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Sunday 12 October 2008

An Inclusive Islam?

Posted in: Features
By Craig Young - 27th July 2007

Recently, Jeff Whittaker published an interesting in-depth look at the lives of LGBT Muslims, which raised some provocative questions about the existence of an inclusive Islam.

Is Islam per se our enemy? Viewed over the entirety of its history and its geographical spread, the answer would have to be a qualified no. Like Christianity and Judaism, there have been times when it has been informed by scholarship and thriving metropolitan and trade centres, leading to a relatively tolerant urban liberal society. Moreover, this was often at a time when medieval Europe was predominantly rural and likely to impose behavioural sanctions and church court trials if they found any 'sodomites.'

In contemporary Arab societies, the self-designated terms for gay men and lesbians are mithli and mithliyya, while homosexuality is known as al-mithliyya al-jinsiyya. Whittaker opens his book with discussions about the lives of several interview subjects who discussed their lives in several Middle Eastern societies. In Egypt, conservative Islamism has resulted in some startlingly familiar developments, like the doctor who offered to 'treat' Selim, a twenty year old gay man in Cairo.

Selim's parents were middle-class- it is not uncommon for homophobic family violence to occur in poorer families, and as with unmarried sexually active young straight women, 'honour killings" of mithli also occur. It is also not unknown for families to attack those who "shame" the family name through living in an openly gay relationship. Due to the rise of the Internet, higher education abroad, professional development opportunities overseas and other factors, there is a generation gap when it comes to information and opinions related to homosexuality and lesbianism, even amongst educated professionals.

Oddly enough, mithliyya (lesbians) aren't as stigmatised in some quarters. For one thing, in a male-dominated society, there's more pressure on sons to fulfill family aspirations (although it should be noted that there is a vibrant Middle Eastern feminist movement in Lebanon, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, as well as the Muslim diaspora in Europe and North America). Precisely because they're unlikely to get pregnant, lesbian daughters won't 'shame' the family through getting pregnant before marriage, for one thing. As one might guess though, neither mithli or mithliyya are out to their families.

As in the West, sham "marriages" and co-operative spouses are not uncommon in the Middle East, but neither is gay youth suicide, sadly.

Fortunately, if one does fall in love with a partner of the same sex from Australia, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Israel, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, South Africa- or New Zealand, there is always the option of the lifeline of spousal status, provided one can prove durability of relationship. If one is in this situation, then there should be a dossier about this, secreted somewhere intruders cannot find it.

As I noted in an earlier article on the LGBT Middle East, Israel is relatively liberal on LGBT matters, apart from its own Haredi and other Chassidic Orthodox Jewish fundamentalists. Palestinian lesbians and gay men are in a particularly painful situation when it comes to the Hamas and Hizbullah insurgencies in Gaza and the West Bank, because they are seen as 'traitors' to the cause. Six hundred or so have fled to Israel, where they live in a twilight world of illegal residential status and risk deportation to certain death if caught and deported. Agudah, Israel's LGBT network, is trying to change immigration laws for this reason.

Lebanon probably has the most open Arab LGBT community, perhaps due to its greater extent of westernisation. Ironically too, the tragic civil war of the seventies and eighties exposed many exiled Lebanese families and individuals to western cultural values. In Beirut's Sin el-Fil district, there is a nightclub called "Acid" (!!!), while politically active Lebanese LGBTs gravitate to Helem- Himaya Lubaniyya il-Mithliyyim (Lebanese Protection for Homosexuals), which seeks decriminalisation of male homosexuality through abolition of Article 534 of the Penal Code.

There are some paradoxical and quite familiar developments when it comes to governmental and religious homophobia. For one thing, the Middle East is also afflicted with viciously stupid tabloids of its own, which pontificate about satanism and "misinterpretation of the Qu'ran."

However, alongside this, there are instances of striking tacit pluralism. Egyptian lesbians have no social venues, but are free to live together, provided they are 'discrete' about it. Ironically, they are valued tenants due to the understandable absence of male suitors. As in the West, workplace sexual harrassment is a problem, though.

In Saudi Arabia, male homosexuality theoretically results in death. However, in Riyadh, there are known cruising grounds, a thriving underground gay party circuit in private homes, for Saudi officials refuse to believe that lesbian and gay social networks could exist in the heartland of Islam.

Speaking of Islam, though, here again there are some unexpected developments. Given the Palestinian tragedy and the Iraqi War this decade, it is no wonder that some Muslim social conservatives exploit fears about western military power to denounce LGBT Muslims as the"enemy within." Ironically though, it is precisely western colonisation that is to blame for the cultivation of unrepresentative elites and 'defensive' fundamentalist Islamisms, in what were historically tolerant and highly civilised societies. And it is possible to exaggerate threats- while deaths from homophobic violence go unrecorded, only Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran actually go so far as to execute gay men.

Lebanese and Egyptian dissident gay authors have written novels about their experiences in such societies too.

Is an inclusive Islam possible? Whittaker valuably focuses attention on the belief structures of Islam to answer this question. As well as the Qu'ran itself (and the "Lut" verses, a retelling of the Sodom and Gomorrah myth), Islamic society and judicial scholarship also rely on hadith, scholarship attributed to the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed Himself. If the Prophet didn't say it, then reasoning through analogies is possible, as might ijmaa, consensus of the views of Muslims themselves. As Islam is a world faith with diverse denominations and multiethnic networks of its own, it is only to be expected that there are several schools of hadith. Sunni Islam has Hanifi, Maliki, Shafii and Hanbulii schools of thought available, while Shia Islam only has the Jafari school available. Of these, Hanifi and Maliki hadith interpretations are the most scholarly.

While the Qu'ran has its own references to "lut", there are held to be hadd offences within Islam's sacred text that are viewed more seriously- but this does not include homosexuality. The Prophet Himself was silent, and those hadith that do condemn gay anal sex are viewed as amongst the most doubtful in terms of their authenticity within contemporary hadith scholarship. Therefore, any inclusive Islam could hinge on thorough and rigorous investigation and reinterpretation of such hadith. Liberal Hanafi hadith scholarship acknowledged this during the Middle Ages, and debated with conservative Shafii and Hanbalii counterparts over the issue. The latter regarded sex work (zinah) as earning the death penalty, and predictably cited the Lut account.

Unfortunately, the Jafari school appears to be conservative on such issues, leading to Shia Iran's corporal punishment and executions related to lavat (any gay sex). Torture and imprisonment are commonplace, as is blackmail. However, Shia Islam is strikingly progressive about the morality of gender reassignment surgery, and there is even an Imam Khomeini Charitable Fundfor financially challenged Iranian pre-operative transwomen to transition named for Iran's first revolutionary spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. Theological opinion is even onside when it comes to this.

Egypt has had problems with police entrapment and abuse after Cairo passed an anti-prostitution law designed to placate the conservative Muslim Brotherhood, which was then reinterpreted to attack gay male cruising grounds. Lebanon has had its own problems with Hizbullah harrassment of gay men, and harrassment of LGBT political activists, but is also amenable to western LGBT solidarity protests and international government pressure.

If Islam is as diverse as Whittaker notes, then what of Muslim social conservative antigay activity? Is it indigenous to Islamic societies itself? No, it is not. One would have thought that Muslim social conservatives would think twice about using the work of their Christian Right counterparts, given the latter's frequent and abhorrent displays of Islamophobic malice and support for the Iraqi War. However, such is not the case. Qatar's Yusuf al-Quradawi is one particular headache, as is IslamOnline's Nadi el Adawy. Dr el Adawy cites US NARTH ex-gay material as 'evidence' that 'reparative therapy' is possible, which is fiercely contested by the mainstream American Psychiatric and Psychological Associations. There's even a London-based "Straightway Foundation", a reparative therapy group that targets oral sex, porn and masturbation as well as lesbian and gay sexualities.

The Doha Declaration was one such result of Christian Right-Muslim Right co-belligerency, in which Yusuf al-Quaradawi, the US Mormon Right "United Families International" and notorious ex-Malaysian PM and homophobe Mohammed Mathahir collaborated to foist it on the United Nations. Commendably, New Zealand dissociated itself from this unrepresentative 'international gathering,' as did the EU, Norway, Switzerland, Canada, Iceland, Lichtenstein and Australia.

How might change come? Whittaker argues for critical gay Islamic scholarship, broad transnational social liberal collaboration (and perhaps, noting some of the more rabid Islamophobic statements of the Muslim Right's fundamentalist Christian Right allies?)

Brian Whittaker: Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East: Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 2006.

Craig Young - 27th July 2007