FV reviews Gay Muslims, a Channel 4 documentary
This insightful document began with the producers telling us that, of the 200 gay Muslims they approached to participate, only five were willing to go before the camera. The experiences of those brave individuals make it clear why the others stayed away.
A common thread of mental and physical abuse, family pressure and personal anguish ran through their stories. The documentary also charted how each of them had struggled to reconcile their sexuality with the expectations of their Islamic faith and culture.
“Razeen”, a young man from Northern England talked about how he is subjected to constant abuse from people in his community. The camera never showed his face — he has never come out, since the rumours are enough to make his life hell. He is caught between a desire to live his life as a gay man and expectations of what a Muslim man should be. Later he admitted that the cultural and religious pressures are overwhelming and that he’ll probably get married in the near future.
“Abdullah” has already been down that road. He was married for ten years and had three children. After he came out, however, his wife cut him off from his kids completely. As he and his partner walk through the crowds at last year’s London Pride, he talks about the “sacrifices” he has been forced to make to live his life in the open.
The only participant in the programme who showed his face is a Pakistani man called Adnan Ali. After suffering years of homophobic abuse he fled to London and founded the LGBT Muslim group Al-Fatiha. Adnan has come to reconcile his faith and his sexuality through the belief that Islam is a religion of diversity and tolerance. For him it is cultural distortions of the religion that have resulted in Muslim homophobia.
He questions common interpretations of the Quranic story of Lot — whose people were destroyed because they were homosexual. This story has provided the textual basis of the anti-homosexual teachings of “mainstream” Islam. But, replies Adnan to a zealous caller on an Asian radio talk show, it is possible that they were actually being punished for male rape, not for homosexuality per se.
The belief that Islam’s position on homosexuality is a matter of cultural interpretation is widely held among gay Muslims, judging by this documentary. But willingness to question the Quran or sharia law in a more general way is extremely limited. This is perhaps unsurprising, since those who do — like Irshad Manji, the self-styled lesbian Muslim refusenik — have been met with venomous attacks. The way in which homosexuality not only transgresses religious teachings, but blurs the clearly defined gender roles of Islamic culture, seems to touch a real social nerve.
How gay Muslims actually express their identity is also a tricky subject. Al-Fatiha’s participation in Pride marches and its activism generally were always very much about being “out and proud”. But Al-Fatiha’s successor Imaan (the Arabic word for faith) has a very different approach.
They attended last year’s Pride wearing full length burkhas and rainbow hijabs. The symbolism of this is, obviously, highly ambivalent. For some it was a way of combating the stereotyped view of what a Muslim is — saying, yes, we can be Muslim and queer. Some saw it as a way of subverting the veil, traditionally a symbol of piety and modesty. At the same time, it was a way for those who are not out to hide their faces.
Interestingly, Adnan doesn’t agree with Imaan’s decision to don the veil. His view is that Gay pride should mean just an acceptance and celebration of oneself. In contrast Imaan’s chair, “Rasheeda”, says that any proud celebration of sexuality is immodest and therefore un-Islamic.
Imaan refused to participate in the documentary and seem highly suspicious of the makers’ motives. They generally seem to want to do as little as possible to antagonise “mainstream” Muslims — hence their reluctance to be proud about their sexuality. One result has been that they are not very sharp about responding to homophobia within the Muslim community. Although they have provided a vital resource for LGBT Muslims, their political softness is worrying.
The documentary also discussed the issue of racism, including anti-Muslim racism, within the gay community. The sharp increase in anti-Muslim racism since 9/11 has unfortunately found an echo among some gay people. A number of people interviewed on the programme put forward the view that the “rainbow flag” sometimes amounts to little more than whites in one corner, Asians in another and so on. . .
This should be an eye-opener for many LGBT people as well as heterosexual people. Gay Muslims occupy an extremely precarious position in modern Britain. As a minority within a minority, they face homophobic persecution from one side and racism from another. These stories are about people who are desperately trying to hang on to two divergent identities, and in the process, form a new one. Above all they should be a reminder that, even in the era of civil partnerships and the pink pound, it’s still hard to be queer.