Tunisian minister of human rights, transitional justice and spokesman of the Tunisian government, Samir Dilou has rejected a recommendation by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to decriminalize same-sex acts, stating that sexual orientation was a western concept which is incompatible with Islam, Tunisian culture and traditions.

In a press conference held in Tunis, Dilou stated that while all Tunisians are entitled to basic protection, the concept of ‘sexual orientation is specific to the West. Tunisia has its own identity as an Arab Muslim state,’ he was quoted by Tunisia Live magazine.

According to Dilou Tunisian law overrides such a “stipulation” as it ‘clearly describes Tunisia as an Arab Muslim country.’

He also does not see the law against homosexuality as in conflict with the premise of freedom: ‘there is no absolute freedom. All freedoms are restricted by the law’, he stressed.

The anti-gay French colonial law (Article 230), adopted and maintained by the Ben Ali regime, is still in effect, despite the Tunisian revolution, penalizing same-sex acts with up to three years imprisonment.

The response came after a Tunisian delegation, headed by Dilou, attended UNHRC’s May 22-25 session where such recommendations were made.

Dilou stated that Tunisia approved most of the 110 recommendations of the Human Rights Council for Tunisia, including judicial reform, equality for women, children and disabled rights.

Some recommendations were said to need further discussion and national debate. The only two rejected outright concerned the decriminalization of same-sex acts and religious defamation.

This is the second time this year that Tunisian Minister of Human Rights has publicly announced his opposition to gay rights. Earlier this year Dilou referred to homosexuality as a disease as opposed to a human right, which was sharply criticized by Amnesty International, Reporters without Borders and Act up Paris.  He also objected to Tunisia’s first openly gay magazine – gaydaymag, saying ‘freedom has its limits.’

The UN council recommendations also coincide with previous calls made this year by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and Human Rights High Commissioner Navi Pillay during a panel on violence and discrimination against Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) individuals.

Amanullah De Sondy, Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies, at the University of Miami and esteemed Islamic scholar commented on Dilou’s objection: ‘It appears that the minister is stating that Article 230 is about upholding Islam yet it is a French Colonial law that was imposed on Tunisia in 1913 and has nothing to do with Islam or Tunisian Arab traditions.’

As for Dilou’s assertion regarding LGBT rights as incompatible with Islamic justice and faith he stated: ‘The issue of homosexuality or any form of varying sexuality are challenges to authority, patriarchy and heteronormativity. Islam is open to interpretation and depending on how one reads the scripture homosexuality need not be objected to nor classified as “haram” according to Shari’a. If Islam and its law is about upholding peace in faith to God, Dilou is surely forgetting the core essence of this religion’s commitment to social justice.’

He further stated that ‘same sex intimacy and love has always existed in Arab societies, those who deny this are clearly deluded. More and more young Arab Muslims want to be out and proud of their sexuality and no longer want to be categorised as diseased or marginalised but are seeking their place in society. Dilou is clearly incapable of bridging beautiful Arab/Muslim traditions to contemporary realities.’

Fadi, the editor of gaydaymag stated: ‘This rejection doesn’t mark the end of the fight, yet it shows that advocacy towards equality and ensuring LGBT rights are not in vain. We need to keep the pressure going.

‘Dilou and his delegation totally contradict themselves if they claim equality between men and women is compatible with Islam and use the same arguments to oppose LGBT rights, these are human rights not ones set apart.

‘The challenge is to convince the government and the general public and in this respect we have taken an important first step.’