On 9 January 2012, the Kuala Lumpur High Court acquitted and discharged Anwar Ibrahim, the Malaysian federal opposition leader and former deputy premier, on charges of sodomising his former political aide. This was the second time Anwar had been tried for homosexual sodomy, and the second time he had been acquitted. Back in 1999 the High Court sentenced Anwar to six years in prison on fabricated charges for corruption, and the next year he was sentenced to another nine years in prison for sodomy. In 2004, however, after spending six years in prison, the Federal Court acquitted and freed Anwar of the sodomy charge. In June 2008, months after the opposition had made historic inroads in the general election, the second round of sodomy allegations against Anwar emerged.
When Anwar was first accused of homosexuality I was twenty. For the past thirteen years, I have had to grow up and live with the psychological consequences of that charge. There is no denying the visceral impact of the Malaysian state charging a charismatic leader of a grassroots opposition movement, who almost became prime minister, for sodomy. The accusations were designed specifically to appeal to Malays who were presented with a simple argument. Namely, that homosexuality is a Western, infidel disease, and that a Muslim could not by definition be homosexual. Ergo, if ever there was such a thing as a Muslim homosexual, this person was as good as a diseased Western infidel. Therefore Anwar could not possibly be a viable leader for Malays. This is powerful logic in Malaysia, where Malays form the numeric ethnic majority and are constitutionally defined as Muslim. Thus, if Malaysian Malay-Muslims professed Islamic faith, we had to automatically reject Anwar on the grounds that he could be gay. This became the dominant framework of Malaysian politics which we had either to accept or work against at our own risk.
By summoning the spectre of homosexuality into public consciousness, the state created a dominant discourse obsessed and haunted by sexuality. The year 2011 alone was bookended by responses that were extremely hostile to homosexuality. In January, threats – some of them violent and murderous – continued against Azwan Ismail, a Malaysian Muslim man who ‘came out’ as gay via a YouTube video. In December, some Malaysian Muslim groups were up in arms at news that Ariff Alfian Rosli, a Malaysian Muslim, had entered a same-sex partnership with a white Irish man in Ireland. Just before, in November, state ministers, parliamentarians, religious scholars, the government-controlled media and several Muslim groups had condemned, intimidated and threatened Seksualiti Merdeka, a recent annual event promoting the rights of ‘lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals’ (LGBTs).
Why am I using these recent Malaysian examples to address an issue as huge and complex as homosexuality in Islam? Firstly, as a Malaysian Muslim, these are developments that are the nearest to me. Secondly, these are issues I have also grappled with in a professional capacity, initially as a human rights advocate, and then as a playwright and journalist. Thirdly, Malaysia occupies a unique, albeit often overlooked, position in the politics of Islam.
This last point needs some elaboration. The global South, specifically Muslim-majority countries, have often looked to us as a role model for development. Many Southern countries also saw one of our previous prime ministers, Dr Mahathir Mohamad (Anwar’s mentor turned nemesis) as someone who could be counted on to stand up against ‘Western hegemony’. The global North, on the other hand, often sees us as allies: exemplary ‘moderate’ Muslims, especially in a post-September 11 context.
Although Malaysia can be considered a Muslim-majority country, it has a sizeable non-Muslim minority, estimated at around 40 per cent of the population and consisting of Buddhists, Christians of various Eastern and Western denominations, Hindus, Sikhs, and folk religionists. Islam is the religion of the federation which practices a Westminster style of government akin to the UK’s constitutional monarchy and established Church. Unlike the UK, however, Islam in Malaysia plays a direct and overt role in politics and government. The second largest political party is the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) which is currently part of the federal opposition coalition. The largest
political party, the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), leads the ruling coalition, and while it is a race-based party, it constantly uses Islam for political leverage.
Islam is thus constantly and heavily discussed in public and in private, via the media, in Parliament and in coffee shops. Islam also influences state policies and is regulated by state policies. Thus, ‘Islam’ in Malaysia’s case is whatever emerges as the product of political, bureaucratic, popular, learned and private expressions.
In other words, the Malaysian experience is complex, rich, and can contribute a great deal toward critical new discussions on Islam. Specifically, it is an ideal starting point to ask deep and searching questions about Islam and homosexuality. After all, we’ve given the world its first and perhaps only Muslim deputy prime minister-turned-opposition leader to have been twice charged and twice acquitted of homosexual sodomy.
I am not suggesting that Anwar is gay. We know that he is not. But this is not what this reflection is about. Neither am I writing to support or condemn Anwar — in my work as a journalist with an independent online Malaysian newspaper, I have written and edited my share of critical pieces about him.
Rather, my purpose is to point out how the two sodomy charges against him have introduced painful and complex questions about homosexuality and Islam. This is especially so when, in contemporary global discourses, the word ‘Islam’ is emotively connected to issues such as terrorism, violence, lack of human rights, and lack of democracy. In the western perception, homophobia and Islam go hand in hand.
The first question most Muslims and non-Muslims instinctively ask is, ‘What does Islam say about homosexuality?’ As though ‘Islam’ were a singular, monolithic entity capable of speaking independently of human mediation and interpretation. And as though ‘homosexuality’ were an untroubled, eternal category, devoid of historical circumstances and cultural assumptions. Many in fact do not even bother asking the question. They simply know that Islam condemns homosexuality and offers nothing but the severest penalties to those who engage in homosexual acts. In other words, Islamic theology is simplistic and barbaric. Those who are unconvinced are referred to the oft-rehearsed arguments condemning homosexuality in Islam.
The first stop in this argumentative journey is usually the handful of Qur’anic references to the people of the prophet Lot, the equivalent of the Lot of the Hebrew Scriptures. A particular verse from the Qur’an is frequently quoted: ‘We sent Lot and he said to his people. “How can you practice this outrage? No one in the world has outdone you in this. You lust after men rather than women! You transgress all bounds”’ (7:80-81). The next stop is usually the far more numerous traditions (hadith) of the Prophet Muhammad, such as: The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, ‘If you find anyone doing as Lot’s people did, kill the one who does it, and the one to whom it is done.’ Then the conversation stops. A thick line is drawn and a wall is built on it. You’re a believing Muslim? Then you stand and stay on this side of the wall where you must accept what the Qur’an and traditions say. Oh, and you must condemn homosexuality and homosexuals unreservedly.
But this mentality often works in the opposite direction too. You have no problem with gay people? Why, then you must condemn the barbaric religion of Islam and its adherents, because you, too, understand that ‘Islam’ is reducible to a list of misogynistic and homophobic pronouncements. Stand and stay on the other side of the wall, please.
On both sides of the wall is a dynamic that seeks to address and explain homosexuality and Islam in ‘basic’ terms. Yet it sets us up for some very painful and complex political, social, cultural, psychological and legal effects. How does this work?
Let’s start with the fact that there is a growing body of Muslim scholars, leaders and activists challenging these ‘basic’ assumptions about Islam. For brevity, let’s call these assumptions ‘Islamic homophobia’. Some of the more prominent individuals who come to mind are the openly-gay imams Daayiee Abdullah from the US and Muhsin Hendricks from South Africa, scholars such as Scott Siraj Al-Haqq Kugle from the US, and LGBT Muslim groups such as Al-Fatiha in the US, Salaam in Canada and Imaan in the UK.
These believing and practising Muslims return to what they see as the core message of Islam which upholds justice and embraces diversity. They challenge and complicate the idea that Islam is inherently and inflexibly homophobic. Pro-LGBT Islamic scholars and imams use a variety of hermeneutical and exegetical tools to uphold inclusive approaches in Islam. This is very similar to the approach taken by Islamic feminists to uphold gender equality in the spirit of Islam.
These approaches are grounded within traditional Islamic methods of interpretation and analysis. For example, in challenging homophobic readings of the story of Lot, pro-LGBT Islamic scholars recover commentaries from the classical age that interpret the Qur’anic account without hostility towards those we now label ‘homosexuals’. They reclaim the story of Lot and point out that it is not about God punishing people for being gay, but for arrogantly committing criminal acts of violence and coercion with impunity. Pro-LGBT Muslims also highlight numerous other Qur’anic verses exhorting a celebration of diversity, individual liberties, and a respect for dissenting views.
Besides, the Qur’an does not prescribe earthly punishments for homosexuality – these are found in the hadith and later jurisprudence. This is also where pro-LGBT Muslims challenge prevailing anti-homosexual interpretations by using, again, classical Islamic methods of exegesis and analysis. For example, even hadith scholars of the classical era of Islam found the call for execution of homosexuals, attributed to the Prophet Muhammad (S), to be unsound and unreliable.
The work of pro-LGBT Muslims, therefore, is impressively Islamic in the spirit and practice of their critiques. In fact, what is interesting about their work is that they do not need to find ‘modern’ interpretations of Islam – it was later human interpretations that developed a distorted view of Islam regarding homosexuality.
Now we come to the complicated part of the argument. While these advocates are Muslim, a vast proportion of them also operate from ‘Western’ or ‘secular’ contexts. It is ludicrous to use this against them, especially since there are many Muslims all over the world working overtime to prove that Muslim minorities in ‘the West’ are neither traitors nor represent a threat to the state they now call ‘home’. Nevertheless, this is an argument that serves to strengthen the prejudices of both anti-homosexual Muslims and anti-Muslim pro-homosexual advocates. In other words, the only good Muslim is a truly Westernised Muslim.
To appreciate the explosive nature of this argument we need to see it in the context of the current geopolitics of Islam. The majority of Muslim states experienced colonisation by Western powers ranging from the directly brutal, such as Algeria, to apparently benign condescension, as in Malaysia. This business of colonialism is far from finished. It is evident in the nervous commentaries coming out of the West in response to the ongoing Arab uprisings: ‘What about the Islamists?’; ‘Will free elections benefit the Muslim Brotherhood?’; ‘Do they want to impose the shariah?’; ‘Will this be bad for business?’. In sum, ‘Muslims are backward because they don’t have democracy, but now that they have a shot at trying it out we’re pretty sure they can’t handle it.’ These attitudes play an integral important part in the overall argument about Islam and homosexuality.
Imagine, for example, what happens when Western LGBT-identified Muslims ally themselves with the broader Western LGBT movement, which now has the power to effectively lobby Western governments on an array of sexuality-related policies. From the point of view of a traditional, conservative Muslim, it would look very much as though LGBT Muslims are synonymous with Western LGBTs, who are then synonymous with ‘secular-liberal’ values, which are synonymous with hostility to Islam. These cognitive leaps might seem bizarre or illogical to some. But at the same time, think about how easily and confidently so many Americans joined the dots between ‘Osama bin Laden’ and ‘Taliban’ and ‘terrorism’ and ‘Islam’, and then proceeded to use these labels interchangeably with great ideological force.
Perhaps I can rephrase my question: imagine what happens when someone like David Cameron, Conservative Prime Minister of the UK, threatens to restrict foreign aid to countries that continue to criminalise homosexuality? Cameron announced this in October 2011 at a meeting of Commonwealth heads of government. To be certain, many African governments bristled at Cameron’s threat, but there are also several Muslim member states of the Commonwealth that would be similarly affected. This is significant because Cameron is the same person who, earlier in February, told the Munich Security Conference how afraid he is of ‘radicalised’ young British Muslim men and wants to cut funding for numerous Muslim groups in Britain.
Cameron is not alone. In her December 2011 speech at the United Nations in Geneva, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton also said the US would fight discrimination against gays and lesbians worldwide by using foreign aid and diplomacy. Imagine how this news would be received by the vast majority of Muslims who, also in December, found out that President Barack Obama had legislated to allow terror suspects – those pesky Muslims again – to be held indefinitely without trial. The dynamics this time are similar to when President George W Bush said in 2001 that he would invade Afghanistan to save poor, defenceless, burqa-clad Muslim women from horrible Muslim men. ‘We like Muslims, but only when they’re women or gay, because then we get to save them and make them like us.’
Given the sensitivity of this issue, let me make it clear that I am not excusing anti-homosexual tendencies justified in the name of Islam. Neither is it my intention to discredit or dismiss LGBT-identified Muslims residing in the West who do important and sincere work to reclaim inclusive expressions of Islam. Nevertheless, I insist on recognising and analysing how issues are interconnected. The messier or more complicated these interconnections, the more urgent the requirement for analysis. As Joseph Massad noted in an article in Public Culture, ‘it is not the Gay International or its upper-class supporters in the Arab diaspora who will be persecuted but rather the poor and nonurban men who practise same-sex contact and who do not identify as homosexual or gays.’ The reality is, we need to think about those sexually marginalised Muslims who are not cultural or financial elites and who do not benefit from Western-style LGBT advocacy.
The queer theorist Jasbir Puar has pointed out how power relations within the global LGBT movement have marginalised LGBT groups opposed to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Her analysis has been met with exasperation and ridicule from LGBT advocates who hold Israel up as a beacon of LGBT rights in the homophobic wasteland that is the (Muslim) Middle East. These criticisms miss the point, however. Puar does not deny the hostilities that sexual minorities in Muslim societies face. In fact, she carefully points out the existence of several LGBT or queer Palestinian organisations doing important work against both homophobia and the Israeli occupation. In the same spirit, let me suggest a possible framework for discussing homosexuality in Islam.
But first a caveat. You may have noticed a lack of consistency in my use of language. I have used the terms ‘homosexual’, ‘LGBT’ and ‘sexual minorities’ quite interchangeably. Surely there must be consistent, politically correct terminology I could use? I’m really not so sure. I appreciate those LGBT movements that connect their struggles against homophobia to other issues such as Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, racism, misogyny, xenophobia and the continued marginalisation of the working class.
Yet I increasingly find the term ‘LGBT’ unwieldy and conceptually difficult. As Ziauddin Sardar has observed, ‘these acronyms are not only cumbersome and rather unattractive but also dehumanising. To have one’s identity truncated to acronyms or worse merely initials (Ls, Gs, Bs and so on) is to be reduced as a human being.’ I prefer the terms ‘sexual diversity’ or ‘sexual minorities’, but I also recognise the need to address what happens when we insert ‘homosexuality’ into Islamic discourses.
The main problem is how does one read modern, culturally-specific concepts such as ‘homosexuality’ into the sacred texts of Islam? Or into any pre-modern text for that matter? Thoughtful Christians have the same difficulty figuring out where or how ‘homosexuality’ is addressed in the Bible in ways comparable to modern usage. The issue with any text is that it needs to be interpreted. When it is a religious text, interpretations can shift or develop over the course of history, or in fact in different cultural and political contexts. For instance, the majority religion in Iran and Turkey is recognisably Islam. Yet Islam is articulated rather differently in both countries on a range of issues, from justifying the type of political state in existence to day-to-day gender relations.
The situation is similar when it comes to homosexuality. There are uncompromisingly hostile interpretations of Islam which some will argue are ‘correct’, and then there are the inclusive interpretations, frequently labelled ‘deviant’. Laying aside the question of who exactly has the earthly power to declare one interpretation ‘correct’ and another ‘deviant’, I am more curious about other interpretations or opinions. Surely 1.6 billion Muslims cannot be cleanly divided into the uncompromisingly ‘correct’ and the irredeemably ‘deviant’. And surely Muslims all over the world do not share homogenous assumptions about ‘homosexuality’, even Muslims with same-sex desires.
I am therefore interested in opinions such as those of Tariq Ramadan. On the surface, it would appear that Ramadan errs on the normative or ‘correct’ side of Islamic interpretation. In other words, he considers homosexuality to be sinful and wrong. This has provoked European LGBT advocates to dismiss him as yet another Muslim homophobe. But let us examine Ramadan’s position more closely. He says:
For more than twenty years I have been insisting — and drawing sharp criticism from some Muslim groups — that homosexuality is forbidden in Islam, but that we must avoid condemning or rejecting individuals. It is quite possible to disagree with a person’s behaviour (public or private), while respecting that person as an individual. This I have continued to affirm, and gone further still: a person who pronounces the attestation of Islamic faith becomes a Muslim; if that person engages in homosexual practices, no one has the right to drive him or her out of Islam.
So Ramadan thinks homosexuality is forbidden on religious grounds but also insists that homosexuals – even Muslims – should not suffer discrimination or persecution. How is this a dangerous position? How does this make Ramadan any worse than, say, European Christians or Jews (or perchance atheists) who disapprove of homosexuality? In fact, some might wish that more ‘Muslim homophobes’ thought like Ramadan.
Ramadan’s position is touching on two counts. Firstly, he makes his point about Islam and homosexuality succinctly and painlessly. The bit that he takes great pains to elaborate is how the acceptance of homosexuality has now become a burden disproportionately placed on Muslims in Europe. Why do European Muslims have to prove that they embrace and delight in homosexuality in order to assert their citizenship credentials? Is it not enough that they can separate their own personal opinions from their respect for each individual’s basic dignity and rights, especially those who are different from them? Ramadan seems almost heartbroken that sexuality is now the preferred method of Muslim-baiting in the West.
Yet there are more Muslims like Ramadan in Europe. A 2011 poll by thinktank Demos found that British Muslims are more likely to strongly agree with the statement ‘I am proud of how Britain treats gay people’ than even people of no religion. In fact, fewer than 25 per cent of British Muslims polled disagreed with the statement.
I am tempted to call these signs of hope, but the fact is that even doing this might be condescending. It would be as though we are waiting for Muslims elsewhere to ‘catch up’ with British Muslims. The point is, this is reality. Muslims, like any other group of people, hold diverse views on homosexuality. This fact alone should not be surprising. What should be surprising is that so many people find it surprising.
It should therefore be equally unsurprising that there are diverse views about sexuality in Islam, and that it has always been so. Western LGBT Muslims are not alone in upholding gay-affirming interpretations of Islam. In 2008, the Indonesian Islamic scholar Siti Musdah Mulia said Islam ‘recognised’ homosexuality. She — yes, this Islamic scholar is a woman — justified her opinion from the verses of the Qur’an, partly basing her reasoning on 49: 13 (‘People, we created you all from a single man and a single woman…). Almost immediately, several other Indonesian Islamic groups condemned her opinion, but that’s not something completely dissimilar to, say, the Anglican Communion’s current global crisis on sexuality.
We cannot, under any circumstances, justify state-driven violence and intimidation of sexual minorities. But at the same time, we have to acknowledge that issues of sexuality are complex, intimately connected to political context, and thus generate a wide variety of opinions and positions. It is not simply a question of being for or against homosexuality. It is interesting to note that Anwar took a nuanced position when the Malaysian state demonised and threatened the organisers of LGBT rights festival Seksualiti Merdeka. On one level, he was emphatic that his party endorsed neither the festival nor LGBT rights. However, he went on to say: ‘The issue here is not whether to support or not to support. The issue is you attack them. That’s something else. Can’t we talk about things in this country?’
Indeed, can’t we just talk about things before jumping to conclusions? I would love to hear a conversation on Islam and homosexuality between Siti Musdah Mulia, Tariq Ramadan, Scott Siraj Al-Haqq Kugle and Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Egyptian theologian best known for his Al-Jazeera programme, ‘Shariah and Life’. One can imagine the heat if such a public dialogue was moderated by someone like Amina Wadud, the controversial Muslim-American feminist. I wouldn’t want them to agree with each other or to shout each other down. I’d hope for them to keep the integrity of their positions, but also listen to each other thoughtfully and respectfully, and to engage meaningfully.
It is not easy to do this as Muslims in the contemporary world, especially given the geopolitical minefield we have to tiptoe through and the constant spotlight on our every move. Yet this makes it all the more important for us to walk this path with integrity and courage. We don’t become lesser Muslims just by having nuanced ideas about human diversity or by locating them within larger critiques of global politics.
But for those who would quote a hadith to shout me down, here’s one whose simplicity and forthrightness I adore: ‘A man was with the Prophet (peace be upon him) and a man passed by him and said: Apostle of Allah! I love this man. The Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) then asked: Have you informed him? He replied: No. He said: Inform him. He then went to him and said: I love you for Allah’s sake. He replied: May He for Whose sake you love me love you!’