Monday, 20 May 2013

As a Muslim, I Struggle With the Idea Of Homosexuality - But I Oppose Homophobia

Published in The Huffington Post UK
All Rights Reserved, Copyright
Posted: 20/05/2013 14:31

'Tis the season of apologies - specifically, grovelling apologies by some of our finest academic brains for homophobic rem
arks they've made in public. The Cambridge University theologian Dr Tim Winter, one of the UK's leading Islamic scholars, apologised on 2 May after footage emerged showing him calling homosexuality the "ultimate inversion" and an "inexplicable aberration". "The YouTube clip is at least 15 years old, and does not in any way represent my present views . . . we all have our youthful enthusiasms, and we all move on."

The Harvard historian Professor Niall Ferguson apologised "unreservedly" on 4 May for "stupid" and "insensitive" comments in which he claimed that the economist John Maynard Keynes hadn't cared about "the long run" because he was gay and had no intention of having any children.

Dare I add my non-academic, non-intellectual voice to the mix? I want to issue my own apology. Because I've made some pretty inappropriate comments in the past, too.

You may or may not be surprised to learn that, as a teenager, I was one of those wannabe-macho kids who crudely deployed "gay" as a mark of abuse; you will probably be shocked to discover that shamefully, even in my twenties, I was still making the odd disparaging remark about homosexuality.
It's now 2013 and I'm 33 years old. My own "youthful enthusiasm" is thankfully, if belatedly, behind me.

What happened? Well, for a start, I grew up. Bigotry and demonisation of difference are usually the hallmark of immature and childish minds. But, if I'm honest, something else happened, too: I acquired a more nuanced understanding of my Islamic faith, a better appreciation of its morals, values and capacity for tolerance.

Before we go any further, a bit of background - I was attacked heavily a few weeks ago by some of my co-religionists for suggesting in these pages that too many Muslims in this country have a "Jewish problem" and that we blithely "ignore the rampant anti-Semitism in our own backyard".

I hope I won't provoke the same shrieks of outrage and denial when I say that many Muslims also have a problem, if not with homosexuals, then with homosexuality. In fact, a 2009 poll by Gallup found that British Muslims have zero tolerance towards homosexuality. "None of the 500 British Muslims interviewed believed that homosexual acts were morally acceptable," the Guardian reported in May that year.

Some more background. Orthodox Islam, like orthodox interpretations of the other Abrahamic faiths, views homosexuality as sinful and usually defines marriage as only ever a heterosexual union.
This isn't to say that there is no debate on the subject. In April, the Washington Post profiled Daayiee Abdullah, who is believed to be the only publicly gay imam in the west. "[I]f you have any same-sex marriages," the Post quotes him as saying, "I'm available." Meanwhile, the gay Muslim scholar Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle, who teaches Islamic studies at Emory University in the United States, says that notions such as "gay" or "lesbian" are not mentioned in the Quran. He blames Islam's hostility towards homosexuality on a misreading of the texts by ultra-conservative mullahs. 

And, in his 2011 book Reading the Quran, the British Muslim intellectual and writer Ziauddin Sardar argues that "there is abso­lutely no evidence that the Prophet punished anyone for homosexuality". Sardar says "the demonisation of homosexuality in Muslim history is based largely on fabricated traditions and the unreconstituted prejudice harboured by most Muslim societies". He highlights verse 31 of chapter 24 of the Quran, in which "we come across 'men who have no sexual desire' who can witness the 'charms' of women".

I must add here that Abdullah, Kugle and Sardar are in a tiny minority, as are the members of gay Muslim groups such as Imaan. Most mainstream Muslim scholars - even self-identified progressives and moderates such as Imam Hamza Yusuf in the United States and Professor Tariq Ramadan in the UK - consider homosexuality to be a grave sin. The Quran, after all, explicitly condemns the people of Lot for "approach[ing] males" (26:165) and for "lust[ing] on men in preference to women" (7:81), and describes marriage as an institution that is gender-based and procreative.

What about me? Where do I stand on this? For years I've been reluctant to answer questions on the subject. I was afraid of the "homophobe" tag. I didn't want my gay friends and colleagues to look at me with horror, suspicion or disdain.

So let me be clear: yes, I'm a progressive who supports a secular society in which you don't impose your faith on others - and in which the government, no matter how big or small, must always stay out of the bedroom. But I am also (to Richard Dawkins's continuing disappointment) a believing Muslim. And, as a result, I really do struggle with this issue of homosexuality. As a supporter of secularism, I am willing to accept same-sex weddings in a state-sanctioned register office, on grounds of equity. As a believer in Islam, however, I insist that no mosque be forced to hold one against its wishes.

If you're gay, that doesn't mean I want to discriminate against you, belittle or bully you, abuse or offend you. Not at all. I don't want to go back to the dark days of criminalisation and the imprisonment of gay men and women; of Section 28 and legalised discrimination. I'm disgusted by the violent repression and persecution of gay people across the Muslim-majority world.

I cringe as I watch footage of the buffoonish Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claiming: "In Iran, we don't have homosexuals... we do not have this phenomenon." I feel sick to my stomach when I read accounts of how, in the late 1990s, the Taliban in Afghanistan buried gay men alive and then toppled brick walls on top of them.

Nor is this an issue only in the Middle East and south Asia. In March, a Muslim caller to a radio station in New York stunned the host after suggesting, live on air, that gay Americans should be beheaded in line with "sharia law". Here in the UK, in February, Muslim MPs who voted in favour of the same-sex marriage bill - such as the shadow justice secretary, Sadiq Khan - faced death threats and accusations of apostasy from a handful of Muslim extremists. And last year, a homophobic campaign launched by puffed-up Islamist gangs in east London featured ludicrous and offensive stickers declaring the area a "gay-free zone".

I know it might be hard to believe, but Islam is not a religion of violence, hate or intolerance - despite the best efforts of a minority of reactionaries and radicals to argue (and behave) otherwise. Out of the 114 chapters of the Quran, 113 begin by introducing the God of Islam as a God of mercy and compassion. The Prophet Muhammad himself is referred to as "a mercy for all creation". This mercy applies to everyone, whether heterosexual or homosexual. As Tariq Ramadan has put it: "I may disagree with what you are doing because it's not in accordance with my belief but I respect who are you are." He rightly notes that this is "a question of respect and mutual understanding".

I should also point out here that most British Muslims oppose the persecution of homosexuals. A 2011 poll for the think tank Demos found that fewer than one in four British Muslims disagreed with the statement "I am proud of how Britain treats gay people".

There is much to be proud of, but still much to be done. Homophobic bullying is rife in our schools. Nine out of ten gay or lesbian teenagers report being bullied at school over their sexual orientation. LGBT teens are two to three times more likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual peers.
Despite the recent slight fall in "sexual orientation hate crimes", in 2012 there were still 4,252 such crimes in England and Wales, four out of every five of which involved "violence against the person". In March, for instance, a man was jailed for killing a gay teenager by setting him on fire; the killer scrawled homophobic insults across 18-year-old Steven Simpson's face, forearm and stomach.

Regular readers will know that I spend much of my time speaking out against Islamophobic bigotry: from the crude stereotyping of Muslims in the media and discrimi­nation against Muslims in the workplace to attacks on Muslim homes, businesses and places of worship.

The truth is that Islamophobia and homophobia have much in common: they are both, in the words of the (gay) journalist Patrick Strudwick, "at least partly fuelled by fear. Fear of the unknown..." Muslims and gay people alike are victims of this fear - especially when it translates into hate speech or physical attacks. We need to stand side by side against the bigots and hate-mongers, whether of the Islamist or the far-right variety, rather than turn on one another or allow ourselves to be pitted against each other, 'Muslims v gays'.

We must avoid stereotyping and demonising each other at all costs. "The biggest question we have as a society," says a Muslim MP who prefers to remain anonymous, "is how we accommodate difference."

Remember also that negative attitudes to homosexuality are not the exclusive preserve of Muslims. In 2010, the British Social Attitudes survey showed that 36 % of the public regarded same-sex relations as "always" or "mostly wrong".

A Muslim MP who voted in favour of the same-sex marriage bill tells me that most of the letters of protest that they received in response were from evangelical Christians, not Muslims. And, of course, it wasn't a Muslim who took the life of poor Steven Simpson.

Yet ultimately I didn't set out to write this piece to try to bridge the gap between Islam and homosexuality. I am not a theo­logian. Nor am I writing this in response to the ongoing parliamentary debate about the pros and cons of same-sex marriage. I am not a politician.
I am writing this because I want to live in a society in which all minorities - Jews, Muslims, gay people and others - are protected from violence and abuse, from demonisation and discrimination. And because I want to apologise for any hurt or offence that I may have caused to my gay brothers and lesbian sisters.

And yes, whatever our differences - straight or gay, religious or atheist, male or female - we are all brothers and sisters. As the great Muslim leader of the 7th Century and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, Ali ibn Abi Talib, once declared: "Remember that people are of two kinds; they are either your brothers in religion or your brothers in mankind."

Mehdi Hasan is political director of the Huffington Post UK and a contributing writer for the New Statesman, where this article is crossposted
Follow Mehdi Hasan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mehdirhasan

Mohsin Hamid: 'Islam is not a monolith'

There are more than a billion Muslims in the world, each with an individual view of life. So why are they viewed as a unified group, asks Mohsin Hamid, author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Published in the Guardian
Mohsin Hamid, 19th May 2013
All rights Reserved, Copyright

In 2007, six years after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, I was travelling through Europe and North America. I had just published a novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and as I travelled I was struck by the large number of interviewers and of audience members at Q&As who spoke of Islam as a monolithic thing, as if Islam referred to a self-contained and clearly defined world, a sort of Microsoft Windows, obviously different from, and considerably incompatible with, the Apple OS X-like operating system of "the west".

I recall one reading in Germany in particular. Again and again, people posed queries relating to how "we Europeans" see things, in contrast to how "you Muslims" do. Eventually I was so exasperated that I pulled my British passport out of my jacket and started waving it around my head. "While it's true the UK hasn't yet joined the eurozone," I said, " I hope we can all agree the country is in fact in Europe."

Six years on, a film inspired by the novel is in the process of appearing on screens around the world, and I am pleased to report that those sorts of questions are a little rarer now than they were in 2007. This represents progress. But it is modest progress, for the sense of Islam as a monolith lingers, in places both expected and unexpected.

Recently I was told by a well-travelled acquaintance in London that while Muslims can be aggressive, they are united by a sense of deep hospitality. I replied that I remembered being in Riyadh airport, standing in line, when a Saudi immigration officer threw the passport of a Pakistani labourer right into his face. If that was hospitality, I wasn't sure we had the same definition.

Islam is not a race, yet Islamophobia partakes of racist characteristics. Most Muslims do not "choose" Islam in the way that they choose to become doctors or lawyers, nor even in the way that they choose to become fans of Coldplay or Radiohead. Most Muslims, like people of any faith, are born into their religion. They then evolve their own relationship with it, their own, individual, view of life, their own micro-religion, so to speak.

There are more than a billion variations of lived belief among people who define themselves as Muslim – one for each human being, just as there are among those who describe themselves as Christian, or Buddhist, or Hindu. Islamophobia represents a refusal to acknowledge these variations, to acknowledge individual humanities, a desire to paint members of a perceived group with the same brush. In that sense, it is indeed like racism. It simultaneously credits Muslims with too much and too little agency: too much agency in choosing their religion, and too little in choosing what to make of it.

Islamophobia can be found proudly raising its head in militaristic American thinktanks, xenophobic European political parties, and even in atheistic discourse, where somehow "Islam" can be characterised as "more bad" than religion generally, in the way one might say that a mugger is bad, but a black mugger is worse, because black people are held to be more innately violent.

Islamophobia crops up repeatedly in public debate, such as over the proposed Islamic cultural centre in downtown Manhattan (the so-called "Ground Zero mosque") or the ban on minarets in Switzerland. And it crops up in private interactions as well.



In my early 20s, I remember being seated next to a pretty Frenchwoman at a friend's birthday dinner in Manila. Shortly after we were introduced, and seemingly unconnected with any pre-existing strand of conversation, she proclaimed to the table: "I'd never marry a Muslim man." "It's a little soon for us to be discussing marriage," I joked. But I was annoyed. (Perhaps even disappointed, it occurs to me now, since I still recall the incident almost two decades later.) In the cosmopolitan bit of pre-9/11 America where I then lived, local norms of politeness meant that I'd never before heard such a remark, however widely held the woman's sentiments might have been.

Islamophobia, in all its guises, seeks to minimise the importance of the individual and maximise the importance of the group. Yet our instinctive stance ought to be one of suspicion towards such endeavours. For individuals are undeniably real. Groups, on the other hand, are assertions of opinion.

We ought therefore to look more closely at the supposed monolith to which we apply the word Islam. It is said that Muslims believe in female genital mutilation, the surgical removal of all or part of a girl's clitoris. Yet I have never, in my 41 years, had a conversation with someone who described themselves as Muslim and believed this practice to be anything other than a despicably inhuman abomination. Until I first read about it in a newspaper, probably in my 20s, I would have thought it impossible that such a ritual could even exist.

Similarly, many millions of Muslims apparently believe that women should have no role in politics. But many millions more have had no qualms electing women prime ministers in Muslim-majority countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh. Indeed, this month's Pakistani elections witnessed a record 448 women running for seats in the national and provincial assemblies.

Two of my great-grandparents sent all of their daughters to university. One of them, my grandmother, was the chairperson of the All Pakistan Women's Association and dedicated her life to the advancement of women's rights in the country. But among those descended from the same line are women who do not work and who refuse to meet men who are not their blood relatives. I have female relatives my age who cover their heads, others who wear mini-skirts, some who are university professors or run businesses, others who choose rarely to leave their homes. I suspect if you were to ask them their religion, all would say "Islam". But if you were to use that term to define their politics, careers, or social values, you would struggle to come up with a coherent, unified view.

Lived religion is a very different thing from strict textual analysis. Very few people of any faith live their lives as literalist interpretations of scripture. Many people have little or no knowledge of scripture at all. Many others who have more knowledge choose to interpret what they know in ways that are convenient, or that fit their own moral sense of what is good. Still others view their religion as a kind of self-accepted ethnicity, but live lives utterly divorced from any sense of faith.

When the Pakistani Taliban were filmed flogging a young woman in Swat as punishment for her allegedly "amoral" behaviour, there was such popular revulsion in Pakistan that the army launched a military campaign to retake the region. As my parents' driver told me, "They say they beat her because of Islam. This isn't Islam. Islam says to do good things. So how can this be Islam?" He offered no complex hermeneutics in support of his position. His Islamic moral compass was not textual; it was internal, his own notion of right and wrong.

I often hear it said, at readings or talks ranging from Lahore to Louisiana, that The Reluctant Fundamentalist is about a man who becomes an Islamic fundamentalist. I'm not sure what that term means, exactly, but I have a reasonable idea about the sentences and paragraphs that are actually present in the book. Changez, the main character, is a Pakistani student at Princeton. When he gets his dream job at a high-paying valuation firm in New York, he exclaims, "Thank you, God!"

That's it. Other than that exclamation (a common figure of speech), there's no real evidence that Changez is religious. He doesn't quote from scripture. He never asks himself about heaven or hell or the divine. He drinks. He has sex out of marriage. His beliefs could quite plausibly be those of a secular humanist. And yet he calls himself a Muslim, and is angry with US foreign policy, and grows a beard – and that seems to be enough. Changez may well be an agnostic, or even an atheist. Nonetheless he is somehow, and seemingly quite naturally, read by many people as a character who is an Islamic fundamentalist.

Why? The novel carefully separates the politics of self-identification from any underlying religious faith or spirituality. It sets out to show that the former can exist in the absence of the latter. Yet we tend to read the world otherwise, to imagine computer-software-like religious operating systems where perhaps none exist.

And in so doing, it is we who create the monolith. If we look at religion as practised in the world outside, we see multiplicity. It is from inside us that the urge to unify arises. A dozen years after 2001, we are perhaps getting better at resisting this impulse. But we still have a long, long way to go.