LGBT and Muslim? A New Report Busts Stereotypes

Published: November 2, 2011

Just as the Arab spring has upended conventional understanding of Arab and Muslim societies, so a new report on the issues faced by LGBT Muslims challenges the stereotype of Muslim communities in the U.S. and abroad as monolithically closed to conversations about sexuality.

The report, the “Muslim LGBT Inclusion Project,” was just published by Intersections International—a New York-based nonprofit whose mandate, says founding director Rev. Robert Chase, is to bring together people who differ, honor those differences, and find ways to work together for reconciliation, justice, and peace.

The report builds on interviews with Muslim community leaders, several scholarly articles, as well as facilitated discussions among more than 50 people in six cities. Chase, who co-facilitated five of the six group discussions, says those conversations revealed a remarkable openness. “It was just fascinating,” he says:    I went in looking to do an assessment, and came out being inspired with real hope for our whole world. One part of our world that is so often demonized as being insensitive and rigid and uncompromising and out of touch with nuances of human history proved to be just the opposite: engaged, sensitive, curious, imaginative.

He concluded, “if this is the demonized community, then our future is a lot brighter than what we’ve been led to believe.” Chase acknowledges that the group participants skewed progressive, but the prevalence of progressive-oriented Muslim community leaders may itself be news to many Americans.Cultural Imperialism, or Human Right?

Most project participants agreed that conversations about LGBT issues within the Muslim community might better be pursued outside of mosques rather than within them. Those who did support direct religious engagement argued for starting with the notion of Allah as a God of mercy and compassion.

LGBT Muslims, the report notes, are dealing with many of the same kinds of questions that LGBT Christians have been dealing with for decades—such as the authority and interpretation of scripture. In addition, conversations within Islam in America are complicated by a virulent Islamophobia that has flourished in the decade since the 9/11 attacks. As scholar Hussein Rashid, an RD associate editor, observes: “The intersection of sexual, religious, racial, and immigrant identities entail multiple types of marginalization.”

Accompanying the rise of Islamophobia has been an effort by some Islamic leaders to defend the faith by resisting what they see as forces of Western cultural hegemony, which include topics such as gender and sexual orientation. The report quotes scholar Kecia Ali saying,

    Those who have appointed themselves the guardians of communal orthodoxy are particularly vigilant on matters concerning women and gender—in part because it is in these realms that the construction of Muslim identity in self-conscious opposition to a decadent West takes place.

Munir Shaikh, executive director of the Institute on Religion and Civic Values, writes that “The LGBT cause is perceived by many to be simply another form of cultural imperialism, not a matter of human rights.”

It was not uncommon, in fact, for participants to suggest that LGBT issues should be put on hold until the community has better addressed Islamophobia. But others suggest that bullying of Muslim and gay kids can provide common ground (what one DC parent called a “cognitive opening”) to forge solidarity among two often marginalized groups.Many participants viewed mosques themselves as less open to conversation on LGBT issues, but the report suggests that mosques do not play as dominant a role in defining community attitudes as some may presume. A Pew survey in 2007 reported that one-third of American Muslims said they seldom or never attended a mosque. Participants in the Intersections discussions said they believed that 70 to 80 percent of Muslims in America do not belong to their local mosque.

Looking forward, the report suggests that students and student groups would be a more effective place to begin raising the visibility of LGBT Muslims and their concerns in the broader community. Young Muslims, particularly second- and third-generation Muslims in America, are, like their youthful counterparts in other religious traditions, are more open to notions of LGBT equality. And they are immersed in the social networking technologies that have been so evident in the Arab spring uprisings.

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