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Homophobic Muslims: Emerging Trends in Multireligious Singapore

  • Nur Amali Ibrahim (a1)

This article examines the recent emergence of homophobia among Muslims in Singapore. While Islamic scriptures were used to justify homophobia, interpretations of these holy texts regarding non-normative sexualities have always been diverse. The anti-homosexuality exegesis of Islamic scriptures gained traction in a particular constellation of contemporary politics. When the state broached a discussion over whether a colonial-era law criminalizing homosexuality should be repealed, evangelical Christians were the first to vigorously support the retention of the law. Evangelical Christian homophobic discourses were soon reproduced by Muslims, whose own conservatism has been rising in recent years. Longstanding state biases against Muslims (who are mostly lower-working-class Malays), however, restricted the expression of their religious conservatism, which makes it useful for them to perform good citizenship by standing alongside evangelical Christians (mostly middle-class Chinese). This article demonstrates that Muslim homophobia has complex roots and explanations that cannot be reduced solely to Islam.

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1 Boellstorff Tom, The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 222 ; Kulick Don, “Can There Be an Anthropology of Homophobia?” in Murray David, ed., Homophobias: Lust and Loathing across Time and Space (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), 22 .

2 Asad Talal, The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam (Washington, D.C.: Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, 1986), 15 (original italics).

3 Kugle Scott, Homosexuality in Islam: Critical Reflection on Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Muslims (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2010).

4 Davies Sharyn Graham, Challenging Gender Norms: Five Genders among Bugis in Indonesia (Belmont, Calif.: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007).

5 Peletz Michael, Gender Pluralism: Southeast Asia since Early Modern Times (New York: Routledge, 2009).

6 El-Rouayheb Khaled, Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500–1800 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

7 Other works that have recorded diversity in attitudes towards same-sex eroticism in Muslim societies, including: Ali Kecia, Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections of Qur'an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence (London: Oneworld, 2006); and Najmabadi Afsaneh, Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).

8 Massad Joseph, Desiring Arabs (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

9 Ong Aihwa, Neoliberalism as Exception (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006).

10 Lancaster Roger, Sex Panic and the Punitive State (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).

11 Berkey Jonathan, The Transmission of Knowledge in Medieval Cairo: A Social History of Islamic Education (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).

12 Examples are: Eickelman Dale and Anderson Jon, eds., New Media in the Muslim World: The Emerging Public Sphere (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999); and Hirschkind Charles, The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006).

13 Professor Aljunied's webpage is named Deen Revival (; deen is an Arabic word that could be translated as “the Islamic faith”). His personal Facebook account, however, was deactivated shortly after the controversy erupted in February 2014.

14 Messick Brinkley, The Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in a Muslim Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

15 Fikri, “Fear and Loathing (as a 21-Year Old Queer) in Singapore,” Autostraddle, 30 Aug. 2013: (accessed 27 May 2016).

16 Some webpages where the article was re-posted include: “GPGT: Malay Lesbian Scholar and Her Beliefs,” Singapore Hardware Forum, 19 Feb. 2014; and; and “Malay Scholar Shares the Difficulty of Being a Lesbian in Singapore,” The Real Singapore, 20 Feb. 2014: (both accessed 19 Apr. 2014).

17 The Prime Minister's criticism of the Internet was widely reported in online news websites. For example: Cai Haoxiang, “Anti-Establishment Element Inherent in New Media: PM Lee,” Business Times, 25 Nov. 2013.

18 Media Development Authority, “Fact Sheet: Online News Sites to be Placed on a More Consistent Licensing Framework as Traditional News Platforms,” 28 May 2013.

19 The petition was published online on 28 Feb. 2014, about a week after Aljunied's posting. It was subsequently deleted after the author of the petition was harassed by Aljunied's supporters.

20 Khairu Rejal, “Letter of Concern Regarding Benjamin Seet, Melissa Tsang and Khairulanwar Zaini,” The Petition Site, 1 Mar. 2014, (accessed 27 May 2016).

21 Facebook account, “Dr Syed Khairudin Aljunied (Public Figure),” https:// (accessed 27 May 2016).

22 Reuben Wong, “Academic Freedom in Spotlight,” Straits Times, 7 Mar. 2104.

23 Khoo Hoon Eng, “Sending Wrong Signal on Tolerance,” Straits Times, 6 Mar. 2014.

24 Pearl Lee, “NUS Professor ‘Counselled’ by University for Facebook Posting on Lesbianism,” Straits Times, 5 Mar. 2014.

25 Muhammadiyah Association, “Muhammadiyah's Response to the Development of LGBT in Singapore,” 26 Mar. 2014.

26 The letter of support from PERGAS to Professor Aljunied was written on 12 March 2014, and posted on the Aljunied fan page on Facebook.

27 Fellowship of Muslim Students Association, “FMSA Position on Letter of Concern to NUS Provost on Associate Professor Dr Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied,” 3 Mar. 2014.

28 Ali points out, however, that there is no juridical consensus on whether the Quran mentions female same-sex activity (Sexual Ethics, 81).

29 Kugle, Homosexuality in Islam.

30 For a doctrinal argument to be considered as authoritative in Islam, it must have a genealogy to the works of classical scholars who set the foundations for Islamic law. When presenting his reinterpretations of the story of Lot, Kugle emphasizes that he is building on the views of famous Andalusian jurist Ibn Hazm (d. 1064). While Ibn Hazm accepted that homosexuality was forbidden by the Quran, he disagreed with other jurists about the punishment that should be applied in cases of male-to-male sodomy. Ibn Hazm was convinced that the tribe of Lot was punished by God not only for their homosexual practices but also for their unbelief. Ibn Hazm's views were significant, according to Kugle, because it showed a lack of consensus among key Islamic jurists of the classical period, suggesting therefore that consensus should not be expected in the present-day and that the established doctrines regarding homosexuality should be open to scrutiny and revision.

31 Ibrahim Azhar, “Discourses on Islam in Southeast Asia and Their Impact on the Singapore Muslim Public,” in Ah-Eng Lai, ed., Religious Diversity in Singapore (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2008), 83115 ; and Rahman Noor Aisha Abdul, “The Muslim Religious Elite in Singapore,” in Ah-Eng Lai, ed., Religious Diversity in Singapore (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2008), 248–74.

32 Kersten Carool, Cosmopolitan and Heretics: New Muslim Intellectuals and the Study of Islam (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

33 A number of scholars (e.g., Turnbull C. M., A History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005 [Singapore: NUS Press, 2009]) have pointed out that the “Marxist conspirators” were in fact church activists advancing the cause of poor, migrant workers. They were arrested as part of the state's attempt to limit the political influence of the Roman Catholic Church, which was an advocate of liberation theology, a movement that had popular support among the underclass in Latin America and the Philippines.

34 Consistent with the state's liberalization since the early 2000s, the updated broadcasting regulation, the Free-to-Air Television Programme Code (Media Development Authority, 2012), adopted a less condemnatory tone towards homosexuality and allowed for restricted screening of films with homosexual content: “Films that depict a homosexual lifestyle should be sensitive to community values. They should not, promote or justify a homosexual lifestyle. However, non-exploitative and non-explicit depictions of sexual activity between two persons of the same gender may be considered for R21.”

35 Peletz, Gender Pluralism, 199–206.

36 Ong, Neoliberalism as Exception, 177–94.

37 David Clive Price, “Singapore: It's In to Be Out,” Time Magazine, 10 Aug. 2003.

38 Yue Audrey and Zubillaga-Pow Jun, eds., Queer Singapore: Illiberal Citizenship and Mediated Cultures (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2013), 2 .

39 Chua Lynette, “Pragmatic Resistance, Law, and Social Movements in Authoritarian States: The Case of Gay Collective Action in Singapore,” Law & Society Review 46, 4 (2012): 713–48.

40 Chua, “Pragmatic Resistance.”

41 Nur Dianah Suhaimi, “Pink Event Draws 1,000,” Straits Times, 17 May 2009.

42 Aw Cheng Wei, “26,000 Turn Up at Annual LGBT Rally at Hong Lim Park: Pink Dot Spokesman,” Straits Times, 28 June 2014.

43 Nominated Members of Parliament are not elected by citizens, but are instead selected by a committee of elected Members of Parliament. They do not have affiliations with any political party and have limited voting powers. The government created the role in 1990 in order to increase independent voices in Parliament without diluting the ruling party's dominance.

44 Chong Terence, “Filling the Moral Void: The Christian Right in Singapore,” Journal of Contemporary Asia 41, 4 (2011): 566–83.

45 Chen Jianlin, “Singapore's Culture War over Section 377a: Through the Lens of Public Choice and Multilingual Research,” Law & Social Inquiry 38, 1 (2013): 107–37.

46 Jakobsen Janet and Pellegrini Ann, Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004).

47 Among evangelical ministries in Singapore, four megachurches with the largest congregations and financial reserves (Lighthouse Evangelism, New Creation Church, City Harvest Church, and Faith Community Baptist Church) often take the lead in expressing the evangelical perspective on social issues, including homosexuality. While there is a nascent pro-gay evangelical movement in the United States, a corresponding movement has not taken root in Singapore.

48 Goh Daniel, “State and Social Christianity in Post-Colonial Singapore,” Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia 25, 1 (2010): 5489 .

49 Anne Marie Chilton, “Tens of Thousands in Singapore Open Homes to Share Christ,” Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, 24 Dec. 2008, (accessed 27 May 2016).

50 Goh, “State and Social Christianity”; Chin Joy Tong Kooi, “Mcdonalization and the Megachurches: A Study of City Harvest, Singapore,” in Kitiarsa Pattana, ed., Religious Commodification in Asia: Marketing God (London: Routledge, 2008), 186204 .

51 Thio was scheduled to teach two courses at the New York University law school as a visiting professor in the fall of 2009. Following protests from NYU students over her anti-gay views, she cancelled the courses. See: Winnie Hu, “Citing Opposition, Professor Calls Off NYU Appointment,” New York Times, 22 July 2009.

52 “377A Serves Public Morality: NMP Thio Li-Ann,” Online Citizen, 23 Oct. 2007, (accessed 27 May 2016).

53 Chen, “Singapore's Culture War.”

54 Harding Susan, The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).

55 Sullivan-Blum Constance, “It's Adam and Eve, Not Adam and Steve,” in Murray David, ed., Homophobias: Lust and Loathing across Time and Space (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), 4863 ; Ginsburg Faye, Contested Lives: The Abortion Debate in an American Community (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

56 Harding, Book of Jerry Falwell, 63.

57 Hallaq Wael, Shari'a: Theory, Practice, Transformations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

58 Zaman Muhammad Qasim, The Ulama in Contemporary Islam: Custodians of Change (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).

59 Ahmed Leila, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).

60 Mutalib Hussin, Singapore Malays: Being Ethnic Minority and Muslim in a Global City-State (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2012); Nasir Kamaludeen Mohamed, Pereira Alexius, and Turner Bryan, Muslims in Singapore: Piety, Politics and Policies (New York: Routledge, 2010).

61 The Administration of Muslim Law Act was passed in 1966 and defined the powers and jurisdiction of three key Muslim institutions: the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, the Syariah Court, and the Registry of Muslim Marriages.

62 In response to the opposition from Malay-Muslims, the government decided not to implement the national curriculum in madrasas. However, madrasa students must sit for national examinations and attain the assessment standards set by the Ministry of Education.

63 Despite public protest, the headscarf remains prohibited for students in national schools.

64 Chen, “Singapore's Culture War.”

65 Health and Promotion Board, “FAQs on Sexuality,” 27 Aug. 2014, (accessed 27 May 2016).

66 Aaron, “Review HPB's “FAQ on Sexuality,”’ Go Petition, 3 Feb. 2014, (accessed 27 May 2016).

67 PERGAS, “PERGAS’ Response to HPB's FAQ on Sexuality,” 11 Feb. 2014.

68 Lawrence Khong, “An Open Letter to Mr. Gan Kim Yong, Minister for Health,” 26 Feb. 2014, (accessed 27 May 2016).

69 Ministry of Health, “Response to HPB's FAQs on Sexuality,” 17 Feb. 2014, (accessed 27 May 2016).

70 Eng Kuah Khun, “Maintaining Ethno-Religious Harmony in Singapore,” Journal of Contemporary Asia 28, 1 (1998): 103–21.

71 Evangelicals and Malay-Muslims have continued to converge in condemning homosexuality beyond the events discussed in this article. A recent example is the Wear White campaign, organized on 28 June 2014 by Muslim youths who were concerned that Pink Dot fell on the same day as the start of Ramadan ( [accessed 27 May 2016]). While the intention of the campaign was to encourage Muslims to wear white on the first day of Ramadan (as a rejection of LGBT supporters wearing pink), Pastor Lawrence Khong supported this movement by calling on his congregation to also wear white when attending an anti-Pink Dot “family worship” service on 29 June. “Thousands from Two Church Groups Turn Up in White, Say Organisers,” Straits Times, 29 June 2014.

72 Lawrence Khong, Facebook posting, 6 Mar. 2014, (accessed 27 May 2016).

73 Mahmood Saba, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).

74 Mittermaier Amira, “Dreams from Elsewhere: Muslim Subjectivities beyond the Trope of Self-Cultivation,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 18, 2 (2012): 247–65.

75 Schielke Samuli, “Second Thoughts about the Anthropology of Islam, or How to Make Sense of Grand Schemes in Everyday Life,” ZMO Working Papers 2 (2010).

76 van Bruinessen Martin, ed., Contemporary Developments in Indonesian Islam: Explaining the “Conservative Turn” (Singapore: ISEAS Publishing, 2013).

77 See Boellstorff, Gay Archipelago, for analysis on Indonesia; and Peletz, Gender Pluralism, for Malaysia.

78 Yew Lee Kuan, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story—1965–2000 (New York: HarperCollins, 2000).

79 Barr Michael, “Lee Kuan Yew: Race, Culture and Genes,” Journal of Contemporary Asia 29, 2 (1999): 145–66.

80 Alatas Syed Hussein, The Myth of the Lazy Native (London: F. Cass, 1977).

81 Rahim Lily Zubaidah, The Singapore Dilemma: The Political and Educational Marginality of the Malay Community (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998). A similar argument is made by Li Tania, in Malays in Singapore: Culture, Economy, and Ideology (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1989).

82 Suratman Suriani, “‘Problematic Singapore Malays’: The Making of a Portrayal,” Occasional Papers, no. 36 (Singapore: National University of Singapore, Department of Malay Studies, 2004).

83 Yew Lee Kuan, Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going (Singapore: Straits Times Press, 2011).

84 “New Push to Strengthen Racial Ties,” Straits Times, 30 Jan. 2002.

85 Peled Alon, A Question of Loyalty: Military Manpower Policy in Multiethnic States (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998); and Mutalib, Singapore Malays, 36.

86 “Reality Is Race Bonds Exist—SM,” Straits Times, 19 Sept. 1999.

87 Ministry of Home Affairs, “White Paper: The Jemaah Islamiyah Arrests and the Threat of Terrorism,” 7 Jan. 2003.

88 A recent one is: “Undoing Brainwashing of JI ‘Holy Warriors,’” Straits Times, 15 Mar. 2014.

89 Statement by Minister of Home Affairs, “Full Account of Mas Selamat's Escape,” 22 Nov. 2010, (accessed 27 May 2016).

90 Kulick Don, “Humorless Lesbians,” in Holmes Janet and Marra Meredith, eds., Femininity, Feminism and Gendered Discourse: A Selected and Edited Collection of Papers from the Fifth International Language and Gender Association Conference (Igalas) (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010), 5981 .

91 Singapore Department of Statistics, “Statistical Release 1: Demographic Characteristics, Education, Language and Religion,” Census of Population, 2010.

92 Khairu Rejal, “Letter of Concern.”

93 Bilal Sokal, “The Petition to Protect Dr. Khairudin's Academic Freedom (Official),” The Petition Site, 2014, (accessed 27 May 2016).

96 To summarize a complex case, Fortuyn was assassinated in 2002 in the midst of a political campaign for the Dutch national elections. Volkert van der Graff, an animal rights activist who was eventually convicted for the murder, claimed to have killed Fortuyn in order to prevent him from exploiting Muslims and other disenfranchised social groups for political gain. See, for example, Buruma Ian, Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance (New York: Penguin, 2006).

97 Puar Jasbir, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007).

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