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Australia’s First Openly Gay Imam on What He's Learned About Intolerance

Obviously being a gay Imam—the Islamic equivalent of a priest—draws a lot of heat.

Watch our series on hate and intolerance "Hate Thy Neighbour" on SBS VICELAND. Screening at 10:15 PM on Friday and 9:40 PM on Sunday.

We don't need to tell you that being a gay Imam—the Islamic equivalent of a priest—is controversial. As Australia throws itself into a One Nation renaissance, and the Muslim community continues to frown upon homosexulity, being both gay and Islamic is hard. And sometimes dangerous.

Imam Nur was born in Somalia, before growing up in Egypt and Canada. In the 90s he moved to Melbourne as a high school student and became an Imam in 2001. He is now the director of Muslim LGBT outreach group Marhaba and has had several threats on his life. As he told ABC News, two men came to his door last year and threatened to kill him, after he'd appeared on the Melbourne-based LGBT radio station Joy FM. "They wanted me to stop talking about gay Muslims," he explained. "But luckily the Victorian Police were very helpful and I am OK."

We caught up with Imam Nur to ask him about intolerance. What has he experienced from both within and outside his community, and what has he learned?

VICE: Can you tell me about the first time you experienced intolerance in one form or another?
Imam Nur: Well I first became an Imam just after September 11, which was around the time I'd just bought my first car: an old 1989 Nissan Pulsar. I had been studying and memorising the Quran so I had a very Muslim appearance. I had a beard, I wore the gown and the hat, and somebody recognised my car. One evening, I was studying until late and somebody slashed my tyres and graffitied profanities all over my car. That was my first experience but the racism was always there, just in a more implicit way.

What about intolerance towards the LGBT community?
Two years ago I was invited to an African faith leaders forum in Sydney. We were talking about the increasing number of HIV rates within African community, which is only a tiny percent of the Australian population but has some of the highest rates of HIV infection. So I went along and was immediately saddened that I was the only Imam representing a national forum. Apparently they'd sent invites to all of the Islamic councils around the country and the common response was that this is not a problem within the Muslim community. Yet while I was there I witnessed several cases of young Muslim men who were HIV positive. Two had passed away because they couldn't live with the stigma from their own families and had gone on a self-destructive path. But what really moved me the most was that no mosque would provide funeral services for these young men, which is a shameful lack of dignity in the name of religion.


Why do you think sex is so taboo in Islam?
When you have a belief system that is from the 7th century, it's taboo even to verbalise sexual feelings. I remember when my oldest sister first had her menstrual cycle. Mum said "shhh don't say anything to anyone, not your father or brothers!" So it is a lack of education combined with a cultural tribal mentality. However, the youth are now finding ways to educate themselves, using social media and the resources available on the Internet.

How effective has social media been to push past stigma?
The internet has been very beneficial to our members. When I started this group in 2013, I remember a first case involved a young girl from an Islamic school here in Melbourne. This girl told me she felt like a boy trapped in a girl's body. She had transgender feelings, and somehow she'd found a way online to research this stuff. But her mother sat her down with the rest of the family, in something like an intervention, and said to her "my daughter, forget Allah accepting your prayers, if you pray with this feeling, your prayers will be cursing you!" The family was saying this to a 16-year-old young girl.

That's awful. Can you tell me how the Muslim community often deals with issues around sexual identity?
Sometimes, the minute the family becomes aware, the LGBT youth are forced to cut ties with their family or they risk being exposed to violence. There was a young Arab girl who contacted me two weeks ago. She's an academic and lecturer at a university and she came out to her family in December. She was in her mid-20s and her parents had started to pressure her into marriage until she eventually decided to tell her mum that she had a partner and that she was a lesbian. The mother told the father. Her father is also an academic and he'd never touched her or assaulted her growing up but when she came to me she was bloody and bruised everywhere. He went ballistic.

The problem is that our community has this misguided loyalty. I told her that she'd tied my hands, she didn't want me to notify the police. Yet, she remains in an environment that causes so much trauma. There was another young African boy who came out to his family. I don't know why they do it, I always advise against it. So he came out, and his father took his phone and read everything, became utterly enraged and beat him to a pulp. He tore his nose across his mouth.

And this is why you advise people against coming out?
Yes, because I think coming out is a western concept. Why would you come out to a father or mother whose understanding of sexuality is non-existent? They think of your sexuality as an abomination and an evil sin. So I always advise the youth, "OK if you're still in the environment and want to hold onto the family ties, to move out, find your own independence, live your life and hold the family ties." No one would want to know how his or her parents are having sex, and there has to be a point where your business in the bedroom is only your business.

But if we excuse the families for being uneducated or unfamiliar with these concepts, what about the clerics and scholars who endorse these regressive ideas?
Look, after my first public appearance I was contacted by two Imams. One from rural Victoria and the other was based in Sydney. They both thanked me for what we were trying to accomplish and said that they had members of their congregation that had expressed similar issues. We don't know how to support them, we support what you are doing but we cannot do so publicly. I understand because they have families to feed and unfortunately due to the bureaucracy within the board of Imams they will lose their jobs. I think it's sad that people are in a position of spiritual leadership but the first thing they think of is their office, when people are suffering.

Do you see a silver lining in any of this?
I'm optimistic about the youth. After the Orlando incident happened I was invited to speak at the vigil in Federation square. There was a huge turn out. One of the most touching things that happened afterwards was that a group of hetero Muslim girls from RMIT University attended in their hijabs. They approached me and thanked me for what I was doing. They weren't gay but they commended the spirit of what our organisation was about, especially during such a fragile time. That's why I focus a lot of my time on the youth, I'm hopeful about them.

Why do you think human beings default to intolerance so easily?
Because we're not taught mercy, love, and acceptance from a young age. Instead we're taught division and tribal fear. Certainly [in the Muslim community] we have our parents telling children to be careful or Allah will burn you in Jahanum [Hell], so we have developed this image of a divine accountant with glasses, sitting on a throne ticking boxes for every good and bad moral decision.

What about within the general Australian community? How can end intolerance and hatred?
We are one community. When you start dividing people into us versus them it creates a disturbing place to co-exist. The same people who are endorsing this Islamophobic rhetoric are recycling the attitudes and descriptions that were ascribed to the Jews in the 20s, the African Americans in the 1860s, the native Indians in the 1700s, the list goes on. They were targeted for their otherness, for their different foods, different gods, and different dress. I hope that it doesn't take another catastrophe like the Holocaust to bring this difference to an end.

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Watch our series on hate and intolerance "Hate Thy Neighbour" on SBS VICELAND. Screening at 10:15 PM on Friday and 9:40 PM on Sunday.