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Saturday 10 October 2015

Comment: Those in Peril on the Land?

Posted in: Comment
By Politics and religion commentator Craig Young - 8th October 2015

LGBT Syrian refugees face three distinct ordeals- one from the brutal Assad regime in Damascus, one from the ISIS insurgents and another from Hungary's viciously right-wing Fidesz regime if they reach Europe. Let's deal with each in turn.

It is still illegal to be a gay man in Syria, with three year imprisonment sentences handed down if apprehended. Assad's security services harass gay men, blackmail them and use them as informants. There are no HIV/AIDS prevention services in that nation, homophobic and misogynist "honour killings" are rife and arbitrary detention, torture and apprehension of dissidents are rife.

Why is Syria's current domestic situation so dire? One needs to examine that nations history to work out why that is the case. Until the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, Syria was a tributary province of several affiliated caliphates. In 1918, France became the temporary colonial overlord, although there was a major anti-colonial revolt in 1925. Continued unrest forced France to sign an independence agreement in 1936, but the French National Assembly refused to ratify it. The Nazi occupation of France complicated matters, given that Britain and Free France then occupied it for the next four years (1940-1944), and almost definitive independence was declared in 1944, although the last French troops didn't leave until 1946, given their burgeoning difficulties in Indochina and Algeria.

Factionalism and political instability prevailed until 1948, worsened by Syrian involvement in neighbouring Israel's War of Independence. Ultimately, Colonial Hasni al-Za'im overthrew the first democratically elected post-independence Syrian government in 1949. Five more years of repeated coups and military regimes followed, to be replaced by another temporary democratic interlude (1954-56). In 1956, the Suez Canal crisis caused the end of that brief interval and the consequence was a compound "United Arab Republic" consisting of Iraq, Syria and Egypt, which gradually fell apart due to religious and nationalist pressures. In 1963, the Ba'ath Party seized power and announced a new constitution and regime in 1964. In 1966, a rival Ba'ath Party faction seized power and the situation was 'stabilised' by the emergence of Colonel Hafez al-Assad as Syrian dictator.

Syria has had an ambivalent relationship with western nations. It has frequently interfered in neighbouring Lebanon's domestic affairs, most particularly during Lebanon's civil war during the seventies, eighties and nineties and has clashed with Israel over the latter's occupation of the Golan Heights strategic site. It is considered an Iranian ally, and provides aid to the anti-Israeli Palestinian insurgents in Hamas and Hezbollah. Gradually, al-Assad's Alawite Muslim-dominated regime was destabilised by al Qaeda Sunni Islamist fundamentalists and Kurdish separatists. In 2000, Hafez al-Assad died and was succeeded by his son, Bashir al-Assad. Hopes of democratic reform were quashed by repression from the Ba'athist al-Assad regime in 2001 and 2005. Since March 2011, Syria has been in a state of civil war.

However, one of the combatants, ISIS, predated that conflict. Formed in 2006, ISIS has been bankrolled by Sunni fundamentalists in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar, taking advantage of post-occupation fragmentation and misgovernment in Iraq and the chaos of civil war in Syria which destabilised the al-Assad regime. More recently, it has made considerable advances in western Iraq, exploiting the weakness of the fragile legitimacy of the post-Saddam presidency and national legislature and occupying important Iraqi cities such as Tikrit and Mosul. It has established shariah law courts and Sunni Muslim educational facilities. Its membership is estimated from 3000-10,000 combatants, mostly Iraqi and Syrian Sunni Islamist fundamentalists, but also enlisting support from Chechens, Afghans, Pakistanis and even some Europeans. Its extremism led to its expulsion from al-Qaeda in February 2014- the organisation engages in decapitation of western hostages and sexual slavery. Its leader is an Iraqi, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who wants to re-establish a 'caliphate' across Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine. LGBT Iraqis are little better off than their Syrian counterparts- theoretically, homosexuality is "legal," but according to the Iraqi Criminal Code, gay adult media (Section 215), same-sex marriage certificates (Section 375), 'immodest acts' (Section 401) and indecent advances toward someone of the same sex (Section 402(b)) are all illegal. Although ISIS is a Sunni Islamist organisation, LGBT Iraqis fare no better under the Shia militia on the other side of the Islamic confessional divide. Baghdad's Mahdi Army, the League of the Righteous (Asiab ahl al-Haq) and Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Badr Organisation) have presided over kidnappings, mutilations, executions and murders of at least ninety lesbian and gay Iraqis since 2012.

ISIS appears to be an equal opportunity persecutor, attacking Northern Iraqi Kurds, destroying Shia mosques and communities, enslaving Yazidi ethnic and religious minority women as sexual slaves and throwing Iraqi gay men off tall buildings, as recounted on Britain's Pinknews and Gaystarnews websites. It is no wonder that LGBT Iraqis and Syrians are fleeing such repression.

But there is another side to this grim triangle. How did Hungary's political culture deteriorate to the point where it tries to forcibly prevent the transit of refugees? The answer is to be found in the context of that nation's domestic politics. In 1990, following the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, Hungary's Socialist Worker/Communist Party relinquished government. For eighteen years afterward, it was replaced by alternating governments from the Hungarian Democratic Forum and Socialist Party, which were ostensibly centre-right and centre-left, although both were committed to asset sales, an open market economy, foreign investment and escalation of foreign debt, as well as membership of NATO (1999) and the European Union (2002). Unfortunately, this apparent equilibrium and democratisation broke down in 2008 following the global economic crisis and a reactionary nationalist anti-market party came to power. Fidesz had begun its existence as a 'classical liberal' party in 1994, but then deteriorated into something akin to New Zealand First here. It is in coalition with Jobbik, a blatantly neofascist political party. It is also socially conservative.

As for LGBT Hungarians, a brief description of their lives under communism and post-communism is in order. In 1961, Hungary decriminalised male homosexuality, albeit with age of consent inequality at twenty, reduced to eighteen (1978) and finally equality at sixteen (2002). For a while, it looked as if Hungary was making the transition to a mainstream pluralist democratic society. By 1997, it had passed legislation that protected de facto straight and gay couples from discrimination and in 2007, it introduced registered partnerships/civil unions. Unfortunately, things went into reverse when Fidesz and its coalition partners won the 2008 Hungarian election. The new right-wing government banned marriage equality, excised LGBT status from national antidiscrimination laws, got into trouble with Germany over plans to withdraw from the European Single Currency Zone. There have also been reports of office stacking corruption and anti-abortion "fetal protection" legislation. In 2012, it tried to garner support for legislation that attacked "the promotion of sexual deviance", thinly masked antigay legislation, but failed.

The current Hungarian Constitution has also been strongly criticised by the Council of Europe, European Parliament and United States for its worrying concentration of power in the hands of Fidesz office holders, limiting accountability to the Constitutional Court of Hungary and limiting judicial independence and media freedom of expression. However, it has subsequently won legislature majorities in 2010 and 2014. Moreover, one of its supporters is the Jobbik Party, which bluntly can be described as neofascist. Jobbik is anti-Semitic, lambasting Jewish foreign investment in Hungary and has connections to the neofascist vigilante Magyar Garda paramilitary group. It is actively hostile toward neighbouring Roumania, is Eurosceptic and anti-immigrant. Here, one suspects that one can find the origins of current Hungarian anti-immigrant violence, given that some Jobbik members are involved in law enforcement. It is no wonder that its abusive behaviour toward Syrian refugees and asylum seekers is so repressive. Hungary is not alone in this, as similar far rightist tendencies are apparent in Serbia, Slovakia and even the Czech Republic, once seen as a paragon of post-communist liberal humanism. Only time will tell whether the current situation leads to soul-searching and an arrest to Hungary's drift toward right-wing extremism.


Eyal Zisser: Commanding Syria: London: IB Tauris: 2007.

David Lasch: The New Lion of Damascus: Bashir al-Assad and Modern Syria: New Haven: Yale University Press: 2005

"Hungary's Government: To Viktor the Spoils" Economist: 07.01.2012:

Ruth Wodak et al (ed) Right-Wing Populism in Europe: Politics and Discourse: London: Bloomsbury Academic: 2013

Michael Hindenberg: Transforming the Transformation? The Eastern European Radical Right in the Political Process: London: Routledge: 2015

Edith Oltay: Fidesz and the Reinvention of the Hungarian Centre-Right: Budapest: Szazadreg Kiodo: 2012

Aleks Szczerbiap and Jean Henley: Centre-Right Parties in Post-Communist Eastern and Central Europe: London: Routledge: 2006.

Josh Lowe: "Iraq Crisis: Who or What is ISIS?" Prospect Magazine: 12.06.2014:

Iravati Guha: "Who is IS Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?" Prospect Magazine: 02.07.2014:

Will Stroude: "Gay men recount the horrors of life under ISIS" Attitude: 25.08.2015:

Clive Simmons: "Iraq: The New Dark Age" DNA 101 (June 2008):96-100

Austin Mackell: "Under Attack" DNA 122 (March 2010): 62-67

Tim Warrington: "The Killing Fields" DNA 149 (June 2012): 34-39

Politics and religion commentator Craig Young - 8th October 2015

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