bold because of the region’s deep-seeded antipathy towards gays, including among Kurds. There are 10 countries where homosexuals can be executed for their sexual orientation. All are Muslim-majority.
Iraq, where the Kurds have an autonomous region, is not on the list of countries with a death penalty for homosexuality but there has long been an intolerant culture and laws that were used to persecute gays. Even under Saddam Hussein’s secular regime, there was a crackdown that included executing those accused of engaging in homosexuality, adultery and rape.
After Saddam fell in 2003, there was a whirlwind of Islamism that put the LGBT community in even greater peril. Sunni jihadists like al-Qaeda and ISIS to Shiite militias backed by Iran all saw homosexuals as deserving of death. According to one report, 680 members of the LGBT community were murdered in Iraq between 2004 and 2009.
The LGBT unit’s spokesperson does not deny that serious problems exist from the more conservative elements of Kurdish society.
For example, one gay Kurdish activist in Iraq says he had to flee a few years ago because of the persecution and threats he received. Gays continue to live in the shadows, rather than out in the open.
In 2010, the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq passed a law for gender equality that critics said would lead to approval of homosexuality. The Islamic Union of Scholars in Kurdistan condemned it and the Kurds’ own minister of endowments and religious affairs claimed it was pro-gay. The Kurdish government felt it had to hold a news conference to clarify that the law does not recognize same-sex marriages.
Despite the widespread anti-homosexual sentiment even among Kurds, the LGBT unit’s spokesman claims Kurdish fighters were “excited and happy” when they saw his group’s rainbow flag. He said the fighters’ classes include productive discourses on gender and sexuality.
“The fact that these theories are being analyzed and spoken about by one of the largest leftist guerrilla forces in the world, in the midst of a revolution and war, is transformative and inspiring,” he said.
The topic of homosexuality is actually being discussed on Iraqi Kurdish news programs, allowing critical thinking and exchanges of ideas that will lead to a brighter future. In November 2016, a civil rights organization in Sulaymaniyah launched a campaign for women’s rights and tolerance towards homosexuals that included painting murals.
The activists are even engaging religious and political leaders. Last year, activist Ayaz Shalal had a townhall on the topic with about 130 Islamic and Christian religious leaders.
“When I speak to the community, it is the first open conversation they’ve had on LGBT issues, and some do walk away questioning the antiquated popular opinions,” he said.
Remarkably, the U.S. consulate in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan raised the rainbow flag in solidarity with LGBT Pride Month on June 1. A member of Iraq’s parliament said he would have burned down the consulate if it was in his city. Posters promoting gay rights mysteriously showed up in Baghdad that month as well.
We must understand that progressive change in the region will happen in increments.
We are doomed to permanent disappointment and eternal pessimism if our standard for success is a sudden and complete embrace of our 21st Century Jeffersonian secular-democratic ideals. Instead, our objective needs to be enabling and fostering a positive evolution towards modernity.
By the standards of the Middle East, the Syrian Kurds’ statement in support of homosexual rights, the discussions of the topic and the campaigns of activism are a giant leap forward.