The New Dark Ages are already with us. For hundreds of millions of people in parts of the Middle-East, Africa and South-East Asia, the ascendancy of Islamic fundamentalism has ushered in an era of religious obscurantism and intolerance. The liberal, compassionate wing of Islam - although it still has large numbers of adherents - is being forced onto the defensive and increasingly eclipsed.
The fervour of this modern Muslim extremism echoes the zealotry of the original Dark Ages in mediŠval Europe, when Christian fundamentalists excommunicated philosophers and scientists as heretics, tortured non-believers, drowned women as witches, and burned sodomites at the stake.
Several hundred years after the breakdown of theocracy and the beginning of the Enlightenment, few people would have thought it possible for clerical fascism to make a major comeback. But it has, and it's spreading - with alarming consequences for human rights.
Taliban militants in Afghanistan whip women who are not veiled from head to toe, and stone to death (without trial) anyone who has sex outside of marriage, including homosexuals.
In Saudi Arabia, 24 Filipino guest workers were sentenced in 1996 to 200 lashes for "homosexual behaviour". A year earlier, the Saudis beheaded an 18 year old gay man, Neil Tubo. His family claim he was framed on charges on raping two women, and the real reason for his execution was his homosexuality.
Two lesbians were sentenced to 90 lashes each in the United Arab Emirates city of Sharjah in 1995. They were also jailed for one and two years respectively for "taking part in illegitimate relationships and attempting to practice indecency".
The Bangladeshi writer, Taslima Nasrin, had to flee into exile in Sweden in 1994 after she was condemned to death by Muslim fundamentalists for advocating the revision of Islamic law to protect the rights of women. Issuing a fatwa against Nasrin, they offered a bounty to anyone who would kill her.
In neighbouring Pakistan, an illiterate 14-year-old boy, Salamat Masih, was sentenced to die in 1994 for allegedly writing words offensive to the prophet Mohammed on the wall of a mosque. Although saved by a last minute reprieve, he was forced to seek refuge in Germany after Islamicists threatened to hunt him down and murder him.
On the Philippines island of Mindanao, Muslim militia have been terrorising gay men -- beating them up, ordering them to leave the region, and threatening them with castration.
In 1995, Islamic extremists in Algeria assassinated the feminist leader, Nabila Diahnine. Previously they had killed the theatre director, Abdelkader Alloula. These are just two of the tens of thousands who have been murdered by Algerian fundamentalists over the last three years. Other victims include gay couples who violate the strict Islamic taboo against same-sex love, students and academics who refuse to study within a religious framework, and journalists who write the truth uncensored by clerical fanatics.
The Islamicist hard-liners in Algeria have also targeted women who fail to confirm to the Muslim tradition of subservience and modesty. Wives risk death if they go out to work instead of staying at home and waiting on their husbands. Other women are being killed for studying at university, wearing make-up or short skirts, and attending mixed schools or swimming pools. Any female behaviour deemed'scandalous' by the militants can have lethal consequences, as 16-year-old Katia Bengana discovered. She was shot dead on her way home from school for refusing to wear a veil.
The common goal that unites Islamic fundamentalists the world over is the establishment of a religious state where every aspect of life is determined by the principles of the Koran and Muslim tradition. This means the creation of a state where homosexuality is illegal and punishable by death.
Same-sex relationships are currently outlawed in 26 Islamic countries: Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bosnia, Iran, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
Islam is also a significant and growing influence in Senegal, Nigeria, Chad, Somalia, Turkey, and the southern Philippines. In these states, the social opprobrium heaped on lesbian and gay people is very severe: beatings and disownment by their families are common place, driving some to depression and suicide. Those not caught out, usually feel pressured to deny their sexuality and force themselves into tragic, loveless marriages.
In only three Islamic-dominated nations are there no laws against homosexuality: Egypt, Indonesia and Iraq. Nevertheless, even in these countries public attitudes remain hostile and gay people are subjected to periodic police victimisation.
Of the Islamic states that ban lesbian and gay sex: Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen enforce the death penalty. Pakistan specifies two years to life imprisonment, plus flogging. In Malaysia the maximum sentence is 20 years and in the United Arab Emirates it's 14. Bangladesh and Libya are considered fairly moderate in Islamic fundamentalist terms, with punishments of seven and five years' jail respectively.
Iran is the most zealously homophobic Islamic country. Since 1980, when the fundamentalists came to power under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini, over 4,000 lesbians and gay men have been executed, according to estimates by the exiled Iranian homosexual rights group, Homan.
In the early 1980's, for example, 70 people were executed after they attempted to set up a lesbian and gay organisation. Nearly 100 homosexuals were sentenced to death in 1992 following a raid on a private party.
It is notoriously difficult to be certain about the exact number of lesbians and gays killed because some executions take place in secret, and the relatives of those killed often try to cover up the true reason, due to the strong social stigma associated with homosexuality. Another factor preventing an accurate estimate is the regime's resort to false allegations of homosexuality against political opponents, in a bid to discredit them. Trumped up charges of homosexuality were levelled against a Sunni Muslim leader, Dr. Ali Mozaffarian, who was executed in Shiraz in 1992.
The methods of killing lesbians and gays in Iran include: beheading with a sword, stoning to death, burning alive, and throwing from a mountain top or high building.
The death penalty applies not only to sodomy, but to repeated offences of lesser sexual acts such as mutual masturbation and body rubbing. The mere act of two people of the same sex lying naked together "without any necessity" is a crime punishable by up to 99 lashes. One man kissing another, even "without lust", merits 60 lashes. These floggings are so severe that they can cause permanent injury to internal organs, gross open wounds, and sometimes death.
The Iranian authorities stepped up their crusade against homosexuality in 1990, with a wave of public executions. On the first day of the new crackdown, three gay men were beheaded in a city square in Nahavand, and two women accused of lesbianism were stoned to death in Langrood. Justifying these killings, the Iranian Chief Justice, Morteza Moghtadai, declared: "The religious punishment for the despicable act of homosexuality is death for both parties".
Simultaneously, Ayatollah Ali Khameni denounced "homosexuality, male and female". He condemned Britain and the USA for promoting gay relationships, falsely claiming the two countries had legalised marriages between people of the same sex. Homosexuality was, he said, a symptom of the decay and corruption of western culture.
According to BBC monitored reports, his colleague, Ayatollah Musavi-Ardebili, demanded the strict enforcement of Islamic punishments for lesbian and gay behaviour. Describing the procedures for the execution of homosexuals, he told students at Tehran University in 1990:
"They should seize him (or her), they should keep him standing, they should split him in two with a sword, they should either cut off his neck or they should split him from the head. ... After he is dead, they bring logs, make a fire and place the corpse on the logs, set fire to it and burn it. Or it should be taken to the top of a mountain and thrown down. Then the parts of the corpse should be gathered together and burnt. Or they should dig a hole, make a fire in the hole and throw him alive into the fire.
"We do not have such punishments for other offences", boasted the Ayatollah. "There cannot be the slightest degree of mercy or compassion. ... Praise be to God."
Lesbians and gay men living in countries dominated by the New Dark Ages of Islamic fundamentalism cannot afford the liberal luxury of tolerating religious fanaticism. For them, the politically correct arguments about'cultural sensitivity' smack of surrender to the extremists who jeopardise their freedom - and their lives.
Edited versions of this article were published in Gay Times, October 1995; and Tribune, 22 November 1996.
ę PeterTatchell 1995. All rights reserved.