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What It’s Like to Grow Up as a Closeted Gay Extremist Muslim in East London

At 16, Sohail Ahmed was considering an attack on Canary Wharf and joining in on homophobic jokes. Inside, however, he had a secret.

by Sohail Ahmed, as told to Thomas Hornall; Photos: Jak
08 October 2015, 11:28am

Sohail Ahmed

Sohail Ahmed, 23, was raised in a hardline Islamist household in London's East End. He was taught to despise his country of birth, all of Western culture and everyone who wasn't Muslim. Conversely, he was always gay and, at heart, a humanist, struggling for years with the intractable problem of holding the chauvinistic views of radical Islam, which were directly opposed to his nature.

Below, he tells me about his upbringing and his journey to where he is today.

On 9/11, my hatred crystallised into something solid and pure. I was nine.

My family are from Kashmir in Pakistan and they raised me, and four younger siblings, in East London. When I was six, they were befriended by another family in our tower block who swiftly turned them from pretty much apolitical into austere, harsh Salafi Islamists.

From then I saw the world through the prism of radical Islam, and every attempt to make sense of reality was analysed through it. Life was a battle between good and evil, belief and unbelief. There was a huge contradiction between who I truly was and the odious, reactionary views I held. Always the internal voice saying, 'This is wrong,' while being so convinced of my beliefs that they ended up drowning out any semblance of reason.

Perhaps the first and greatest of these contradictions was my being a virulent homophobe who was also gay. I've always been attracted to boys. Ever since the age of about eight or nine, I had these feelings pulling me toward them in an enchanting way.

Hitting puberty very early, I started messing around with boys at 14 years old. It would always be unknown people – strangers met online or just at secluded spots, because nobody could ever, ever find out. Afterwards, I would be so disgusted and utterly ashamed. However intense the pleasure, afterward nothing remained but a hollow ache. There's a prophetic narration that says: "When a man lies with another man, the throne of heaven shakes." That's how serious it was; I truly felt like dying.

Getting closer to Allah was always held up as the way to get rid of sinful thoughts, so I prayed more, became more "pious", grew out my beard and fell further and further into revolutionary Islam.

At 16, my mind was so corrupted and hate-filled that I considered a bomb attack on Canary Wharf. Being attracted to an unspeakable atrocity was ultimately the expression of this huge self-destructive streak. I wanted to show my piety and zealousness to Allah, but was truly terrified of spending an eternity of conscious torment in fire for my sexuality. It's hard for secular people to understand how real Hell is to the devout. The threat of an everlasting inferno backlit all of my thoughts and behaviour.

There was this incredible cognitive dissonance. The more I toyed around with guys the stronger my homophobia became. I'd join in with bigoted jokes and slurs and really believe them too. Looking back, it was obviously self-hatred – an intense loathing of myself deflected onto others as a coping mechanism.

I've always had a problem with violence, too; 7/7 tore at the sinews of my heart and mind. I was both repulsed and attracted. It was absolutely horrific, but – I convinced myself at the time – what needed to happen. On a "rational" level I was happy, on an emotional level devastated. I was told bloodshed and death were the only engines of implementing Sharia to bring about perpetual peace. The destruction is made necessary as Islam is true so it must win. It is the Truth – the last and final revelation. All else is commentary.

At university, the Islamic Society already had hardened members, and I became a key figure. We held prayer and study groups, turning Muslim pupils on to our noxious worldview. We'd host these incredibly poisonous speakers and present them as religious authorities. Once they're given that unchallenged platform, nobody questions them.

I'm filled with shame and embarrassment looking back on my part in stultifying the minds of others. One of the best friends to grace my life during this time ended up fighting jihad in Syria. He messaged me from ISIS ranks and said he'd call again in a few weeks, but never did.

That was over a year ago.

I began to listen to the doubts and internal niggling voice around 21. Looking into evolution, intellectual and philosophical arguments against theism, and studying Enlightenment thinkers really opened up this whole door of reason. The mind-forged manacles of blind and dogmatic faith began to loosen. I swiftly abandoned the whole project of revolutionary Islam after the glaring fallacies and absurdities were illuminated by the warm glow of rationality and empiricism.

READ ON MOTHERBOARD: The Psychology of a 'Lone Wolf' Terrorist

In a fiery argument with my parents I spat that Islam probably wasn't even true. They went through my internet history looking for atheist material, or whatever, and they found – well, other stuff.

My father said I was worse than a dog. He made me go through exorcisms to cast out the devils – djinns – that were obviously possessing me, and for two months I was exorcised every day. We even went to a "professional". The man couldn't look at me straight, like he thought I was immediately going to try to shag him if he made eye contact.

With a hand placed against my sweating head, he started reciting the Koran, humming the cadences in soft, absorbing notes. Something really weird happened, as the animal, fear-driven part of my mind took over for a moment. There was this overwhelming urge, as the scriptural Arabic rolled softly off his tongue, to thrash and wail about like those people you see in videos. To just lose control. It was this powerful, barely-repressible feeling bubbling up from deep within me. It took everything to stay still, and the moment still gives me pause.

After two months of this pseudo-spiritual pantomime I tried to kill myself because it was so fucked up and distressing. The attempt failed, and I had to move out and leave the toxic surroundings, or I really would have died.

Paradoxically, when radical I was much more sexually involved with guys than after coming out. Because it was so wrong and forbidden it became something fetishised and thus enchanting and tempting.

I'd imagine some of the hardcore Islamists and preachers will be gay. Sexuality is mixed up and connected to radical views in many different and dialectical ways. Look at all the married Evangelicals and Christian fundamentalists who get caught banging guys and still aggressively deny they're homos. It's exactly the same here, but just less talked about because it's so, so taboo in Muslim communities.

LGBT Muslims are one of the most silenced and fear-cowed minorities. There are many more than people think, but the penalties for saying you're a former or gay Muslim are severe. From social ostracism to violence and very believable threats of death, the cost of speaking out is extremely heavy.

Freud said: "Religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from the fact that it falls in with our instinctual desires" – and that resonates so powerfully.

I'm not an atheist, but now hold a very deist conception of God. No divine intervention, no dogmatism, no scriptural inerrancy, no world caliphate, no celestial violence and no miracles like Mohammed splitting the moon in half or flying to heaven on a winged-horse, all things which even very intelligent Muslims believe as empirical fact.

For now, I'm just happy to be alive and living without a mask; existing and following my instinctual desires, without illusion.

@ThomasHornall

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