American Muslims Must Address Religiously Sanctioned Homophobia

SHUTTERSTOCK LGBT MUSLIM YOUTH Omar Sarwar

Waking up to the news of the Orlando massacre, I felt a combination of fear, disgust, and heartbreak. My first instincts were to pray for the families of the victims of the worst mass shooting in American history, condemn Omar Mateen’s actions, and stand alongside my queer sisters and brothers, reaffirming our dignity as an oppressed minority. But I also knew that this wasn’t enough. As a gay American Muslim, I feel especially vulnerable in a society infected both by homophobia and a highly racialized Islamophobia, constantly trying to encourage the gay community to be more accepting of Muslims while urging the Muslim community to be more accepting of LGBT folk. Sadly, this message of acceptance never reached Mateen.

There has been much illuminating discussion about the need for stricter gun control, the fear of Islamophobic backlash, the cynical opportunism of right-wing politicians, and the importance of labeling this attack as a homophobic hate crime rather than just another “act of terror.” But there is one question that many on the left are too afraid to explore: To what extent has the mainstream American Muslim community enabled the kind of homophobic bigotry which corrupted Mateen’s heart?

It’s not difficult to see why this question causes discomfort. For one thing, many American Muslims worry that negative portrayals of their community will only increase anti-Muslim sentiment in a country enraptured by xenophobic, racist demagoguery. For another, many liberals rightly reject any argument that ascribes blame for the actions of a few to an entire group of people or uses the oppression of LGBT folk in predominantly Muslim countries as an excuse for imperial intervention. These are valid concerns, but they don’t provide a compelling reason to avoid the conversation about homophobia in the American Muslim community. The truth is that the topic of same-sex love remains taboo in most American mosques and Islamic community centers.

It must be said that while Mateen was likely inspired by ISIS’s extremist and virulently homophobic ideology, it’s hard to believe that this ideology is the true source of his homophobic bigotry — his revulsion, for instance, at the sight of men kissing in Miami, and his own thoroughly conflicted relationship with gay social spaces. That primal homophobic sentiment usually precedes the adoption of antigay religious doctrine. But whatever the deepest cause of Mateen’s homophobia, the antigay theology of the extremist group to which he pledged allegiance was all around him. Despite the vast differences between ISIS’s interpretation of Islam and that of most American Muslims, the scriptural core of this antigay theology is something they have in common. And it is the pervasiveness of this antigay theology for which American Muslims must take responsibility.

Let’s get specific.

We LGBT Muslims are told that we cannot even identify as LGBT because Islam regards same-sex relations as something a person does, not an aspect of who a person is.

We are reminded that there is a supposedly impregnable consensus among all Muslim scholars regarding the sinfulness of same-sex relationships. The desire for queer sex is to be controlled and suppressed in much the same way a straight Muslim’s desire for adultery must be controlled and suppressed. Prayer, fasting, and heterosexual marriage are the solution for those struggling with these impulses.

It is still socially acceptable to tell us that even if we can’t choose to be queer in terms of orientation, we can choose our religious identity and should therefore stop calling ourselves Muslims.

Seldom do the scholars and community leaders who uphold the total prohibition of same-sex relationships ask how a religion that emphasizes moderation and refuses the imposition of undue hardship on its practitioners can require LGBT Muslims to remain permanently celibate, a demand never made of heterosexual Muslims.

There is, on this view, only one plausible interpretation of the Koranic narrative of the Prophet Lot and the punishment of the people whom he was sent — namely, that God destroyed them for engaging in homosexuality. We are frequently reminded that Lot offered his daughters in marriage to homosexual men, who rejected his plea. But if God is limitlessly merciful and just, and if Islam encourages intimacy and affection between spouses, why would a prophet command homosexual men to marry women? Would this not be consigning these women to marriages in which they could never be fulfilled? Unfortunately, scholars and community leaders defending the traditional theology provide no coherent answers to these questions. The common argument that suppressing same-sex desire is part of a test of the sincerity of one’s faith doesn’t work because one would need to violate the Islamic ideals of moderation and loving intimacy in order to pass this test. Since the theology itself is disjointed, the defense of the jurisprudence based on it is even less persuasive.

Many highly respected American Muslim preachers are fierce critics of ISIS, yet they share the organization’s homophobic theology. One prominent preacher, for example, has been targeted for assassination by ISIS but has no qualms about comparing same-sex love with alcoholism, reinforcing the idea that LGBT people are diseased. Another expressly refers to homosexuality as “pathogenic.” This rhetoric is of a piece with the homophobic positions expressed by officials in the Islamic Society of North America and the Islamic Council of North America on the morality of same-sex acts and the morality of same-sex marriage, respectively. It is also consistent with surveys in recent years showing that only 45 percent of American Muslims believe that homosexuality should be accepted by society, compared with 62 percent of the general public.

We will never know exactly how much of this thinking motivated Mateen’s violent behavior, but the crucial point is that American Muslims must acknowledge the degree to which their religiously sanctioned homophobia helps create an environment in which violence against LGBT people becomes normalized. Violence, after all, isn’t merely picking up a semi-automatic rifle and killing people. That’s just the most extreme manifestation of the daily violence inflicted on LGBT people. It’s the perpetual verbal and psychological abuse to which queer people are subjected — the description of same-sex desire as unnatural, the framing of same-sex love as an illness to be treated, the insistence that “LGBT Muslim” is an oxymoron, and the threat of draconian punishments for same-sex relationships whether in this life or the next.

This is precisely why it won’t suffice to condemn the murder of LGBT people while maintaining the belief that they are sinners and deviants involved in something fundamentally evil. At least, if an American Muslim wants to claim this belief as reasonable, then he should consider it equally reasonable for non-Muslims to condemn the murder of Muslims while maintaining the belief that Islam is an essentially evil religion.

None of this is to demonize American Muslims. Nor is it to deny the constellation of social and political factors sustaining Mateen’s homophobic bigotry, including the views of non-Muslim religious conservatives. All communities have their moral failings, and we only call on them to do better because we know they’re capable of doing better. When LGBT Muslims ask the mainstream American Muslim community to take responsibility for being too tolerant of homophobic attitudes, we aren’t asking them to take responsibility for Mateen’s murderous actions. When we ask our straight Muslim allies for support, we don’t ask that they jettison their Islam, only that they open their minds to reasonable progressive readings of Islamic texts that don’t imagine God creating people with fundamental needs they are never permitted to fulfill or, worse, creating people with a sickness they can only cure by living their entire lives in a sexual and emotional prison.

As Americans, we must work together to build a less violent, more compassionate society. As Muslims, we must work together to create an inclusive community that treats LGBT people as human beings instead of patients, a community in which homophobic bigotry like Mateen’s becomes the real deviancy.

Omar Sarwar
OMAR SARWAR is a New York-based writer and gay Muslim activist. He has an M.Phil in modern South Asian history from Columbia University with a focus on political Islam, and has written for Huffington Post Queer Voices and Patheos. 

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