Thursday, 28 October 2010

Faisal Alam: The Lives of LGBT Muslims talk at the University of Miami

Faisal Alam ( gave a public lecture at the University of Miami on October 12th 2010. Some of my students in my Islam courses wrote up a summary of their thoughts. Below are two student perspectives on Faisal Alam's talk.

LGBT Muslims & Faisal Alam
Nancy Shalhub

Faisal Alam’s presentation on gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender issues, titled “Hidden Voices”, was enlightening and refreshing to hear. Faisal introduced himself as the creator and founder of the organization Al-Fatiha, which advocates and promotes tolerance and acceptance of gay, lesbian, transsexual, and bisexual Muslims. The issues of homosexuality in religious societies often gets overlooked or pushed aside because many do not want to confront or accept the issues and presence of the gay community within their religious sect. Due to the lack of exposure to the topic, hearing Faisal talk so candidly was definitely refreshing as well as interesting. Like many major religions today, the questions and ideas of openly gay communities within traditional religious societies is often frowned upon. Islam, is no exception, and if anything, frowns upon it much more due to the religious stressing of the roles of men and women in Islamic societies/countries. As stated by Faisal, in many Islamic societies and countries, the Qur'an is translated to state that homosexuality is punishable by death. As shown in Faisal’s presentation, gays and lesbians can only be themselves in limited environments such as gay underground nightclubs. While many gay Muslims fear the extreme punishment of death, many also fear the rejection of their own family and friends. Like many religions, Islam is much more than a belief. Islam has a place in a Muslim’s everyday life and every day one is reminded of their acceptance of God as a Muslim. For a gay Muslim to be rejected or exiled from his or her community, it would be an abandoning of a part of one’s self, and as stated by Faisal, it becomes a true battle because it becomes impossible to reject either one’s identity – that of a Muslim and that as a homosexual.

Faisal also spoke openly about his hardships and experience as a gay Muslim growing up and his coming out which made me think about how much more difficult it must be to be gay and Muslim in a Muslim country. How do such Muslims live double lives? How do they cope with the pressure of keeping such a great secret from society? Faisal showed a short snippet of a young man who married at a young age due to please his family and Islamic traditions. His wife would constantly question why they never engage in sexual acts and eventually, the young man gave in to the pressure to reproduce and have kids. After his wife ran off, and he took care of the kids and coming out as a gay man, she returned to reclaim the children and forbid them a relationship with their father because of his sexual orientation. His own wife and children left the man abandoned due to his coming out.

While I do believe Faisal did a great job at introducing the audience to the issues of the Muslim gay community, I feel that there are even more issues that gay Muslims face on a day-to-day basis that Faisal did not discuss or feels that he does not relate to, such as the issues of gay marriage within the Islamic faith (or lack of acceptance), physical abuse, sexual abuse, the consequences of exile, imprisonment, etc. I believe that there is hope with the continued exposure on the struggle of LGBT Muslims will, in the near future, bring about more acceptance and tolerance around the world.

LGBT Muslims & Faisal Alam
Samuel DeFreze

Faisal Alam is a Muslim activist of Pakistani descent who grew up in New Hampshire. In a lecture he gave on October 12 2010, Mr. Alam discussed the idea of LGBT Muslims, and highlighted several key points. Among his chief points was the concept that Islam is not a monolithic religion (a point which many scholars agree on, yet the public has a difficult time grasping). Acting on this statement, Mr. Alam was able to go on to discuss and highlight some of the varying practices and movements taking place in various Muslim communities across the globe. Before this, when asked what they thought of first when they thought of Islam, the audience was decidedly restrained, and it was quite some time before they went as far as to suggest that Jihad and “9/11” were associations which these people had when they thought of Islam.

However, it would appear that Alam’s goal was to encourage the audience to be honest – and not politically correct – using negative stereotypes of Islam as a base from which to show diversity and prove that Islam is not monolithic and, as a religion, is not in opposition to LGBT individuals. Mr. Alam went on to show photographs and videos – of which the “Burkini” springs to mind (A swimsuit which attempts to facilitate a swimming costume for those individuals who wish to cover up in Hijab, Abaya, or Burqa). Mr. Alam also showed a fashion show which featured women dressed in Hijab made by famous designers such as Valentino. While this was interesting, fascinating, amusing and at times heartwarming, I do feel that in an attempt to show diversity and focus on positives, Mr. Alam glossed over in many ways the seriousness of the conflicts which LGBT Muslims have faced in certain societies and still face today.

Mr. Alam went on to discuss his upbringing and a little bit about his life, as well as how Al-Fatiha came into being. In this, it appeared that he was able to show some of the difficulties of being an LGBT Muslim, though once again I feel that this was glossed over (Though supplementary clips from A Jihad for Love as well as a clip from a Channel Four documentary were helpful).

Though good points were made and the presentation was very interesting, I felt that there wasn’t enough reference to the Qur’an (This may have been a conscious decision made by the speaker), and that Mr. Alam could have highlighted more of the struggles of the LGBT individuals within different Muslim communities. I found his anecdote about the Ayatollah Khomeini and his views on transgender individuals and sex reassignment operations to be interesting and refreshing, and it seemed that the general audience was relatively surprised to hear of this. However, there was once again a neglect to mention that homosexuality is a crime punishable by death in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Essentially, Faisal Alam’s presentation was interesting and refreshing, but at the same time one couldn’t help being left with the feeling that he could have delved into the controversy more deeply and made more of an effort to show the struggles which the LGBT Muslim communities across the globe are subject to.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

His Holiness The Dalai Lama’s Visit to the University of Miami

We were honoured to have the Dalai Lama visit the University of Miami (UM) today where he gave a vivid and frank discussion on 'The Quest for Happiness in Challenging Times'. The Bank United Center at UM was packed with students, faculty and invited guests who all came to listen to the Nobel Peace Laureate.

The Dalai Lama spoke about peace emerging in one’s life only when inner peace is cultivated in connection to love and trust. He spoke about how those who have been denied ongoing love from their Mothers are often showing signs of discontent in their own lives and those around them. The Dalai Lama spoke about inner happiness not being connected to wealth or status, for the poorest child could have had a more priceless childhood with love from his/her parents in ways that rich children may not, he mentioned the love of a Mother in particular. It was a sobering lecture in which the glitz and glamour that seems to enamor most about Buddhism was placed in a context of war, bloodshed and religious differences.

Interestingly His Holiness did not shy away from the political issues of the day in his lecture and talked about the importance of secularism as a way of detaching oneself from religious affiliation in order to have a pluralist and open mind, for e.g. he mentioned that even though he is a Buddhist, he was not 'attached' to the term for such attachment to religious affiliation has caused much harm to world peace. An interesting question was posed to the Dalai Lama on whether he believed that science/medicine was more important in illnesses, such as HIV/Aids, or prayer. The Dalai Lama was quick to answer that prayer was important but he placed more hope in science and medicine on this one. On a more politically laden note he mentioned how he found the former US President George Bush to be a very personable man who had helped him select the best cookies at a table on one occasion. But on a separate occasion after the Iraq crisis the Dalai Lama had not been afraid to tell him that he disagreed on his policy in Iraq.

In the morning, The Dalai Lama spoke at the Jewish Temple Emanu-El on Miami Beach on the subject of ‘The Significance of World Religions’ – he was joined on stage by leaders of several religious communities. The lecture opened with two musical acts. One was a Prelude Concert from a Tabla player and a flutist and then a performance by the Latin Grammy award-winning flautist Nestor Torres. In his lecture, The Dalai Lama, spoke about the different philosophies that religions present to us but what joined them together was their pursuit of the same ends, of establishing peace and love. I was honoured to have been asked to help select questions from the audience directed to the Dalai Lama and his answers were just superb, and of course his humour was delightful!

In preparation of His Holiness’ visit I took students from my Introduction to Asian Religions Class on Monday 25th October 2010 to the University of Miami’s Lowe Art Museum for a special talk by Brian Dursum on ‘The Changing Face of Buddhist Art in Asia’. Students can be seen viewing different objects of interest.