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Uganda Flag

Photo credit: geography.about.com

by Rick Plasterer

The saga of Uganda’s proposed toughened anti-sodomy law and the American Evangelical connection with it drags on, even as laws and punishments of as great or greater severity continue on in the Middle East, largely unremarked on.

Like many African and other non-western countries, Uganda has had a sodomy law on its books for many years. A legislative proposal in 2009 would have increased penalties to death for “aggravated” homosexual activity, which include activity by HIV positive persons, or with minors, and increased penalties generally to include acts committed outside Uganda, and mandatory reporting of homosexual activity or support for such activity. The bill also denied the claim commonly advanced by homosexual activists that sexual orientation is immutable and noted international pressure to impose “sexual promiscuity” on Uganda.

Intense international pressure indeed quickly followed leading the government to propose dropping the death penalty. However, the bill continues to be advanced; the Speaker of the Parliament sought to pass it in 2012 and the bill is on the legislative agenda for 2013.

Uganda reasonably has a historical background which makes the debate about sodomy especially intense domestically, and contributes to the confrontation when faced with international pressure. The famous Ugandan Martyrs, 22 young men who were pages of the king of the native state of Buganda, were put to death in the late nineteenth century for their refusal to submit to the sexual advances of the king, and refusal to renounce Christianity. More recently, Uganda was one of a number of sub-Saharan African countries that suffered severely from the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s and continues to cope with the threat of AIDS, with considerable success, although controversially, by emphasizing sexual abstinence and fidelity before the use of condoms.

Part of the controversy has been criticism of American Evangelical Christian leaders for inspiring or supporting the bill. This line was taken by such liberal sources as the New York Times. Yet it seems that Uganda was under pressure to eliminate its existing sodomy law as far back as 2007, while WorldNetDaily reported that advocates of liberalization were making the common (and inaccurate) claim that international conventions require it. The bill originating in 2009 referred specifically to international pressure, and the defense of traditional culture in Uganda. Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in California notably opposed the measure, for which he was in turn criticized by Ugandan pastors. Currently some American social conservative organizations continue to offer support for Uganda’s efforts to maintain traditional morality. And some Evangelical spokesmen also support the proposed sodomy bill, noting that its death penalty has been eliminated, and that enforcement in African nations is often less severe than the letter of the law. This was certainly the case with morals legislation in the United States, now eliminated as far as homosexuality is concerned by the Supreme Court’s Romer and Lawrence decisions, and threatened generally by those decisions.

The attention of the western press to Uganda’s sodomy law and American social conservative involvement with it is in striking by contrast to the lack of attention to more severe penalties for sodomy existing and accepted in the Muslim world. This includes both actual executions for sodomy and extra-judicial killings and attacks, and arises in part from the increasing use of sharia law in majority Muslim countries, according to which sodomy is a capital crime. Iran, which instituted an Islamic state more than 30 years ago, is a prime example of a fully Islamic legal system and its treatment of homosexual behavior, while Human Rights Watch provides accounts of extra-legal attacks in Iraq where no sodomy law existed. Passionate commitment to orthodox Islam and sharia law shows no real signs of subsiding in the Muslim world, and indeed it has been noted that it is more characteristic of the young than the old among Muslims. This means that the implementation of sharia law and its severe penalties reasonably will be with many Muslim majority nations for years to come, including the penalties for sex crimes. Indeed, sharia’s effects reasonably will be felt in Europe as enclaves of Muslims there continue to grow while the native European population declines from a low birth rate. Yet it is not to be expected that there will be criticism of Muslim laws or practices as intense or sustained as that against social conservatives in the West. Like homosexuality, Islam is considered a “victim” category by the western left, disinclining many to criticize it, while in those jurisdictions where there are restrictions on speech criticizing protected groups, even stating the truth can be a crime. This was well shown by the case of Lars Hedegaard in Denmark, prosecuted for accurately describing the abuse of women that occurs in Muslim countries.

If we step back and look at the mainstream outcry against the proposed Ugandan law and the claimed American Evangelical involvement in it, we see that the proposed law is in line with past sodomy statutes, carrying strong penalties, likely sporadically enforced, and existing in large measure to make a social statement that acceptable social bounds are those of traditional morality. It can even be seen as a courageous attempt to respond to the juggernaut of social radicalism that the western left is advancing across the world through western governments, the United Nations, and NGOs. It hardly bears comparison to the widespread use of traditional Muslim penalties against sodomy that continue to be vigorously enforced.