Have Queer Muslims Gained Acceptance in Their Communities Since the Pulse Shooting?

Muslim progressive leaders and activists spoke to frustrations encountered in trying to enact real change in their community.

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Oct 11 2016, 4:19pm

A still from "Keep It Halal," an animated short about acceptance in the Muslim community. Photo via Muslims for Progressive Values

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This past June, after Omar Mateen, a Muslim man, gunned down 49 patrons of Orlando's Pulse gay nightclub, leaders of prominent American Muslim organizations issued a statement unequivocally condemning the attack. They declared their commitment to "our shared humanity," despite "differences in faith or lifestyle," and the "cherished political right" of Americans to "pursue happiness as each one sees fit."

Others went beyond such qualified language: "For many years, members of LBGTQI community have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Muslim community against any acts of hate crimes, Islamophobia, marginalization and discrimination," wrote Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council of American-Islamic Relations. "Today we stand with them shoulder-to-shoulder[...] Homophobia, transphobia, islamophobia are interconnected systems of oppression, and we cannot dismantle one without dismantling the other."

Homophobia is widespread within many Muslim communities; Muslim LGBTQ activists, who have struggled for years to bring attention to the issue, were encouraged by the support expressed after Pulse, hoping the tragedy might spark an increased commitment to addressing the struggles of queer Muslims. Ani Zonneveld, founder of Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV), a pioneering human rights organization in the fight for LGBTQ Muslim rights, called the shooting "a moment for the traditional Muslim communities to put their money where their mouth is." With American Muslims supporting LGBTQ rights in increasing numbers—a 2014 Pew Research poll found that 45 percent of American Muslims accept homosexuality, up 7 percent since 2007, and 42 percent support gay marriage—the time seemed ripe for change.

This July, MPV launched the No to Homophobia campaign, calling on prominent imams and other representatives of faith-based institutions, such as schools, mosques, and universities, to "pledge to eradicate all homophobic teachings in my community and in the religious institutions I am affiliated with, and [to] affirm the dignity of LGBT individuals."

But the outcome was underwhelming. Zonneveld told me, "We wrote [emails] to Hamza Yusuf"—a co-founder of the prominent Muslim liberal arts college Zaytuna College—"and several prominent imams directly and didn't get a response. We know that they opened it; one or two opened it several times. The only ones who have responded to our emails have been chaplains and policy makers."

I also reached out to a cross-section of American Muslim leaders, including Yusuf and leaders of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), to learn about efforts to eradicate homophobia and actively address the struggles of queer Muslims in Pulse's wake.

A rep for Yusuf said he was unavailable to comment. Safir Ahmed, Zaytuna College's director of publications and media relations, referred me to Yusuf's June 15 CNN interview, in which he stated that "an active homosexual lifestyle" would never be compatible with the traditions or scriptures of Islam, though he himself was sympathetic to the struggles of individual queer Muslims and didn't judge their choices.

Wilfredo Ruiz, CAIR-Florida's media facilitator, assured me that CAIR has been "engaging with LGBT civil rights leaders for years, before Orlando." Neither Ahmed nor Ruiz could comment on specific efforts to actively dispel homophobia, but Ruiz reiterated CAIR's commitment as a civil rights organization to supporting human rights writ large. ISNA did not respond to requests for comment.

It's a parade of responses Zonneveld is all too familiar with. "I think it's really up to the people themselves to insist on change and to keep calling these religious leaders out," she said with some frustration.

But writer and religious scholar Reza Aslan said that it's a mistake to look to theology and religious authorities to lead on LGBTQ rights.

"The problem is that this kind of discrimination is baked into the scripture," he said, citing scriptural condemnations of homosexuality in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. "Muslims aren't different than other religious communities who condemn and then unfortunately have to deal with the consequences of their rhetoric."

Though there are verses in the Qur'an that acknowledge sexualities other than heterosexuality—MPV employs them in its work—Aslan said such arguments require the belief that scripture is "living and breathing, reinterpreted every generation" and not an ahistorical document "without context, fixed in place for all time." Most Muslims see it as the latter and look askance at modern interpretations that reverse centuries of established tradition. The Qur'an, after all, is by definition is the holy word of God, directly transmitted to the Prophet Muhammad through the angel Gabriel, untouched by human corruption.

Aslan said, "If we want to transform the way our religious leaders and houses of worship think and talk about [homosexuality], it requires that gays and lesbians express themselves spiritually. An individual who manages to express a deep-seated Muslim spirituality at one with his queer nature is much more effective at transforming the way that people of faith think about gender and sexuality than any theological or scriptural argument could be."

Such reconciliation can be a tall order for queer Muslims, many of whom have internalized feelings of self-hatred from Islamic teachings that homophobia is a grave sin. Aslan holds up Imam Daayiee Abdullah, the first openly gay American imam, as an example—but he is the rare exception to the rule.

Imam Daayiee shrugs off the lack of follow-up from CAIR and other organizations in the months following Orlando—"it's been crickets," he said—and told me that his attention is focused on the MECCA Institute, a progressive online Islamic seminary he has founded, scheduled to open fall of 2017.

"I'm committed to a different framework, a different way of doing things, with different components," Daayiee said. "If you're looking for leadership in the past, you're not going to find it. It has to be alive today."

That vision is being brought to life by the MECCA Institute, Muslims for Progressive Values, the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity, and others among a new generation of organizations and activists building a more inclusive Islamic community, one with its own institutions, power structures, and places of worship.

Jerin Arifa, a feminist activist and community organizer, has worked to bring together progressive members of the Islamic community who have been "stonewalled" on many occasions by the "Muslim mosque patriarchy.

"It's our responsibility to make sure that there are more organizations with more viewpoints," she said. "I refuse to go to any mosque or organization that espouses hate. Let's support organizations that are not scared to talk about these things publicly—we need to call out people for their homophobia, but in a nonviolent, teachable-moment kind of way."

Shahirah Majumdar is a writer living in Chicago.

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