Huffington Post defends Arabic edition over homophobic columns

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

Liberal news outlet Huffington Post has defended its Arabic edition – claiming that openly homophobic columns “represent” people’s views.

The US news outlet has struck a decidedly gay-friendly tone in English, launching ‘HuffPost Gay Voices’ to focus on LGBT issues – but things are rather less open on its new Arabic offshoot, Huffington Post Arabia.

A number of openly homophobic columns were found on the site earlier this month – with one columnist naming the selfie as a symptom of “the diseases and the viruses of the Western world” seeping into Arabic culture, while another savaged the Egyptian government for allowing “a press conference for gays in the heart of Cairo”, referring to gay people using derogatory words.

In a new US edition editorial, HuffPost’s Washington chief Ryan Grim conceded that many find the comments “absurd” and “deeply offensive” – but added they “represent the views of a sizeable number” in the area, “and we gain nothing by suppressing it”.

The post says: “Liberals are appalled by homophobic and anti-modern blog posts and warn that the whole thing is a vehicle for the Muslim Brotherhood, and religious conservatives are hitting us from the other side.

“What all of the critics are missing, though, is just how vital it is today more than ever to give our full-throated support to press freedom and diversity in the Middle East.”

It continues: “Launching HuffPost Arabi presents a unique journalistic question: Mainstream opinion in the Middle East is in many ways different from that in the U.S. on some key social and foreign policy issues, so how does an Arab-focused but Western-affiliated outlet handle opinions that are common in the region but offensive back home?”

Citing research that most people in the area believe homosexuality is “morally unacceptable”, it goes on: “Societies evolve, and they do so through the force of social movements, which then shape dialogue. In the Middle East, both are tightly bound up by repressive regimes.

“It is likely no coincidence that changing opinions on LGBT rights have come at the same pace and moment as the growth of social media.”

Explaining the views of a columnists behind one of controversial posts, it continues: “Many of us back here at HuffPost US find some of the commentary deeply offensive, while other bits of it seem simply absurd… [but] ridiculous as it is from our perspective, Mtawea’s view represents the views of a sizable number of Egyptians, and we gain nothing by suppressing it.

“He’s young, studied literature and Islamic studies at Cairo University, and considers himself a human rights blogger.

“By opening the platform to such voices, we can bring them into the fold and maybe, over time, as they debate with fashion writers, ‘pornographic dancers’ or gay people holding press conferences, they – or more likely their children – will soften up.”

Though Mtawea’s column was pulled over an anti-gay slur, the editorial adds “he’s free to resubmit it with a less grotesque term”.

Referring to US Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, who penned a furious dissent against repealing sodomy laws, it concludes: “Scalia and his followers are more than welcome to make their case here in the pages of HuffPost US, and Scalia’s Arabic brethren will be afforded the same opportunity at HuffPost Arabi.

“It won’t always be pretty, but as we say over here in the States, freedom isn’t free.”