When the story first broke, what struck me most was the focus on lesbians. It is far more common in anti-LGBT speech for the reference to be either directed at gay males or framed with reference to gay male sex, at least in Singapore and the West. But coming from a lecturer in Malay Studies, I wasn’t surprised.
On 20 February, Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied made a post on Facebook in which he lambasted “liberal Islam” and its support for lesbianism, describing them not only as “wrongful ideologies” — a matter of opinion, perhaps — but also as “diseases” and “cancers”. The latter may have stepped into hate speech.
As the story in the Straits Times (headline shown above) shows, it generated protests and several petitions.
Now, before I go further, it is important to look at what Khairudin actually said. An anonymous comment led me to the Rilek1Corner site which had a screengrab (see thumbnail at left). His Facebook post seems to have been an answer to a question by an unnamed person, concerning a “new development” in which liberal Islam may be affirming unorthodox sexual identities. In his answer, Khairudin suggested giving advice, going to “proper religious classes”, and seeking help from counsellors. He urged using the “power of technology” to alert groups and movements about spreading these “wrongful ideologies”.
The recommendation may sound reasonable, even if we disagree with his view. Nevertheless, the dehumanising tone he used to describe lesbians — and for that matter, adherents of “liberal Islam” too — is what made the post stand out.
I have on several occasions argued that homophobia is deeply linked to insecurity stemming from a loss of male privilege. You get clues to this when you read some of the things Pope Benedict XVI used to say, speaking of both “radical feminism” and “homosexual lifestyles” in virtually the same breath, and how both have undermined “family life”. Traditionalists’ conception of a happily ordered family is one where the husband is the dominant member, and where the sexes had clearly demarcated roles. Feminism, which argued for equality and autonomy for women, was a serious threat. The gay rights movement sprang from this, making the point that true autonomy includes autonomy in sexual orientation and gender identity.
It is not easy to see this linkage between feminism and gay rights when one looks at the speech of the US-based Christian Right, and that may be why we forget that there is a link. This, in my view, is because in the US, it has become socially impossible to speak openly against equality for women. Thus, even as the Christian Right goes ballistic over gays and lesbians, they know it won’t be politick to attack heterosexual women as well.
However, this does not mean they don’t engage in side actions that try to limit women’s autonomy. The same people also tend to support tighter restrictions on abortion. But they have cleverly packaged it as a “right to life” issue, not as an “attack women’s right to control their bodies” issue, which in reality it is.
Islam is much less reticent about speaking out against equality and autonomy for women. I used to joke that Muslim clerics aren’t as prominent in attacking the LGBT movement as the Christian Right because they were too busy trying to control women. Things may be changing now, not because they are any more accepting of equality for women, but because the LGBT issue has made enough progress that we can’t be ignored any longer.
But it is probably no coincidence that the religions that feel most threatened by this “deadly mix” of feminism and gay rights, and are more explicit about linking the two, are the ones that still segregate men and women, either in prayer halls or in clerical roles. Gender distinctions are not just important in Islam and Roman Catholicism, they are part of the teaching. It is much easier for them to speak out against both feminism and gay rights simultaneously than it is for conservative Protestants, who have already conceded the point on women’s equality (even if they have not internalised it).
This dual threat perception comes together to explain why the question that Khairudin had to answer focussed on lesbians. Lesbians represent both a refusal to be subordinate to men and a challenge to heteronormativity. They are the “worst of the worst”.
As an aside, here is a talk by Manal al-Sharif about her fight for dignity and freedom for women in the most conservative of Muslim countries, Saudi Arabia:
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In the wake of the news reports, I asked around if anyone knew Khairudin or had heard him speak on previous occasions. One friend gave me a particularly interesting answer, painting a negative picture of the man. She had attended one (or maybe more than one — I didn’t clarify with her) lecture by him and came away with the impression that he was insufferably sexist. She remembered how the notion of male privilege and dominance held up many of the ideas he propounded.
The other strong impression she came away with was his condescension towards Malays. She said, “His opening remarks was something along the lines of ‘I want to stress that while my field is Malay Studies, I myself am not Malay, but Arab’. Why was it necessary to stress that? He then added, ‘However, I married a Malay wife,’ and saying how much he ‘loved’ Malays.”
My friend got quite agitated just retelling this to me. I don’t blame her. It sounds awfully like people who say, “I have nothing against gays, in fact some of my best friends are gay, but . . . ”
Dr Syed Khairudin is an icon of the Malay/Muslim community in the field of academic achievement. He continues to play a contributing role to the Malay/Muslim community and the mainstream society.
Another thing you’d note from the FMSA statement is its reference to a “Neo-Sodom-Gomorrah community”, presumably newly coined by them. However, as playwright Alfian Sa’at pointed out,
They do use the term LGBT as well, which clearly shows that the coinage is a silly and childish attempt at testing the limits of provocative and inflammatory speech.
Which brings me back to the question of hate speech.
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There is at least one petition calling on the university authorities to sanction Khairudin for committing hate speech. Khairudin’s defenders argue that if the university did so, it would be a violation of academic freedom.
Where is the line between academic freedom and hate speech? It may be hard to draw, for indeed there is value in allowing space for counter-mainstream, even offensive ideas. But a necessary test may be whether the idea being espoused is intellectually grounded: What is the basis for the idea? How sound is it?
This test may be easier to apply in some disciplines than others. It is, for example, quite clear that advocating the “truth” of creationism can seek no protection from academic freedom, but arguing the moral value of large-scale genetic engineering of humans — well, that may not be so clear-cut.
But lost in the debate about whether Khairudin was exercising his academic freedom is this: Was his Facebook posting on a matter that was within his area of expertise? It is doubtful. From what little I know, his area is that of Malay Studies, which I would think is quite distinct from Islamic Studies. He was pronouncing on religion, particularly on liberal Islam. I am sure there are scholars out there with much deeper knowledge about Islamic perspectives.
This is important. A professor of monetary theory can have no special claim to be an expert on transgender identities.
If on balance his passing judgement on liberal Islam and lesbians wasn’t within Khairudin’s area of expertise, then the greater laxity that one might give for academic freedom will not apply. He was in fact just exercising his right to free speech, the same right that you and I have. That speech will need to be tested on the same basis as anyone else’s speech for hate content. So the question comes back to this: Is labelling a class of people a “disease” and “cancer” something that would cross the line? Suppose one said that the migration of dark-complexioned people from such and such a place to Singapore was a “cancer” — would that be OK? Suppose one said that a new religion making inroads and gaining adherents was a “disease” infecting Singapore society, would that be acceptable?
In Straits Times’ Breaking News,
The National University of Singapore (NUS) professor who drew criticism last week for referring to lesbianism as “cancers” has been counselled by the university.
In an e-mail to all faculty members, staff and students on Wednesday, NUS provost Tan Eng Chye said he had counselled Associate Professor Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied, who acknowledged that his original post “reflected poor judgment in the tone and choice of words”.
Prof Tan, who is also NUS deputy president of academic affairs, said Dr Khairudin’s comments “contained provocative, inappropriate and offensive language”.
— Straits Times, 5 March 2014, NUS professor “counselled” by university for Facebook posting on lesbianism, by Pearl Lee
In a Clarification Statement which I found on Rilek1Corner (the source was Khairudin’s Facebook page) he wrote that he has not removed the original post, except the words “cancer” and “social diseases”. He also wrote that “My position as a Muslim about LGBT remains clear and is in line with the view of Muslims scholars”, and that “There is no disagreement in Islam on the prohibition of homosexuality.” Although Khairudin stressed that this was his personal view, the sense one gets from the foregoing is an attempt to invoke his religion for justification and defence.