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With just one brief sentence - "In Iran we don't have homosexuals like in your country" - Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did himself more damage during his recent media blitz of America than the sum total of all his other remarks put together.
Despite his numerous offensive and occasionally ludicrous claims about Israel, the Holocaust and any number of other subjects, it was this remark that most vocally earned him boos and laughs of ridicule from an audience at Columbia University that at times seemed disturbingly sympathetic to the Iranian tyrant.
It was also the video of this one moment that was endlessly replayed on subsequent news broadcasts, Web sites such as YouTube and TV chat shows, which used it as the butt of numerous jokes. (My favorite being Conan O'Brien's quip: "Yesterday, Iran's President Ahmadinejad said that his country doesn't have problems with gay people because they don't have homosexuals in Iran - although Ahmadinejad did admit that sometimes one Iranian will take another Iranian's penis hostage.")
Most of the opinion pieces that followed Ahmadinejad's Columbia appearance focused on this remark as yet another example of his tendency to brazenly dissemble when confronted by Western interlocutors, pointing out that there are indeed Iranian gays, who have been oppressed to the point of exile and even execution by his government.
However, Ahmadinejad is usually more skillful when confronted by such accusations than to just respond with an easily refutable denial. Why was he so off-key on this one particular point? What did he mean by insisting "in Iran we do not have this phenomenon."
It's worth asking these questions not only because of what it says, in part, about the mindset of the oppressive Islamist regime Ahmadinejad represents, but also because of its relevance to the moral stance necessary in opposing it.
Iranian-American journalist Hooman Majd, who has sometimes acted as a translator for Ahmadinejad on his visits to New York, wrote an apologetic piece in Slate claiming that Ahmadinejad actually meant Iran "was devoid of homosexual culture." It's unlikely, though, that the Iranian president has any notion of what, if anything, constitutes "homosexual culture," or that he is concerned that anyone might have the mistaken impression that Teheran and Qom are rife with Judy Garland fan clubs.
What is likely is that the Iranian leader was not in fact denying that homosexual behavior occurs in his country, but that there are individuals there that can be defined as "homosexuals" - a notion he no doubt identifies strictly with decadent Western culture.
In fact, this is a fairly common notion among many religious fundamentalists, including those of Judaism and Christianity. In this way of thinking, homosexuality is not the essential nature (biologically or otherwise) of any individual - it's strictly a "lifestyle choice" or transient sexual "temptation" that can be controlled or even "cured" through various means.
THIS VIEWPOINT makes its far easier to label homosexual behavior, even between consenting adults, as the strictly sinful act described in the Bible or Koran, because it is a deviation from the God-given natural order. And someone like evangelical pastor Ted Haggard can announce himself as cured of the homosexual leanings that led him to hire a male hustler after just a few weeks of therapy.
Today, of course, modern thinking and science have postulated otherwise. While Kinsey and other sex researchers have asserted that homosexual experimentation is not uncommon among heterosexuals, especially those in same-sex environments such as prisons (or seminaries and yeshivot, for that matter), recent biological research has claimed to have found evidence of physiological brain differences between heterosexuals and those individuals whose sexual attraction is almost exclusively to members of the same gender.
Indeed, claims of a so-called "gay gene" have even raised concerns among some gay-rights activists that attempts may be made to medically alter innate sexual identity at some future date. Some biologists have also claimed to have widespread examples of same-sex behavior in certain animal species. Thus this "deviation" from mainstream sexual attraction may well be one that, for whatever reason (and it's possible to think of a few), has been built into the natural order - either by natural selection or the hand of the Almighty (or both), depending on your view.
All this doesn't rule out physiological or environmental factors as accounting in part for homosexual attraction, or eliminate the role of free will in choosing to act on it. But it does mean that there are indeed people who can be called homosexuals - even in Iran, or for that matter in Mea She'arim, Monsey and communities all over America's Christian Bible Belt, no matter what their respective holy texts may say.
None of this is to equate religious condemnation of homosexuality among fundamentalist Jews and Christians with that of the radical Islamists who view Ahmadinejad as their champion. Judaism and Christianity have at least moved beyond fundamental proscriptions of homosexuality that include death by stoning and hanging, punishment by flogging and imprisonment, and in most Western societies by any outright discrimination.
Nor am I suggesting that Orthodox rabbis and Evangelical pastors need to differentiate themselves from radical mullahs by necessarily embracing the cause of gay rights - the question of gay marriage, for example, is a complex one that hinges on far more than whether one considers homosexuality a biblical sin.
BUT DENYING the very existence of homosexuals, of individuals whose sexual preference is nature- or God-given, is the ideological underpinning that allows an Ahmadinejad and his co-religionists the justification to violently oppress any manifestation of same-sex behavior.
Those who oppose the Islamist regime in Teheran, Muslims included, must understand that this aspect of it is very much a part of the jihadist mentality which must be rejected in its entirety.
Although Jews are often called "the canary in the mine-shaft" of societies on the road to totalitarian aggression, that is only partially correct. The same is true of homosexuals, whose pink triangle was seen in the concentration camps alongside the yellow star.
The correct answer to Ahmadinejad is not just that, yes, there are indeed homosexuals in Iran - they are also here, there and everywhere, our mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, who deserve both our love and the right to stand equally before the law. And if they cannot feel free to march openly in Jerusalem, as they certainly cannot in Teheran, we only weaken ourselves in the battle against Ahmadinejad.