Last Friday, like some Friday nights at the pub, I found myself surrounded by a congregation I don't really feel part of. But it's Ramadan, I needed somewhere to pray and I was bored of frying my own samosas, having had nil by mouth for near 18 hours. The truth is – my love of samosas aside – I, like many other queer Muslims, have always struggled to find commonalities with the Ummah.
I remember being told at the mosque, aged 14, that Christmas trees were evil and that if we were ever to get one we would all burn in hell. I'm not joking. So imagine my abject horror at seeing one at school and wondering what I would need to do to repent. Luckily I grew up in a forward-thinking Western society, and my friends reassured me that the fake pine tree on a plastic stand was unlikely to cause an eternity in the hellfire. Short episodes like these plagued my upbringing, but I found a way to navigate the path of being a Muslim brought up in a secular democracy. And today, I am one of those so-called "British Muslims".
Getting here wasn't easy. I spent a long time growing up trying to combine the words "British" and "Muslim". The British part was easy. I was born and brought up in London, so, for all intents and purpose, I am British. It's the Muslim part that's a quandary, mostly because everyone seems to have a different opinion of what it means. If the mainstream press is to be believed, it means a follower of Islam, a dangerous faith that leads to terrorism. David Cameron's recent speech in Slovakia reaffirmed that view.
Just as I came to terms with what it meant to be a British Muslim in my teens, I'm now navigating a third layer of my identity in my twenties – "gay". I've never had trouble with words being fused together. I was once affectionately nicknamed a "Skindian" – literally, "skinny Indian" (particularly apt during Ramadan) – and the term "Gaysian" has done the rounds for years now. However, there was something unsettling about putting the words "gay" and "Muslim" together; not just because they don't form a convenient portmanteau, but because I couldn't find anywhere where they happily co-exist.
Perhaps I needed to consult a religious scholar for some advice about being gay. Error – he'll just tell me I'm going to hell. First the Christmas tree, now this. Any Muslim with questions about reconciling their faith, their sexuality or even their Christmas shopping faces an uphill Jihad. The Qu'ran is the The Book. The roughly 1,400-year-old Chicken Soup for the Soul for followers of Allah and the Prophet Mohammed. Read it, heed its words; that's your recipe for how to live life. So said the imams and those around me growing up. Leave your critical thought (and your shoes) at the front door and enter the Muslim world ready to be told what to do.
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I asked Zia Chaudhry MBE, author of Just Your Average Muslim, why critical thinking seems to be discouraged. He told me: "We're going through a rediscovery of Islam, and that's an uncomfortable place to be. Islam used to be flexible and the Qu'ran was a source of guidance that was left to interpretation. Today, however, rigidity has set in."
This rigidity is having far-reaching consequences; in a recent article for The Guardian, Chaudhry argues that to reduce chances of radicalisation, children need a "space to discover the inherent spirituality of Islam that seems conspicuous by its absence in the modern world".
When I came out, I struggled to find the space Chaudhry mentions, and I knew that some choose a more dramatic path. For many, it's a choice: Islam or homosexuality. To quote Ghulam Rasool of Leicester central mosque: "To have the inclination has never been condemned. It's acting upon it."
To find out if this belief is universal, I decided to march at Pride for the first time this year. I took part with Imaan, an LGBTQI support group that has taken to the Pride parade for many years. Its members showed me that gay and Muslim can co-exist, not just in vocabulary but also in practice. I met Muslims of every form, from converts and partners to scholars, all of whom are forming a new narrative of what it means to be gay and a believer in Islam.
Shanon Shah, a sociologist of religion whose doctoral research focused on Islam and sexuality in Malaysia and Britain, told me about Imaan's work in helping gay Muslims. A large part of it starts by building intra-Muslim bridges and a dialogue within a community notorious for skirting around important matters of gender and sexuality.
In 2012, Imaan hosted an international conference that included a panel of Muslim organisations from across the country discussing modern-day Islam. One panelist, Yahya Birt of the City Circle, opened his contribution by saying: "The Muslim organisations have failed people like you in this room [ie LGBTQI Muslims] for such a long time, and for that I am truly sorry."
It was clear from my conversation with Shanon that to be gay and Muslim means pushing for acceptance and understanding within our own community. One by-product of this is the chant: "Two, four, six, eight, is that imam really straight?"
Armed with this placard on Saturday, I wanted to gauge whether the world is ready for Muslims to define themselves in a way that isn't displayed on the front page of the Daily Mail. From the woman who shouted, "Yes! Just brilliant!" at me as we passed her, to Carrie Bishop's tweet about another one of our chants, I started to get a sense that there are many people who will welcome a more nuanced version of Islam; one that is balanced and more carefully thought through.
Could it be, then, that being gay and Muslim is about to experience a Milifandom moment? Let's not get ahead of ourselves. But if the popularity of #wearenotharam is anything to go by, it's clear that there are more and more LGBTQI Muslims with the courage to speak up. Scrolling through the hashtag led me to Coming Out Muslim: Radical Acts of Love, a storytelling performance that's been gaining momentum in the United States.
I asked Terna, a performer of Coming Out Muslim, about who she usually sees in the audience. "There are a few groups: the queer community, queer Muslims, straight Muslims and people from religious backgrounds. We get a lot of, 'Oh, I had no idea you existed,' coming from all angles," she said.
For Terna, it's as much about carving out a space for Muslims to be gay as it is for LGBTQ people of faith. "LGBTQ culture is often associated with drinking and excess partying, which doesn't always fit with observant Muslims," she said. "That's a tension. We're offering alternatives of what it means to be queer."
It's easy to get caught up in the jubilation of the recent legalisation of same-sex marriage in the US, a Pride march and those new colourful Facebook profile photos; equally, it goes without saying that a lot of work in majority Islamic states remains, and there are dark corners of the internet that will be slower to progress. But with an intellectual narrative, we're starting to see more individuals and organisations address a new view of Islam and form a new space for critical thought. In 2015, this new view will be forced to engage with matters of LGBTQ identity. Whether it's a closed Facebook group or outlets such as the Everyday Muslim blog, safe spaces are appearing that move Islam forward.
That gives me real faith that, one day, more people will start to accept they can be gay and Muslim, not gay or Muslim.
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