Gay Muslims meet in NY
From the New York Blade
This past Saturday, August 9, over 70 gay Muslims and their supporters met at New York’s Lesbian, Gay Bisexual and Transgender Community Center for a national conference, “Our Individual Lives; Our Collective Journey.”
Participants came from Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Boston, Philadelphia and elsewhere to discuss gay Muslim life, debate way 9/11 has affected them and to pray together. The religious and cultural event was sponsored by the Al-Fatiha Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based support and advocacy group for gay Muslims.
This year, after offering donuts, pastries and coffee, and recitations from the Quran, three plenary sessions covered the ways in which Muslims and others deal — or, more pointedly, don’t deal — with their gay counterparts.
“Our Collective Journey” dissected each person’s role in what is being called the Progressive Muslim Movement. That movement, one very much outside of mainstream Islamic groups, is the only one in which gay Muslims find themselves accepted. More likely, they face contempt, derision and exclusion from their local mosque if they come out, according to participants.
Gay journalist and activist Mubarak Dahir moderated “Our Individual Lives,” which explored the changed world after 9/11. At that panel, Khalida, a 24-year-old student from Philadelphia who is working toward a degree in international law, detailed her personal experiences pre- and post-9/11.
She said that one blessing, if there were any at all, was the heightened awareness of the existence of the religion by the general public, even though most of that awareness has been negative. After 9/11, Muslims did feel the need to unite, she said. And the need to constantly explain the principals of the religion to non-Muslims has, if anything, strengthened their own beliefs.
Additionally, as a woman, Khalida said, “People tend to fell sorry for me — even friends and activists.” Male relatives and friends, she explained, have become demonized. But many believe that Muslim women need to be “liberated” from their Islamic brothers — a sentiment, she said, that was exacerbated by President George Bush’s comments following the Sept. 11 attacks.
For Pakistani-born Atif Toor, a graphic designer who has been active in South Asian and gay and lesbian organizations for the past 11 years, 9/11 was not just about Islam, but about religion in general. It was a wake-up call to many Americans that other beliefs and ways of life exist, he said.
To him, it was also about arrogant imperialism on the part of Western powers. “Many Muslims don’t know how they are to defend their religion,” he said, or “if they even need to defend it.”
Ramzi Zakharia, the fourth panelist, is a founder of the Gay & Lesbian Arab Society and an Arab-American activist in New York City. Zakharia recounted what, for him, were three startling responses from society in general and the media specifically.
First, he said, many Americans acted as if certain issues had never existed before September 11, like violence in the Middle East and domestic racism against Muslims (or those perceived to be so, particularly Sikhs, who cover their heads with turbans). In response, Zakharia said, “many Americans rushed to the libraries and bookstores” to find out more about Islam and conflicts in the Middle East. As a positive outcome from 9/11, Americans began educating themselves about Islam and the Occupied Territories [the Palestinian Authority], too.”
“Has 9/11 brought all peoples of Islamic beliefs together, despite their ethnic and individual differences?” was a central concern of the conference.
Among first-generation Islamic followers living in the United States, according to Zakharia, many of whom come from tribal backgrounds, individual differences remain. For those within the second generation though, he continued, 9/11, in a way, became a catalyst to creating more alliances, although they did not necessarily come easily. Nor were they automatically beneficial because of language and cultural barriers.
To Toor, there is more interaction among the many nationalities that make up Muslim communities in this country. But it remains a challenge to maintain any such ties as the crisis recedes. “I don’t know if it will be sustained,” Toor added.
Khalida agreed that she wasn’t sure that fellow Muslims would benefit from worshipping at each other’s mosques because the lessons are often in indecipherable dialects. “We have different languages, different food, customs” she said.
Toor brought up a not-atypical example of overt racism that occurred at Queens Pride last year. He witnessed a white man dressed as an Indian god. Some parade watchers were offended.
A discussion ensued — an agreeable debate, according to Toor. But then a white woman not involved in the discussion stepped forward. “Why don’t you all go back to your country,” she yelled.
That comment came from an apparently straight bystander. But Zakharia pointed to anti-Muslim racism springing out of another surprising source: from within the gay community. In particular, he found certain “horrible editorials” depicting Muslims as savages in the gay press. “It was alarming,” he said.
According to participant Saadia Yacoob, “The best way to fight prejudice is by changing one person at a time.”
In addition to the three open-panel discussions, other sessions addressed those seeking asylum and immigration to this country; Sufism (the mystical branch of Islam; see sidebar) as a way that gay Muslims can reconcile with their religion; Muslim relations with non-believers, interpreting the story of Lot in the Book of Genesis from a gay perspective; and discussing a new documentary about gay Muslims, “In the Name of Allah.”
A dinner included a performance by “Bijli” (translated as “Lightening”), a Pakistani drag performer. Bijli presented traditional khatak dances along with modern dances.
Since its formation in 1998, Al-Fatiha has held six major conferences. Started by Faisal Alam, in November of 1997 from a listserv, today the foundation has more than 275 subscribers from over 20 countries worldwide. There are eight chapters in the United States. Affiliate and sister organizations also serve local gay Muslims in Canada, England and South Africa.