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A Muslim

A Muslim


Filmmaker Parvez Sharma gives a first-person account of making his new documentary, A Jihad for Love, about homosexuality in the Islamic faith and how his commitment to his faith and his desire to show the world another side of Islam brought him to his own jihad.

As the director of A Jihad for Love -- the world's first documentary to take a close look at Islam and homosexuality -- I am coming out as a Muslim man. My gay identity is secondary. Queer cinema is filled with stories of gays and lesbians revealing their sexuality, but my film is about people revealing their religion. With this film, the story of a 1,428-year-old religion is told by its most unlikely storytellers -- gay and lesbian Muslims.

Making this film and finding subjects who would be willing to share their stories with me was a "jihad" (struggle) in itself. In many of the cases it took me years to convince the subjects to participate, and I had to build relationships of mutual trust with them. What made it easier and certainly worth the challenge was that I was a Muslim like my subjects and we had much in common because of the backgrounds we came from. The entire process took six years of my life -- and these six years I cherish dearly for everything they taught me, not just about my own Islam but of the universal jihad, or struggle, to belong.

This film tries to construct the first real and comprehensive image of these unlikely creatures -- to be P.C., gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer Muslims -- and it is forcing many audiences to realize that these terms are a Western construct. Let me be clear: None of these categories means anything to many of my friends living in Cairo or Islamabad. If anything, the languages they speak -- Farsi, Arabic, Urdu, Punjabi, and Bengali -- have very few words of affirmation to describe the "odd" and "unnatural" behaviors, so to speak, that we indulge in. The cinematic representation of these complex identities therefore has come with many of the challenges of almost developing a new language.

It is a little-known fact that a sexual revolution of immense proportions came to the earliest Muslims, some 1,300 years before the West had even "thunk" it. This promise of equal gender rights and, unlike in the Bible, the stress on sex as not just reproductive but also enjoyable within the confines of marriage have all but been lost in the rhetoric spewing from loudspeakers perched on masjids (mosques) in Riyadh, Marrakech, and Islamabad. The same Islam that has for centuries not only tolerated but also openly celebrated homosexuality is today used to justify a state-sanctioned program against gay men in Egypt -- America's "enlightened" friend in the Middle East.

When in New York I often wonder how the lives of the subjects in this film would strike the consciousness of, for example, a Chelsea boy. Traveling to more than 10 countries with the film in the last few months has made me wonder about the absence of religion within "gay" lives. Clearly, spirituality can provide a kind of freedom. But it is also clear that for too many of us religion has not remained an option.

For the last six years, I have found myself immersed in the souls and spirits of the people who have shared their lives and their most private moments with my camera. Sometimes when I look at the footage of the gay Iranian refugees who have almost no material or spiritual support or the gay man who was tortured in an Egyptian prison for two years, I feel a tremendous disconnect. Growing up in worlds not very dissimilar to theirs, I know I understand and can empathize -- but knowing that I sit in America or in Europe working in the film world, I feel a sense of tremendous emptiness. This disconnect is similar to what a filmmaker feels when real people and real relationships turn into two-dimensional characters in a movie.

Sometimes in these worlds, traveling with my American Jewish producer and others, I feel we could be at the edge of some kind of revolution within Islam. As a Muslim, I know that this could be my jihad. But then the disconnects come and haunt me at night. Yet whenever the gay imam in the film, Muhsin, or the Egyptian refugee, Mazen, join us, the dots all seem to connect very well.

For any filmmaker who sets out to make a work that is intensely personal, the process is emotionally overwhelming. As a gay Muslim myself, I had a sense of shared struggle and shared pain with all of the subjects. While the camera was on (I was the primary camera operator) there was always an exchange of emotion between me and them. It was my hope that our mutual histories, cultures, and struggles would translate to the screen. I cannot think of another way of working when you are examining a community where the silence has been so loud and so overwhelming.

I never sought government permission in any of the countries where I filmed because I knew it would not have been granted. What was always foremost in my mind was the safety of these beautiful human beings, these devout Muslims whose lives I was documenting. I took extreme precautions to make sure that the tapes I shot were always safe. I would always record "tourist-like" footage at the beginning and end of a tape, and I would always store the tapes in my check-in baggage, with a prayer. Security staff at airports in fundamentalist regimes (the United States being a good example at this time) are not the friendliest people. I did have a difficult time in some countries because filming such profound human stories is hard for anyone, but at the same time I knew that I was filming while I was essentially there as a tourist. The countries that were easiest to film in were Turkey and of course India, my home country. In both these nations, which have significant Muslim populations (India has the second-largest Muslim population in the world, after Indonesia, and Turkey is 99% Muslim), the attitudes toward homosexuality are definitely more open than in others, and people accept the idea that there is a spectrum of human sexuality.

One personal challenge in making this film was to keep my deep respect for and belief in my faith paramount. Sharing some of the stories of condemnation, of isolation, of pain, would make it easy to issue a blanket critique of Islam. I knew that as a Muslim I could not allow myself to fall into the trap of being an apologist for my faith, joining the bandwagon of post-9/11 Islamophobes. I knew that I had to be a defender of the faith as a Muslim filmmaker and at the same time engage in a critique of what I knew was wrong in orthodox Islam's condemnation of homosexuality. I have always said that I made this film with a Muslim lens, as a Muslim filmmaker who also happens to be gay. Too many films about Islam right now are made by Western, non-Muslim filmmakers, which while commendable is also problematic -- in a world that now largely perceives Islam as a problematic monolith. Currently our religion is under attack from within (from an extremist fringe) and from without (by governments and media only focusing on the violence). Islam needs us to step out as Muslim artists and take back the discussion of our faith.

Our last battles of acceptance remain to be fought on the front lines of religion. With our "jihad for love" we bring Islam out of the closet.

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Parvez Sharma