A new report by a multi-cultural, multi-faith, global initiative of the Collegiate Church of New York, Intersections International, should challenge many perceptions of Muslim communities both in the US and worldwide on their attitude toward sexuality.
The report, the “Muslim LGBT Inclusion Project,” builds on interviews with Muslim community leaders as well as facilitated discussions among more than 50 people in six cities and includes three scholarly articles. Many of the report’s participants were ‘progressive,’ but the existence of progressive Muslims may in itself be news to many non-Muslims.
Robert Chase, the Executive Director of Intersections International, told Peter Montgomery for Religion Dispatches:
“It was just fascinating.”
“I went in looking to do an assessment, and came out being inspired with real hope for our whole world. One part of our world that is so often demonized as being insensitive and rigid and uncompromising and out of touch with nuances of human history proved to be just the opposite: engaged, sensitive, curious, imaginative.”
“If this is the demonized community, then our future is a lot brighter than what we’ve been led to believe.”
The report found that LGBT Muslims are dealing with very similar issues to those which LGBT Christians have historically faced, like interpretation of scripture.
But for LGBT Muslims, this is complicated by the Islamophobia which has grown since 9/11. This has led to many Muslim leaders defending their faith against what they see as a western imposition — homosexuality.
Says scholar Kecia Ali:
“Those who have appointed themselves the guardians of communal orthodoxy are particularly vigilant on matters concerning women and gender — in part because it is in these realms that the construction of Muslim identity in self-conscious opposition to a decadent West takes place.”
Says Munir Shaikh, executive director of the Institute on Religion and Civic Values:
“The LGBT cause is perceived by many to be simply another form of cultural imperialism, not a matter of human rights.”
The facilitated discussions provided many new ideas for drawing common cause. For example, one Muslim parent in Washington DC connected bullying of Muslim and gay kids and picked it as a potential “cognitive opening.”
The report points out that a Pew survey in 2007 reported that one-third of American Muslims said they seldom or never attended a mosque. Participants in the Intersections discussions said they believed that 70 to 80 percent of Muslims in America do not belong to their local mosque.
The report also found that young Muslims, particularly second- and third-generation Muslims in America, are, like their youthful counterparts in other religious traditions, more open.
In looking at how Islam has historically approached homosexuality, the report points to very big differences across different cultures. It is important, writes Rashid, to show that there are a wide variety of interpretations of Islam. Many laws and public condemnations of homosexuality actually come from colonization by the British.
Western notions of ‘gay’ as an identity also do not translate to many cultures. And in many cultures, an emphasis on marriage and family means that gay people are highly closeted.
Montgomery writes that:
In her article, Aisha Geissinger explores a more fluid understanding of gender and an openness toward same-sex desires that is revealed in much poetry and literature from pre-19th-century Islam. She says, for example, that “poetry with homoerotic themes was composed in all of the major literary languages used by medieval Muslims.” The Qur’an, Rashid adds, acknowledges that some men are not attracted to women; and Geissinger writes that there is evidence that even among those surrounding the Prophet Mohammed, men with female characteristics were permitted to fraternize with women.
There are many signs of increased visibility both for LGBT Muslims and for progressive Muslim debate about homosexuality. The Human Rights Campaign recently hosted a reception for Muslims for Progressive Values, which describes itself as “an inclusive community rooted in the traditional Qur’anic ideals of human dignity and social justice.” Both Muslim members of the US Congress are members of the LGBT Equality Congress, and mainstream American Muslim organizations supported the 2009 hate crimes bill that expanded federal law to include crimes based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
There are actively pro-gay Muslim MPs throughout Europe, such as Kamal Qureshi, a Member of the Danish Parliament.
There are LGBT organizations throughout North Africa, Turkey, Lebanon, Pakistan and Indonesia. CALEM, the Confederation of Associations LGBTQI European and Muslim, is holding its second conference in Brussels in December.
In America, says Chase, people need to know about the kind of thoughtful and caring conversations he witnessed amongst people with many disagreements on a potentially contentious topic. He notes that 60 percent of Americans say they don’t know a single Muslim.
Says the report:
A regret shared by facilitators of these conversations on more than one occasion was that this experience could not have been witnessed by the American public. The rich diversity within the Muslim community, the respectful disagreements that took place during the course of the conversations, the thoughtful manner and sensitive insights with which the topic was addressed, the appreciation for living in a country where such a conversation could take place, and the continual returning to the root of a merciful and compassionate God in building a theological/religious foundation for inclusion of all is not a perception of American Muslims widely shared by non-Muslims in this country.
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Picture M. Laure Rodríguez Quiroga