The 1950’s called, and they want their anti-gay bigotry back

A couple of weeks ago, Abu Eesa Niamatullah’s publicly expressions of misogyny was met with a spate of posts and tweets from Muslims from different walks of life who made their opposition to this clear. In a number of these posts as well as some comments on them, disgust, shock and a sense of betrayal were palpable. How could a scholar be doing this? It was clear that not only did many Muslims feel revolted by Abu Eesa’s comments, but that they do not think that this kind of thing is acceptable… and they were determined that this would not stand uncontested as a public representation of “what Muslims really think” about women.

Down through the years, I have encountered plenty of sexism and straight-up misogyny in North American Muslim circles (to say nothing of pamphlets and books written about Islam by Muslims, for Muslims). So, it was rather strange for me to watch this negative and very public backlash against Abu Eesa. But I also allowed myself to hope: Was this a proverbial straw-that-breaks-the-camel’s-back moment? Is there now a critical mass of Muslims in North America who are fed up enough by this sort of thing that they will publicly speak out about it?

Who knew. Only time would tell.

Well, we didn’t have to wait long.

Because now a hateful article written by a Muslim lawyer on the Huffington Post, “Why Gay Marriage May Not Be Contrary to Islam” is making the rounds. I was sent the link, and stupidly clicked on it, thinking that while the title seemed a bit oddly worded, it would probably be a step or two forward in the tolerance department. Maybe it would even be a useful resource for kids like mine.

After reading it, I wanted to curl up and die.

 

I felt a weird sense of numbness. HuffPo doesn’t usually give a platform to the likes of, say, the Westboro Baptist Church. Why would they post such a thing? An article that basically says that “we” (heterosexual Muslims) can tolerate “them” (the gayz) according to some interpretations of Islamic law just as—wait for it—a medieval jurist argued that Muslims should tolerate the Zoroastrian practice of men marrying their mothers or sisters. Yes, we Muslims should of course be thoroughly repulsed by something as immoral as incest, especially when it is publicly sanctioned through marriage, but hey, it’s their thing, and as long as they misguidedly think it’s ok AND it doesn’t end up in our pristine religious courts then let them do as they like.

But let’s not forget that Islamic law holds us Muslims to a morally superior standard:

Islamic law, as interpreted today, unanimously classifies same-sex sexual activity as haram (prohibited). Islamic law encompasses fiqh (from pre-modern times to contemporary times) as well the state sanctioned derivatives and laws. The prohibition is derived from the normative Islamic position that the institution of the family (preservation of which is one of the maqasid al Sharī’ah, higher objectives of the Sharī’ah) created through marriage is the only sanctioned avenue for sex. This policy objective is reinforced through comprehensive regulations found in classical fiqh, which is the human articulation of God’s will as expressed in the Sharī’ah.

Under this public policy guise, homosexuality — as well as extra and pre-marital sex — are all outlawed ostensibly because they threaten the narrowly defined institution of family. Indeed, even the sexual space within marriage is further restricted through prohibitions against bestiality, anal intercourse (liwaat), masturbation, necrophilia and other such conduct considered unnatural.

Ok, so… somehow homosexuality is right up there with bestiality, necrophilia (!?)… and as we have already seen, same-sex marriage is somehow comparable to incest, in the writer’s mind.

What on earth would be the point of making such implicit (and inflammatory) comparisons except to convey the idea that LGBQ people are disgusting? To dehumanize us by reducing our lives, relationships, and families to sex acts? And to imply that really, the fact that “Islam” even tolerates the existence of such people—provided they don’t act on their appalling sexual desires, of course—is almost unbelievably generous.

But then, accuracy isn’t exactly the author’s strong suit here. In classical fiqh marriage is NOT “the only sanctioned avenue for sex.” Slave-concubinage is presented in classical fiqh as divinely sanctioned and legally permissible. Just to be clear, that means that men were legally entitled to have sexual access to their unmarried female slaves. Whether the female slave was willing or not didn’t matter one whit. Nor did her age matter that much; even if she was regarded as too young to be able to endure vaginal intercourse without suffering significant physical harm, she could be lawfully made by her master to take part in other sexual acts.

Most Muslims today find slave-concubinage horrifying, and see it as morally objectionable. Many find it absolutely mind-blowing that classical fiqh books speak about it so matter-of-factly. But they do. And, I would be very surprised if the author doesn’t know this (and if he really doesn’t, then what on earth is he doing writing about classical Islamic law anyway?)

How exactly does this compute, in the author’s mind? Sex with a dead person is disgusting and immoral, but sex with an unwilling live person who is your property is just fine , because God says so—but still, let’s not admit that that’s in the fiqh books because it sounds kinda, umm, disgusting, immoral, and what we nowadays would call rape??

Admitting that classical fiqh is based on ideas about sexuality and gender that raise serious ethical problems for us today can be difficult —especially those of us who have been assured over and over again by scholars and community leaders that classical fiqh has all the answers to the questions Muslims face today. So, I can see how it could seem easier to take refuge in hateful, ignorant rhetoric about gay people than to question what the jurists had to say about same-sex sexual acts. Unfortunately, I remember this kind of thought-process as it can unfold with die-hard conservatives all too well:

  1. God says X (in the Qur’an, the hadith, or according to the scholars)
  2. God is just (after all, the Qur’an says so)
  3. Therefore, X is just
  4. Even if X sure doesn’t seem just, and it isn’t anything I’d ever want to happen to me or to anyone I care about, I still have to believe that it is just or my whole world will implode. So, I’ll ignore any evidence that X isn’t just. If X is something that hardly happens any more, that’s easy—I’ll just pretend it never really took place. And if X is something that still goes on today, and anyone tells me how X has caused harm to them, I will just tell myself that they aren’t doing it right, or they don’t have enough faith, or God must be testing them.

Understandable, but sad, really. And in the end, it’s a pretty fragile faith.

To my mind, everyone has the right to agonize over their own faith at their own pace. But when this agonizing results in such hateful rhetoric, then it is no longer an issue of one person’s religious rights, and that person should be held to account by the community for causing harm to others.

Because it does cause harm.

Really, what is the effect of comparing same-sex relationships to necrophilia, bestiality and incest on young people struggling with their sexual orientation? On their families and friends? On schoolyard bullies? Haven’t there been enough suicides of LGBTQ young people already? Haven’t there already been enough LGBTQ young people kicked out of their homes and living on the streets? How many more tragedies will it take before this sort of hate-mongering becomes unacceptable in North American Muslim communities?

If my kids see this article, how will they feel? How will all the others who have gay, lesbian, bisexual or queer relatives or friends feel? Is the aim to tear families apart? Is it to drive our straight, cisgendered relatives and friends out of Muslim communities?

The writer of this article avoids acknowledging this by writing as though there’s the Muslim community over here, and “the gays” over there… and there’s little or no overlap. The gays (non-Muslim by definition, apparently) need not fear North American Muslims, he implies, because we aren’t about to start stoning or lashing people… and “[p]rominet [sic] Iranian scholar Abdolkarim Soroush even notes that any persecution or discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation would be wrong.” And anyway, classical Islamic law is a lot more “sophisticated” than the behavior of some modern Muslims might suggest.

The real point of the article becomes clear at the end, when the writer states that

 “same-sex advocates must accept that others cannot be forced to approve of what they sincerely believe is wrong. They can demand full constitutional entitlements, but not the right to dictate or interfere in the religious dogma of others. The essence of religious freedom is that individuals and communities must have freedom to determine their core doctrinal beliefs and they must be tolerated in the public sphere.”

In other words, the gays and their supporters should stay on their own side of the imaginary fence. We Muslims aren’t going to bother you, and in return, we Muslims can be as hateful as we want in our own mosques, our own schools, our own homes, our own communities. How’s that for a deal?

But the thing is, there is no fence. There are plenty of gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, queer and questioning Muslims. We—and our straight families and friends—are everywhere. Including Muslim communities.

The writer of this article may think that it sounds very enlightened to say that there’s no punishment “for merely being homosexual.”

And not only that, but

“some jurists attempted to understand those who behaved effeminately (mukhannath) based on whether it was innate or by choice. He quotes Shaikh Yahya b. Sharaf al-Nawawi (1277 CE) as writing that ‘there is no blame, censure, sin, or punishment on this type [one acting out of natural inclination] because he is excused by virtue of having no hand in that condition.’Shaikh Ali also refers to classical jurist, Hafiz Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani (1448 CE) who cited Imam Ibn Jarir al-Tabari (922 CE) to conclude, that when men exhibited feminine characteristics due to their innate nature then rather than being condemned they should be taught to gradually unlearn this, because they may have been created this way.

Islamic law did not seek to regulate feelings, emotions and urges, but only its translation into action that authorities had declared unlawful. Indeed, many scholars — including prominent 11th century jurist Abu Muhammad Ali Ibn Hazm — even argued that homosexual tendencies themselves were not haram but had to be suppressed for the public good.”

But to LGBTQ Muslims, their families and friends, this sort of rhetoric is at best patronizing… that is, when it isn’t positively spine-chilling. Because really, what sort of a life for gender nonconforming, queer and trans people today in our Muslim communities is being envisaged here by this writer? One in which such people are labeled and scrutinized by scholars, imams, community elders and straight parents, who speculate about whether they are “really” born this way, or merely “choosing” it? One in which such people are experimented on, and subjected to procedures that are condemned by reputable psychologists, that do not work, and that have resulted in severe depression and even suicide? Maybe al-Tabari didn’t realize the serious psychological harm that results from being treated like this. But there is no excuse for us today, in this wired world, to be ignorant of the devastation that these practices cause.

And I wonder what conceivable “public good” is served by people trying to suppress same-sex desires—whether of themselves, or of others. Most people can’t manage an entire lifetime of celibacy. Is the idea a sort of “out of sight, out of mind” approach? As long as gay sex is happening in secret, then we don’t have to think about it? Is it that he really doesn’t care to know what a lifetime in the closet does to people? There is no excuse today for not knowing that either.

If an article making such hateful and inaccurate claims had been written back in the 1950’s, it would have been understandable. After all, back before Stonewall, what opportunity did most straight people have to learn about LGBTQ lives? The only media representations of gays were sensationalistic news coverage of alleged threats to national security or sordid sex scandals. In those days, it was easy for most straights to ignore LGBTQ people,or  to speak of us as disgusting and monstrous, or to believe that there weren’t any of them in their religious communities. But in the year 2014, anyone who writes these things is actively choosing ignorance, actively choosing not to see others as fully human. It’s not as if there aren’t enough LGBTQ Muslim films, books, stories and websites out there to learn from about the diversity of our lives and experiences.

To conclude: Muslims in North America have a choice. Will they choose to call out this (and other) homophobic and transphobic articles and statements, or not? Is this how they want to be represented?

 

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  1. #1 by A on March 29, 2014 - 1:02 pm

    Too true. Under your list of thought processes I’d add: 5. Humans are unable to understand the wisdom behind God’s laws; if it seems unjust, it’s only because we fail to comprehend God’s wisdom due to our humanness/non-Godness.

    • #2 by xcwn on March 29, 2014 - 1:28 pm

      Yes, that too.
      It’s almost as if we didn’t believe that God gave us brains, consciences, and a sense of empathy so that we would use them.

  2. #3 by nmr on March 29, 2014 - 2:08 pm

    Muslims will not call out homophobic statements. They are not there yet in their spiritual development. The Muslims in North America come to this country because they can live in their little hermetic enclaves and say whatever they want with no accountability- the USA was built by religious fanatics in search of their utopias. They can wallow in their “us” versus “them” mentality.

    The issue of gender equality is still a powder keg in Islam because you have 50% of the population wants to talk about it and 50% want to “keep the peace”. So little things will set it off. There are just not the numbers there for support of gay issues in the Muslim population. Many of those same feminists who so eloquently denounced Abu Eesa, will hem and haw and say nothing about this offensive HuffPo article.

    I wish I could be more reassuring to you, so here is a try. You, my dear xcwn, are a pioneer. You are an inspiration to many. You just keep doing what you do- write, be outraged, raise consciousness, and God willing, one day change will come.

    Thanks for this post.

    • #4 by xcwn on March 29, 2014 - 2:39 pm

      Well, yes and no. About one-third of North American Muslims are converts or the descendants of converts (mostly African American converts, but also a tiny yet growing number of white, Latino/a and others). They didn’t “come to to this country because they can live in their little hermetic enclaves”—they were already here. Not all immigrant Muslims came here for that purpose either. Many did not. And among those immigrant Muslims who did, their children and grandchildren don’t always share their views.

      I think the problem is more about the echo chamber effect that some self-styled community leaders (like the writer of the article) seem to be caught up in. They don’t appear to know how hateful and ignorant they sound to many North Americans, especially those under 30. But then, they don’t seem too aware of basic biology either. I couldn’t help but laugh at the writer’s statement that masturbation is “unnatural”—I guess he doesn’t know that fetuses do it in utero?? (And, he doesn’t seem to have realized that the idea of the “natural” is not a biological or scientific one, but is a cultural construct.)

      I wonder how many Muslims in North America, even conservative ones, really want to be publicly represented as ignorant homophobes. I suspect that there is a growing number that do not.

  3. #5 by Anonymous// on March 29, 2014 - 3:24 pm

    Good gravy- from a historian’s point of view that article is atrocious! Not least the decision to conflate the (incommensurable) categories ‘mukahnnath’ and ‘homosexual’. Whereas the mukhannath would invariably be a penetratee and the condition was viewed medically as a pathology (ubna, a sort of nervous ‘itch’ needing scratching), the same certainly can’t be said for the penetrator. But you know this already.

    Incidentally, bits of Aysha Hidayatullah’s book can now be seen via Amazon. Her honesty (on Qur’anic patriarchy) is a breath of fresh air. I’m glad that I lived to see the sorts of developments vis-a-vis historicity and morality (it is unethical to project our modern, Euro-American prejudices onto the Qur’anic text) from the ‘progressives’ that I’ve hoped for for so long. It was there in Kecia Ali and Farid Esack and others but is very pronounced in this book.

  4. #6 by Anonymous// on March 29, 2014 - 3:27 pm

    By the way, what is the referent of the ‘us’ above? Perhaps not everybody in the community shares your ethical commitments- I know I don’t.

    And what do you think of Joseph Massad?

    • #7 by xcwn on March 29, 2014 - 7:15 pm

      The referent of the “us” (as well as the “them”) in this post is ever-shifting. I am not suggesting that everyone—or even many—shares my views. I know that isn’t the case.
      Massad seems to me to be dismissing the various experiences of those who neither want to live in the closet nor do they want to be treated as helpless victims by white middle-class activist outsiders. He seems to come perilously close at times to suggesting that gay Muslim activism is somehow “inauthentic.”

      It’s interesting to see where the lines in this sort of “authenticity rhetoric” tend to be drawn (as we see more often in discussions of feminism and Muslim women). When men—even conservative Muslim men who are all about “tradition” but appeal to contemporary human rights standards when it suits their personal or political purposes, but argue that women or LGBTQ persons can’t do the same and still remain “authentic” members of their communities, this is incoherent. Or actually, it’s coherent, all right—as a discourse of patriarchal power.

  5. #8 by rosalindawijks on March 29, 2014 - 7:00 pm

    An interesting reading tip: The book Homosexuality in Islam by Scott Kugle.

  6. #9 by rosalindawijks on March 29, 2014 - 7:15 pm

    You know, even if I don’t agree on everything you say, I do respect your honesty. You clearly have thought about these issues deeply.

    Even though I’m more optimistic then you about the possibility of change with all those amazing ladies (and gentlemen!) out there who engage in progressive, humanist, feminist and something even liberation theologic approaches to and interpretations of islam: Amina Wadud, Fatima Mernissi, Leila Ahmed, Zainah Anwar, Shaheen Sardar Ali, Asma Barlas, Shirin Ebadi, Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Scott Kugle, Omid Safi, Mona Eltahawy, Khaled Abou el Fadl, Farid Esack, Abdullahi an Naim, Sameena Ali, Asra Nomani, etc., etc., etc?

    And comparing homosexuality to bestiality and necrophilia – things most people find disgusting- is of course, dehumanizing towards homosexuals.

    • #10 by xcwn on March 29, 2014 - 7:24 pm

      Yes, there are lots of amazing people working on these issues. Hopefully, their work will continue to keep discussions on these questions moving forward. I particularly appreciate Samina Ali’s book Madras on Rainy Days, which takes an honest look at one effect of the closet—gay men being forced into marriages with straight women (who often don’t know that their husband is gay…), and the suffering that results, particularly for the women involved.

      It’s particularly disappointing to see Muslim community activists using such inflammatory rhetoric when they’d be the first to condemn similar rhetoric when it is used by Islamophobes against Muslims (as when Islamophobes use FGM, child marriage and honor killings to represent Muslims as sexually barbaric). So, it isn’t as though such activists don’t know that this kind of rhetoric promotes hate, or how it feels to have it used against them.

  7. #11 by rosalindawijks on March 29, 2014 - 7:23 pm

    Oops- that should be “even though” and “sometimes even liberation theologic”.

  8. #12 by threekidsandi on March 30, 2014 - 2:11 am

    I think this is wonderful. I am glad to see you addressing this issue, refuting such an article, and on the side of humanity. We have gay imams, now, and I am filled with joy, relief, wonder and gratitude every time I remember that fact. LBGT Muslims deserve respite, acceptance, and the same brotherhood/sisterhood as the rest of the Ummah. Hugs, for all.

  9. #13 by rosalindawijks on March 30, 2014 - 2:40 pm

    “I particularly appreciate Samina Ali’s book Madras on Rainy Days, which takes an honest look at one effect of the closet—gay men being forced into marriages with straight women (who often don’t know that their husband is gay…), and the suffering that results, particularly for the women involved.”

    I also remember that novel very well. It was one of the many, many books I read about Desi family histories. Something which surprised me in the book is that the protagonist had absolutely NO idea that her husband was gay, even though the marriage still wasn’t consummated after months…….the first thing I thought was that he was gay.

    I recall that you used the pronoun “we” in talking about LBTQ Muslims. Does that mean that you yourself are lesbian, bisexual or transsexual and if so, what part that played before, during and after your conversion, the cult, your marriage and beyond? No nosyness intended, I’m just interested, sicne I don’t recall you mentioning that aspect before.

    • #14 by xcwn on March 30, 2014 - 8:35 pm

      Yes, I am.

      It played no role in my conversion or in my belonging to The Cult. That was a different time—and a different world. I didn’t grow up in a city, and my family was quite socially conservative, so sexual orientation and gender identity were not really on my radar. Of course, there was no internet then. Once I converted and married, there was no reason to think about sexual orientation or gender identity either, really—conservative Muslim communities of the sort I was involved in were pretty much set up to facilitate denial. Romantic love, even after marriage, was discouraged. Marriage wasn’t primarily about love or compatibility, but fulfilling roles and giving your husband his “rights” and bearing him children. Men and women were expected to socialize separately, and often had stronger emotional ties to friends of the same sex than to their spouses. Women’s sexual subjectivities were barely acknowledged. Unhappiness in one’s marriage or with the prescribed gender roles meant that you just had to try harder to “accept what Allah has decreed.” And we were told that LGBTQ Muslims didn’t exist—that this is a sickness of “the West.” I remember the first time a Muslim came out to me, I could hardly believe it.

      Towards the end of my marriage, once I had started to get a clue, I started to watch queer-themed stuff on TV. My ex noticed my new interest in watching TV (had never been keen on it before), and what I was watching, and got quite belligerent. I read everything I could get my hands on, but kept those library books well hidden. My ex confronted me on a couple of occasions, and asked me point-blank if I am a lesbian. Needless to say, I didn’t admit to anything—I had to get out of that marriage in one piece, and with the kids.

      It seems quite ridiculous to me now—this was only an issue of thought-crime. What I was watching, reading and thinking. Oh yes, and I had begun to object to anti-gay comments made in my presence. I wasn’t doing anything with anybody sexually. He was the one who had two wives, and was cheating, but I was the sinner in that picture because I was developing self-awareness and… thinking.

  10. #15 by Laury Silvers on April 6, 2014 - 12:47 am

    Thanks for this. As usual, you give words to my thoughts and feelings as well as uncovering critiques that had eluded me….and those critiques give me hope. I guess I want to say to Rosalind who posted above about hope, that these kinds of critiques give birth to hope.

    I think there is a misunderstanding that many of those wonderful scholars you mention have not waded through these difficult waters….and this is important….do not remain in them. I have observed, and this is certainly my experience, that we do not leave them but have learned-are-learning how to navigate them. To not remain in them would be like forgetting that one lives in a society absolutely mired in multiple forms of racism just because one has learned how to navigate that world and work for change with some real dignity. As we all know, a black president does not a post-racial world make. There is no hope of change without constant critique.

    I want to say that it is promising when communities make small steps, like discovering LGBTQ people are human and not naturally sinful. But that respect, while welcome because it is a step up from much worse and may indicate further small steps in the future, is not likely to develop into real human, just, equal openness any time soon or at all for many.

    I believe that as the younger Muslims get out there and realize what they’ve been taught has little correlative to their own human experience, they will not accept such repulsive attempts at inclusion as the author of the HuffPo piece has shown. We see that happening, as others here have mentioned. I have also seen mothers and fathers fully accept their children when they have come out because they love their own children more than they love the scholars. One mother of a young gay woman I know went from nearly burning her belongings and kicking her out to demanding she marry a nice girl and have babies soon.

    But we’re on a long path. It’s going to happen on the level of those individual relationships (friends and family). And those relationships may or may not (and I believe mainly will not) develop into substantial change in the “mainstream Sunni tradition” (what SSL typically refers to as trademarked). The reason why is that the TM Sunni Tradition is resistant to any kind of critique let alone the kind of searing critique necessary to dismantle the very legal principles that feed and support male-centered-hetero power. For instance, there is a US mosque that sells itself as welcoming, but we know gay people who have been hounded out of it not just by congregants, but also by the mosque “authorities” (followed up by the silence of the head imam who simply refused to answer a query about it from someone he knows well enough to pass jokes with by email). So I’m not holding my breath.

    I believe women’s issues will come first. That’s more palatable. We’ve seen promising change on that front because of the relentless critique of the people you mention. But if you look at Musawah’s website, not to mention the blogs of Muslim equity feminists arguing for the very best patriarchy we can possible have, you’ll get a sense of how slow going that trip is going to be.

    My hope is that through the kind of critique SSL offers–and other visionaries–we can individually dismantle our own romantic attachment to those principles that are destroying us. How we all undertake dismantling and then reimagining (and making connections with) our history will differ and that’s the beauty of the thing.

    To me, romanticism is the death of hope.

    (Not saying you are romantic, R, I’m just marking it as a problem).

    (God, I wrote a whole blog entry here. Sorry)

  11. #16 by rosalindawijks on April 6, 2014 - 6:42 am

    Thanks for sharing your insights with us, Laury. I will write a longer reply, that will do more justice to your post, some other day.

    But my point of view is that I see the glass as half full………and many of the activists I listed make it absolutely clear that they are against patriarchy. (Like, for instance, Amina Wadud, Asra Nomani and Mona Eltahawy)

    But yes, it’s a slow, hard process, which starts with changing the way we think.

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