Democratization activists in Kyrgyzstan are worrying about a roll-back of basic freedoms after a Bishkek court prohibited a film festival from screening a Dutch documentary about homosexual Muslim men.
“I Am Gay and Muslim,” was scheduled to screen on September 28 at the sixth annual Bir Duino (“One World”) human rights documentary film festival in Bishkek. Only hours before the scheduled showing, a court in the capital banned the film from being distributed in Kyrgyzstan. Organizers, attendees, and activists contended that the decision was fueled by officials’ knee-jerk intolerance. Religious experts had assailed the documentary’s content as “blasphemous” and likely to “incite[s] religious intolerance.”
Officials have compared the 59-minute film, which is set in Morocco, to the now-infamous “Innocence of Muslims,” a low-budget production that mocked and insulted Islam and ended up sparking riots across the Muslim world last month. “I Am Gay and Muslim” director Chris Belloni said anyone who has seen his film would understand it is not "anti-Islam" or "extremist.”
“The film shows the perspective of gay people who accept themselves as both gay and Muslim. I think this is why the film is so popular among festivals. It is about the underdog,” said 32-year-old Belloni, who said he made the film to educate. The film is scheduled to screen next week in Beirut.
In a written complaint, the State Committee on Religious Affairs cited an interview in the film where a middle-aged man says, “In Islam, we say everything is planned by God. We don’t choose our destiny. So God has planned this for me. […] God made me gay.” The committee deemed the passage “blasphemous [because] a man accuses God of his sins.”
Later in the film, two men give each other a quick kiss. The committee said the film “humiliates” Muslims. “It is clear that its aim is to provoke the Muslim population and to incite religious intolerance,” the committee’s official complaint said of the film.
Tabyldy Orozaliev, deputy director of the religious affairs committee, told EurasiaNet.org that his office does not have the authority to ban films, but passed its recommendation onto the Prosecutor General’s office, which filed suit in Bishkek’s Pervomaiskii District court.
Most Kyrgyzstanis identify themselves as Muslims, but many only loosely adhere to the faith. Several activists interviewed for this story expressed the belief that nationalists bent on imposing a strict “Kyrgyz” identity are utilizing Islam as a rallying point.
Prohibited from screening his film, Belloni spoke briefly before an audience of about 500 people on September 28 and then took questions. Though many wanted to discuss freedom of speech, he says a group of men wearing traditional Kyrgyz felt hats tried to boo him off the stage. Organizers cut the talk short and police ushered attendees out, he said.
“People were misinformed. This is why they came. Some came just to protest. There were quite a few people who were really interested, but some guys only came to demonstrate and they had no interest in seeing the film at all,” Belloni told EurasiaNet.org. “Kyrgyzstan loses because people will now see this is an intolerant place. I was told this is one of the most progressive countries in the region.”
Tolekan Ismailova, who helped organize the festival and heads Citizens Against Corruption, a prominent watchdog in Bishkek, said the State Committee on National Security (GKNB, still known colloquially as the KGB) had acted illegally by forcing the theater to hand over a copy of the film two days before the screening. “The KGB stole the film from the cinema house,” she said. Repeated calls to the GKNB went unanswered on October 1.
Referring to a group of people shouting “Kyrgyzstan is an Islamic state” in the theater, she said, “radical Islamic groups dictate how our government should work. In our constitution, Kyrgyzstan is a secular state.” Ismailova added that she has filed an appeal and will seek to screen the film in Bishkek. But Kyrgyzstan’s courts have a reputation for bending to the wishes of powerful forces, especially in the security services, and few expect an appeals court to overturn the original decision.
“With the lack of judicial independence in Kyrgyzstan, there is no way to know if this decision was unduly influenced,” said Stuart Kahn, director of Freedom House’s office in Kyrgyzstan, who attended the cancelled screening and was “dismayed” by the court’s decision. Freedom House already classifies the country’s press as “not free.”
“The ban of the film – along with a proposed law that, if passed, would regulate the Internet to protect children, but contains vague provisions to restrict much broader speech – will undoubtedly adversely impact Kyrgyzstan’s ratings,” Kahn told EurasiaNet.org.
Another attendee bemoaned what she portrayed as a widespread, closed-minded mentality in the country. “A majority of citizens are not ready to accept gays and lesbians,” she said. “Kyrgyzstan is not as open as many people believe.”
Orozaliev at the State Committee on Religious Affairs said he was insulted the film did not interview homosexuals from other religions, “as if there are no Catholic or Orthodox gays.” But he added: “If the film was about Catholics or Orthodox Christians, maybe it would be banned as well. Especially considering that [Russian] Orthodoxy is the second largest confession [in Kyrgyzstan].”
David Trilling is EurasiaNet's Central Asia editor.