The first same sex weddings became legal in England and Wales last week, but why is it taking so long for Muslims to confront the issue?
I’ve often been asked by Muslims why I report on the gay Muslim community. The question is normally posed in a way that suggests reporting on taboo and controversial subjects are best avoided. This isn’t the right attitude. Sensitive issues should be talked about, because there is normally a group of people who are suffering as a result of it not being discussed.
The problems that gay Muslims face is not something to be ignored. Having spent time talking to, and finding out the distressing accounts of some gay Muslims, it’s become clear that this is a neglected, marginalised and, to an extent, persecuted minority. Every day, gay Muslims are confronted with the impossible decision of coming out to their friends and family, or remaining closeted. This breeds serious discomfort, stress and internal conflict. It can lead to depression and in a growing number of cases, suicide. However, the sad reality is, the vast majority of British Muslims have probably never met an openly gay Muslim. This is dangerous: a complete lack of interaction with others often breeds animosity.
The truth is, homosexuality is proving very problematic to Muslims and the Islamic faith. But nobody wants to admit this – and nobody quite knows what to do. It’s threatening to destabilise the religion as thousands of gay Muslims are now standing up and demanding their voices be heard. However, as gay Muslim activism begins to thrive, the conversation is slowly opening up.
Unhappy with the orthodox understanding of homosexuality in Islam, formed by almost 1500 years of scholarly consensus, gay Muslims are calling for a renewed interpretation. Most Muslims today, however, would probably argue that there can be no reinterpretation. The rulings on homosexuality, it’s argued, are set in stone, immutable and unquestionable. For many Muslims it’s not ‘being gay’ that’s the problem. But leading a homosexual life with all that it entails and then saying it’s all okay (in other words: you can’t have your cake and eat it.) After all, according to Muslims, justifying your sin is the height of defiance against God.
Last week on BB3 FreeSpeech, a fortnightly debate show, the topic ‘Is it Alright to be gay and Muslim‘?, was discussed. What struck me was one particular Muslim lady in the audience adamantly insisting that one cannot be gay and Muslim simultaneously. “You can either be gay or you can be Muslim,” she forcefully and confidently pronounced.
Hold on, let’s get this straight: what would you prefer gay Muslims to be? Atheists? Hindus? No, wait, Christians? Because by pushing them out of the faith, you are asking them to abandon their belief in God and His messenger Muhammad, abandon their way of life, their culture, heritage and spirituality.
This ‘either be gay or be Muslim’ rhetoric by many Muslims has always struck me as unhelpful, unislamic and, quite simply, daft. Why is it that somebody can drink themselves silly, fornicate themselves into oblivion and gamble themselves into a mountain of debt yet remain Muslim? But if somebody is gay – uh oh – all of a sudden they can’t be Muslim?
The stigma around being a gay Muslim is hard enough without being told to leave the religion.
However, one of the real issues at play here is that far too many Muslims still seem to think homosexuality is a choice. I wouldn’t completely disregard that some people experiment with alternative lifestyles, including same sex relationships. But homosexuality is not something gay people can just switch off, it’s a part of their disposition and being.
The issue of homosexuality probably makes Muslims feel deeply uncomfortable and, to an extent, even threatens their beliefs. So many Muslims are, in a sense, forced to reject, condemn and speak out against homosexuality to preserve their faith and deeply held religious convictions. Muslims, it seems, have little choice but to hold quite strong views on the issue. If they didn’t, and allowed the religion to constantly reform, where does it all stop? It would bring the entire religious corpus into question.
The last thing the Islamic establishment want is for the masses of Muslims to take notice and start questioning the very core of this issue. Indeed, essential to the Islamic faith is the idea of a stable society. This is why, traditionally, revolutions are disapproved of and public acts of lewdness are punished.
Perhaps by Muslim scholars openly debating homosexuality, it will cause confusion, and even chaos within Muslim communities, and in a time of apostasy, this is the last thing they need.
While it seems the issue has been brushed under the carpet for far too long, maybe, just maybe, it’s because Islamic scholars have been following a kind of utilitarian approach to the issue (the greatest good for the greatest number). If this is the case, they could see ignoring the issue as a better alternative than confronting it. After all, it currently only affects a relatively small amount of Muslims.
A debate needs to be had. And, primarily, what needs to come out of this all is tolerance, mercy and a call for Muslims to mind their own business. Muslims should welcome everyone into their community warmly and with open arms. If someone is gay, that’s nobody’s business. What people do in private is between them and God. “If only Islamic scholars taught their followers to be kind to us. That’s all we want,” a gay Muslim told me recently.
Gay Muslims should also be sensitive and acknowledge that it takes time for attitudes to change. Devout secularists and some members of the LGBT community also need to be careful not to become the oppressors, as this will only discredit their cause. Labelling anyone who feels uncomfortable with the idea of homosexuality as homophobes, bigots and outcasts isn’t fair, and the LGBT community should know what unfair treatment feels like.
Further reading: Why gay marriage may not be contrary to Islam (discusses how homosexuality has been viewed throughout Islamic history).