Gay imam helps young Muslims balance religion, sexuality

March 11, 2016

Growing up in Algeria, Shaira had almost everything a young man could wish for. But he also had a big secret.

In a land where homosexuality is still a crime and a sin, he was forced to live a secret life, hiding that he was gay from everyone — even his closest family.

Shaira, 26, who asked that his last name not be used to protect his safety, hasn’t been back to Algeria since he went to study in France four years ago. His family still has no idea of his sexuality. Sahira has sought help from a gay imam from Algeria who is working with a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) association in Marseille. The Le Refuge group says it has helped 26 gays find shelter and start a new life in the ancient port city in the past year. Some eventually go back to their families.

Homosexuality is a criminal offense in much of the Middle East — punishable by imprisonment or, in countries like Saudi Arabia, by death.

In Algeria, homosexual acts are punishable by up to two years in prison and a fine. Islam considers homosexuality a sin. Men having sex with each other should be punished, the Quran says, but it doesn’t say how — and it adds that they should be left alone if they repent. The death penalty verdict instead comes from the Hadith, or accounts of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. The accounts differ on the method of killing, and some accounts give lesser penalties in some circumstances.

The Islamic State group (IS) has taken this to an extreme. Videos the group has released show masked militants dangling allegedly gay men over the sides of buildings by their legs and dropping them head-first or tossing them over the edge. It is believed that at least three dozen men in Syria and Iraq have been killed by IS over accusations of sodomy.

Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed is an Algerian-born imam who now works in Marseille and runs an association of French Muslims and gays. He has known the discrimination faced by the young people who come to Le Refuge for help.

“Personally I have received quite a lot of threats, but I saw more people come to encourage me … saying you are an embodiment of real Islam,” Zahed said.

The local head of Le Refuge in Marseille, Christophe Chausse, says the group tries to counsel young gays about how to cope with the constant conflict between their sexuality and their religion.

“For them, there is a real dilemma between — ‘I am or I feel homosexual’, and ‘I have my religion, my faith which prohibits it, so I cannot live this homosexuality,’” Chausse said. Shaira cries as he talks about this conflict that he battles every day.

“Everybody is telling me — ‘you are gay, you are Muslim and this is not normal,’” Shaira said. “But I feel that I have the same right to have a religion as everybody else. Even if I’m gay.”

Review: To Be Young, Gay and Muslim in Bed-Stuy

The endearing title characters of Jay Dockendorf’s film “Naz & Maalik” are 18-year-old best friends who recently became lovers, living in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a Brooklyn neighborhood in the throes of gentrification. Naz (Kerwin Johnson Jr.) and Maalik (Curtiss Cook Jr.) are closeted and Muslim, and especially for Naz, the Islamic taboo against homosexuality weighs heavily.

Both live with observant Muslim families for whom any sex outside of marriage is forbidden. Naz’s disapproving sister, Cala (Ashleigh Awusie), discovers their secret and teasingly threatens to expose them.

A Gay Muslim Filmmaker Goes Inside the Hajj

In the film, Mr. Sharma, 41, struggles visibly with his fear, even as he prays. He also explores the enduring grief he felt after being rebuked by his late mother, a poet, for not finding a “nice girl” to marry.
The documentary, largely recorded on an iPhone strapped to Mr. Sharma’s neck with rubber bands, shows the pilgrimage in unflinching detail. The result is a religious reality film, but also a piercing indictment of Saudi Arabia, which influences, Mr. Sharma said, millions of pilgrims annually.
His new documentary, “A Sinner in Mecca,” about his 2011 hajj, or journey to Islam’s most sacred sites in Saudi Arabia, put him at even greater risk. Saudi religious police allow selfies or short videos, Mr. Sharma said, but they forbid pilgrims from taking extensive footage of the hajj, which attracts up to three million faithful a year. While Mr. Sharma said there were government-sanctioned videos of the ritual, his documentary shows images of the annual pilgrimage that Saudi officials do not want others to see.
Mr. Sharma’s discretion is no doubt borne of his experience growing up gay in a conservative city in India, but it has deepened since the release of his 2007 documentary, “A Jihad for Love,” which depicted the struggle of gay Muslims around the world to reconcile their faith with their sexual orientation. (Homosexuality is generally condemned in modern Islamic societies, said Everett Rowson, an associate professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University.) After “Jihad,” Mr. Sharma was labeled an infidel, and in the intervening years, he has gotten more death threats than he cares to recall.

Muslim Drag Queens, Channel 4, review: ‘a commendable film’

The cross-dressing Asif was one of three courageous characters who agreed to be filmed for this First Cut documentary Muslim Drag Queens (Channel 4). Courageous, because homosexuality remains a taboo in Islam and Asif has received death threats. The “Gaysian” club scene in London is clandestine, populated by young men who fear coming out not just to their families but to the wider Muslim community. In his Bhutto headscarf, Asif was on his way to a rally in memory of Nazim Mahmood, a doctor who committed suicide after telling his parents he was in a gay relationship. Muslim supporters were notable by their absence.

It could have been bleak, but this accomplished debut from first-time director Marcus Plowright, narrated by Ian McKellen, was everything a good documentary should be: powerful, often moving and expertly injecting the subject matter with a hefty dose of humour.

Asif was not afraid of controversy. In a deliberately provocative move, he dressed his alias, Asifa Lahore, in a burka and disrobed as part of his drag act. Yet it was a quieter moment that best illustrated his conflicted identity, when he was unable to hide his disapproval at fellow drag queen Ibrahim kneeling to pray in a pub.

There was one happy ending – Asif’s mother turned up to see him win an award for his LGBT campaigning, to tears all around. Too many documentaries are of the point and sneer variety – Channel 4 being one of the worst offenders with shows such as Benefits Street. This commendable film did the opposite, and it sparkled.