In 2005, two young men were executed in Mashad, Iran, sealing multiple fates at once. Outside Iran, the execution was labeled an “execution of gay men because they were gay.” Inside Iran, the story was different. Neither of these two young men identified as gay, and their crime was that of raping a young boy. By mislabeling it “yet another case” of a Muslim country’s backward policies on sexuality, the violence of the rape was erased, as were the strengths of movements inside Iran rethinking sexuality. The way this story was taken up outside Iran fed into Islamophobic rhetoric demonizing Muslim sexualities. Not only did the fates of these young men hang in the balance, but the fate of the entire sexual rights movement in Iran was also at stake.

In 2011, as the United States celebrated the ten year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Google Ideas, the think-tank arm of Google Inc., was gearing up for a summit on “Illicit Networks: Forces in Opposition” (INFO). The summit, held in Los Angeles in July 2012, highlighted a three-way partnership between Google, the Tribeca Film Festival, and the Council on Foreign Relations. The goal was to investigate the nexus between different types of “illicit networks,” with a focus on trafficking and terrorism. Experts on terrorism were asked to speak on trafficking, and vice versa. This culminated in the paradigm of “trafficking-and-terror,” with trafficking rings cited as the financiers behind terrorism. Though no such actual link has been found, this paradigm has become the basis for anti-immigrant and Islamophobic policies, including Donald Trump’s “Muslim Ban.”

The “war on terror” and the “war on trafficking,” two seemingly separate discourses, have become interwoven in recent years, castigating Muslim majority countries as sites of depravity, difference, and danger. Both discourses are raced, classed, and gendered, producing distinct tropes of victims and villains, while the intersection of these two “wars” presents a confluence of moral panics about sexuality, Islam, and immigration. These discourses have also resulted in a series of policies and even militarized responses that hurt vulnerable populations globally. These discourses, and the conceptual sutures between the two that produce the trafficking-and-terror paradigm, exemplify what Joan Scott and Sara Farris document in their pivotal new books: namely, that anxieties about Muslim sexualities, LGBT movements, and migration in Muslim majority countries are juxtaposed against secularism, democracy, and human rights in the “West,” providing fuel to the “clash of civilizations” rhetoric that has made a bold resurgence since 9/11.

Scott makes a powerful argument that secularism is a discourse, “not an abstract concept but a set of ideas deployed in specific contexts.” Importantly, there is a feedback loop between discourse and policy: the hypermasculinized war on terror and the hyperfeminized war on trafficking are both discursive tropes that have been leveraged into policy. This year marks the seventeenth anniversary not only of the September 11 attacks and the beginning of the US “war on terror,” but also of the US Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report and the reemergence of the global “war on trafficking.” Rhetoric about race, class, and sexuality feeds into the construction of a trafficking-and-terror paradigm.1 Moreover, similar to ways in which the trafficking discourse has wedded women and children to the point where the turn of phrase has entered the lexicon as “women-and-children,” so, too, do we see a similar suturing of trafficking and terror to the extent that the two are seen as one, with discursive slippages between the two becoming de rigueur.

The confluence of race and sexuality in trafficking and terror can be seen in two examples from the past ten years in popular media: 1) the anti-trafficking campaign “Stop Child Trafficking Now,” supported by celebrities, as well as Facebook and Twitter, around 2010; and 2) the blockbuster hit film Taken. Examples like these shape popular understandings of human trafficking and the Muslim world in a number of ways, drawing on rhetoric about the war on terror to fight the war on trafficking. These discourse makers also contribute to tropes about the need to “save” or “protect” Muslim women by any means necessary, thus legitimating US imperialism across the world.

Ashton Kutcher, Microsoft, and Facebook sponsored an anti-trafficking initiative called Stop Child Trafficking Now (SCTNow), which, according to its no-longer live website, raised funds to “end demand” for sex. To do so, SCTNow “partnered with specially trained operatives familiar with what it takes to infiltrate, investigate and bring justice to the predators victimizing children worldwide.” These “specially trained operatives” were trained in the war on terror (a selling point made explicit on the website and in fundraising campaigns) and “possess skills that enable them to achieve their goals in foreign lands independently, without support of US law enforcement.”

Released in 2008, Taken is about an ex-CIA agent—played by Liam Neeson—whose daughter (a fifteen-year-old virgin) is kidnapped by dark skinned “traffickers” with Middle Eastern accents while she is on vacation in Paris. As the film unfolds, Neeson’s character pursues his daughter across the globe, drawing on his counterterrorism skills to murder and torture all who stand in his way. At the end of the film, Neeson tracks his daughter to the yacht of a wealthy Arab sheikh just as she is about to be traded. Killing the Arab, he “rescues” his daughter and returns home, not having to face any consequences for the violence he inflicted throughout the movie. Notably, the film was shot and released while the George W. Bush White House was attempting to justify torture in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With the term “trafficking-and-terror,” I point to the artificial conceptual and political sutures between the wars on terror and trafficking. Building on Scott and Farris’s work, we can see that discourses inform policies and vice versa, and that both discourse and policy have damaging effects on Muslim populations (by perpetuating Islamophobia), as well as on migrants, laborers, and trafficked persons. Moreover, the hyperscrutiny on sexuality within both discourses results in increased monitoring and surveillance, as well as calls for a securitization of sexuality, sometimes via military force. These discursive—political linkages inadvertently foster illegality through legal processes. Laws and policies enacted to mitigate human rights abuses often lead to increased underground activity because restrictions foster a climate of illicitness and unaccountable behavior. The feedback loop between discourse and policy, in other words, exacerbates the problem.

Indeed, the results of gender and race biased trafficking policies and discourse have been staggeringly negative. In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), for instance, the “prosecution paradigm” criminalizes women in sex work, as well as those seeking to provide outreach to them. Moreover, this framing eclipses the experiences of those outside the sex industry who also experience abuse, especially men, who are not imagined in popular discourse as “trafficked,” and are thus unable to access any rights this framing might offer. Recommendations to increase policing and prosecution are problematic because they potentially expose women to abuse by law enforcement. Recommendations to tighten borders in the UAE and in countries of origin like the Philippines and Ethiopia also lead to problems for female migrants who need to migrate to make ends meet, but have to do so through informal or illegal avenues, which are often more abusive.

This catch-22 is evident in the strategic deployment of what Farris refers to as “femonationalism” in “saving campaigns” that further the charity industrial complex (I favor this term over “white savior complex” because, as Farris and Scott point out, it is not just white people doing the saving). Femonationalism also informs policies and interventions in the service of capitalist, anti-immigrant, and anti-Muslim agendas. My work on sexuality in Iran highlights yet another example of Farris’s arguments.

Popular debates about Iran and its stance toward sexuality in recent years focus on two major events, which serve as the over simplified and essentialist framework for a complicated issue, namely: 1) the execution in 2005 of two underage young men for the alleged crime of homosexuality, which I introduced above; and 2) President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech in 2007 at Columbia University in which he is said to have claimed there are no gay people in Iran. In fact, Ahmadinejad did not actually deny the existence of homosexuality in Iran, but rather indicated that “we do not have homosexuals the way that you do here [in the United States].”

This mistranslation was problematic for a few reasons. First, it fueled Islamophobic writings on the part of American activists, some of whom called for a US invasion of Iran for the Iranian government’s anti-gay sentiments (For a good analysis of this please see Scott Long). Second, in these writings and calls to arms, there is virtually no recognition of the LGBT movement or sexual revolution taking place in Iran, which are challenging the regime on its views about sexuality. Not recognizing these movements erases the narratives and experiences of the youth who have built them and undercuts their agency as political subjects.

Indeed, the popular press (BBC, CNN, New York Times) frames discussions about young Iranians’ sexualities as part of a “victim narrative.” Even accounts by organizations such as Human Rights Watch paint homosexual youth in Iran as endangered and oppressed, with little or no contextualization of homosexuality in Iran’s recent history or acknowledgement of the growing LGBT movement in Iran. Jessica Stern, a researcher for the LGBT segment of HRW, notes: “the execution of two men for consensual sexual activity is an outrage. The Iranian government’s persecution of gay men flouts international human rights standards.” There is no doubt that executing minors is a direct violation of human rights. However, Stern does not acknowledge that the persons punished were convicted of rape (lavat beh onf—sodomy by force). The report also makes no reference to the culturally complex notion of homosexuality in Iran, nor to the success of the recent LGBT movement and sexual revolution, and is filled with contestable facts about the punishment of homosexuals under “Islam.”

Importantly, homosexuality as a sexual identity (which did not exist until the late twentieth century, according to Afsaneh Najmabadi’s work) is not punishable by death in the Islamic Republic. Rather, sodomy (lavat), the act, is punished, as are other acts such as sex before or outside of marriage. In other words, the act, and not the desire, is punishable; all three youth who have been so widely discussed online were executed for the crime of lavat beh onf. My point is not to defend the Iranian government, which has committed atrocious human rights violations, but rather to ask us to look more closely at the construction of sexual identities and to acknowledge the sexual and social movements being enacted by youth in Iran.

Understanding organic movements requires context and can challenge the charity industrial complex. Laura Agustin has argued that the rise of what she terms the “social” in the United Kingdom in the eighteenth century laid the foundation for modern day rescue and saving campaigns that Farris describes as “femonationalism.” Agustin chronicles how the “social” came about through groups of white women who, working through their church, came together to demonize migrant women and sex workers as a way to elevate their own status. We see the same with femonationalist efforts today.

Scott and Farris’s books chronicle the long history of structural violence against Muslims through discursive tropes and their subsequent policies. By attending to the epistemology of human rights, power, and privilege, their arguments also lay the foundation to make visible the progress made by movements for gender and sexual equality that take place outside secular frameworks. Ultimately, in seeding the roots of a counter discourse—which these books accomplish powerfully—we can see the possibility of new narratives on the horizon.


  1. I draw here on the work of Cynthia Enloe, Jasbir Puar, Junaid Rana, and Mahmood Mamdani.