Thursday, September 09, 2010

A Place for Islam, Muslims & Queer Muslims in America

Anti-Muslim rhetoric is reaching fever pitch as we mark the ninth anniversary of 9/11. Irrationality, raw emotion and political opportunism have taken over discourse on the place of Islam and Muslims in American life.

I can understand why many are swayed by those who would purport to take us back to prelapsarian days which never were. As a gay man, I share the discomfort with a religion – any religion – that treats women as inferior to men and LGBT people as pariah scorned and worthy of death. The facts are however that Islam, like its sibling faiths Christianity and Judaism, is not monolithic, that Muslim Americans come in all stripes, and that there are queer Muslims.

Prof. David Rayside of the University of Toronto presented a paper which highlight these themes at last week’s annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in Washington, D.C.

He points out that there is a “wide range of Muslim religious practice, including not only a large number of African American Muslims, but also significant numbers of Sufis and Ismailis” that suffuses various Muslim communities in the United States. These groups speak many languages and represent various ethnicities and countries of origin – African Americans, South and South East Asians, Middle Easterners and Africans. Most of these communities do not mix much socially, religiously or culturally.

He argues that Muslim Americans “are comparatively well integrated into the social and political mainstream, and hold to moderate or progressive beliefs on a wide range of policy issues” but does admit that on questions of sexual diversity, “they are significantly more conservative than the average American,” holding views akin to evangelical Protestants.

There are a handful of courageous and forward-looking Muslim Americans though who strive for sexual diversity, respect and equality, and who are educating and advocating within their communities.

Muslims for Progressive Values for example, upholds ten principles “rooted in Islam, including social equality, separation of religion and state, freedom of speech, women's rights, gay rights, and critical analysis and interpretation.”

Prof. Rayside also notes a crucial trend, the intergenerational shift among Muslim Americans. He believes that “a longer history in North America means that more Muslims will recognize that there are family members, work associates, fellow students who are queer Muslims, and over time this will bring their views on homosexuality into closer alignment with other social views.”

He adds that “queer visibility within broader Muslim communities will eventually come from the growing numbers of queer Muslim networks, as well as from increased social and political restiveness among sexual minorities in South Asian, Southeast Asian, North African and Middle Eastern countries of origin.”

Al-Fatiha is one such network. It is a safe space for queer Muslims and their families, friends and allies which began as an internet listserv and now has 14 chapters in the United States and offices in England, Canada, Spain, Turkey and Africa. Al-Fatiha promotes “the progressive Islamic notions of peace, equality and justice” and envisions “a world that is free from prejudice, injustice and discrimination, where all people are fully embraced and accepted into their families, faith and communities.”

I suspect most of us share Al-Fatiha’s dream of a more equitable, tolerant and welcoming society. We can start working towards this vision by challenging our own prejudices and preconceived notions about Islam and Muslim Americans. We can reach out to fellow citizens who practice a different faith. We can support queer Muslims who sacrifice much by choosing to live openly and with integrity.

As we mark a devastating moment in American history, let us remember that e pluribus unum – out of many, one.

You can follow me on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.

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