Solving Islam’s Extremist Problem Starts With Solving its Homophobia Problem
Muslim religious leaders who condemn acts of terror but promulgate intolerance are fanning the flames of hatred.
Though it was nearly 3,000 miles away, it was with great sadness and growing concern that I read the news about last weekend’s shooting by an American Muslim citizen at a gay bar in Orlando, Florida, that left 49 people dead and 53 others injured, with some still clinging to life.
That devastating attack has imparted an ironic importance to a conversation I’ve had more than once with my good friend Rob Wells, a human rights activist. We’ve talked about what would happen if such an attack befell a gay bar here in Edmonton, Canada. It’s the kind of winding speculation that inevitably leads us to wonder what the certain backlash against the Muslim community in Alberta might look like as well.
Though we’ve been friends for 11 years, in many ways Rob and I are very different — he’s a retired white man in his 60s and a committed Christian, while I am a Muslim gay man of color and an assistant professor of economics at MacEwan University.
But we both care deeply about the impact of hatred stoked in the name of our respective religions on vulnerable minorities. Rob goes out alone with his placards to protest issues that affect vulnerable LGBT youths, and I’ve spent the past decade studying the nexus of Islamic law and same-sex unions. We’re both volunteer members of the Edmonton Police Service’s sexual and gender minorities liaison committee in Alberta. Rob has served on the committee for some 12 years (I joined last year). During that time he has certainly amassed a depth of experience interacting with different communities, including Muslim, South Asian, black, and First Nations and has also noted the concerns of the Edmonton Police Service on backlash against the LGBT community when they were still struggling for their rights. And we have been especially concerned about the fallout of world events into our peaceful city of Edmonton, which many of us who live here see as the city of human rights.
Unfortunately, whether the tranquility of Edmonton is kept intact or not, the Orlando attack is not going to be the last of such dastardly acts. Concerted and sustained actions that directly counter hatred are urgently required — whether they’re between Vancouver and New York, or just broadly across North America. And those efforts cannot wait.
Attacks like the one in Orlando — and Fort Hood and San Bernardino — have the potential to foment anti-Muslim bigotry, which is increasingly being witnessed in the circles that support the rhetoric of Donald Trump. And it’s incumbent upon the leaders of Muslim communities to not only respond but to be proactive.
To be sure, the fact that extremist Muslim murderers are ignoring the Quranic proscription against wanton killings and anarchy on Earth, and those people from Muslim backgrounds who are violating the sanctity of the holy month of Ramadan by engaging in senseless violence, is alarming for Muslim community leaders. But some remain on the defensive each time such carnage is perpetrated in the name of their faith, opting to dissociate the actions of terrorists from Islam and relinquish any responsibility to unite diverse communities.
In his response to the Orlando attack, American Muslim leader Yasir Qadhi attempted to distance Omar Mateen from Islam and bypass entirely the problem of homophobia in Muslim communities, posting this message on his public Facebook page:
“He was a mentally deranged psychopathic American closet homosexual who was battling with his sexual identity…. The guy was mental, plain and simple. Islam’s stance on homosexuality is IRRELEVANT to this massacre, period.”
But there are Muslim leaders, predominantly from the United States, who have been swift to denounce the latest in the never-ending series of terrorist acts undertaken by people who claim an affiliation with Islam. Such condemnations are necessary but not sufficient for the urgent task of building bridges between diverse communities.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations expressed solidarity with the LGBT community in the wake of the attack and even urged Muslims to donate blood for the injured victims. In Orlando, Mahmoud El-Awadi, a concerned American Muslim citizen, stood out for giving blood for the injured. He passionately wrote on his Facebook page:
“Yes I donated blood even though I can’t eat or drink anything cause I’m fasting in our holy month Ramadan just like hundreds of other Muslims who donated today here in Orlando … Yes our blood all look the same so get out there and donate blood cause our fellow American citizens are injured and need our blood.”
In their respective tweets, Khalid Latif, the executive director and chaplain (imam) for the Islamic Center at New York University, expressed solidarity with brothers and sisters in the LGBT community and Abdul Nasir Jangda, founder of the Qalam Institute in Texas, which focuses on Islamic education and community initiatives, offered prayers for families who lost their loved ones in the attack.
Many Muslim leaders have long attempted to dissociate these horrific acts of violence from Islam. Sheila Musaji, editor of the American Muslim, an online forum that allows for discussion of issues concerning Muslims in America, has been compiling a database of American and international Muslim scholars and leaders who have denounced acts of terrorism and extremism across the globe to showcase how Muslims have repeatedly and consistently condemned terrorism. Indeed, Phil Gurski, a former analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, writes in his book The Threat From Within that Muslim “community leaders have frequently and continuously raised their objections to and otherwise outright rejected terrorism.”
And though this is admirable work, more needs to be done from within the Muslim leadership — from the community to the national level — that addresses bullying, discrimination, and violence against the LGBT community in general and LGBT Muslims in particular. There are several influential Muslim leaders who continue to be indifferent to the targeted abuse and murder of gays when they refuse to renounce draconian punishments of homosexuals or by depicting them in the worst possible ways.
Terrorism and extremism do not emerge out of a vacuum, but are either based on or later rationalized by a pre-existing and readily reinforced warped narrative, one that is stoked by homophobic leaders who hide behind the thin veneer of religious freedom.
According to the Muslim scholar Farouk Peru, who teaches Islamic studies at King’s College London, when prominent Muslim leaders condemn terrorism but support draconian punishments for gays under Islamic law, they cause a cognitive dissonance for the Muslim community. And this, he warns, is especially harmful to those who are struggling with their sexuality. In the most extreme cases, he wrote in a blog post following the Orlando attack, the issue may have deadly results. It’s this dissonance created by “‘moderate scholars,” he wrote, that will inevitably “create hatred in the hearts of their followers which will then erupt in the way the Orlando shooting most probably happened.”
We must draw Muslim, LGBT, and the LGBT Muslim communities together to work on areas of common concern and to work together to issue coordinated and consistent messaging to their communities in the aftermath of violence or in the face of bigotry. However, our objectives can be realized only when we make the effort to know one another. We cannot tarry, as lives are at stake, especially those of vulnerable LGBT Muslim youths who must contend with both homophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry.
Suhaib Webb, the imam for the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, has tweeted about the work needed for capacity building against hatred of vulnerable minorities. “Today’s murders remind us of hatred’s dangerous power and the great work we have to do in building the capacity to temper it,” he wrote.
Indeed, when it comes to the LGBT and Muslim communities, I’m encouraged by some of the bridge-building already in the works. And I can say from personal experience that those at the intersection of having a Muslim and LGBT identity are in the best position to do this work. The statement by the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity that emphasizes such intersections and the need to avoid pitting the LGBT and Muslim communities against each other and the statement by Muslims for Progressive Values that calls for addressing the mass shooting in Friday sermons are examples of such work. But this work needs to become mainstream within Muslim communities.
As concerned citizens, both Muslim and non-Muslim alike, we need to ensure that we do not allow hateful speakers to dole out hatred like poisoned candy bars to impressionable youths. We cannot afford to let hatred fester in our cities by our complacency with people who have narrow viewpoints on the world. Just as Christians and Jews are in the best position to counter bigotry within their respective communities, it is incumbent upon members of the Muslim community to rail against Muslim fearmongers, especially those who seek control through religious leadership. The Quran cautions Muslims against taking priests and scholars as lords besides Allah.
Events like the Orlando shooting should wake us all up —Muslim and non-Muslim alike — to positive action that allows us to embrace all communities. Indeed, when we nurture diversity, the more extreme voices get drowned out. The need of the hour is to get a grand coalition of Muslims — Sunni, Shiite, Ismaili, Ahmadi, Bohra, Sufi, among others — to work with one another against hatred of any community, specifically the LGBT.
If we simply condemn terrorism but fail to address the warped religious narrative that destroys lives, then the fears that Rob and I have shared in the course of regular exchanges between two friends may sadly someday be realized and perhaps even in our peaceful city of Edmonton.
Retired Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong’s words on the murder of Matthew Shepherd, a young gay student in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998, are absolutely relevant in the Muslim context if “Christ” is replaced with “Allah” in the following lines:
“Words shape consciousness and therefore words have consequences. When religious voices claim to speak for Christ suggest in their prejudiced ignorance that homosexual people are sinful, abnormal, unclean or subhuman, we do nothing less than to sow the seeds that are used to justify hate, and even murder.”
It is my fervent hope that people from all groups will be able to band together through community meetings, at rallies against hatred, and other events. I hope that the Muslim and LGBT communities can unite to express solidarity in times of both grief and joy.
I also hope that through our tears and prayers, we honor the precious and beautiful lives lost with the promise that instead of giving into hatred and fear, we live our lives with love — relentless, radical, everlasting love.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this piece appeared in the June 15 edition of the Edmonton Journal.
Photo credit: DREW ANGERER/Getty Images