In Islamic State-held areas, being gay often means a death sentence


The camera lingers on the jihadists suspending the man by his legs over the edge of the building. Blindfolded, his hands bound behind his back, he flails as he falls to his death, the video switching to slow motion as an Islamic chant, known as a nasheed, plays in the background.

In this Oct. 22, 2015, file photo, Daniel Halaby, a gay Syrian living in southern Turkey, shows a photo from his laptop of Islamic State group militants throwing a man off a roof for allegedly violating the extremists' ban on homosexuality.
In this Oct. 22, 2015, file photo, Daniel Halaby, a gay Syrian living in southern Turkey, shows a photo from his laptop of Islamic State group militants throwing a man off a roof for allegedly violating the extremists’ ban on homosexuality.
(Hussein Malla/Associated Press )

The clip, from a 2015 video celebrating the anniversary of the group’s takeover of the city of Mosul, is one of dozens of photo reports and videos depicting the fate of those accused by Islamic State of “committing the act of [sodomy]”: Being thrown from “a tall height,” usually a building. Those who survive the fall have stones hurled at them by crowds waiting below for the coup de grace.

In the almost two years since Islamic State declared its self-styled caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria, it has employed amputations, whipping and crucifixions to punish those who violate its strict reading of sharia, or Islamic law. But for gay people living in Islamic State-held areas, Sunday’s “lone wolf” attack in Orlando served as a bitter reminder of the systematic targeting they face under the group’s regime of terror, where their sexuality is a death sentence -- one often carried out with the tacit approval of the community around them.


“Since December 2014, the group has bragged that it has killed at least 41 individuals for what it calls sodomy,” said Jessica Stern, executive director of OutRight Action International, an advocacy and monitoring group for LGBT rights.

“Clearly the 41 deaths are just the tip of the iceberg, and when we talk to our friends in Iraq and Syria they tell us of many other deaths that [Islamic State] didn’t claim public responsibility for,” she added.

Like many tyrannical regimes before it, Islamic State maintains a veneer of legality, backing its persecution of gay people with arguments derived from the group’s interpretation of Islamic texts.

Last February, the group outlined its legal argument on how it clamped down on what it described as “sexual deviance” in its English-language magazine, Dabiq. The article is a jeremiad against the “West’s sexual revolution,” which “plunged it into a downward spiral of sexual deviance and immorality” where “disease is rampant.”

“In the midst of this widespread affront to the fitrah (natural human disposition),” the article rails, “the Islamic State continues its efforts against these deeds of misguidance – which Western ‘Civilization’ regards as a part of their ‘values’ – by implementing the rulings of Allah on those who practice any form of sexual deviancy or transgression.”

The body of the article is peppered throughout with quotes from both the Koran as well as sayings attributed to the prophet Muhammad to derive “rulings … that will protect the Muslims from treading the same rotten course that the West has chosen to pursue.”


The Koran discusses the issue of homosexuality in its retelling of the story of Sodom and Lot. In Arabic, the word “loti” is a derogatory term for homosexual, and sodomy is dubbed “the act of the people of Lot.” Although the Koran says both men who engage in homosexual acts are to be punished, it does not specify how, and says the death penalty can be waived if they repent.

For its signature punishment, Islamic State instead relies on literature from the Hadith, a compendium of the prophet’s words, said Islamic State expert Aymenn Jawad Tamimi, a research fellow at the Middle East Forum. The book was “very obscure until Islamic State started publicizing it.”

“This is the way Islamic State justifies itself foremost to its supporters, by presenting a theology meticulously backed by source material so as to impress them,” concluded Tamimi in a social media interview on Monday.

This approach, observers say, is central to the image Islamic State hopes to create for itself as the protector of Muslims throughout the world, which serves as a powerful recruiting tool for the group.

Armed with these rulings, Islamic State hunts for gay men in its midst, apprehending people and rifling through their phones for simply walking or speaking in a way that would arouse suspicion, said Subhi Nahas, a Syrian who escaped from his hometown of Idlib after it was taken over by the Al Qaeda affiliate and one-time Islamic State ally Al Nusra Front.


He now resides in San Francisco, where he has become an advocate of LGBT rights for refugees.

“Even if you aren’t a homosexual you could still be walking in a different way, but this doesn’t matter. You have to walk in a certain way for them to let you pass,” he said.

Since Nahas left, he has learned from others that Islamic State’s tactics have gotten uglier. The group now stalks websites that are popular with gay Arab men, setting up fake accounts to harvest information or entrap them.

Some have also been betrayed by other gay people in the community who, fearing for their safety and that of their families, hope to avoid detection by giving up others while masquerading as supporters of Islamic State.

But the jihadists can also rely on support for their cause from Muslim communities where intolerance of homosexuality is mainstream. “There in no acceptance of [homosexuality], people aren’t even willing to talk about it,” said Nahas, explaining that when he first participated in the 2011 uprisings against Syrian President Bashar Assad, he and his gay colleagues were told it was not the right time to advocate for LGBT rights.

As Islamists gained power in the uprising, Nahas even feared his own father would hand him over to the jihadists. “I always had trouble with my father because of my orientation, so I thought he would do it to get rid of me,” Nahas said, recalling similar instances of families surrendering their relatives to militant factions in Iraq during the U.S. invasion of the country.


“These atrocious acts exist on a continuum of violence,” said Stern. “I think it’s really important to underscore that there is violence by families, killing campaigns by militias ... and there was indifference by governments even before the rise of ISIS, with not a single murderer being prosecuted.”

Although there are bright spots, including a thriving LGBT community in both Lebanon and one in Jordan that is somewhat tolerated, many countries across the Arab and Islamic world sentence people to death or subject them to lashings for being gay. Others, like Egypt, round them up under so-called debauchery laws and subject them to anal virginity tests.

For Yusef, a gay Muslim who refused to give his full name so as to be able to speak freely, the behavior of these governments is little better than the brutality meted out by Islamic State, and is intended to do one thing: “Spread fear.”

“One is more extreme than the other, but in essence they are equally terrifying,” he wrote in a Facebook chat on Monday.

But the Orlando shootings have also spurred some to challenge those around them to acknowledge the prejudice against gays and lesbians.

On Sunday, Murad Zagal, a resident of Jordan who volunteers with a local group promoting HIV awareness and LGBT counseling in the country, expressed his anger on Facebook after the Orlando attacks. “Please don’t lecture me about Islam’s ‘true’ image that you think is being mutilated by terrorists who ‘don’t represent true Islam.’ Instead just show me,” he wrote.


“The majority of Muslims are homophobic, there, I said it. Until that changes your claims of true Islam are delusional and hypocritical.”

For Nahas, however, the wave of Islamophobia caused by the attacks has alienated him in his new home.

“My feelings were that I escaped from Syria to come to [the] U.S., and [Orlando] makes me fear for our community of gay Muslims,” he said.

“There is no place for us to call home.”

Bulos is a special correspondent.