Global Family Quarrels
The Washington Blade
January 18, 1991


Global Family Quarrels

When Martin Luther King, Jr. described his dream of a just society, he expressed not a static belief but a dynamic commitment and a challenge to his nation. He knew that the belief in our common humanity is not easily put into practice. The meeting of different peoples and cultures has led more often to exploitation and bloodshed than to peaceful coexistence.

Recalling King's opposition to the Vietnam war, a coalition founded by former Attorney General Ramsey Clark (and including several local Gay groups) is organizing a January 19 (1991) march on the White House to demand that the U.S. withdraw from the Middle East and instead fight racism, poverty, and AIDS at home.

Not surprisingly, the coalition's January 4 planning meeting turned out to be just another one-sided Leftist litany blaming America and Israel first. Israel was denounced for invading Lebanon, but Syria was not; and I heard no one criticize Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Those present were told that it is an Arab matter, and the U.S. has no right to intervene.

The coalition dismisses the fact that U.S. forces are in the Persian Gulf at the request of sovereign nations and in defense of international law. Instead of criticizing the current U.S. move from a defensive to an offensive deployment (as many experts do), the march organizers take the standard isolationist line and decry any U.S. involvement in the region, or indeed the world.

The attempt to treat international problems as private ones can be seen also in Salman Rushdie's efforts to treat the furor over his novel The Satanic Verses as a family quarrel among Muslims. In a December 28, 1990, op-ed piece in The New York Times, he appeals specifically to Muslims and asserts that his efforts at reconciliation are succeeding, despite renewed threats from Iran.

While one hopes that Rushdie (a strong friend of Gay people and the disenfranchised) is right, the matter has gone far beyond a quarrel between one author and some clerics. National sovereignty is involved. Rushdie is a native of Bombay and a naturalized British citizen, and is not subject to Iranian law.

Having published his books in twenty languages and received support from millions of infidels the world over, Rushdie cannot now exclude us from the discussion. In any case, those who have condemned him are unlikely to be any more impressed than Westerners by his new claim of a conversion from secular humanism to Islam.

What is needed here are not craven efforts at appeasement, but greater intellectual freedom and less fundamentalism in the Islamic world. To have to defend a work of fiction while under a death threat is to return our society to the 15th century. Of course, as Rushdie points out in his novel Shame, this is the 15th century on the Hegiran calendar.

Fortunately for freedom in the West, Christendom has spent its additional centuries undergoing the Reformation and declining in power with the rise of secularism. We still have our fundamentalists, but they can no longer burn heretics at the stake.

In Iran's theocracy, on the other hand, Gay people are routinely executed, and the late Ayatollah Khomeini expected to be obeyed when he ordered Rushdie's death for such sins as having fictional prostitutes adopt the names of Muhammad's twelve wives in order to titillate their customers.

The subservient role of women suggested by the Prophet's having a dozen wives in the first place has gone unmentioned in the Rushdie controversy. The profound sexism in Arab culture allows men legally to take multiple wives (but not vice versa), steal their fortunes, beat them routinely, divorce them at will, and leave them destitute without access to their children. It is no surprise that such a culture persecutes and kills Gay people.

In the January 7, 1991, issue of The New Yorker, Milton Viorst describes the ordeal of Jordanian television host Toujan Faisal, whose treatment by fundamentalists eerily parallels that of Rushdie. Her attempts to document the plight of women in Jordanian society have resulted in her being forced off the air, sued on charges of apostasy, cheated out of a parliamentary election, and targeted for assassination in the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful.

We cannot simply march into situations like this one and tell other people how to run their countries; but we can seek out fellow spirits like Faisal and offer them our support in their struggle. As we continue Dr. King's efforts to make our own nation live up to its creed of equality for all, we must face the fact that the forces of tyranny do not recognize any borders. We cannot prevail against them unless we are prepared to assert our own principles just as authoritarians assert theirs.

In a world with rulers like Saddam Hussein, isolationism is as dangerous a delusion as George Bush's notion that we can stabilize the Middle East with a massive invasion of Iraq. The faults of our government do not automatically confer sainthood on all foreign governments the U.S. opposes.

We cannot expect the authoritarians and rapists of the world to respect the lives or interests of others. Sometimes we have to fight back. Freedom movements in several countries are proving that such fights can be won. If we are to overcome the forces of aggression and repression, we must cooperate, without ideological dogmatism. We must also persevere; after all, Communist tyranny in Eastern Europe wasn't defeated in a day.

As individuals we may not be able to stop a war, but we can open new channels of communication with our counterparts abroad, and work together to ensure that our human rights concerns are addressed. Organizations like the International Lesbian and Gay Association are enormously important to this task.

As we celebrate the birthday of a modern prophet of peace, we should remember that Dr. King was mortal like us, and was inspired by a man from India named Gandhi. It's all in the family -- a global family that Gay men and Lesbians must work to help define, and whose quarrels we cannot afford to ignore.


Richard J. Rosendall is a past president of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, DC. He can be reached at

Copyright 1991 by Richard J. Rosendall. All rights reserved.