Should We Be Defending Islam, Despite Its Homophobia?
It's been said that politics can make for the strangest of bedfellows, and the same can sometimes be said for civil rights matters as well. The recent headline-dominating cases of what's been described as Islamophobia - notably controversy surrounding the Park51 Islamic Community Center and a certain Gainesville pastor's threat to burn the Quran - have served as examples of just that to many within the LGBT community as well as the wider world.
As conservative voices rallied against Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf's still undeterred plans to construct Park51 two blocks from the site of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, progressive voices, including many LGBT activists, spoke in defense of the center and, more broadly, Muslim Americans' right to religious freedom.
LGBT support has taken on deeper importance as reports of attacks on mosques and threats against Muslim people have continued to spring up across the country in recent weeks. In North Carolina, Republican congressional candidate Renee Ellmers released a campaign ad labeling the center a "victory mosque" and condemning her opponent, Democrat Bob Etheridge, for his silence on the issue.
In Murfreesboro, Tenn., opponents to a proposed mosque there have sued the county, arguing the construction will preach jihad and result in a "Sharia law takeover." A mysterious fire broke out among the construction equipment; observers don't consider it a coincidence. Last week, a Muslim prayer center in St. Louis, Mo., was marked with a pentagram, resulting in the condemnation of a New York City Satanist leader.
As of last month, a Washington Post-ABC News poll reported nearly half of Americans had a "generally unfavorable opinion" of Islam. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported last month that claims of job discrimination by Muslims has increased 20 percent in the last year, 60 percent compared to five years ago.
As queer activists continue to lobby, with minimal progress, for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the parallels between the experiences of LGBT and Muslim Americans seem clear to some.
Others, however, consider LGBT support for Islam as masochistic at best, self-hating and self-defeating at worst. Queer opponents to the Park51 project and broader acceptance of Islam point to Muslim-majority nations like Saudi Arabia and Iraq's poor records on protecting gays from persecution and violence as a rationale in rejecting the notion of seeking solidarity between the LGBT and Muslim communities. As recently as July, an 18-year-old Iranian convicted of sodomy was sentenced to be executed. Homosexuality between men there is a crime punishable with death.
The issue is a heated and contentious one, challenging the definition of what qualifies as a "queer issue" at a moment of particular disenchantment for many activists within the LGBT political movement. To get at the heart of the issue, EDGE spoke to activists to better understand what's at stake for our community in the national debate around Islamophobia.
LGBT Voices Against Islam
Porn entrepreneur Michael Lucas has been perhaps the most outspoken gay voice against Islam, specifically. As far as he's concerned, the Park51 center should be considered as one to "fit a historic pattern of marking Muslim conquests." Or so he said in a much-debated Aug. 9 column on Advocate.com.
Lucas had previously described the Quran as "today's Mein Kampf" and said in 2007, "It totally escapes me how gay people can side with burqa-wearing, jihad-screaming, Koran-crazed Muslims. Let's not fool ourselves: This monstrosity is designed as a demonstration of political Islam's ascendancy," Lucas wrote. "For any rational person, the picture is clear.
"Muslims murdered 3,000 people and are building a mosque on the site of a crime. But brainwashed liberals don't see it or don't want to see it this way. But dear liberals, let me remind you of what the great liberal German writer Thomas Mann said," Lucas concludes. "'Tolerance becomes a crime when applied to evil.'"
Lucas might be the most outspoken and a public figure (at least in the still somewhat insular gay world). But he is far from the only LGBT voice expressing dissent from gay organizers (and, in a very few cases, organizations) moving toward solidarity with the Muslim American community.
Writers at Gay Patriot, a conservative gay blog, frequently address an "Islamic War on Gays." Bloggers and commentators criticize pro-Muslim LGBT people as being more concerned with political correctness than, as one put it, "promoting greater social acceptance of gay people." Another one referenced what the group members perceive as Democrats' silence on the horrific violence against gays, women and Christians in many Middle East countries.
Blogger Bruce Carroll described the media-savvy Gainesville, Fla., pastor's threatened Quran burning as an offense on par with the building of the Park51 center at its current planned location.
"How is a Florida church burning the Koran on 9/11 any different than an Islamist-inspired mosque being built in the Ground Zero debris zone?" Bruce Carroll wrote on GayPatriot last month. "My answer: None. Both have the right to do it. But it isn't the right thing to do."
Solidarity for Progress in Rights Overall
On the opposite side of the coin is New York-based activist and author Sherry Wolf.
Wolf describes solidarity with Muslim-Americans as an essential tactic for "any oppressed people -- whether a black, LGBT, immigrant or a working person." She says solidarity is the only way LGBT people and other can hope to counter conservative politicians' attempts to pit minority groups against each other for fear of becoming the next scapegoat du jour.
Wolf adds an important caveat to her argument, one mirrored by other proponents for LGBT solidarity with Muslims: "That doesn't mean we can excuse, ignore or deny the utterly brutal treatment of many countries in the Middle East against LGBT people, and particularly against gay men," she said. She also noted that Iraqi persecution of gays has occurred while that country has been under occupation by the U.S. military.
(In fact, several news reports, gay activists and human rights organizations allege that such attacks have increased since the fall of Saddam Hussein. At least under the brutal dictator, they argue, Islamic street thugs were too cowed to carry out retribution against gay men or even those perceived as effeminate.)
Wolf further questions the tendency of some non-Muslim people to isolate Islam from other religions that have also harbor extremist factions that rely on their faith's fundamentalist roots. Christian and Jews certainly have wildly varying stances on topics like homosexuality, as do their various denominations; the same can be said for the Muslim community.
Wolf takes it a step farther. LGBT opposition to Islam only stands to further endanger gay and lesbian Muslims already facing a difficult path toward reconciling their sexuality, religious and ethnic identity both here and abroad, she argues.
"What has to happen is an education process about LGBT people and the Muslim world, and we need to show solidarity with our Arab and Palestinian LGBT brothers and sisters," Wolf said.
Wolf and other LGBT proponents of Muslim solidarity argue that not only do many queer people need to themselves identify with Islamic prejudice; but that many moderate, heterosexual Muslim-Americans are increasingly taking a progressive stance on issues concerning the community. Popular Muslim writer and performance artist Michael Muhammad Knight, for example, has argued forcefully for the legalization of same-sex marriage.
Muslim-identified writer Melody Moezzi wrote a compelling piece for the Huffington Post last month comparing her experience of Islamophobia with a gay friend's limited legal protections. Moezzi argued that "as a Muslim, it is my sacred duty to promote peace, justice and compassion above all other moral values" and that message of peace most certainly applies to gays.
Ani Zonneveld, co-founder of Los Angeles-based Muslims for Progressive Values, has made LGBT and women's rights one of the pillars of her organization's efforts to protect freedom of speech and a separation of church and state. The organization endorses "the human rights, civil rights and civil liberties of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals," including support for marriage equality.
Muhammad, the founder of Islam, never called for discrimination of gay people, nor the subordination of women, according to Zonneveld. She knows her stance is controversial to many other followers of Islam -- and would result in her being jailed in many Muslim-majority nations. Even so, she described her pro-gay positions as "an easy sell" -- at least to herself.
"Because I have the sacred text to back it up, it makes my work a lot easier," Zonneveld told EDGE. "When Americans and the gay community look at Iran and their treatment of gays and women, I want them to understand: That is not Islam. That is corrupted power, corrupted politicians and corrupted religiosity that's doing that."
She also hopes that other Muslim people will warm to her organization's message and that it will eventually become the norm. She was particularly critical of Muslim Californians who voted for Proposition 8 in the fall of 2008, which banned gay marriage there, and encouraged non-Muslims to not let extremists represent her and other progressive Muslims.
"Muslims need to relearn that and educate themselves," Zonneveld said. "We say we're a community being discriminated against, and then we turn around and vote against someone else's civil rights and right to happiness,
"Ultimately," she concluded, "it's irrelevant what you think your religion -- and I don't care which religion it is -- says. It's unacceptable because we don't live in a theocracy."
Gay Religious Leaders Preach Tolerance
Queer religious leaders of other faiths have also stepped up as leading voices in bridging the divide between the Muslim and LGBT communities. As executive director of Soulforce, Rev. Cindi Love runs an organization that works toward freedom against religious oppression of LGBT people and religious-based homophobia.
She condemns the outpouring of anti-Muslim sentiment, while understanding why some gay people may be hesitant to embrace solidarity.
"I understand that some LGBT people are uncomfortable with even an attempt at dialogue with any one or group espousing fundamentalist values," she told EDGE. "We actually believe that is where we are called to engage. When innocent and vulnerable people are profiled and targeted by extremists, it is our duty as American citizens and as people who believe in fairness to defend them."
Rev. Susan Russell of All Saints Church in Pasadena, Calif., is a member of the Human Rights Campaign's Religion Council and also spoke to the importance of LGBT people speaking out against the targeting of Muslim people.
"We're not going to overcome intolerance by exercising bigotry against those who are different than us," Russell said. "If we allow that to happen, we allow those in power to continue to divide and polarize us. But if we come together, we become the majority, and then it's not only the right thing to do, but it's the smart thing to do."
Russell hopes that the explosion of media coverage of anti-Muslim discrimination around the Downtown Manhattan mosque could prove inadvertently helpful in calling progressive LGBT people to arms in forging a coalition with Muslim Americans, mending what's been a largely tenuous relationship to date.
"As difficult as the last month has been, I think that kind of radical fringe energy has in some ways served as a wake-up call," Russell added. "We don't want our country back, we want it forward, and we won't be able to move forward while we're being divided against each other."
It seems clear that forging a bond between LGBT and Muslim Americans is an effort that's only now beginning. It's still one requiring much fence mending -- on both sides. And it is incumbent upon queer people worldwide to continue to challenge persecution of gays wherever it happens, Muslim-majority nations included.
The earnest effort recalls early steps by the queer community to work in concert with groups like the NAACP, whose leader just this month took the first steps of any president of the group into an LGBT community center in New York. As gay men and lesbians try to come to terms with, work with, and even fight for, communities of faith, it may be seen as increasingly influential part of queer Americans' ongoing quest for broader acceptance and legal protection.
It's an effort that will require a resistance to stereotyping and an emphasis on education and compassion each step of the way. From all involved.