It has been said that the further backwards you look, the further forwards you can see. Certainly, the history of humankind holds for us many answers for today’s world, and with this in mind, here is the first of one of my occasional pieces on this matter.
Let me take you to an ancient land as real as it is legendary; famed for its magnificent palaces and a glittering wealth beyond imagination, two-thousand years ago this vast and powerful empire stretched from Europe to the Middle East. Great kings were creating breathtaking cities such as Persepolis and Pasargadae. They were also, in the case of Cyrus, responsible for what was perhaps the first ever Human Rights Charter.
Today, like those cities where such ideas were born, it all lies in ruins. Today, this Kingdom of Persia, now named Iran, is a very different place.
Around 540.B.C., Cyrus entered Babylon. Though he had a mighty army at his disposal, his arrival was not by force, for he believed this bountiful land had been delivered to him by God, and he had no desire to bring terror to a place that he saw as sanctuary. Peace, freedom and the well-being of ALL people was what mattered to him.
This is not to say he was not an accomplished soldier or held an aversion to battle; he could not have already built a united land of such magnitude without it. He was very much the conqueror. Yet he was also a wise man, who saw that repression was not the way forward, and through acceptance and favouring individual choice on such important matters as religion, he was therefore able to convert those who would have perhaps rebelled against him into vehement supporters.
Such leadership was far reaching, for beyond this realm the philosophy, literature and ideas that came from within tripled with profound effect upon the rest of the world.
In some way, one could look at Cyrus as the ‘father’ of the religions we know today. He was a follower of Zoroastrianism, one of the earliest monotheist religions which not only had a significant effect on Greek and Roman philosophy, but has undeniable influence on the birth of the Judeo-Christian, Islamic and the Buddhist faiths. To the Jews, he is the only non-Jew ever decreed as being divinely-appointed by them; is hailed as a messiah in the Judeo-Christian doctrine, and stands as Cyrus the Great in the Qur’an, and also perhaps that of Dhul-Qarnayan (who may have also been Alexander the Great, the man in history Cyrus is often compared to). One man who was undoubtedly seen to unite East and West. In ancient times, your chosen God and your chosen lover were not, in the most part, a matter for intense persecution.
The incredible legacy of Cyrus remained rooted throughout the centuries of change in regime and religion (the growth of Islam in the 7th Century) that swept through the land. In 1971, the then leader, Mohammad Reza Shah, celebrated the 2500th anniversary of the Iranian monarchy, directly back to the Cyrus himself. A mere eight years later that all toppled to dust in the most irrevocable change.
Today, as always, it seems, is, utterly ridiculous that the love of a God should inspire hatred of others and thus fuel war, though once more this is due to those religious fundamentalists who believe anyone who does not follow their word strictly to the letter is wrong. And so another country mounts that dark-winged horse of repression, with a vengeance that amounts to truly making our present time the most violent in the history of humanity.
I recently caught the lyrics of a song entitled ‘Warchild’, by a young Iranian called Firouz, which draws on his own experiences to express inspiration and beauty in the most testing circumstances. In his own words “The hardest battle is the one inside of yourself and in your own life. Everybody is a war-child.”
Growing up in a small village close to the border of Iraq, Firouz was a small child when the war between the two states began and turned his world upside down. His parents began making plans for him to flee, and by the age of fourteen he finally managed to get to Europe and a freedom he felt could only be found here, and where he now aims to build his life as a musician. Many other young men like him in Iran are much less fortunate.
As a British born and bred man living here in London, one can easily forget the hardship still faced by others in less ‘enlightened’ places. Certainly, I am aware of those who suffer through disease and famine, but the plight of those who simply do not have possession of their birthright, namely liberty, reaches the news less often. The issue of slavery, undoubtedly the most shameful crime this planet carries today, is one I write about in this blog. But here now, it is love I speak of.
I embrace my sexuality, simply as part of who I am, and though I have remembrance of difficulty in younger years, when I look to what others must sometimes face, I can hardly think I ever really suffered. Upon hearing the personal history of Firouz, I thought of the incident back in 2005 in Iran when two young men were publicly hanged. Since then, there have been reports of at dozens more victims who have been executed, simply for their choice of sexual partner.
In The Islamic Republic of Iran homosexual acts have been considered a capital crime since the 1979 revolution that brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power. Iranians found guilty of gay lovemaking are given a choice of four death styles: being hanged, stoned, halved by a sword or dropped from the highest perch. A man need only be found naked with another for charges to be made, and every action will be spied upon to bring this into place, from spying, entrapment and blackmail through to all manner of torture.
I recently also read the story of a Amir, young man who, following arrest and inquisition, was informed by a judge that a physician need only examine and so vouch that he had had a sexual experience with a man for him to face the death penalty. No evidence was proved, and so he escaped with just an ‘official’ rape by a bottle (to ensure he wouldn’t want the “real thing”), and one hundred lashes. Upon his release, life became unbearable, under constant surveillance and surprise visits by enforcers of the law day or night; eventually he fled to the tolerance and relative acceptance of Turkey.
I cannot imagine the fear held by the likes of 19 year old Mehdi Kazemi. Mehdi was a student here when, in 2005, he heard his boyfriend had been hung for engaging in sodomy. He then sought protection here in the UK, but yet again, as with the famous case of the Sudanese slave Mende Nazar, the Home Office rejected his plea for asylum on the grounds that the problem wasn’t real! He then fled to Holland, who also failed to offer him sanctuary. A return to Iran virtually guaranteed his execution, and his only hope was that the Home Secretary intervened in his case. This, the same woman who has openly stated that homosexuals are safe in Iran providing they are “discreet”. She’s wrong, of course, but even if this was the case, why should anyone be forced to hide who they are?
That the British Government deems it correct policy that we should send an innocent young man to his death simply because of his sexual orientation is horrifying. Were he an inciter of religion-fired hatred, calling out for death and destruction, he would probably be protected and living off state benefits. Thankfully, the publicity surrounding Mehdi brought him a reprieve, but he is not alone in his plight. Since the regime took over in 1979 more than 4,000 gay men and lesbians have been executed in Iran.
In this big, bad world, a gay Persian may not perhaps be much of an issue to you. But stop and think about this for a moment. In our name, ministers are deporting people to face imprisonment and even death for their sexuality. No-one I know would deem this acceptable.
From the place of where I am, I can say that, growing up, many of us will have experienced, to a lesser or greater degree, an internal conflict with what is inherent in us against what is deemed the correct moral value/social and religious standpoint. Some will have faced homophobia, slight or worse yet always insidious. But to think, as we now live our lives freely, that others, just like us, face the very real threat of torture and death just for loving another, is unbelievably shocking. Of course, Iran is not the only place where this is so, nor is it an exclusive matter to Muslim countries, though of twenty-six, seven carry the death penalty. In all, there are over eighty countries where homosexuality is explicitly condemned as criminal, and even as recently as 2006 a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Ohio was calling for the same death penalty (whilst also decrying evolution and believing that global-warming is a fantasy.).
One could wonder why sexuality – or a sexual conformity – is the focus of so much attention. Most probably because it speaks of ‘choice’, and when people exercise individual choice it appears as a challenge: the autonomy of any individual is a deeply disturbing threat to those who hold power and seek to keep it.
The religious doctrines claim homosexuality unjust, unnatural, a transgression both criminal and corrupt. Apparently. Yet both the Bible and the Qur’an actually have little to say on the issue, and the main problem the sacred texts express with regards to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah was the fact they partied to excess and didn’t respect the rules of hospitality shown to them. Ignorance, fear and the usual thirst for dominance over others is what all this is about, no decree from God/Allah. All too often, it seems, this will be carried out with the foul stench of hypocrisy; I recall a friend from Lebanon telling me of all that went on if you only scratched the surface, meaning those ‘officials’ who are openly against any activity. Compared to its neighbours, Lebanon is a liberal country, but tolerance there comes from being discreet. Indeed, no matter what gender or sexuality, for most of the Arab world, discretion is the only option when it comes to experiencing natural passion. Yet experience it they will, for prohibition of any kind never really works; those who are repressed will not, cannot remain so.
To hide, to somehow live a double life rather than feeling free to celebrate it in all its myriad colours is one thing; to face the frighteningly real threat of execution is quite something else. As I look at what is taking place, and then back to the time of Cyrus, I wonder once again if our world has ever really moved forward at all.