(HRW) – What possible connection can there be between a woman who loves another woman and the brutal extremist armed group that calls itself Islamic State (also known as Isis)?
Well, according to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, they both pose direct threats to the “moderation” that his vision of Islam advances.
At an international seminar on August 18 in Bangi, local media reports say, Najib asserted that extremist armed groups and sexual and gender minorities both pose a threat to Malaysian society.
“Groups like the Islamic State and lesbians, gay, bisexuals, and transgenders (LGBT) both target the younger generation,” he said, “and seem successful in influencing certain groups in society.”
Seriously, Mr Prime Minister? Your statement is a far cry from the “moderation” you say you espouse.
Your claim is both disingenuous and dangerous. It may even be read by some as an invitation to use violence against LGBT people.
Dr Teh Yik Koon, a Malaysian scholar who has extensively researched the situation of transgender people in Malaysia, told Human Rights Watch last year, “People rely on the government to tell them what’s right and wrong—especially when it comes to [what is perceived as] a religious question.”
So when the prime minister tells citizens that LGBT people present a threat equivalent to a group that has massacred hundreds of civilians and that systematically rapes women and girls, it is like saying that such people have no place in society and should be suppressed or eliminated.
This is not the first time Najib has attempted to scapegoat LGBT people.
In 2012, he said, “LGBTs, pluralism, liberalism ― all these ‘isms’ are against Islam and it is compulsory for us to fight these.”
His government has shut down an LGBT rights festival, banned the Comango civil society coalition that expressed support for LGBT rights at the United Nations, and sponsored a play performed in schools and colleges around the country to “warn young people about the perils of being lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender”.
Malaysian authorities imprisoned the opposition leader, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim on trumped-up “sodomy” charges. As a Human Rights Watch report shows, Malaysia is one of the few countries worldwide that imprisons transgender people simply for expressing their gender identity. The government is now vigorously contesting a court decision that ruled laws against transgender people unconstitutional.
Najib’s latest claim comes as his ruling United Malay National Organization “is facing its greatest crisis of legitimacy yet,” according to an August 20 New York Times op-ed by Malaysian activist Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan.
An opposition party has responded to revelations that Najib received massive, illegal campaign donations through the 1Malaysia Development Berhad, a sovereign wealth fund, in the run-up to the 2013 general election by calling for its results to be declared void, and by slapping Najib with a lawsuit.
The Bersih citizen’s movement plans to hold a peaceful mass rally on August 29-30 to demand the prime minister’s resignation.
What better way to distract an increasingly skeptical public than with sensational claims that the country is facing a crisis because of LGBT people?
Attempting to rally support from the public in tough times by scapegoating sexual and gender minorities is straight out of the manual for flailing politicians.
When Nigerians spoke out over government corruption scandals and demanded action in the face of the onslaught by Boko Haram, what did former president Goodluck Jonathan give them? An anti-homosexuality law.
And in Egypt, where dozens of suspected gay men have been rounded up since Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi took over the presidency following a military coup, a gay man told The Advocate, “We are a scapegoat that both distracts Egyptians from the president’s failings and embellishes his rule with the trappings of being more Islamic than the Islamists.”
Even Najib’s claims that LGBT people are like terrorists is hardly original.
In Kenya, where the government has floundered in confronting hundreds of killings by the Somali extremist group al Shabab, majority leader Aden Duale told Parliament in 2014 that homosexuality “is as serious as terrorism and as any other social evil”.
For the benefit of Najib and all others who would equate LGBT people to Isis and similar groups, let’s get a few things straight.
1. Isis seeks to impose an Islamic caliphate across the world–by force. LGBT people are seeking the right to be who they are, and to love those whom they love peacefully.
2. Isis does, indeed, forcibly recruit children for roles in armed conflict, in violation of international law, and forces them to commit horrific crimes. Isis released a video in May that shows a group of children, dressed in camouflage, executing Syrian soldiers in Palmyra.
LGBT people do not “recruit” children into homosexuality. All children develop their own sexual orientation and gender identity, regardless of whether they have been exposed to LGBT people.
3. Isis has been responsible for systematically abducting and raping women and girls, forcing them to into sexual slavery. These relations are anything but consensual.
LGBT activists are campaigning for the rights of adults to engage in consensual same-sex relations. They are also campaigning to ensure that all rape victims, female, male, and gender non-conforming, have access to justice.
4. Isis has summarily executed men they suspected of being gay, including by throwing them off buildings.
LGBT movements are struggling to keep sexual and gender minorities free from violence – an aim that Malaysia and all governments should embrace.
It makes sense that the “moderate” government Najib espouses would be concerned about violent extremist sects.
But a “moderate” government should also respect its citizens’ rights to be free from discrimination and violence, and that is what LGBT people are asking for.
As a member of the UN, Malaysia has committed to respect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The government can’t just pick and choose which rights it will protect and which it will ignore.
It is Najib’s statement that Malaysia “cannot defend human rights at an international level” that is shocking and extreme.
International human rights apply to everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Najib needs to remember that.
This report was prepared by Neela Ghoshal for Human Rights Watch.