Can Pamela Geller work with straight and queer Muslims?
Dr. Junaid Jahangir
Recently, San Francisco public officials and queer community leaders expressed concerns that the anti-gay bus ads backed by Pamela Geller would denigrate the city’s Muslim community. Indeed, by emphasizing the outrageous comments of controversial Muslim leaders, these ads incite fear and demonize an entire minority.
Instead of stereotyping and generalizing, can the likes of Pamela Geller recognize the immense work being done by both straight and queer Muslims? Instead of creating divisiveness, can they work with Muslims towards affecting positive change?
The ads include the controversial opinions of President Ahmedinejad — ‘In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals’ and of the influential Sheik Qaradawi of the Muslim Brotherhood — ‘the punishment for homosexuality is death’.
However, such selective references provide a misguided view of the current Muslim position on queer rights issues. By putting the spotlight on President Ahmedinejad, Geller’s ad ignores the work of queer Iranian activists like Arsham Parsi and developments like the Iranian Gay Pride that took place in Turkey in 2011.
Geller’s ad also does not account for the academic work by Iranian Professor Arash Naraghi, who has argued that it is possible to be a devoted Muslim and believe that homosexuality is morally permissible.
It does not seem reasonable to quote Sheik Qaradawi without mentioning that over 2,500 Muslim intellectuals from 23 countries not only called for an international treaty to counter such clerics but also for a tribunal set by the United Nations Security Council to put them on trial for inciting violence.
It is also noteworthy that Muslim Professor Scott Kugle argued in an academic article how Sheik Qaradawi churns out his homophobia as part of ‘an agenda to reinforce perceived threats to Muslim masculinity’.
Cherry picking quotes from homophobic Muslim leaders and projecting on the entire Muslim community is akin to stereotyping the entire Christian community by referencing equally influential evangelical leaders who believe gays should be put to death and the Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, whose links with American fundamentalist Christian groups has led to the immense persecution of the Ugandan queer community.
It is also noteworthy that instead of referencing Muslim leaders from the United States, Geller’s ads make use of quotes from fanatical Muslim leaders who are living through upheavals in Egypt and economic difficulties in Iran.
Both American political and religious Muslim leaders have very different views on queer rights than what the Geller ads would have us believe. In 2009, the Council on American-Islamic Relations supported the hate crime bill that sought to incorporate sexual orientation and gender identity.
Among Muslim political leaders, Geller may quote Ako Abdul Samad, the Iowa State representative from the 66th district, as saying ‘if standing up for equal protection under the law is a sin, then all of us in this room are sinners’.
Geller can also reference the first Muslim Congressman Keith Ellison, representative of the 5th district in Minnesota, as stating, ‘I am proud to be vice-chair of the Congressional Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Caucus’.
He can also be quoted as saying, ‘It is not your place to judge and condemn others’ and ‘If the person you happen to love and want to be with happens to be the same-sex and gender as you then I say God Bless you and try to be as happy as you can in this very difficult world’.
Likewise, Geller can reference the second Muslim Congressman Andre Carson, representative of the 7th district in Indiana, as stating, ‘As a proud member of the LGBT Equality Caucus, I am committed to the Caucus’ mission to “achieve the extension of equal rights, the repeal of discriminatory laws, the elimination of hate-motivated violence, and the improved health and well-being for all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity or expression”’.
Among Muslim religious leaders, Geller can quote Imam Johari Malik, director of Outreach at the Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Centre in Northern Virginia, as stating, ‘If someone says, “gay sex is nasty”, just ask them, “how do you know?” … “It’s time to get past our homophobia to help human beings”’.
Likewise, Geller can also reference Imam Suhaib Webb of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, the largest mosque in the New England area, as stating, ‘If someone who’s a homosexual comes to the mosque, wants to pray, wants to worship, be part of the community, I have no issue with that,’ and ‘Ultimately, people who have whatever inclinations in their life, no one has a right to bar them from their experience with God.’
It would be academic dishonesty and intellectual sloth to quote classical Muslim texts to represent the current conservative Muslim opinion. Just as the Jewish halacha changes with new knowledge and moral sensibilities so does the Muslim Sharia.
Even conservative leaders like Imam Muzammil Siddiqi, director of the Islamic Society of Orange County in California, one of the largest mosques in the U.S., who had earlier proscribed queer people and stated that ‘no one is born a homosexual’, have slightly shifted their view point on the issue.
In a recent interview, he mentioned, ‘many Muslim jurists today are inclined to accept on the basis of modern research that it is quite possible that people may be born with this [orientation]’ and that ‘we all have to learn and understand things more, so we do change our minds on the basis of understanding the human situation’.
Indeed, by accepting same-sex orientation but prescribing permanent celibacy for queer people, the conservative Muslim opinion is somewhat similar to the Vatican ‘hate the sin love the sinner’ position.
However, Islam is not a monolith. While, acknowledging the classical Islamic position, Professor of Islamic Law, Dr. Mohammad Fadel mentioned in the context of the 2012 U.S. Elections, ‘I think one can certainly take the view, and I know a lot of Muslims might find this to be controversial, that we can support the idea of same-sex marriage because what we want is to make sure that all citizens have access to the same kinds of public benefits that other people do’.
Fadel’s opinion is not novel in this regard, for the late Imam Zaki Badawi had expressed in the context of U.K. civil partnerships that queer Muslims could take advantage of such relationships provided they were not sexually active.
Similarly, Dr. Omid Safi recently weighed in on same-sex marriage in the U.S. He has clearly stated ‘Love is love. Family is family, though they come in different shapes. My children have gay and lesbian friends. They belong a social club at school that is an alliance of straight, gay, lesbian, and bi-sexual students’.
Referencing the Prophet’s saying ‘Do not do onto others what you dislike for yourself’, he has come out in full support of marriage equality by stating ‘Live and let live. If it’s important to you to be married and have your love recognized by the state, recognize that it is important to others’.
The strongest support for queer Muslims in the U.S. comes from the community Muslims for Progressive Values, which has chapters and gender and queer inclusive mosques in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Washington D.C., Salt Lake City and Columbus, Ohio. Their Board of Directors includes Imam Daayiee Abdullah, who leads the Mosque for Enlightenment and Reform and who has worked for the queer Muslim community for over two decades.
Where the Geller ads fail to recognize this diversity of positions amongst Muslims in the U.S., some commenters on the news articles on the Geller ads, exhibit a lack of nuance in their understanding of the queer Muslim situation.
Instead of obtaining information from queer Muslim groups both in the U.S. and abroad, commenters on the Geller ads news articles expressed alarm on the “emergency” situation for queer people in places like Saudi Arabia, mentioned the stoning of a Somali gay man and referenced the Prophet’s saying that prescribes the death penalty for ‘homosexuals’.
However, unlike the emergency situation in Uganda, Nadya Labi depicted in her article ‘The Kingdom in the closet’ how gay life flourishes in a place with religious and cultural taboos. Likewise, it is noteworthy that Muhammad Aslam Khaki, a lawyer who specializes in Islamic law, assisted the Pakistani transgender and inter-sexed community – the Hijras, at the Supreme Court, which eventually recognized their equal rights as citizens of Pakistan.
Referring to the execution of the Somali gay man, queer Muslim activist Afdhere Jama has stated that queer Somalis ‘have all agreed this story is fake’. Likewise, even conservative Muslim religious leaders like Imam Muzammil Siddiqi have expressed that the Prophet’s saying that prescribes the death penalty for ‘homosexuals’ is inauthentic.
Instead of being a Debbie Downer, and instead of showing half-baked concerns for the queer Muslim community, Geller and the commenters can show genuine concern by talking to queer Muslims, who despite facing both Islamophobia and homophobia, continue their work with dignity.
Indeed, Geller and the commenters will find that tactics that include cultural imperialism, which include the June 2012 Pride celebration held by the American Embassy in Pakistan only imperil the queer Muslim community living in places whose laws were shaped by the Victorian morality of their colonial masters.
Geller and the commenters will also find that if they are genuinely interested in helping queer Muslims, they would listen to queer Palestinian activists like Haneen Maikey, who has expressed on the Israeli occupation, ‘Stop speaking in my name and using me for a cause you never supported in the first place … stop bombing my friends, end your occupation, and leave me to rebuild my community’.
Geller and the commenters can also help queer Muslims causes by supporting the Iranian railroad for queer refugees, U.A.E. based queer Muslims with their concerns with the NYU Abu Dhabi campus, or the closer to home 2013 Philadelphia LGBTQ Muslim retreat.
In short, instead of creating fear mongering and divisiveness, will Geller and the commenters overcome their limitations to work with Muslims, both straight and queer, towards affecting positive change?
Dr. Junaid Jahangir is a Lecturer of Economics at MacEwan University.
An earlier version of this article was published on March 28 in the Huffington Post.
For a different perspective on Islam and Homosexuality, check out Gareth Bryant’s piece in Altmuslim