New Film Examines Being Gay + Muslim

by Scott Stiffler

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Sunday August 3, 2008

Move over homosexuals; there's a new, more plentiful target of scorn and misunderstanding in America. Suddenly, a group that was comparatively invisible before 9/11 has become public enemy #1.

With over one billion practitioners worldwide, Muslims are poised to eclipse LBGTs as the scapegoat of small minds, bigoted religious types and right wing wingnuts. So just imagine the double dipping of prejudice and profiling heaped upon those who are both Muslim and gay. What, if anything, can be done to help? Perhaps it's time to declare a jihad.

What’s In A Name?

Muslim gay filmmaker Parvez Sharma took that highly charged word and used it as a call for understanding. His acclaimed documentary, A Jihad for Love, details the struggles of LGBT Muslims. Filmed in nine languages and twelve countries (including Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Egypt), the film returns jihad to the roots of its original Islamic meaning: an internal struggle rather than an external declaration of aggression.

Seeking to "inject a sense of fairness and responsibility into dialogue about Islam," Sharma "chose a word which is a very contested word, almost an English language word at this point." Explaining that jihad is "referred to several times in the Koran as a striving inside a person’s consciousness," Sharma notes that this desire to have a better and more honest relationship with God and one’s self has "often been referred to as the greater jihad."

Sharma’s film, first shown at the Toronto Film Festival in September of 2007 and set to debut on DVD this fall, documents the "constant balancing act" of Muslims "who are religious and gay or lesbian." In doing so, he reveals their internal and cultural struggles by depicting the daily challenges of reconciling one’s chosen religion with one’s unchosen sexual orientation.

The polarizing subject matter meant that Sharma had to be "exceptionally careful in making the film. I was filming undercover on my own, always on tourist visas, and never got permission to shoot." His unpleasant experiences while filming include confrontations with law enforcement which he "was able to bribe my way out of" as well as the ransacking of his hotel room in Bangladesh: "My hotel room was searched and I was advised to leave the country. There were numerous incidents like that."

As for the film’s participants, Sharma happily notes there have been no legal or physical repercussions for their participation. In fact, "Some of them have traveled with the film; the gay Egyptian refugee in France and the South African Imam (Hendricks). They have had positive experiences, feeling very empowered by standing in front of audiences and having their stories told."

There were, however, consequences for both Sharma and Imam Hendricks (referred to above). Both were labeled Apostate (meaning "one who is out of the religion") by the Muslim Judicial Council in South Africa. "That happened last year when the film was showing in South Africa. They issued a judgment that was read in three hundred mosques and encouraged people to not go see the film. But in such instances, more people show up to see it.

Photo: Filmmaker Parvez Sharma making "A Jihad for Love."

Jon’s Story

One person who’s lived the challenge of reconciling religion with sexual orientation is Jon (who requested his last name not be used for this article). Although not featured in the film, many of his experiences parallel those documented by Sharma. A 28 year-old NYC resident, who grew up in countries throughout the Middle East, Jon was raised Muslim by parents whom he describes as "more observant" than he: "I’m somewhat observant. I fast on the most important days of Ramadan and I don’t eat pork or any food that’s forbidden in Islam. I respect the Koran and have one in my house. If my family is going to the mosque, I will go with them."

When he came out to his parents five years ago, they were "pretty much fine with it. The other relatives were all very open and accepting." It’s ironic, then, that while Jon’s observant parents didn’t see any conflict with his religion and his sexuality, a great deal of the negative reaction he’s received has come from within the gay community.

"What’s interesting is I’ve experienced prejudice from other gay guys; generally ignorant comments about what a Muslim is and assumptions about beliefs I may have or groups I may support." One of those common misunderstandings is the inability to distinguish between being Muslim and being Arab.

"If they’re from a Christian background, I try to explain that just as there’s a spectrum of beliefs within Christianity, and the same applies to Islam. It’s not monolithic. Christians at least know there’s Protestants and Catholics and can tell the differences between the two."

Photo: A scene from "A Jihad for Love."

What Does Islam Really Say About Homosexuality?

Like two warring relatives who can’t get along because they don’t see that on many levels they’re very much alike, Christianity and Islam have one thing in common: the misinterpretation of religious texts to justify centuries of homophobia.

In that respect, says Sharma, "Islam is not unique. Very often we think it’s some prehistoric religions that is talking about death and stoning all the time. But Islam is no more condemning of homosexuality than any other religion. There are references in the old and new testament to death penalties for homosexuality, so it is not unusual the Koran picks up on those references."
But he clarifies that, if studied closely, the Koran has no references to homosexuality. However, Christianity and Islam both use the same story to justify homophobia. Sharma explains that the Koran "speaks about the people of Lot, which is the same story as Sodom and Gomorrah in the Bible. That story has nothing to do with homosexuality as we understand it in 2008. That story is about male to male rape and inhospitality."

Imam Daayiee Abdullah is a linguist, lawyer and historian -- and an out gay Muslim. His training as an Imam came from attending a masters legal program at an Islamic institute in the United States. Backing up Sharma’s assertions regarding the misinterpretation of the Lot story, Abdullah points out that sexual behavior and sexual orientation are two very different things.

Noting that the real moral transgression of the story comes from sex outside of marriage and rape, he states: "What they’re trying to say is because the men of Lot used a homosexual act, those men were homosexual. Not necessarily true. We know today that men will rape men in prison, but when they leave, they’ll be heterosexual. It’s not their sex orientation; it’s the fact that they committed a homosexual sex act. Therefore, the logic falls apart because sexual acts do not define a person’s sexual orientation."

Within Islam, a more potent source of homophobia comes from the Hadith. Similar to Bible stories, these tales about the prophet Mohammed function "very much like social myths in that they utilize stories to indicate that homosexuality is against nature." Abdullah cites one in particular that says "if two men are having sex, the foundation of Allah trembles." Such stories, "vacuous and with no historical foundation" exist despite the fact that during the life of the prophet Mohammed, "both as governmental and religious leader, he never had a case dealing with homosexuality."

After the prophet died, however, his successor Abu Baker ruled in a case of homosexuality that came before him. Baker stated "he had nothing from the prophet to help him make a decision and turned it over to the council, which we refer to as the Sahaba." The Sahaba determined "as a political decision that homosexuals should be put to death as the people of Lot and the city of Sodom were destroyed. That was the beginning in Islam when they started killing homosexuals."

To this day, however, Muslim culture maintains a healthy respect for what goes on behind closed doors -- one that an American culture obsessed with lurid bedroom secrets could learn from: "Whatever’s done in private remains in the private. But once you bring any form of objectionable behavior into the public realm, then the government can scrutinize it and initiate punishment for those things."

Still, negotiating the path between the public and private as well as religion and culture can be particularly challenging to Muslim LGBTs. Sharma: "Islam is not a religion that you practice in isolation. So much of Islam is based on the concept of family and community." That makes leaving the religion difficult, since it means "leaving your family, community, culture and food habits. People who choose to remain and be good Muslims have a very profound dilemma that I don’t think can be easily resolved, if it can be resolved at all."

Even so, deeply rooted prejudices in society and culture can change. Abdullah points out that just as some use the Koran and the Hadith stories to justify and perpetuate intolerance, texts exist that acknowledge the presence of gays and lesbians: "In the Koran in Surah 24:31, and also 24:60, it clearly states that women must veil before certain types of men except for the list that’s given." That list includes men who have no desire for women, and women who have no need for men. For Abdullah, this means "that in the Koran, these people are visible. Therefore, if we exist, we should have a voice. But due to the Islamic legal system, our voices are often quashed or silenced."

The problem continues to come from Wahhabi or Salafi points of view, where "there remains a very stringent and narrowly prescribed understanding or interpretation of what Islam, and the Koran, mean." Sharma echoes that sentiment, adding that we have to move away from literal interpretations of religious texts. "It’s not about theological bickering." he says. "It needs to be about combining theology with humanity. That is the ultimate purpose of religion; to improve the human condition. Spiritual warfare is not the solution."

For Jon, eliminating misunderstandings can be achieved by responding to them in a calm and rational manner: "What I’ve done, and I think it’s effective, is not to meet that prejudice with hostility. You educate them. Especially when somebody doesn’t mean to be ignorant, they often really want to learn."

Photo: Gay Iranians awaiting asylum comfort each other in "A Jihad for Love."

Scott Stiffler is a New York City based writer and comedian who has performed stand-up, improv, and sketch comedy. His show, "Sammy's at The Palace. . .at Don't Tell Mama"---a spoof of Liza Minnelli's 2008 NYC performance at The Palace Theatre, recently had a NYC run. He must eat twice his weight in fish every day, or he becomes radioactive.

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