avatar
Gay Rights/ Human Rights: An Interview with Surina Khan


As a native of Pakistan working full-time in the field of human rights, Surina Khan, executive director of the San Francisco-based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), has a lot to say about America’s war on terrorism.

Her family fled Pakistan in 1973 after her uncle, Air Marshal (Retired) Asghar Khan, began laying the groundwork to run for president. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was then the Pakistani president, retaliated by accusing Surina Khan’s father, who owned a business that was a subsidiary of a US corporation, of being a spy for the CIA.

Asghar Khan later ran for prime minister against Bhutto in 1977. He lost and was placed under house arrest. Bhutto was eventually overthrown and hanged.

Khan’s family, which relocated to Connecticut, maintained its ties to the country. Her father kept his business, and Khan went to junior-high school in Pakistan. Most of her siblings have moved back to Pakistan or elsewhere in South Asia.

Her cousin Omar Asghar Khan is now a member of General Pervez Musharraf’s presidential cabinet. But Khan and one of her brothers, a lieutenant colonel in the US Marines, have put down roots in the US. She is one of the nation’s leading experts on the political strategies of the Christian right, and at IGLHRC – which defends the human rights of all people who are subject to discrimination because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV status – she works with the United Nations and human-rights groups around the world.

Khan spoke from her office in San Francisco.

Q: I know that things have changed in Pakistan since you were there in late January [for a conference organized by Pakistan’s Sustainable Development Policy Institute], but do you have any sense of how long Pakistan will be able to maintain its alliance with the United States?

A: I think it is going to be very difficult. There is enormous popular discontent and uneasiness. A large number of people of Pakistan do not agree with what the US is doing in Afghanistan. At the very least this resentment of the US has to be addressed.

Q: Do you think there could be another coup?

A: I think that this is possible, given that General Musharraf has replaced three of his generals with people who agree with him. I don’t know where that leaves the three dismissed generals, but they have people they could rally.

Q: Could we reach a point where fundamentalists gain more power and take over? Obviously, the worry here is Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities.

A: I think that is entirely possible.

Q: What is your immediate family’s reaction to the “war on terrorism”?

A: They are generally critical of US foreign policy. We are in agreement about that and agree also that the US has certain responsibilities. For example: going in and bombing Afghanistan and reaching the particular goal of wiping out the Taliban is not enough. There has to be follow-up work there and in other countries, such as Indonesia, India, and Pakistan, in which the US has played a role.

They have a responsibility to rebuild the infrastructure of a country. We also agree that the US has to deal with the issues of Israel and Palestine. Beyond that, we have disagreements. I don’t think that waging war on Afghanistan is a solution. Whereas some members of my family think that wiping out the Taliban will [be the answer] – as long as the US follows through on rebuilding the country.

But I think that even if the US were successful in wiping out Osama bin Laden and all of his terrorist cells in Afghanistan, and presumably here in the US and in Germany and how many other countries in which they exist … which would be very difficult … there is still a younger generation of 15-year-olds who will grow up and be even more resentful of the US.

And until we deal with that issue of resentment from generation to generation, the answer is not more military attacks but, rather, a just foreign policy and general respect for everyone in the international community. That is what it essentially comes down to.

Q: How have the US actions against Afghanistan, and the whole region, affected your work so far?

A: We’ve been very concerned that the level of support and attention given to human-rights issues will be compromised. For example, last May, 52 men were arrested in Egypt for alleged homosexual activities or for being perceived as homosexual. In the past few months we have worked hard to build international solidarity and pressure on the Egyptian government to release those men, on the grounds that it is a gross human-rights violation.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both partnered with us, which was great because they are both mainstream groups and we received a lot of media attention. Because of this there has been an enormous amount of pressure put on the Egyptian government from individual citizens of the US and even 34 congresspeople, who wrote a letter. Any news of that has been wiped out by coverage of what is happening in Afghanistan.

This is true for a case in India we are following in which HIV-prevention workers were arrested. It’s hard, right now, to get people concerned with what is happening.

Q: What effect do you think Bush’s war on terrorism will have on GLBT issues in the US and internationally?

A: I think that they’ve already gotten worse in the US. There are huge similarities between the fundamentalist Christian right wing here and the fundamentalist elements of Islam or the Taliban. There are many issues where they would agree, and homosexuality is certainly one.

Q: Isn’t that too easy a connection? Certainly there is a big difference between having a stone wall toppled on you, which is what the Taliban does to homosexuals, and being denied the right to civil marriage?

A: Well, yes, of course. There are differences. We don’t live in a theocracy, so the right wing has less political power. Another important difference is the sophistication the US right wing has. They are able to prey on people’s fears to rally support.

While this is similar to Islamic fundamentalists, the right wing here understands that they have to tone down their rhetoric…. You will routinely hear the Christian right speak of ” love and compassion for the homosexual.”

I don’t think you ever hear the Taliban speak of love and compassion for homosexuals. The Taliban is able to be ideologically pure in what they believe and how they are able to carry out those beliefs.

So we are talking about degrees of sophistication of presentation and what people can get away with. But there are very real similarities. They both have a deep contempt toward those who might see religion in a different way than they do.

Q: How do you see this affecting gay people in the US?

A: I think what we are seeing is a heightened level of patriotism and nationalism, as well as scapegoating and demonization. To me this is linked clearly to issues of sexuality.

In the US, people who are most active in promoting nationalism are essentially right-wing organizations, who promote a culture that is defined by the qualities of being white, heterosexual, and of European descent. So we see nationalism at work in the attacks on Muslims, Arabs, Sikhs, and other South Asians because those people are seen as “other.”

This same system can be seen functioning, as well, in terms of sexuality, when only one type of person is seen as having the right to be here – the white heterosexual male, his wife, and their children. This leaves out, obviously, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people.

Q: Isn’t this all sort of theoretical?

A: Not at all. Just because you are a gay person with money and status doesn’t mean that there is no homophobia. Look at the words of Jerry Falwell on the Pat Robertson show only a few days after September 11, when he placed the blame for the attacks on gay people, feminists, and the ACLU – all of which fall outside of their vision of what is appropriate in America. And then, after that, several right-wing leaders were publicly stating that gay or lesbian people who had lost partners should not be allowed to be beneficiaries of any relief funds.

Q: Would another example of this be the bomb that was sent from the USS Enterprise on which sailors had written “high jack this fags”? Clearly they were making the connection between the “enemy” – or the “other” – and homosexuals.

A: Sure, absolutely. But that raises another whole complicated issue. Writing those words was clearly wrong and homophobic. But I would also argue that dropping bombs on Afghanistan was also wrong.

At IGLHRC we feel that the response to the murder and terror that we saw on September 11 has to be a response of solidarity and understanding. We in America have to understand that this is the sort of war, terror, and devastation that people in other countries have been living with for generations. We have to understand that it is not limited to the US.

We also think that people in this country have to understand the resentment that people in other countries feel for the US and understand that simply by bombing Afghanistan we are not really dealing with the core, root problem. Until we do that, we are just going to see more violence.

Q: And what is the core, root problem?

A: I think the root problem that has to be addressed is helping Americans to understand why there is so much resentment against the US throughout the world. In order to do that I think we have to look very carefully at the way the US engages with other nations.

Let’s think about Pakistan. Aid was cut off to Pakistan when they had nuclear capabilities. Now the aid has resumed because the US needs [Pakistan’s] air space. So I think that the US has to look beyond its own economic interests and look at how the actions of this government affect the people of other countries.

Until America really addresses the fundamental dignity and integrity that everyone should be able to live with, the fundamental issues of human rights, then we are never going to address the root cause of the resentment that people feel. The rest of the world sees us as a country that has tremendous resources, and we only use those resources when it benefits us.

Q: But certainly many other countries – beginning with Afghanistan – have human-rights records that are horrific. This isn’t just a problem with the US.

A: Absolutely. So why is the US bringing up the human-rights abuses in Afghanistan now? Feminists and gay people have been saying for years that the Taliban is horrible to women and to homosexuals….

Eight years ago, we knew that the Taliban was not letting women go to school, not letting them go to the hospital when they were sick, not letting them leave the house if they weren’t with a male relative, or make any noise when they walked. I think the US should have gone in there as a defender of human rights and said very strongly that this was wrong. Now they are saying those words.

Q: So you are saying that the US uses the issue of human rights only when it is beneficial to us and never otherwise?

A: Yes. Egypt, which is the second-largest recipient of foreign aid, has been pressured by the US to join this alliance. Egypt is a gross violator of human rights. I am thinking right now of the 52 men who are in prison. Why didn’t the US step up and address this question months ago? Why aren’t they addressing it now? Because they couldn’t care less.

Q: Ultimately, what impact do you think the war on terrorism will have on human-rights issues?

A: It’s already having an effect on human rights and civil liberties in the US. For example, the government’s announcement that it is going to extend its powers to arrest immigrants and hold them in detention indefinitely. This is a violation of human rights.

The kinds of racism we are seeing against Arabs, Muslims, South Asians, Sikhs, and Hindus is a direct result of the US’s response. This is only the beginning of an attempt to limit, or even eliminate, many civil liberties in this country. IGLHRC is concerned with making the connection between attacks on immigrants and people of color and those on GLBT people and people living with HIV.

The erosion of civil liberties – even when they begin with immigrants – is eventually going to affect everybody. Those people with the least protection are really those with the most to lose.

• Michael Bronski can be reached at [email protected]

Leave a comment