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African and Arab Humanists Must Lead the Way

by Norm R. Allen Jr.


The search for a conception of universal human rights has never been easy. Different cultures often have different values, different experiences, and different histories. Moreover, some cultures place much greater emphasis upon the supposed importance of tradition than do other cultures, thereby favoring certain cultural practices over human rights.

Many African and Western humanists are now at odds over the issue of gay rights. Humanism, as it is traditionally practiced and understood, is concerned with nurturing individual autonomy and advocating liberty for adults engaged in consensual behavior. Many African humanists, however, consider homosexuality to be immoral and unnatural. They further maintain that “Africans” will never accept homosexuals, when they actually mean that they will never accept them.

The question as to whether homosexuality is natural should not be an issue. Every action that is “natural” is not necessarily good, nor is every action that is good necessarily natural. For example, selfishness is natural, but it is not deemed a virtue. On the other hand, sharing is a virtue. However, it does not appear to occur naturally in most human beings, which is why parents teach it to children.

In any case, homosexuality occurs throughout the animal world. In 1998, Bruce Bagemihl wrote a book titled Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Diversity. He has collected evidence of homosexuality in over 450 species of fish, birds, mammals, reptiles, and even insects! How, then, could any learned person continue to argue that homosexuality is unnatural?

In reality, the claim that homosexuality is unnatural is little more than a rationalization for bigotry and intolerance. Indeed, many people still consider oral sex to be unnatural. Moreover, a lot of people contend that it is unnatural for men and women to engage in anal sex. Yet there are no major attempts to persecute heterosexuals based on their allegedly unnatural behavior.

This dispute is about more than homosexuality or gay rights. The fact is that Africans and Arabs are usually among the last groups to embrace progressive ideas. They were among the last groups to eradicate slavery, advocate women’s rights, oppose female genital mutilation, and so forth. Africans are still struggling against child labor and the persecution of alleged witches.

What is worse is that not only are they among the last groups to embrace positive change, but they do so very late compared to people in other parts of the world. For instance, chattel slavery still persists in parts of Africa and the Arab world.
History is full of examples of ideas that were supposed to have failed miserably. For example, when English abolitionists were calling for the end of slavery worldwide, most people regarded them as unrealistic dreamers. Slavery had existed since time immemorial, and it was a natural byproduct of society, their critics argued. It would be with humanity always. Yet today most people understand that slavery is reprehensible, and most people no longer advocate or practice it.

Many African humanists maintain that it is important to go slowly in the effort to promote gay rights in Africa. However, this sentiment is disturbingly familiar. Indeed, it is the sentiment that is always expressed by reactionary individuals that want to thwart progress. It is the same sentiment that the late U.S. President Ronald Reagan expressed when he advocated “constructive engagement” with the White supremacists of apartheid South Africa. It is the sentiment that Southern U.S. Whites expressed when Civil Rights workers were trying to liberate Black people in the 1950s and 60s. Southern Whites told Civil Rights activists to cool off. However, Martin Luther King understood that, “if you cool off for too long, you’ll wind up in a ‘deep freeze.’”

King further understood the importance of courageous leadership. Many in the movement criticized him for speaking out against the Vietnam War. Some believed that he should have waited for the “right time” to oppose the war. King, however, responded by saying that “genuine leadership doesn’t follow consensus, it molds it.” He was much more concerned with following his conscience than with trying to be safe.

This is the kind of leadership that is needed among Arab and African humanists. It is certainly true that defending certain humanist positions could be very dangerous throughout Africa and the Arab world. However, the fight for human rights has often been dangerous, and sometimes violent and deadly. This is as true for progressive religionists that defend gay rights as it is for secular humanists. The bottom line is that the humanist community needs brave Arab and African humanists that will uncompromisingly defend human rights—including gay rights. Who will lead the way?


Norm R. Allen Jr. is the Executive Director of African Americans for Humanism.


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