Is it possible to be a LGBTQ Muslim?Can a person reconcile his of her LGBTQ identity with the Muslim faith – or with faith and spirituality in general? And for LGBTQ individuals who are publically open about their orientation, what opportunities do they have in relation to the religious culture, which is also an equal part of their identity? These were the central questions raised at the recent Faith & Sexuality conference held at Borups Højskole, in central Copenhagen. As well as highlighting new future potentials, the conference also showed how being a gay Muslim in Europe is very different to being a gay Muslim in the middle East.
The atmosphere under the glass-roofed assembly hall at Borups Højskole is abuzz. Those assembled are all here to attend the Faith & Sexuality conference, arranged as a collaboration between Sabaah, KVINFO and The Municipality of Copenhagen. Even before the proceedings have kicked off, the venue has had to be moved three times due to the endless stream of participants wishing to attend. Eventually, around 200 are gathered to take part in the evening’s event.
Christians, Jews, Muslims, Atheists, Buddhists, religious and secular, people with different ethnic backgrounds and equally as varied sexual identities eagerly fill the room and find their seats as the evening’s moderator welcomes the assembly.
Before the conference panel take the stage, further welcomes are made by Fahad Saeed (spokesperson for Sabaah – the union of LGBTQ Muslims in Denmark), Manu Sareen (Danish Minister for Equality), and Anne Mee Allerslev (Head of Employment and Integration in Copenhagen Municipality).
The theme of the evening is broached immediately in the welcome speeches:
What we are here to talk about is not just faith and sexuality; tonight’s theme is just as much about the closely intertwined structure of tradition, family, society and culture that young, non-heterosexual people are facing today.
Sexuality is a personal thing between you and God
The first panellist to take the floor is the Danish imam at Copenhagen’s Herlev Hospital, Naveed Baig. He has already kick-started the debate about Islam and homosexuality with an interview in leading Danish newspaper Politiken from the same morning, and his attitudes on the issue are just as clear:
“Is it possible to be gay and Muslin at the same time? My answer to that question will always be a resounding ‘yes’. Islam isn’t a religion that pries into the bedroom habits of individuals. Your sexuality is a personal thing; it’s a matter between you and God,” he stresses, even though he is aware that the openness that he believes in is not representative of the attitude towards homosexuality in the Muslim community at large.
Pleading the case for Islam as a personal, internalised and spiritual practice is not necessarily easy in an environment where it can be difficult to draw a line between faith on the one hand and family and tradition on the other. Naveed Baig himself works with informing and guiding young people who want to come out, as well as in some cases the families of these individuals. For him, information and dialogue is the way forwards.
“In actual fact, the Quran doesn’t concern itself that much with the issue of homosexuality,” he says, to the surprise of many in the audience.
Nevertheless, several of the testimonies that will be heard later in the evening will show that it is not so easy to convince the more conservative Muslim milieux of this fact.
The first mosque for LGBTQ individuals
French-Algerian Ludovic Lutfi Zaheed takes the floor dressed in an embroidered tunic, but he does not speak from a conservative position within Islam.
“When I was 11, I realised that I was what other people called ‘an Arab’. When I was 17, I realised that I was what other people called ‘gay’. When I was 19, I found out that I was HIV positive,” explains Lutfi Zaheed, painting a picture of the triple discrimination he has come up against in his life.
Ludovic Lutfi Zaheed is the founder of a mosque in Paris for homosexual people – the first of its kind in Europe. At the mosque, everyone is welcome, and men pray alongside women, which is a controversial concept in itself.
Lutfi Zaheed deconstructs the notion that homosexuality is forbidden in the Quran from a Muslim-feminist argumentation. “How can homosexuality possibly be dealt with in the Quran when the term ‘homosexuality’ was first introduced to the Arab world at the same time as colonisation?” is his rapidly delivered rhetorical question. Like all of the evening’s speakers, he has only been allocated 10 minutes to speak – though with his complex and well-balanced analysis he could easily have spoken for twice that time.
The only passage in the Quran that describes sex between men is the story of Lot (the prophet Lut in the Quran) and Sodom. Lutfi Zaheed argues that what the Quran describes is not homosexuality but a culture of rape, where the rape of men featured as a weapon of war at that time in history.
Lutfi Zaheed puts forward the case for a new Islamic code of ethics that looks to the future- turning away from the stigmatising dogmas of the past and moving towards a more spiritual and religious practice that can set the individual free.
“By going back to the original text, Islam in the future can be seen as a path towards liberation. Islam is us. We must crush the repressive dogmas. Our love should be directed towards the path to God, not towards tradition, per se,” concludes Lutfi Zaheed to a round of appreciative applause.
Only one woman, Qurra Tul-Anne, from IMAAN (the British organisation for LGBTQ Muslims), is participating on tonight’s panel. Perhaps this is a reflection of the fact that it is still the man’s voice that is heard loudest, even in homosexual circles.
“Islam is more ambiguous when it comes to female homosexuality,” explains Tul-Anne, “and the fact that the discussion often centres around male homosexuality results in Muslim Lesbians becoming even more marginalised – even though invisibility could theoretically be seen as an advantage.”
“There are no women in the myth of Lut and Sodom, but we can choose to see this in a positive way – because if sex between two women is not mentioned in the Quran then how can it be a sin?” she asks the audience, who respond with laughter.
Ambiguous or not, it is neither uncomplicated nor acceptable to come out as a lesbian in the British Muslim community.
“The United Kingdom is a liberal society with an extremely conservative Muslim culture,” she stresses.
IMAAN has existed for 15 years and acts as a network and grassroots organisation for LGBTQ Muslims across Britain. Much of the organisation’s work focusses on supporting and improving the individual members’ lives, integrating with the mainstream Muslim community in order to spread information by visiting schools, and talking about homosexuality and transsexuality with Muslim teenagers.
“Being LGBTQ and Muslim is like being trapped between three worlds,” explains Qurra Tul-Anna. “On the one side, you have a LGBTQ identity. On the other side, you have your Muslim identity. And right outside you have the liberal UK.”
Qurra Tul-Anne works as a women’s councillor and deals primarily with women who are seeking asylum on the basis of their sexual identity. These are mostly lesbian or trans-gender women who have been forced into marriage, exposed to domestic violence or in any other way have been severely and often violently and discriminated against in their homeland, yet who find it difficult to find a voice in both the asylum process and in society.
“These women require particular attention,” concludes Tul-Anne
The Arab perspective
Up until this point in the proceedings, faith and sexuality have so far only been discussed from a European-Muslim perspective. The fact that homosexuality in the Arab world poses an entire new set of problems is made clear by the evening’s next speaker – Palestinian-Jordan Madian Al Jazerah, owner of the alternative Book@café in Amman.
“Whilst I’ve been listening to you others,” he says referring to Qurra Tul-Anne and Ludovic Lutfi Zaheed, “I’ve realised just how different being a gay Muslim in the Middle East is compared to being a gay Muslim in Europe. We have no imams to talk with about or problems, no politicians…”
The differences come as such a surprise to Al Jazerah that he ditches his planned speech to talk instead from his heart.
“I’m a Muslim who has been robbed of Islam. I’ve stopped going to the Mosque; I’ve stopped praying; I no longer fast…” begins Al Jazerah, but then stops himself.
“I can’t stop myself from standing and looking at you when I’m saying these things”, he says to Danish Imam Naveed Baig, who is seated in the front row just in front of the speaker’s podium, “because I’m so inspired to hear you talk about the fact that these things need not be contradictions.”
An improvised speech follows which both moves the assembly and injects some humour into the evening. Around the hall, a tear or two is shed, but there is much laughter too whilst Madian Al Jazerah relates stories of veiled women who began coming into his café to order cocktails disguised as soft drinks, but who today are not worried about being seen knocking back a pint of lager. Yet there is a serious message behind his words.
“There is not one single verse in the Quran that criminalises us, yet we are nevertheless seen as criminals – Just as there is nothing in the Quran that commands women to wear the hijab. The Prophet Mohammad’s wife led an entire army from the back of a horse. Today it is they who want to throw me of the highest cliff because I’m gay. I have quite simply been robbed of my own religion,” he explains.
“The Islamists have robbed us of our culture. Because I believe. I just can’t see myself being related to those who want to kill me for being who I am,” he says with conviction.
But despite this, Madian Al Jazerah has experienced a small glimmer of hope with the recent Arab revolutions.
“Here, we saw Muslims who are trying to win back Islam. The Arab Spring made me feel like a Muslim again,” he ends, leaving the room awash with emotions.
“That brought tears to my eyes,” says Ludovic Lutfi Zaheed, who shakes Madian Al Jazerah by the hand after his speech.
Come out despite the risks
“Bu what can you do in practice?”, “What strategy is best if you really want to reconcile faith and sexuality?”, come the questions from the floor.
Danish-Arab Partnership Programme
KVINFO's programme in the Middle East and North Africa is financed by:
Before these questions are answered, representatives from other faiths join the panel: Jesper Yoel Andersen, from the Danish Jewish association of homosexuals; Daniel Moreau, Buddhist leader from the Centre for Knowledge and Compassion; Anton Pihl, from the organisation Christian and Homo; and Tommy Petersen, from the Atheist Society.
Even though the newcomers find it difficult to answer questions that primarily relate to Islam, the panel are unanimous about what strategy works best:
Come out, participate actively in society as a LGBTQ individual, put pressure on the authorities, make yourself visible. It sounds simple.
After the conference, when I am leaving Borups Højskole, I bump into Ludovic Lutfi Zaheed and ask him where his mosque is located in Paris.
“I’m afraid I cannot tell you,” he answers. “We need to keep the address secret in order to ensure the personal safety of our members.”