The C4 documentary (I) January 24, 2006Posted by Rasheed Eldin in Islam, Media, Responses.
Yesterday there was an hour-long documentary on the UK’s Channel 4 about being “British, Muslim and gay”. It provided lots of points of reflection and raised awareness of an issue that is seldom discussed, let alone explored properly. The programme will be repeated in the early hours of this Friday, at 4.15am.
The glance at five individuals’ lives highlighted issues that are extremely complex, since they involve not only religion and how to understand it, but also the never-easy conundrum of reconciling cultural identities (let alone other ‘identities’ on top). I do not wish to over-simplify these complex issues. Also, since my personal interest is in religion more than culture, I’ll focus more on that, and not delve into the problems of being “Asian and gay”, which much of the documentary was actually about.
I decided to split this discussion into two posts – the first covering some of the general matters, and the second (coming soon) looking at “Britain’s first gay Muslim activist” Adnan Ali, as well as comments made by academic Scott Kugle, and by the Chair of Imaan (usually known as Farzana, but in the programme was Rasheeda…I dunno).
The narrator, Sonia Deol, started by telling us about how the producers had contacted over two hundred gay Muslims, of whom only five had the courage to appear on camera (four with their identities obscured). I know for a fact that the StraightWay Foundation was not contacted to put forward people, so straight away you can see the breadth of the opinion they were going for: nobody who actually has taken religion as the primary aspect of their identity and actually struggled against their sexuality, with any level of personal success.
I don’t know if any of the members at StraightWay would have agreed to be interviewed on camera. You might assume that it would be easier for them to be open about their situation, but not so. It could be just as difficult, because of the overwhelming taboo that prevails in the Muslim community. Just a person’s letting people know that he or she is attracted to members of the same sex could result in stigma, regardless of how they actually choose to live. I’m not saying that everyone should be open about their innermost feelings, but somehow we need to be more open as a community to recognise such real issues, or else we leave people to the Al-Fatihas and worse.
In Britain, homosexuality has been legal for almost forty years. But even moderate imams say being gay is still unacceptable.
Apart from the oddity of a siren sound being heard as we are shown images of the mosque, this introduction confirmed for me that the question of what “homosexuality” is would be obscured from the outset. The issue was raised by Scott Kugle later in the programme, but of course without the benefit of another opinion to draw out the flaws in his.
What exactly has been legal in Britain for almost forty years? If “homosexuality” is defined as an orientation (a problematic concept, contradictory to Islamic thinking), then surely such could never have been called illegal. If Sonia Deol is referring to “gay sex”, she should say so properly.
Anyway, that observation is juxtaposed with one about the position of Muslim scholars (who are not all imams of mosques, by the way, and the ones in mosques don’t have any higher status, which comes from learning and expertise). There is really a problem with speaking of moral laws, based on divine imperatives, as though they should adapt according to the evolution of state legislation. Shouldn’t it be the case that the country’s laws should reflect, and depend on, our moral positions?
I’m glad that she didn’t make the imams’ position on this issue the test for whether they are “moderate” or not. Quite rightly, she stated that “even moderate imams” (yes, I too wonder what it actually means – maybe that they don’t like Al-Qaeda…) take a negative position on homosexuality.
Gay Muslims must either repress their sexuality or live secret lives.
Again, we face a problem of definition. Pointing this out may be tedious, but it is certainly not pedantry. If these “gay Muslims” are defined as people of a Muslim faith who experience same-sex attractions, then those are two possible options for such people. But “repression” of sexuality is not necessarily the way for those who do not wish to act on their feelings. There is also a concept of reform, which depends on a particular understanding of human nature and sexuality – an understanding that is suppressed by popular and official definitions, which force us to categorise people into “orientations”.
So these “gay Muslims”, if defined by feelings, include the sort who follow the StraightWay approach, of self-development and patient striving to resist and, if possible, overcome their desires. Why no insight into those people’s lives? There was some talk among the interviewees about “trying to be straight”, but these are not people who demonstrated a sound understanding of the faith, which StraightWay considers to be an essential tool for holistic progress.
He’s a practising Muslim, out to his family, and well known on the local Asian gay scene.
I can’t think what assumption the viewer is expected to make about being a “practising Muslim”, but this profile raised a lot of questions for me. He performs his prayers, great. But he also dances in clubs and goes to Gay Pride marches with boyfriend Gary.
Many Muslims object to the term “gay Muslims” on the grounds of it being an oxymoron. A simplistic view is that “You can either be gay, or Muslim – NOT both”. The problem with that statement, apart from it being pretty much meaningless, is that it forces same-sex attracted Muslims to make a choice… and as far as they are taught to understand, faith is a matter of choice – and orientation is not.
But can a practising homosexual be a Muslim at all? We have to remember that being a Muslim is a matter defined by belief, and is not negated by mere actions. Homosexual acts are in the category of major sins. That means that somebody does not remove himself from Islam just by performing them. But if they believe that their actions are actually acceptable (rather than being a case of succumbing to temptation), that is a far more serious matter. They would go against the consensus of qualified Islamic scholarship, and more: clear source-texts. To deny any part of the Qur’an, or to deliberately twist its meaning to serve one’s desires, is to depart from the bounds of Islam.
So, again: can practising homosexuals be Muslim? If they are ignorant, we can make excuses for them. If they are informed properly as to what the Qur’an and Sunnah say, and what the exegetes and jurists have agreed upon, then they take a path lit by the flames of desire and declare their actions “according to their nature”, then no, they are not Muslim. By saying this, I am analysing the situation with regards to faith, and not advocating any actions to be taken against such people. Our duty is merely to advise and guide people. The Prophets of God were sent to give people the message of faith, and often to reform their people in the specific sins they used to indulge in. (And of course the Prophet Lut – Lot, peace be on him – is an example of that.)
Back to our friend Abdullah. He decides to show us the message of the Qur’an, so opens it at its first chapter.
“In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful” – people pick and choose what they want to pick and choose. What I’m picking and what I’m choosing out of Islam is all the good things. As for my sexuality, I don’t believe I’m doing anybody any harm.
Er… first of all, the idea that “What I choose is good” is pretty arrogant. And of course, we have to ask: did he choose these parts because they’re good, or does he consider them good because he chooses them (based on desires)? For me, Islam – in other words, divine revelation – is the standard for deciding what is good. When God has prohibited something, I am certain that it is not good in any way.
By the way, we don’t decide what is right and wrong solely by what harm we can see it doing. Homosexual acts are prohibited, whether or not they are harmful. But I think that faith guides us to the attitude that they must be harmful in some way, at least in the Hereafter. But even in this life, they may have harms that we are not aware of – and we may never be aware of. Still, I would say there is plenty we are aware of!
Later in the programme, we listen in on a debate between Abdullah and a well-meaning, big-bearded relative who is apparently not very well informed. The relative states that “Being gay is haram (prohibited)”. Now, again, that depends on what “being gay” means – living a gay lifestyle perhaps? If it is considered a matter of attractions only, then it is not possible to state a ruling about it, because Islam teaches that God does not judge people on the basis of their innermost thoughts, feelings or temptations.
When Abdullah challenges him, Relative says that it must be a crime, because of the severe punishment, which he states as being stoning to death. The reality is that this is a matter of difference of opinion among jurists. The punishment for the act of sodomy, if it is proven before a judge, may be at the judge’s discretion. Many of the jurists stated that capital punishment would apply, but they differ on the method. Still, there are other opinions too.
This is not the place to engage in a lengthy apologia for Islam’s position on capital punishment. Let me just emphasise that appealing to the Islamic rulings is not a justification for vigilantism. Our duty is merely to inform and advise. And these rulings are not exclusive to homosexuals, let alone based on “who they are”. All sex outside marriage is forbidden by the Islamic texts. Abdullah’s relative got the punishment for adultery really wrong, saying it’s “Hundred lashes or you chop the person’s head off you slept with”(!!) No, the punishment established in the Qur’an and Sunnah is (again, after due legal process), for an unmarried person (fornication), lashing, and for a married person (adultery), death by stoning. These are not biased to one gender or the other, as commonly assumed.
Capital punishment is also applicable in the case of murder, for which Relative said, as if to make this crime seem less than “being gay”: “Then like they say, Allah is forgiving.” Yes, Allah is forgiving of any sins He chooses to forgive, which we know excludes worshipping others besides Him. He can forgive fornication, adultery, murder and sodomy if He wills. Sadly, many people use God’s mercy and forgiveness as a mantra to convince themselves that they do not need to reform their behaviour, or even bother to ask for His mercy and forgiveness after sinning.
The discussion between Abdullah and Relative concludes with the observation that if the latter were to put the former’s question to his local scholars, they would give him a simple answer then tell him to shut up. Sadly, that’s probably true. Scholars should lead the way, but most are still basically unwilling to engage with this issue in all its complexity.
The film showed this young man in various moods, reflecting different aspects of the dilemmas he is going through. At times he is reflective, at other times bitter. As an example of the latter was in reference to the Muslim community in Britain, which he accused of being plagued by a back-home mentality:
What on earth are you doing in this country? If you can’t accept it, if you can’t accept these sort of things, go back to wherever you’re from. D’you get what I mean? And this is coming from a Muslim person.
I certainly would not deny that much of our community (including much of its leadership) is still affected by such cultural dislocation and lack of awareness of our present realities. But it’s not fair for Razeem to demand of a faith community (even his own) that it change its beliefs and values just because of what is dominant in the societies in which we live. Our duty as a Muslim community, which is a minority here in Britain, is to ensure that we raise our generations with sound Islamic principles, and knowing their role as positive members of society. We also have a duty to uphold what we believe in, and demonstrate the virtue of what we are following, in the hope of our fellow citizens greeting this way of life with acceptance, or at least adopting from it what will benefit everyone.
I did like what Razeem said later on, after mentioning conflicts he has had with local Muslims, and tensions between their call to repent, and the gay community’s call for him to “come out” properly:
Can’t we kind of meet in the middle, or compromise, or please be more understanding about how I feel and try to understand where I’m coming from.
Compromise may not always be possible, but any decision (i.e. judgement about how wrong etc. such brothers and sisters are) should be preceded by discussion; listening and understanding are core elements of that. As I mentioned above, the knee-jerk reactions of many Muslims may have the effect of driving people away:
Muslim 1: I think I might be gay, but I still believe in Islam…
Muslim 2: No no, this is haram, you can either be gay or Muslim, not both!
Muslim 1 thinks: Hmm, well I can’t choose my sexuality, but faith is a choice… (this way lies disaster)
If we choose, instead, the way of compassion and understanding, while maintaining whatever stances we are sure about (without being closed-minded), then we can work with the questioning person to find a way forward. There is no harm in both parties realising that they don’t know everything.
We also meet a likeable young man and, surprisingly, his parents, who were quite willing to discuss the issues on camera. (Well, we see their socks and glimpses of exotic Eastern clothing.) Shakir tells us that he read the dictionary definition of “gay” at the age of nine and said to himself, “That is me.”
I don’t know how many people would claim a similar experience, given that the dictionary entries would be hard even to comprehend for most nine-year-olds. I found the following on Dictionary.com:
Of, relating to, or having a sexual orientation to persons of the same sex.
A person whose sexual orientation is to persons of the same sex.
Someone who practices homosexuality; having a sexual attraction to persons of the same sex
I think there are abundant criticisms to be made of these definitions, but I’m sidetracked enough from my point already. Is it possible that a nine-year-old could feel these sorts of attractions? Yes, it is possible, but that should be worrying. It could be that the child is naturally someone who develops sexual feelings earlier on in life (apparently pre-puberty?). It could also be a sign that children in our society are somehow having their childhood innocence taken from them, with sexual awareness being the norm for modern children far earlier and more widely than it would have been, not long ago.
But it could also be that the feelings this particular nine-year-old experienced were not definitively sexual, but could have involved any number of emotions – including, for example, envy or admiration. Rather than confirming what the kid knew for certain already, dictionary definitions like those above could actually constrict his thoughts in a particular direction, leading him to decide whether or not he fits with what is there described to him, in black and white.
A teenager (which I assume would be the more common period of life to be questioning such issues) would be presented with the definition and left thinking to himself, sometimes for years: “Am I gay? Or am I straight?” If he was allowed to work it out without such categorisations, he might come to a different conclusion about what he is experiencing inside.
Shakir was quite insightful with the following comment:
With Islam, the mainstream view is a simplistic view: it’s sinful, end of story. People don’t talk about it, for a combination of reasons. Either because they think it’s sinful, because there’s no-one that they know is gay, they see it as a Western thing…”
I’ll conclude this post (part 1 of 2) with a look at the only woman from the group, Farah. She was described as an “observant” Muslim:
She prays when she can, fasts during Ramadan and doesn’t drink alcohol.
You can refer to my reflections on Abdullah above; however, in this case, I don’t recall any girlfriend being mentioned, and the struggle Farah was going through to reconcile her feelings and identities was observable and moving. She explained why she was not giving up on Islam:
It would be so easy to fall back and say hey, I’m gay, and God’s condemning me anyway… but to me, both parts of that – my sexuality and my religion – are integrated parts of me – I can’t abandon one for the other.
There are people who genuinely feel this way: they are not all insidious creatures like Irshad Manji, trying to undermine Islam and Muslims by flaunting their ridiculous interpretations rather than admitting that they have no interest in submitting to God.
I recommend Mujahid’s article on being Muslim Before Anything Else as a simple methodology to interface identities that may be in conflict.
Farah had tried self-harm and contemplated suicide, thinking of it as less of a sin than “being gay” (though sin is a state of doing, not being). Shockingly, Farah says that her mum told her: “If you were a proper Muslim you would have killed yourself.” Farah said more than once that if she had the choice, she would choose to be “straight”, for her parents and family.
Her conclusion, however, was that she cannot make this change. It’s “physically and mentally impossible”, “makes you feel rotten inside” and even “morally wrong”! Talking about Jihad (which is struggle, in its widest sense), she disputed her family’s view that it entails “casting the sexuality demon away”. “That,” says Farah, “would be the sin”.
This latter conclusion is rather extreme. Homosexuality is, she would have to admit, at the very least, not a clear-cut accepted matter in Islam! Avoiding this area of doubt (to say the least) and opting for celibacy (if proper marriage is not an option, as for many it isn’t) would be a matter of virtue, not sin. Fulfilling sexual desires is certainly not a matter of obligation in Islam. If fulfilled in the right way, it can be a righteous deed, as taught by the Prophet (peace be on him) in a Hadith related by Muslim:
“…to enjoin a good action is a charity, to forbid an evil action is a charity, and in the sexual act of each of you there is a charity.” They said: “O Messenger of Allah, when one of us fulfils his sexual desire will he have some reward for that?” He said: “Do you not think that were he to act upon it unlawfully he would be sinning ? Likewise, if he has acted upon it lawfully he will have a reward.”
In this light, we see just how hideous was the remark of Adnan Ali near the start of the programme, when he said: “The love that I offer to my partner is a form of worship.” No, it really, really isn’t.
I think where Farah is coming from is the view that since homosexuality is part of her identity (debatable concept), she should accept it as a matter of nature and live according to it. “I’m gay and this is what I’m supposed to do.” I have seen this given a pseudo-religious character where they say: “This is how Allah created me.” They first have the arrogance to declare knowledge of Allah’s creative will, then they follow it up by arrogant reinterpretations of Allah’s commandments and prohibitions. “Allah would not condemn me for being how He created me.” They then appeal to what they call the most important aspects of the revelation, of course focusing on Allah’s mercy and forgiveness without balancing it with the abundant mention of Allah’s hatred of evil and punishment for those who indulge in it.
Such views, and the description of self-reform as “hypocrisy”, deserve a separate treatment, so look out for that some time in the future.
That’s it for Part 1 of my Channel 4 analysis, and I’ll get round to starting Part 2 around Thursday in sha’ Allah, in which we shall cover the more Shari’ah-related aspects of the programme.