After Orlando: American Muslims Must Challenge Our Community's Homophobia

Islam rejects homosexuality. But violent homophobia cannot be a necessary consequence.

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A man wrapped in a Rainbow Flag lights a candle during a vigil in Washington in memory of the victims of the Orlando mass shooting, hosted by the Muslim American Women's Policy Forum, on June 13, 2016.
A man wrapped in a Rainbow Flag lights a candle during a vigil in Washington in memory of the victims of the Orlando mass shooting, hosted by the Muslim American Women's Policy Forum, June 13, 2016.Credit: Cliff Owen, AP
Haroon Moghul
Haroon Moghul
Haroon Moghul
Haroon Moghul

How can a religious tradition that condemns homosexuality ever confront the kind of vicious hate that drove Omar Mateen to kill 49 people in Florida? Is the way we preach and practice Islam creating a homophobia that isn’t just stifling, but terrorizing?

On the surface, it would seem unlikely. Most American Muslims are Democrats, and most American Muslims support the idea of marriage equality.

But ask an American Muslim where Islam stands on homosexuality, and there you see a problem. We tend to be fine with the idea of gay marriage, as long as it’s presented as a choice for other people—not Muslims.

Nearly every Muslim scholar, throughout history, has insisted that the only permissible kind of sexuality must be heterosexuality. We have almost no language to speak about LGBT communities within Muslim spaces, and few, if any, resources for the kinds of questions, concerns, fears and prejudices that are becoming ever more pressing.

That Mateen appears to have been struggling with his own sexuality, and that his self-reproach on religious grounds may have driven him to this act of desperate self-hate, has to make you wonder: Is Muslim social conservatism producing violence?

The question of Islam, homosexuality and homophobia is far more complicated than it seems. Unlike many ills we see in Muslim communities - from the maltreatment of women to political corruption to rampant violence by radical groups – homosexuality is different because of its basis in religious law.

The Qu’ran’s relationship blueprints don't include homosexuality

Shariah is commonly translated as Islamic law. Shariah is actually just “the path to the water,” what Muslims define as God’s revelation to humanity, principally the Qur’an and the life of the Prophet Muhammad. When you apply sophisticated methods of reasoning to Shariah, you derive Islamic law. While there is therefore only one Shariah, there are many different interpretations of Islamic law.

Moroccan activists participate in a vigil in Rabat on June 15, 2016, to pay tribute to the victims of the Orlando gay nightclub shooting.Credit: Fadel Senna, AFP

What does Shariah say about sexuality?

Muslim scholars have long argued that Muhammad modeled different modes of living and different kinds of relationships in order to establish - as a final (and comprehensive) revelation - precedents for how to live for very different societies. Islam is, in theory, meant to be sufficiently capacious to accommodate societies from the pre-modern past to the potentially space-faring present (and beyond).

But Muslims also believe that Muhammad set about to gradually transform his community and, as any pragmatic reformer knows, you must start where people are.

Therefore while it’s true, for example, that Muhammad was polygamous for many years of his life, he was happily monogamous for a significant stretch of his life, too. Some of Muhammad’s wives were not Muslim; some were romantically attached to him; other marriages were arranged. (My parents’ marriage was arranged, as was and is the case for many around the world.)

This suggests, at the very least, that there is ample raw material in Shariah for the endorsement of very different kinds of relationships. Not to mention, on a lived, everyday level, Islam is as diverse as any other religion. Islam has been historically decentralized, which means there have been, are and will be interpretations of Islamic law that accommodate and endorse same-sex relationships, if even these are so far largely fringe opinions. They exist. They’ll probably become more popular. But I find them unconvincing.

The only direct mention of homosexuality in the Qur’an concerns the story of the Prophet Lot, and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah—the Qur’an calls them “the two overthrown cities.” The story condemns same-sex relationships. Never once in his life did Muhammad, or the Qur’an, countenance any acceptance of non-heterosexual relationships. That puts Muslims hoping for a progressive Islam in a quandary.

One can certainly make the argument that Islam is intended to evolve, but this requires holding Muhammad out to be wrong on a very critical issue--in which case, what else was he wrong about? If you say “we’ve moved on,” it’s not clear why Muhammad, or the Qur’an, is necessary at all. Maybe Muhammad was only a moral reformer on the way towards full enlightenment, or just someone stuck within the moral confines of his time. Either position reinterprets Islam beyond most Muslims’ recognition.

One could argue that on this issue, one must adopt liberal social mores over any explicit Islamic texts pushing in the other direction. One may point, as Maajid Nawaz did, to the long history of Muslim societies endorsing and accepting same-sex relationships (though not marriage), not through Shariah but simply by sidestepping it. But Nawaz ignores the many other kinds of sexuality, deeply exploitative and pedophilic, that came along for the ride. In effect, his argument is: Islam must conform to the here and now.

The victims of the mass shooting that took place on June 12, 2016, at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla.Credit: AP

I simply don’t believe that position is consistent with any convincing interpretation of Shariah, or indeed with belief that the Qur’an is meant for all time. If progressives argue, as Reza Aslan and Hasan Minhaj did, that there is a higher set of values to which the Qur’an and the Islamic tradition must conform, one would then have to argue why those particular values are rendered transcendent, whether these values are themselves fixed and consistent, and regardless of your answer, what purpose the Qur’an serves at all.

Muslim values in a liberal democracy: how can it work?

Muslims must struggle against interpretations of Islam that cross the moral Rubicon: One has every right to be socially conservative. One does not have the right to deny others their rights.

We Muslims are not doomed to homophobia.

Living, as we do, in a democratic and secular age, it does not follow that just because I believe my interpretation of Shariah is more correct that I believe I have any right to impose my interpretation, or to deny you the right to express, celebrate, institutionalize and support your own interpretation. That means Western Muslims must not only stand up for LGBT rights and freedoms, but that socially conservative Western Muslims must acknowledge not just the existence of and the humanity of our LGBT brothers and sisters, but the right of all Muslims to pursue practices of Islam they believe are right, necessary, or valuable.

Even if we disagree. Even if we believe their arguments are incorrect.

We do not have to agree in order to protect each other’s dignity, freedom of conscience, and freedom of worship. That’s what pluralism is all about.

It’d be nice, incidentally, if the commentators who are currently decrying Islam for its allegedly singular intolerance were to show some tolerance of their own.

For many secular, Western commentators refuse to do what they chastise and demonize Muslims for not doing: Endorsing the right to sexualities they do not agree with (not the sexualities themselves). Homosexuality is to be celebrated; Muslim traditions of polygamy are seen as inherently backwards and unredeemable. Sexual liberation is meant to involve choice, but if the choice involves a headscarf, suddenly feminine agency disappears. Perhaps agency and autonomy are only acceptable when they reach the right conclusion.

Tunisians belonging to the Tunisian association for justice and equality light candles and on June 14, 2016 in Tunis, in solidarity with the victims of the Orlando mass shooting. Credit: Fethi Belaid

True pluralism would mean a world in which all communities and societies have the right to pursue their own values, identities, and ideals, encouraging diversity across religious boundaries, but also respecting and honoring diversity within religious boundaries. The great problem to me does not seem to be holding that Islam does not sanction same-sex relationships. The great problem seems to me that Islam today is obsessed with uniformity.

To be blunt, we can’t just agree to disagree.

Saudi Arabia's catastrophic export: Wahhabi Islam

I have been heartened to hear, in the days since the Orlando attack, more and more people who are not Muslim asking me a better question than, “What is wrong with Islam?” They have asked me, instead, “What can someone who is not Muslim do to help Muslims in the struggle against extremism?”

We talk a lot, and rightly so, about what more Muslims should do to combat extremism, exclusion, intolerance—and now, and rightly so, homophobia. But we should also talk a little bit more about how the present outcome, of a Muslim world increasingly drowning under the most intolerant and regressive forces, did not come out of nowhere, and certainly is not a kind of inevitable or organic outgrowth of Islamic religiosity.

They can pump money almost none of us can compete with into places that are often poor and vulnerable. To a Christian audience: It’s as if the Westboro Baptist Church were to take over the oil supplies of a Russia or Venezuela while the rest of the Christian world was experiencing a civilizational crisis. And yet, who defends Saudi Arabia? Sells them vast, unimaginable quantities of arms? The largest American military intervention in the Muslim world, ever, was to defend Saudi Arabia.

Likewise, the rise of extremist Islam has profoundly unbalanced the modern Muslim world; in recent years, we have seen the reintroduction, by ISIS (and related movements, like Boko Haram), of slavery, and specifically of sexual slavery, and of brutal punishments that, in Islamic history and in pre-modern societies, were even then hardly ever applied. But we Americans invaded Iraq, and opened the door to ISIS; thirty-some years of brutal, asymmetric warfare against a small, weak country, itself created by colonialism, breeds an apocalyptic movement, and somehow a generalized Islam alone is responsible?

I do not say this to point fingers, or to deflect Muslim responsibility. I ask that we consider why many Muslims do not sanction same-sex relationships. I will work for Muslim communities that acknowledge there will be disagreements on this (and many other) questions, and these must be accepted, dealt with responsibly, and never used to stigmatize, exclude, or prevent engagement and cooperation. But I also hope we consider how our own foreign policy choices make many problems Muslims face within their communities that much harder to solve. They give the lie to our liberalism.

How American Muslims must respond to homophobia

One of the things that hurt me most about Omar Mateen’s horrific massacre in Orlando was that he targeted Latinos, and our LGBT brothers and sisters, when it is precisely those communities that have been among the first to stand up for Muslim rights and freedoms. When they didn’t even have to. What made it worse was that Muslims have rarely reciprocated, or offered only tepid gestures of solidarity.

People light candles during a vigil for the victims of the Orlando nightclub shootings, held next to the Moroccan Parliament in Rabat, Morocco, on June 15, 2016.Credit: Abdeljalil Bounhar, AP

I am hopeful that if any positive can be taken out of this horrific massacre, it is the need to confront homophobia more generally, but also to confront the far more theologically fraught question of Islam and homosexuality. It’s easy to for a socially conservative Muslim to say, “Of course gay marriage should be allowed. We can’t deny others their rights”—even though, let’s be honest, not enough Muslim leaders have.

But what about an imam performing the marriage of two Muslim men?

A Muslim would be horrified to hear, after a terrorist attack against a mosque, that while their neighbors of other faiths are disgusted by the violence, these neighbors included, in their statement of sympathy, a reminder that they reject Islamic theology, see Allah as a false God, and Muhammad as a heretic. After the attacks, some Muslims released, and many others signed, the “Orlando Statement.” It is a deeply disappointing document. Not only does it repivot the conversation about the massacre to focus around Muslims and Islamophobia, it misses the chance to call out homophobia in clear terms.

There is no space, and I repeat, no space, for turning disagreement over our respective choices, our interpretations of sexualities and our religious laws, into discrimination, hostility, or violence, and Muslim leaders must take every caution to make sure their language, their spaces, and their practices, reflect openness and decency. We treat LGBT Muslims as not just less than Muslim, but less than human; I have heard far too many stories of outrageous discrimination, prejudice, bias, invective, and outright harassment, not to mention abuse and violence. That is, in short, odious.

I know that the weeks and months ahead will see trying times for Muslim communities in the West, brought together by Islamophobia, but divided by issues that will only become more difficult to address-especially if it feels like mainstream society is piling pressure on too.

Islamic law has historically been held to hold out five values it seeks to maintain and extend; among these are the protection of life and intellect. All life is sacred. All intellects are, too. God gives us the freedom to come to our own conclusions.

We remember and esteem Voltaire because he said, “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Had he said, “I agree with what you say, and so I will defend to the death your right to agree with me,” after all, that wouldn’t have meant very much at all.

Haroon Moghul is a Senior Fellow and the Director of Development at the Center for Global Policy. His next book, How to be a Muslim, will be published in 2017. Follow him on Twitter: @hsmoghul

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