Opinion | Space cooperation is not a vehicle for LGBTQ rights

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The bloody aftermath of the abhorrent act of terrorism against the LGBTQ community in Orlando, Florida, this past weekend has sadly seen more than its fair share of inappropriate political exploitation.

Donald Trump, inevitably, explicitly linked the horrors of 6/12 to Muslim immigration into the United States, even though the man responsible was born and raised in Queens, New York.

And now, Danny Bednar, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Western Canada, writes in these very pages perhaps the most vapid attempt at politically linking what happened in Orlando to the agreement reached between NASA and the UAE Space Agency in Abu Dhabi on June 12, 2016.

Mr. Bednar writes that because the United Arab Emirates denies rights to its own LGBTQ community – like every other Muslim nation around the world – NASA should withhold any form of cooperation with the UAE Space Agency. Further, writes Bednar, the timing and optics of the NASA-UAE Space Agency agreement could not have been worse, occurring just as the murderous rampage took place in Orlando.

The ridiculousness of Mr. Bednar’s stance beggars belief, and implies a political agenda that, doubtless unwitting on his part, mirrors that of xenophobes like Donald Trump. On top of that, it reeks of the kind of breathless, hypocritical, and self-righteous identity politics that poisons the body politic.

Mr. Bednar’s points deserve firm rebuttal. First, if NASA is to withhold cooperation with the UAE Space Agency because of the lack of LGBTQ rights in the United Arab Emirates, then NASA should also drop its cooperative agreements with countries like Russia, India, and many others throughout Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. And why stop there? If Mr. Bednar really wishes to unweave the fabric of Muslim societies, where there is no separation of Mosque and state, over LGBTQ rights then why not also withhold international aid, trade, immigration, and cultural exchanges until they see the error of their ways?

Second, the accusation made by Mr. Bednar that the timing and optics of the NASA-UAE Space Agency agreement was poorly judged is both unfair and does not pass reasonable analysis. With an eight-hour time difference between Orlando, Florida, and Abu Dhabi, NASA officials can hardly be blamed for the timing of the Abu Dhabi event that was planned weeks ago. It should also be noted at this juncture that the United Arab Emirates is one of the few countries in the region to have unequivocally condemned the Orlando attack.

As for the optics of the NASA-UAE Space Agency agreement, Mr. Bednar unwittingly plays into the hands of xenophobes like Donald Trump. Had NASA officials in Abu Dhabi somehow heard of the Orlando attack, and decided to cancel the signing of the cooperative agreement with the UAE Space Agency, what kind of message would that have sent throughout the Muslim world? The answer is not too difficult to imagine. The message would have been that the United States conflates the insane actions of one man with that of the entire Muslim world. It would send a message that tells one of the friendliest governments to U.S. interests in the Middle East that it is not worthy of any engagement by Washington, D.C., because of perceived deficiencies on an issue that is far more complex in Muslim societies that Mr. Bednar irresponsibly fails to acknowledge.

Mr. Bednar’s comments are also hypocritical since he is quick to condemn NASA for its agreement with the UAE Space Agency, yet as a Canadian is silent on the generous offer made in 2014 by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield to the United Arab Emirates to help them form their space agency. The LGBTQ situation in the UAE was the same in 2014 as it is today but for some reason Chris Hadfield luckily avoid Mr. Bednar’s pious judgment.

Lastly, Mr. Bednar’s wholly inappropriate criticism of the NASA-UAE Space Agency agreement misses a wider point that will doubtless displease his worldview. Space agencies are not just the official means by which states exploit the space domain, they are also diplomatic tools that seek to protect and advance a state’s wider strategic interests. Space agencies are not the means by which the identity politics of LGBTQ rights are waged, and furthermore, they are utterly ill equipped to do so even if politicians asked them to do so.

In 2008, the marriage of my wife and I was officiated by a gay priest who is also a family friend. As an enculturated Western man I am a supporter of LGBTQ rights. I also have close connections to the Middle East, however, and I understand that the issue of LGBTQ rights there is a theological — not political — matter since it pertains to the teachings of the Qu’ran. To demand that the UAE provide rights for its LGBTQ community in return for U.S. space cooperation is not only amazingly ridiculous, it is also a cultural, religious, and diplomatic blunder of epic proportions and would be nothing but the latest in a litany of avoidable incidents of Western incomprehension of the Muslim world.

Far from being the blunder claimed by Mr. Bednar, the NASA-UAE Space Agency agreement is not only in the national interests of the United States and the United Arab Emirates, it is also a positive development in bridging the gap between the West and the Muslim world. The NASA-UAE Space Agency agreement is a symbol of what unites us all, and should not be used as a blunt instrument to divide us yet further.


Dr. John B. Sheldon is the Chairman and President of ThorGroup GmbH, and publisher of SpaceWatch Middle East.