A piece I had published on the Times website on 29 November 2012.
For the first time in Islam’s history, a debate about homosexuality is beginning. While homophobia and the persecution of gays may still be rampant in Islamic countries, there are signs of change. LGBT Muslim groups are popping up all over the world, from Lebanon to the UK.
Much has been said about the Christian position on homosexuality, since the gay marriage and Church of England debacle heated up earlier this year, but it pales beside the resistance to change within Islam.
Scott Kugle is a leading figure among the Muslim LGBT community and is deeply respected by them. He’s a scholar, an academic, author of six books, including Homosexuality in Islam (2010), a white American, a Sufi convert to Islam and gay. He’s also on a mission for things to change. “People think of their religion as an ideology that can’t change – that’s a dead religion,” he says, as he takes a sip of his coffee at a café, near Regents Park.
It’s a warm August evening and Kugle – or Siraj al-Haqq to his Muslim contemporaries – has just come from a Muslim LGBT conference in Soho in which “four mainstream Islamic organisations” were present. Kugle, however, refuses to name who they were to protect their identity. Nonetheless, the appearance of these “mainstream” organisations is a significant harbinger of change.
Kugle is getting fed up of the bigoted attitudes expressed by many Muslims. “When it comes to women’s rights, homosexuality and transgender people, Islam is simple, clear, always has been and always will be,” he says sarcastically.
“But when it involves: nuclear weapons, parliamentary governments, political parties and medical technology, Islam suddenly becomes nuanced and needs constant interpretation? Come on.”
Kugle is tall, slim and bookish. His hair is light-brown, turning flaxen in the light, his blue eyes complement his matching blue shirt and he dons a chin curtain. Most interestingly, though, he intermittently manifests signs of campness in his behaviour.
He is just one of many Muslim dissenting voices who is challenging the status-quo in Islam. Irshad Manji, a Canadian Muslim lesbian, author and advocate for reform and a progressive interpretation of Islam, and feminists Amina Wudud and Kecia Ali, join the list of alternative interpreters.
Kugle isn’t a scholar in the “traditional” sense, however, having not been validated by qualification at a recognised Islamic institution. But his religious erudition comes from his studies in Egypt and Morocco, his time spent in Pakistan and India, and also his 10-year PHD in Islamic studies at Duke University, USA. He is currently Associate Professor at Emory University in Atlanta, USA, in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies.
He’s unhappy with the approach of “neo-traditionalist” scholars in Islam and how they tackle homosexuality, including Egypt’s Yusuf al-Qaradawi. “The powerful scholars aren’t willing to confront the reality that the Sharia we’ve inherited is the creation of Jurists, which is limited by culture,” he says. “And because they are empowered by Sharia as it has been handed down, they are not at the losing end.”
Kugle is now in full flow: “They [the scholars] don’t appreciate the injustice others go through in the name of that Sharia. If they had to live one month in the body of a woman, they’d have a different view. If they spent time with us, praying and eating with us, they’d have a different view,” he adds. Kugle displays a sense of stillness, and despite the sensitivity of the topic and emotive questions, remains calm. His voice is soft and shows no signs of alacrity. Even when he uses the odd expletive, he does so gracefully.
So why has there been so little progress for gay Muslims? “The big scholars of Islam are very scared.” He pauses. “They’re scared to lose their status. When people are open-minded they get thrown off the boards of Mosques. If you start to speak out in solidarity with gay Muslims, people cut you off,” he says. “That’s not Islamic, that’s clannish.”
Many Muslims, however, would cite the likes of Tariq Ramadan, Hamza Yusuf and Abdul Hakim Murad (Timothy Winter) as three of the leading western, Muslim progressives and intellectuals of the 21st century.
“They’re not progressives. Okay, they’re intellectuals, I’ll give them that. They are doing a lot of good. But not as much as they could, because they’re concerned with their social status and their followings,” he says.
“The people with the most power have the most to lose. That’s why I don’t place a lot of hope in the big Ulama [scholars]. They will be the last ones to change. And that’s fine.” He brushes his hair to one side. “But if they change, everything changes.”
Kugle believes Muslims in the East are more receptive to change, partly because there is plenty of public debate. In the West, however, Kugle is less optimistic. “The attitude of Muslim communities in the West is harsher, partly because of the feeling that Muslims are under siege. He sighs. “So Muslim minority communities are more stubborn and closed-minded because they feel under threat, so they feel the need for solidarity and to not question things.”
Kugle, of course, is a Westerner, but his life before Islam must seem a distant memory. Kugle was born in Pennsylvania and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii in a Protestant household. He recalls growing up in a loving environment and realising his sexual orientation in his early teenage years. Did he face any hostile attitudes to his sexuality when growing up? “Oh, not really, no. I’ve been extremely fortunate and protected,” he says.
After completing high school he attended Swathmore College in Pennsylvania and studied Comparative Religions, History and Literature. However, during his studies, he felt there was no lecturer who could teach him about Islam. So Kugle trekked to Egypt to study Arabic. Seven years later, at age 26, Kugle embraced Islam. “I was committed to learning Arabic so I could read the Quran in the original language, not an English translation by somebody – I don’t trust people to tell me the truth,” he says. “It was a long process. It wasn’t like St Paul who saw a flash of light. I’m a very cautious person, I don’t jump into things.”
But what was it about Islam – a religion synonymous with supposed homophobic teachings – that attracted a young, gay American? “There were many things. But I really liked the universality of the message: a religion which talks about other religions, a prophet who talks about other prophets, not a religion which denies the validity and history of other religions…to me that’s beautiful and truthful,” he says.
At the time of converting to Islam, or “reverting” as many Muslims prefer, Kugle had a partner. He’s had both a Muslim partner and a non-muslim partner and is currently single. He refuses to go into any details, hinting at some sort of heartbreak.
Kugle, as illustrated in his book Homosexuality in Islam, believes the issue of sexual orientation in Islam is profoundly nuanced and open to interpretation. He also feels the discourse has been dominated by patriarchal interpretations, which have failed to allow space for alternative voices.
Despite witnessing the negative attitudes by some Muslims about his sexuality, Kugle doesn’t let it get to him. “Whether a community accepts or rejects me is irrelevant. It’s a bit uncomfortable on the social level but it isn’t going to make or break me,” he says.
What does he make of those who persecute LGBT Muslims? “They are compensating for their inner fragility by doing all sorts of aggressive and seemingly powerful things in the name of religion,” he says slowly, enunciating every word. “This is not the way of the Prophet Muhammad,” he adds.
Kugle is laid-back, but he’s serious about his academia, perhaps a bit too serious. He hasn’t got a TV and isn’t familiar with some of the most popular artists in the world. P Diddy? “Erm, I’ve heard the name,” he says. Lady Gaga? “I’ve heard of her but don’t know any of her songs.” Maher Zain and Sami Yusuf, the world’s two most popular Islamic musicians? Kugle shakes his heard in bewilderment but adds: “I’ve heard of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan!”
Kugle is set to release his seventh book in early 2013, Living Out Islam: Voices of Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Muslims, which documents his intimate conversations with a series of “oppressed” Muslim “activists”. “Some people contact me saying they were feeling suicidal, but after reading a book or article I’ve written, they no longer do.” How does that make him feel? “Oh, that makes me feel everything is worthwhile,” he says. “From a young age, I always knew I would write books. “Reading, writing and exploring ideas through words was my way of coping with, and exploring, the world,” he adds.
Homosexuality, along with other issues such as Darwin’s evolution theory, are just some of the issues Islam is now being forced to confront. Kugle concedes that many scholars perhaps don’t want the liberalisation of Islam to occur in a similar way to Christianity. “You can’t determine how to practise your religion out of fear,” he says. “I’m not a radical anarchist but with time, change, better scientific and spiritual understandings of human beings, our sense of religion has to change.”