A couple of days ago, several emails alerted me to the dust-up about bus ads in San Francisco that quote homophobic statements made by six notorious Muslim leaders. The ads apparently are intended to (wrongly) imply that all or most Muslims are violently hateful to gays, lesbians, bisexuals, trans and other queer folks.
Which also implies that the categories of “Muslim” and “LGBTQ” are entirely separate. Mutually exclusive. Which is obviously ridiculous.
And which also seems to imply that those in North America who most loudly oppose all manifestations of Islam today (aka strongly right-wing conservatives, a number of whom subscribe to particular socially conservative interpretations of Christianity) are also strong supporters of equal rights for LGBTQ people… unlike those awful Muslims. Except that such right-wingers often aren’t.
Yes, the bus ads are hypocritical and misleading. They seem designed to promote hate. They erase the existence and activism of queer Muslims and their Muslim allies.
But for every cloud, there is a silver lining… or so I’ve often been told. As I read the article I linked to above, I knew that I should feel grateful. For it indicates that there is apparently a slow sea-change taking place among some Sunni Muslims in North America. A small number of fairly prominent figures who are looked up to by conservative “mainstream” Sunnis are coming out (pun intended) and saying that gays are welcome to pray at their mosques and criticizing Muslims for taking hateful or exclusionary attitudes to LGBTQ people. Which is such an improvement over what I am used to.
Yes, I know I should be feeling grateful, happy, even hopeful. So, why am I having flashbacks instead?
Flashbacks to talk after talk after sermon after pamphlet after book after study-circle… an endless loop of just really awful ideas on a range of issues, from sexuality to family to educational policy to world politics. Ideas publicly expressed, in the name of Islam, at Muslim conferences or from the minbar or in Muslim student groups or a events organized for families (or for “the youth”), or even at da’wa events (!?). Often in the hearing of supposedly intelligent and responsible Muslims who did… absolutely nothing.
In my memory alone, I realized, I have enough shocking quotes to fit on hundreds of buses. If not thousands.
If I asked my convert friends for their memories of horrendous quotes, I wonder how many we’d come up with.
The ideas I have heard expressed (or read in literature distributed by “mainstream” Muslim groups) on LGBTQ issues have typically ranged from asinine to positively hateful. Back in the ’80’s and ’90’s, such issues were hardly mentioned in the circles I frequented. Partly because sex in general was rarely discussed openly, but also because LGBTQ Muslims supposedly didn’t exist. When LGBTQ people were in fact mentioned, it was to ridicule them, to used them as symbols of how pathetically and irrevocably screwed up “the west” and its ideas of masculinity, femininity and sexual morality allegedly are (in contradistinction to the Muslim ideas about gender and sexual morality that we were being taught, which are supposedly divinely-designed, perfectly just, and problem-free).
During the ’90’s, when word of some types of queer Muslim activism slowly began to reach even the insular Muslim communities I was involved with at that time, then the typical straight Muslim response was denial that queer Muslims could in fact exist, or vehement condemnation. Queer Muslims represented western and/or modern contamination of pristine Muslim communities. I was taught (and I read) that “homosexuality” is a major sin, and that in a real “Islamic state” (or for neo-traditionalists, a “traditional Muslim society”) that “homosexuals” who had engaged in forbidden sexual acts would and should be flogged or stoned to death. I was taught that even though there are few or no “real Islamic states” (or “traditional Muslim societies) nowadays, and of course we didn’t live in either anyway, that I had to nonetheless firmly believe that such punishments are just, and that I should sincerely wish that we could live in such a state/society in future. Because anyone who didn’t believe that and truly wish for that didn’t really have faith, and they would face the appropriate punishment for disbelief in the hereafter.
But as I said, LGBTQ people were rarely discussed. By far most of my memories of ideas ranging from ridiculous to jaw-droppingly horrifying have little if anything to do with LGBTQ issues. Which, when I think about it, is all the more troubling. Because back in the ’80’s, homophobic attitudes were still pretty “mainstream” in the wider society where I was living at that time as well. So, in communities which were in the process of constructing their identity as the “true” social conservatives (meaning, more truly socially conservative than Christians), it was probably not surprising that they would be homophobic. But some of the other attitudes that were publicly proclaimed? Looking back, I can’t really find a plausible excuse for most of them.
The kind of ideas and attitudes that I am talking about include:
- All religious holidays—aside from celebrating the two Eids in soberly “sunna” way—are to be shunned. And it is forbidden to wish your non-Muslim neighbors a “Merry Christmas.”
- It is better to send your kids to an “Islamic school” than a public school, even if the former has limited resources and few qualified teachers. Because the main concern when it comes to education should be to inculcate “true Islam” and to shield kids from learning about ideas that might challenge their faith.
- Teens who refuse to follow their parents’ interpretations of what it means to live a “proper Islamic lifestyle” should be given the “choice” between complying or being forced to leave.
- Marrying off your children (especially your girls) in their teens should be encouraged, in order to prevent fornication.
- There is no need to get to know a man before marrying him. All you need is for the brothers at the mosque to attest that he’s a good Muslim.
- Muslims must believe that punishing drinking alcohol by lashing, theft by cutting hands, adultery by stoning, and blasphemy or apostasy by execution are just and reasonable regardless of cultural or historical context, provided that certain basic legal conditions for their implementation are met. Even in the twentieth century.
- Children must be taught to pray at age seven. At age ten, they should be beaten if they do not pray. Because a hadith says so.
- There is no such thing as marital rape.
- A wife must obey her husband, unless he commands her to disobey God. The same applies to children in relation to their parents.
- Hijab protects girls and women from sexual harassment, molestation and rape.
- It is quite appropriate for children (boys as well as girls) to come home from Islamic school/weekend classes/Muslim youth camp and tell their mothers, sisters or other female relatives how they “should” be dressing.
- A woman must have her husband’s permission to work or study outside of the home.
- A man can forbid his wife to leave the house.
- and so on and on….
Just so many bad ideas. And so few Muslims who openly opposed them. So few who would get up and question speakers who made out-there statements. Even fewer who would raise concerns about the sorts of reading material sold in the mosque bookstore or at the book tables in the bazaar at the Islamic conference. Did all (or even most) Muslims in North America really believe those things? No. Did all (or even most) Muslims in North America live their lives in that way? No. But nor were most ready to publicly oppose such ideas.
And for those of us who did drink the kool-aid and believe (or try to make ourselves whole-heartedly believe) all that stuff, it was all cart-before-the-horse kind of thinking. We were told that God commands or allows X, so therefore, it is within the realm of the reasonable, and while individuals might not want to do it themselves, they shouldn’t stand up and oppose others speaking in its favor. No matter what ill effects such practices may be having on real people’s lives. No matter what human experience or scientific findings or even logic or common sense might indicate. And there were just so many obstacles put in the way of critical thinking: fear of disobeying God by questioning, fear of losing faith, fear of social ostracism, anxiety over one’s “Islamic identity” and where its boundaries are, having been taught to follow those said to have more knowledge rather than thinking for oneself, being deprived of opportunities to learn to read texts critically….
I spent a day trying to put a stop to the flashbacks. To focus on doing my work, and dealing with my kids. To focus on the now. To shut down my feelings about what is past… and what all too often remains present. What my ex’s family says. What the conservative Muslims I encounter at work sometimes say. What I see online. What occasionally makes it into the “mainstream” media. But if a respected imam can say that gays are welcome in his mosque, then things must be improving.
But a little voice nagged at me: You are holding conservative Muslims to a lesser standard than everyone else. That voice wouldn’t be silent, so I admitted to myself that yes, I basically do. Because I don’t really believe that much change is possible under the present circumstances. Window-dressing, yes, but substantive change, no.
Not when neo-traditionalists have pretty much succeeded in marketing themselves as the answer to the problem of terrorism. The price we have to pay for fewer explosions is a lock on our intellectual capacities, apparently. Not when (as the article linked to above hints), there are even Muslims who don’t identify as conservative who will nonetheless argue that since some well-known conservative Evangelical Christian leaders (for example) openly teach homophobic ideas, then Muslim leaders in the US ought not to be condemned for doing the same. Imagine that. An equal right to be hateful, to ignore scientific findings in favor of ideas that demonstrably lead to harm to actual human beings.
I wondered about the ethics of continuing to identify as a Muslim under these circumstances.
Meanwhile, I dodge conservative Muslims as much as possible… and Islamophobia at work. The two discourses feed off one another. Together, they keep one another in business. I could see no way out of this impasse.
At lunch that day, I drifted over to MuslimahMediaWatch, though without much expectation of seeing anything that I’d really want to read. I’ve had it up to here with apologetics.
But what I found there was a thought-provoking article by Amina Jabbar, “The Subtleties of Being Caught in the Cross-fire.” She points out that Muslim women are often discussed as though we are caught between two extremes–the violence of far-right nationalist groups such as the BNP in Britain, and the ultra-patriarchal views/practices of a few extremist Muslim groups that the great majority of Muslims don’t agree with. But (she observes), the reality is often less dramatic in her experience—which makes it no less painful, because those dishing out the discrimination and exclusion are communities she identifies with and people she likes or loves.
Jabbar gives two examples. The first, an Islamophobic drag performance, unfortunately didn’t surprise me all that much. Whenever a topic related to Islam, Muslims, Arabs, etc comes up on North American “mainstream” queer sites and online newspapers, the comments section all too often descends rapidly into a hate-fest. There’s no shortage of prejudice against Muslims in many white queer North American spaces.
Her second example surprised me—and not because I didn’t recognize it. I recognized that type of story all too well (though more on that next post). It was a news story about Maryam Basir, an American Muslim woman who identifies as Muslim, practices Islam, and works as a model. Due to her career, she faces judgment, efforts by random Muslim strangers to “guide” her back to the “straight path”, and estrangement from her father, an American convert who is an imam. To my surprise, Jabbar does not waste her time either taking the (non-Muslim) writer of the article to task for a few problematic statements he makes, or decrying the common media fixation on Muslim women who don’t seem to be living up to stereotypes. Instead, she focuses on the central issue with the story—the sexist attitudes held by many Muslims (whether female or male): Muslim women are often expected “to live up to a higher moral standard for the sake of upholding the Islamic identity and image” than men are. Jabbar points out that many Muslims don’t regard such attitudes as “extreme” or even problematic.
Finally, she says that it’s important to avoid reducing racism, sexism, homophobia and other types of bigotry to the acts of extremists. Instead, we have to acknowledge the roles that we play in inadvertently fostering the conditions that make possible the dramatic, extreme acts of oppression that we condemn and distance ourselves from.
I couldn’t agree more.
Maybe there’s some hope for positive change… who knows.