Thursday, June 23, 2016

Progressive Perspectives on Islam and Homosexuality in the Aftermath of Orlando

Above: Pav Akhtar (left), stands with others on a float at an LGBT Pride event. Akhtar is the chair of Imaan, an organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Muslims.

In the aftermath of the June 12 mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, which left 49 people dead and over 50 injured, there has been much discussion about Islam and homosexuality.

This is because the shooter, Omar Mateen, was a Muslim and his targeted victims were predominately LGBTQ. In addition, there are multiple claims that Mateen himself was a gay man, one who struggled with internalized homophobia which may well have been fueled by Islam's prohibition on acting on one's feelings of same-sex attraction. It's a prohibition that is also found in official Roman Catholic teaching. Yet just as Catholicism and other branches of Christianity have evolved in their thinking and, in some cases, their teaching on homosexuality, so too, many believe, can and should Islam. Indeed there are many Muslims, both gay and straight, challenging taboos on gender and sexuality within Islam.

Today at The Wild Reed I share some of the more enlightened commentaries on the topic of Islam and homosexuality that I've come across since the tragic events in Orlando. All but the last of these are written by Muslims, including Omar Sarwar and Samra Habib who identify as gay/queer Muslims.


[S]ame-sex attraction and activity has not been unusual in Muslim societies. A wealth of top quality scholarship has demonstrated that Islam, Muslim societies and the Shariah tradition did not conceive of ‘homosexuality’ as an identity. But they did acknowledge that same-sex attraction occurred, often for ‘natural’ reasons (e.g. it was considered normal for men to be attracted to beardless youths, who shared feminine beauty). It is only specific actions, such as sodomy (in Arabic, Liwat), that show up on the Shariah radar as sins or punishable offenses. It is not same-sex attraction or desires that the Shariah prohibits. It is acting on them.

In the wake of the Orlando shooting, however, Islam’s disapproval of same-sex acts has come under renewed scrutiny. Some critics have argued that any disapproval of homosexuality is homophobic, and that any indulgence of homophobia lays fertile ground for violence against the LGBTQ community. Others have made more specific objections, namely that the death penalty for sodomy (Liwat) in the Shariah creates a particularly slippery slope towards violence against gays. If the Shariah prescribes death for homosexuality, they contend, then wasn’t the Orlando shooter just executing God’s will? Isn’t that a huge problem?

. . . As a Muslim American, I support the right of same-sex couples to have civil marriages according to US law. Islam does not approve of same-sex acts, but I don’t believe that the social or religious traditions of any one group should dictate what sort of contracts or unions those of other beliefs can engage in. I want to preserve my right to have my Shariah marriage contract with my wife recognized by US law even though I know many Americans consider Islam’s conception of marriage to be unpalatable. I don’t see the desire of gay couples as any different.

. . . As we all attempt to deal with the shock of Omer Mateen’s bloody crime in Orlando, we should keep in mind what was truly criminal in his actions. Many find his religious beliefs revolting. Many find his homophobia disturbing. But Americans have a right to disagree on these things. The crime Mateen committed wasn’t believing that God declared that same-sex acts are sinful. The crime he committed wasn’t hating gays. The crime he committed (with all asterisks for presumption of innocence, etc.) was that he intentionally, knowingly and with malicious intent shot, killed and even executed in cold blood 49 innocent people, wounding dozens of others. He might have thought he was doing God’s work, but the Shariah has made it clear since the beginning of Islam that it is not for individuals to take God’s law into their own hands. Even if Mateen were living in some medieval, idealized Muslim city, ruled by the Shariah and free from all the evils of the modern world, he would be dragged in chains before the kadi (judge) on the charge of mass murder.

– Jonathan Brown
Excerpted from "The Shariah, Homosexuality, and
Safeguarding Each Other’s Rights in a Pluralist Society
The Almadina Institute
June 18, 2016

As a gay Muslim, I stand at the crossroads of two cultural and political identities often seen as mutually exclusive, simultaneously combating homophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry. Yet it is this hyphenated identity which uniquely positions LGBT Muslims for commentary on the Orlando shooting. We are making demands of the LGBT community, the American government, and conservative non-Muslim religious leaders who continue to fan the flames of anti-gay prejudice. Many of us are also calling on the mainstream American Muslim community to address the problem of homophobia in its midst.

. . . It's all well and good for American Muslims to condemn the barbarity of groups like ISIS, but those who promote the view that same-sex desire is a perversion must still take responsibility for subjecting LGBT Muslims to a form of psychological abuse which all too often kills them. The good news is that, according to polls, the mainstream American Muslim community is becoming increasingly accepting of homosexuality. American Muslim leaders must make a stronger effort to advance progressive, queer-positive interpretations of scripture, forge meaningful alliances with LGBT groups, and spurn the prevailing homophobic theology which drives LGBT Muslims to despair and misery. Only then can they justly claim to be practicing an openhearted, inclusive Islam.

– Omar Sarwar
Excerpted from "American Muslim Community
Must Search Its Soul After Orlando Massacre
Religion Dispatches
June 21, 2016

A strict strand of Islamic law metes out an unforgiving approach to straight sex outside of marriage, called zina, and gay sex, called liwat when it involves men, from the Biblical and Koranic story of Lot. As leaders of American Muslim groups rush to condemn the carnage in Orlando, it is important to note the persistence of these sex laws in Islam and to support Muslim reformers trying to repeal them. We are never going to see a real cultural shift in the Muslim mind-set about sex and homosexuality until we call out and repeal these scarlet-letter sex laws, and instead choose an interpretation of Islam that values compassion, privacy, acceptance and love over judgment and bigotry.

– Asra Q. Nomani
Excerpted from "Repeal Islam’s Scarlet-Letter Sex Laws"
The Washington Post
June 15, 2016

We are now used to the fact that, every time a criminally misguided Muslim commits an act of violence, the entire religion and all its followers are questioned and placed under suspicion in a way that isn’t replicated with other faiths. We – and this of course includes queer Muslims – have to take extra care walking down the street at night and entering our mosques for fear of Islamophobic attacks. Muslim organizations and activist groups are tasked with the responsibility of releasing public statements, apologizing for the actions of terrorists and reminding the world that Islam promotes peace so innocent Muslims who are just trying to go about their daily lives don’t suffer repercussions.

– Samra Habib
Excerpted from "Queer Muslims Exist
– and We Are in Mourning Too
The Guardian
June 15, 2016

No religion has a monopoly on homophobia. The track record of exclusion and outright abuse of gay men and women in the name of God is a depressing reality across faiths. But we cannot use those analogies to excuse our own shortcomings. Omar Mateen went on a rampage at a gay club out of hatred he attributed to his faith. He shot and massacred Americans for thriving in their safe space, for being among those they love and were loved by, and he did it during both Ramadan and a Pride Month that epitomizes self-love in the face of hate. The toxic cocktail of gun violence, unchecked mental illness and deranged ideology that propelled the massacre at Pulse is a threat to all Americans.

We must stand up against the anti-Muslim responses that come so easily in this current political climate. But for Muslims, this is also a moment to reflect more deeply on how we feel about living in a country where gay rights are central, where marriage equality is real and coexistence is the only way forward.

– Bilal Qureshi
Excerpted from "The Muslim Silence on Gay Rights"
The New York Times
June 13, 2016

No religion is inherently peaceful or violent, nor is it inherently anything other than what its followers make it out to be. People are violent, and people can dress their violence up in any number of justifying causes that seek to relieve people of their personal responsibility because the cause or religion, be it Communism or Catholicism or Islam, is simply bigger than themselves. It’s very convenient for both the perpetrator of violence and his accuser, and yet totally useless: Something can be done with a person who has transgressed, but what can you do with an amorphous concept?

Christianity, as I have seen it practiced by my friends or by Christians who saved Jews during the Holocaust, can be beautiful and peaceful and loving. Islam, as it was practiced in medieval Spain, was beautiful and peaceful, too. It can also be hideous and violent, as we’ve seen in many parts of the Middle East, in Europe, and in America in recent decades. Judaism, which people either equate with consumptive erudition or insularity, can wax violent, too. Hanukkah, every secular Jew’s favorite holiday, celebrates in part the victory of the radical, purist Jews over their assimilated, Hellenized brethren. And for my co-religionists piling onto Muslims for their homophobia, let’s remember Yishai Schlissel, who stabbed six at a gay pride parade in Jerusalem — and that was his second attack on the LGBT event. And, heck, let’s throw in Baruch Goldstein, too. Remember him, the guy who killed 29 Muslims as they prayed? Is he an exception, or does his act define Judaism’s inherent characteristics?

Even Buddhism, which many imagine to be the very definition of peace, can be bloody. Just look at Sri Lanka, where a Buddhist majority fought a vicious civil war against the Hindu north, or Myanmar, where Buddhists have violently persecuted the Muslim Rohingya.

No religion is inherently violent. No religion is inherently peaceful. Religion, any religion, is a matter of interpretation, and it is often in that interpretation that we see either beauty or ugliness — or, more often, if we are mature enough to think nuanced thoughts, something in between.

– Julia Ioffe
Excerpted from "If Islam Is a Religion of Violence, So Is Christianity"
June 14, 2016

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Parvez Sharma on Islam and Homosexuality
Coming Out in Africa and the Middle East
Omar Akersim: Muslim and Gay
To Be Gay in Iraq is to Be a "Defenseless Target"
Liberated to Be Together
Same-Sex Desires: "Immanent and Essential Traits Transcending Time and Culture"
Remembering and Reclaiming a Wise, Spacious, and Holy Understanding of Homosexuality

Related Off-site Links:
Orlando is a Chance for Us Muslims to Reassess Our Stance on Homosexuality – Muhsin Hendricks (The World Post, June 20, 2016).
Meet the Gay Muslims Coming Out After the Orlando MassacreNBN News (June 19, 2016).
Orlando Shooting: It's Different Now, But Muslims Have a Long History of Accepting Homosexuality – Shoaib Daniyal (, June 18, 2016).
American Muslims Must Address Religiously Sanctioned Homophobia – Omar Sarwar (The Advocate, June 16, 2016).
What's It Like Being a Gay Muslim? – Homa Khaleeli (The Guardian, July 28, 2009).

Recommended Books:
Homosexuality in Islam: Critical Reflection on Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Muslims by Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle (Oneworld Publications, 2010).
Unspeakalbe Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East by Brian Whitaker (University of California Press, 2006).
Living Out Islam: Voices of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Muslims by Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle (NYU Press, 2013).
Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism by Omid Safi (Oneworld Publications, 2003).
Progressive Muslim Identities: Personal Stories from the U.S. and Canada, edited by Vanessa Karam, Olivia Samad and Ani Zonneveld (Oracle Releasing, 2011).

Recommended Films:

The Road to Love (2004), directed by Remi Lange.
A Jihad for Love (2009), directed by Parvez Sharma.
Naz and Maalik (2016), directed by Jay Dockendorf.

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