Post-Orlando massacre: Muslim leaders and communities must tackle rampant, normalized homophobia

Hours after Omar Mateen murdered 49 innocent LGBT people in Orlando, so-called progressive (in reality, regressive) liberals were quick to declare that the attack had nothing to do with Islam. I wrote an earlier piece on the Times of Israel criticizing what I – and others – clearly perceived to be intellectually dishonest and morally reprehensible deflection and apologia.

To be clear, whether or not the attack had anything to do with Islam depends on how we define Islam. If by Islam, we mean a set of religious texts, then it depends on how these texts are interpreted. Certainly, the attacks have nothing to do with the Islam of someone like Imam Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed who is openly gay and founded the first mosque in Paris open to LGBT people.

Indeed, some have attempted to prove that the Orlando attack had nothing with Islam by pointing out that queer Muslims exist. This, however, does not take into account the fact that queer Muslims and queer Muslim leaders are severely marginalized within larger Muslim communities, even in Western, democratic, and (relatively) liberal countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and France.

In the wake of the Orlando massacre, it is necessary to go beyond merely asserting that “this is not Islam” to ensuring that “this is not Islam.” What this implies, of course, is a reform of mainstream Islam.

We cannot simply wish away the problem of deeply-embedded homophobic teachings and beliefs in Muslim communities throughout the World by pointing at the (incredibly marginalized) existence of queer Muslims and queer Muslim leaders.

This is, however, precisely what many have attempted to do. Al Jazeera’s AJ+, for example, posted a video featuring three gay Muslims reacting to the Orlando massacre. This is a transcription of what was said:

I am openly gay and I am Muslim. Gay Muslims are very much present and in solidarity with their other LGBT brothers and sisters. We stand at both these intersections, we felt that there is an attack on both of our identities. We are doubly impacted. We’re tired of the anti-Muslim rhetoric and, at the same time, violence is a part of what the majority of LGBT people in the world continue to live with. Donald Trump has made it fashionable for this to be a summer of intolerance and homophobia. Islamophobia has been existent in our community for a long, long time. The only thing that Trump did is put [a] face to it. They hate the gays as much as they hate Muslims. So now they have to pick and choose. What are they going to do? Who are they going to hate more? We’ve forgotten about the transpeople who have died, we’ve forgotten about the Latino people who have died, we have not been saying their names. And all of this is because of the focus on, you know, “Muslim terror” or “radicalism.” People who have never cared about our well-being and who’ve actually fought against our dignity and our equality are now co-opting our bodies and our struggles and our skins to fuel and feed their own agenda.

It is certainly important to see gay Muslims courageously assert their existence and publicly display both their sexuality and their faith, especially in the face of religious orthodoxies who either deny their existence or condemn it.

But the three gay Muslims in the AJ+ video do themselves, and gay Muslims in general, a disservice when they immediately push what could have been a conversation on the lack of acceptance of sexual minorities in mainstream Islam to a conversation on “Islamophobia.”

Growing anti-Muslim bigotry in the United States (and elsewhere) is certainly something that needs to be addressed and condemned in strong terms, but not at the expense of addressing the rampant and normalized homophobia in mainstream Islam.

Thankfully, some queer (and non-queer) Muslims are speaking out against the marginalization of their voices. Take for example, Zaynab Shahar, a PhD candidate at the Chicago Theological Seminary and co-founder of the group Third Coast Queer Muslims of Chicago & the Upper Midwest, who wrote the following in response to attempts at “pinkwashing” mainstream Islam:

you can’t use LGBTQ Muslims you don’t acknowledge, let alone stand in solidarity w/, to distance American Muslims from the Orlando shooting — zaynab shahar (@atypewritersing) 12 juin 2016

Unfortunately, the three gay Muslims featured by AJ+ allowed themselves to be used to deflect away from the marginalization of queer Muslims in order to discuss intolerance and homophobia solely in regards to Donald Trump. Given the circumstances of the Orlando attack, it would have been more appropriate to discuss (not necessarily exclusively) intolerance and homophobia in Muslim communities in the United States and elsewhere.

This kind of deflection has deplorably been part of the overwhelming majority of responses to the Orlando massacre from mainstream Muslim figures. Take for example, Yasir Qadhi who wrote in a Facebook post after the Orlando massacre that rampant homophobia in Muslim communities, and what he considers to be “Islam’s stance on homosexuality,” are irrelevant to the massacre. Instead, he considers that the attack was solely a result of the shooter’s “mental issues,” which Qadhi suggests also includes homosexuality.

It should be of no surprise to anyone that Qadhi would want others to believe that these issues are irrelevant, especially since he is himself a homophobic bigot who considers that Islam will always be opposed to homosexuality and that “homosexual urges” must be repressed, with one solution being marriage with the opposite sex. To top it off, Qadhi is someone who thinks that stoning is a legitimate punishment in Muslim countries that have sharia law (ironically ISIS considers Qadhi to be an apostate). To put it simply, Qadhi is part of the problem. He is part of the hostile, homophobic climate that reigns in most Muslim communities.

This hatred is so normalized that even a Muslim figure like Linda Sarsour, who appears to be progressive, sees no problem in retweeting, the day after the Orlando attack, the blatantly homophobic preacher Mufti Menk, who has called gay people “filthy” and “worse than animals,” because, according to him (and this is factually incorrect) even animals do not engage in homosexual relations.

Ultimately, even a so-called progressive like Sarsour sees nothing wrong in retweeting a homophobic bigot like Mufti Menk because she likely does not disagree with the notion that in Islam gay people are, in the words of Mufti Menk, “worse than animals.”

The self-hatred of the Orlando shooter was formed in such a climate of normalized and rampant homophobia. Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed, whom I mentioned at the beginning, writes in his first book Le coran et la chair about how, as a teenager in Algeria, he was drawn into the fold of Algerian Salafists because it allowed him to bury deep into his unconscious his sexual orientation and the social difficulties linked to it.

Ludovic was fortunate enough to pull himself out of his entanglement with the Salafists right at the beginning of the Algerian Civil War and to later fully accept his sexuality in spite of the pressures around him. But others, when constantly fed notions that homosexuality is the worst, most abhorrent sin possible and that God will punish “the gays,” have dealt with their self-hatred in more destructive ways. Remember that before Omar Mateen, there already was Salah Abdeslam.

About the Author
Adi S. Bharat is a student of literature, society, and politics, whose research interests include twentieth and twenty-first century French literature, far-right politics in France, and religious and ethnic minorities in France.