What Islamists can learn from Pope Francis' views on gays
While sticking to the broadly conservative line, His Holiness has lessened the stigma around alternative sexuality.
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Pope Francis has done it again. Returning to Rome from Armenia, where he expressed sorrow over the Armenian genocide of 1915, the Pope was asked a question on gay rights in the backdrop of the Orlando massacre in which 49 people were killed by a gunman inside a gay nightclub on June 12.
"We Christians have to apologise for so many things, not just for this (treatment of gays), but we must ask for forgiveness, not just apologise. Forgiveness - Lord, it is a word we forget so often," he replied.
This is not the first time the Pope has made accommodating statements towards gays. Within weeks of his anointment in 2013, he famously said: "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?"
At the Church Synod in 2014, Francis made similarly conciliatory comments. On the question of gay clergymen, he asked that the Church show greater flexibility and refrain from "clos[ing] oneself within the written word, and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God."
As regards his latest statement, the New York Times reported: "He told reporters on the plane that 'there are traditions in some countries, some cultures that have a different mentality about this question (gays)' and that there were 'some (gay) demonstrations that are too offensive for some'."
Francis' comments reiterate his vision for LGBT Catholics. While sticking to the broadly conservative line that looks upon homosexuality as a private sin that must not be publicly "celebrated", the Pope has nevertheless lessened the stigma around alternative sexuality.
But the Pope's statement does more than act as balm for beleaguered LGBT Catholics. At a time of widespread violence against members of the community, the Pope is the only religious leader who has openly advocated their cause.
This debate earns special relevance in the backdrop of the rise of radical Islam that seeks to impose its vision, one allegedly guided by the Quran, on the world.Orlando shooting: The aftermath. (AP)
All three Abrahamic religions contain verses that are broadly anti-homosexual. This is what the Pope meant when he referred to "clos[ing] oneself within the written word". Yet, it is only Islamists today who take the "word of God" literally and expose homosexuals to the most horrendous violence.
The IS, which rules parts of Syria and Iraq, routinely throws homosexuals off buildings, in line with ijma, which means the agreed-upon consensus on the quantum of punishment for sinful activity as prescribed by religious scholars.
Even Omar Mateen, the Orlando perpetrator, expressed his faith in IS in a phone call he made immediately following the massacre. While the FBI is still figuring out the details of the case, Mateen seems to have, at least partially, been influenced by religious teachings.
The LGBT rights remain a fraught issue in most countries but in the West, the outline of this debate has shifted definitively towards an egalitarianism that calls for equal rights.
True, not all battles have been won. The latest flashpoint in the US involves the rights of the transgender to use public bathrooms of the gender they identify as, not the one they were born into.
Yet, for all its continuing struggles, the cause of equality in the West has now shifted to enshrining legal safeguards, rooted in the enlightenment ideals that stress the equality of man regardless of difference.
And religious pushback is weakening. When the head of the Roman Catholic Church weighs in on the issue with markedly progressive views, it rekindles hopes that the journey ahead will yield better outcomes.
Sadly, the same cannot be said for much of the Islamic world. The LGBT community lives in the shadows, and not just in IS-controlled territories. In Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Nigeria and the United Arab Emirates (among others), homosexual activity, even in this day and age, carries the death penalty.
A growing number of ex-Muslims in the West, both gay and straight, have spoken of the urgent need for Islam to reform itself. One of them is Sohail Ahmed, a British citizen who has articulated his journey to renouncing Islam and accepting his sexuality.
Muslim religious leaders must make a concerted global effort to rid Islam of the toxic strains of Wahabism and Salafism that rule the roost in many Muslim countries, denying rights to gays and other minorities, especially women.
Reform is a gradual, often painful process. Change in durable attitudes towards sexuality will take time, especially when the change is sought within religion.
But human rights cannot be held hostage to religious orthodoxy.
Pope Francis has shown the way. Time for other religions to follow his lead.