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Gay, Muslim, and scared.

The terrorist attack hits twice as hard for some gay Arab-Americans, who say they are now targets themselves

Ramzi Zakharia was walking his dog in front of his home in Jersey City, N.J., on the morning of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center when his world changed forever.

"I have a perfect view of the Manhattan skyline," says Zakharia, a founding member of the Gay and Lesbian Arab Society. "I heard the crash and saw the smoke billowing out of the buildings. I saw buildings collapse into the ground. Everyone was falling to the ground, crying. People were already vowing revenge."

It wasn't long before Zakharia realized the fallout would go far beyond human carnage and physical devastation. The following day his group's Web site began receiving threatening E-malls.

"People were writing things like `Die Arab Scum,' calling us `sand niggers' and `camel jockeys,'" says Zakharia, who was born in Beirut, Lebanon, and today works as a marketing executive in New York's Chelsea neighborhood. "I've always thought of myself as an American, as a New Yorker. So it was pretty scary to suddenly be seen as the `other.'"

Gay and lesbian Arab-American and Muslim organizations reacted quickly to head off the potential backlash. Al-Fatiha, a gay and lesbian Muslim group, prepared a statement declaring, "We join our sisters and brothers in the United States and around the world to mourn the loss of life and condemn this tragedy."

"I'm sad to say that for these groups it's considered a necessary safety measure to condemn the violence," says Surina Khan, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in San Francisco. Non-Arab Americans "do not feel obligated to prove that they are different from the terrorists, different from those who target civilians. I fear what will happen to minority groups with a resurgence of nationalism we are beginning to see. We can't see the real enemy, so we create one from within."

The American Arab Antidiscrimination Committee reported more than 200 hate crimes in the week following the terrorist attacks. Such incidents have left gay and lesbian Arab-Americans feeling like outsiders twice over. For sexual minorities within the Muslim world, scapegoating is a particularly cruel irony because many immigrated to America to escape persecution by repressive regimes in some Middle Eastern and neighboring countries.

Khan is a case in point. In 1972 her family fled Pakistan after her father's older brother lost a power struggle to become the nation's prime minister. "My uncle was placed under house arrest, and my family just felt that it would be safer to leave," she says. "We came to America not because we saw it as a beacon of freedom--as many people do--but because my father had business interests here."

Khan's group is a leading critic of Afghanistan's ruling Taliban government, which U.S. officials believe to be sheltering Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda Islamic fundamentalist terrorist network. Among the Taliban's first acts while assuming power in the mid 1990s was the imposition of a religious legal code in which homosexuality is punishable by death.

Taliban courts, made up of religious leaders guided by their interpretation of the Koran, have convicted dozens of men of homosexual acts. Three such men were recently ordered by Afghan courts to have walls collapsed upon them, which injured them severely, and as part of their sentence they were left under the rubble for more than 30 minutes. Two of the men died the following day. The third man was deemed innocent of the sodomy charges because he survived.

The Taliban's crackdown on homosexuality is more than a reaction to the flourishing gay rights movement in the West, says Vikram Parekh, a Taliban expert in the Asia division of Human Rights Watch in New York City.

"You have to remember that before the Taliban came to power, there was a growing cultural space for different kinds of life and different kinds of worship," especially in Kabul, the Afghan capital, Parekh says. "They are trying to make sure the East does not imitate the West. And tolerance of homosexuality has become a symbol of Western democracy." For gay and lesbian Arab-Americans, however, that tolerance may have become harder to find.
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Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Date:Oct 23, 2001
Previous Article:Our Heroes.
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