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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Parvez Sharma
A controversial film breaks open the taboo topic of homosexuality and Islam
By: Ethar El-Katatney
HOMOSEXUALITY IS NOT a comfortable, much less a popular, topic among Muslims. Broach the subject in the Middle East, and you’re likely to hear a response like the one Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave US audiences last year: “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals, like in your country.” At best, society adopts a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach – do what you will, just don’t advertise it.
A controversial new documentary, A Jihad for Love, is shattering that taboo by interviewing homosexual Muslims, including an Egyptian gay man ‘outed’ by his arrest during the 2001 Queen Boat raid and an Egyptian lesbian still hiding her sexuality from society. Filmmaker Parvez Sharma had dual motivations: first, to challenge the mindset that Muslim and gay are mutually exclusive, and second, to challenge the Western world’s own Islamophobia.
As a Muslim and openly admitted homosexual, Sharma had to challenge himself to make the documentary in a way that would neither make Islam look bad nor be apologetic. “Sharing some of the stories of condemnation, isolation, [and] pain would make it easy to issue a blanket critique of Islam,” he explains, “[but] as a Muslim I could not allow myself to […] join the bandwagon of Islamophobes. I knew that I had to be a defender of the faith as a Muslim filmmaker and at the same time engage in a critique of what I knew was wrong in orthodox Islam’s condemnation of homosexuality.”
An Emotional Opus
Born and raised in India, 34-year-old Sharma is currently touring the world, screening his 81-minute documentary in Canada, South Africa and Europe. Released in September 2007, A Jihad for Love is his first venture and an emotional opus; it cost $2 million and took six years to complete, with filming in four continents, 12 countries and nine languages.
The impetus for the documentary came after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Sharma, who had moved to the United States for a Masters degree program, suddenly found that his religious identity and skin color made him a target. He realized he had to have “the second and bigger coming out of my life — to come out as a Muslim.” He says that America, at the time, was suffering from a climate of hatred.“Western media,” Sharma notes, “tends to portray Islam as a monolithic concept, [and] the Islam I knew was under threat. So I [thought] why not take the story of Islam and tell it through Islam’s most unlikely storytellers, which are gay and lesbian Muslims.”
Sharma feels that the non-Muslim’s view of Islam has been dominated by the perspectives of Western media and violent extremists. For example, in Arabic jihad literally means “struggle,” but the Western media uses it almost exclusively to mean “holy war.” Sharma’s film title seeks to reclaim the word in the sense of jihad al-nafs, the Islamic concept of “struggle against the self.”
“[I was] saying that jihad is not about violence, which is all people talk about,” explains Sharma. “I called [the movie] A Jihad for Love because it was so compelling to put the word ‘jihad’ and the word ‘love’ together, because we were taking a profound Islamic concept and together with that using the word ‘love’, which is a universal Islamic condition.”
Sharma started the project in 2002 and ended up with over 400 hours of footage of 20-some gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Muslims in countries where he says, “the silence was the loudest.” The result is the first and only feature-length documentary to explore the complex relationship between Islam and homosexuality, presenting six ‘stories,’ each looking at the lives of individuals and couples from a different part of the Muslim world.
Mazen, an Egyptian man in his 20s, was one of the infamous Cairo 52, a group arrested in May 2001 aboard the Queen Boat, a floating nightclub on the Nile. Mazen was beaten, forced to stand trial twice on charges of “habitual debauchery” and sentenced to a total of four years in prison (one year in his first trial, three years in his second). He fled to Paris before serving the second sentence.
“[All the characters in the film] are my children,” says Sharma, “but Mazen’s story I consider very, very powerful because he was targeted by the state [and] he was one of many people who had to leave their homeland. [He had to leave] because the government decided that in order to appease people like the ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood] they had to suddenly talk about […] Islamic morality, [and] it made sense to go and target the most vulnerable group in society, which was the gay Muslim men.”
The filmmaker says the “spiritual backbone” of the film is Mushin Hendricks, a former South African imam cast out by his community when he came out of the closet. He agreed to be filmed as soon as he was sure Sharma wasn’t going to portray gay Muslims as promiscuous. In a phone interview with et, Hendricks says that he came from a religious family, and that his grandfather was also an imam. Because of this, he hid his personal realization since the age of 12. He even got married to see if he could live a ‘normal’ life, although he told his wife beforehand that he was gay.
“She was shocked but told me, ‘I love you and I still want to marry you and help you overcome this’,” Hendricks recalls. “Six years down the road we knew this wasn’t working. The best thing is to accept yourself as you are, and only Allah will judge you.”
Trying to understand the Qur’an from a point of view that accepts all that is different, Hendricks then began his own path of study, starting at the University of Islamic Studies, a branch of Al-Azhar, in Karachi, Pakistan. “I didn’t study extensively as I only needed the basics in order to do my independent research,” he says. “I did not need to be ‘institutionalized’ and thus did not study ‘under’ a scholar or follow a particular school [of Islamic thought].”
Hendricks’ research included interpretation of the Qu’ran in a modern context and studies of inconsistencies in the hadith. He eventually came to the conclusion that consensual homosexual relationships were permissible in Islam. Hendricks now travels around the US giving workshops to Muslims about homosexuality in Islam and offering a critical look at hadith (sayings of Prophet Muhammad [PBUH]), from which most of the condemnations of homosexuality come.
Maryam, a Moroccan, and Maha, an Egyptian, are a lesbian couple who met online. Sharma says that when he met Maryam at the very start of his filming, “she couldn’t even articulate the word lesbian because she thought it was haram (forbidden) and sinful to say the word.” It was only in 2006 that she agreed to be filmed.
“I remember walking through the streets of Cairo with them,” says Sharma, “[and] going to the places they hold dear to their hearts, like the Citadel. It was really profound because I was able to capture the invisibility that society has put upon them in the heart of the Arab world and Arab thought throughout the centuries.”
In an interview with international press, the veiled Maha defended her actions, saying, “If asked of my sin on Judgment Day, I will stand before God and say that my sin is that I loved  and Allah is merciful and forgiving.”
Funding was a major obstacle and part of the reason the film took so long to produce. In the end, it was co-produced by five major international broadcasters, and funded by over 600 individuals and 20 foundations.
To find people willing to talk on camera, Sharma tapped into the underground networks of gay and lesbian Muslims living in Muslim countries through emails, telephone calls, and organizations working discreetly with human rights groups.
Sharma says gaining the necessary trust was a jihad of its own. The director recalls, “It was a struggle because I was going to people and I was telling them to talk about two very personal things which no one would want to share on camera: their sexuality and their relationship with Allah.”
He says what made it easier was that he was a Muslim gay man going through the same struggles that they were. “If I was a white, Western filmmaker wielding the camera, this film would certainly not have been made.”
Those who finally came forward to tell their stories were doing their best to negotiate a relationship with Islam even though they knew that the majority of people believed the religion was rejecting them. They felt that Islam was at a tipping point and thus were willing to take the risk.
“All the people in my film are coming out as Muslims,” says Sharma. “They are proud to be gay, but fundamentally they’re coming out as Muslims and saying they’re as Muslim as anybody else. Their sexual identity is second to their religious identity.”
After convincing people to appear on screen, Sharma had to shoot the actual documentary — without governmental permission. Among what he calls “hard core guerrilla filmmaking tactics:” He had to pass himself off as a tourist, using only handheld cameras. In case he was caught, he made sure that the first and last 15 minutes of a tape were tourist-esque footage. He never put the tapes in his carry-on luggage, and left backups with friends until he had safely left the country. He had a few close calls with police, including one in Egypt in Tahrir square, but managed to talk himself out of trouble.
A Jihad for Love premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2007, where it received official screening honors. It has also been screened in major festivals including the Festival do Rio in Brazil, and the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in South Africa. Theatrical distribution deals, particularly in North America and Europe, are in the works. Audiences are raving; Sharma and his documentary have been featured in international newspapers The Guardian and The New York Times, Reuters newswire, as well as on the CBC, BBC and Oprah Winfrey’s talk show, just to name a few.
“The reaction has been really positive, to tell you the truth,” says Sharma, adding that Muslims who see the film discover it is “actually a defense of Islam and speaks very respectfully.
“I remember in the Toronto screening there was a very religious Shi’a woman from Iran who came to me and said, ‘Parvez, I came to this film with my fists clenched […] I was so angry and I expected a film that would criticize Islam. And as I was watching the film my hand started opening up and […] so [did] my heart. I’m leaving this film realizing that this film is a poem to Islam’.”
Media coverage so far has largely been from Western press, apart from articles in the Daily News Egypt and the Arabic daily Al-Arabiya, and one TV spot with Al-Arabiya’s Muna Shikaki in Dubai. While the Al-Arabiya article was neutral, within an hour of being published there were more than 300 comments of “the usual nonsense,” says Sharma. The emails he receives berate him, condemn him to hell and, “if they are nice, ask me to still seek forgiveness while there is still time.”
“I was upset about that because none of these people have seen this film. There is a herd mentality where people get outraged about issues but none of them bother to read a book, or see a film. I advise people who reacted to see the film and then judge.”
Still, not everyone who has seen the film is smiling. In South Africa, the Muslim Judicial Council issued a hukum (judgment), similar to a fatwa, calling homosexuals murtads, apostates. In many schools of Islamic jurisprudence, the sin of apostasy carries the death penalty.
Sharma believes that the release of his film marks the beginning of a ‘jihad of the camera’, a movement equivalent to last century’s ‘jihad of the pen.’ He wants to screen the movie in Muslim countries, but admits it is unlikely to happen. Nevertheless, he says that he will get the movie to every Muslim that needs to see it, even if by underground means. In Egypt, he hopes to screen it the American University in Cairo, but if that fails — as he admits it probably will — the next best route is through academic circles.
“I have hundreds of friends in Cairo who are interested in helping out with this, and I [will] seek that help. I want to organize screenings in peoples’ [houses] and I will do so in the coming year.”
Sharma is also accepting donations to cover the film’s post-production costs and fund his planned multi-year Muslim Dialogue Project, “where we will create a movement of tremendous change, engage the ‘ulama (Islamic scholars), change lives […] change Muslim hearts and minds, stop 19-year-old [homosexual] Muslims from committing suicide, and have the first-ever Muslim conference discussing issues relating to homosexuality with specialists from all over the world.” A book and another film are also in the works.
It starts, however, with Sharma’s jihad: “With this film I plan to go into every mosque, every Muslim community that will let me in, to create dialogue, to break down the walls of silence, to help the many unsung lives and to create change for years to come.”
A Daa’y Responds
Orthodox Muslim Scholar also calls for ‘A Jihad for Love.’
In Islam, the consensus from all orthodox scholars is that the Qur’an and hadith (Prophet’s sayings) condemn homosexual activity. A Jihad for Love has polarized the discussion of homosexuality among Muslims. Critics argue that Sharma portrays homosexual activity as permissible in Islam, while they contend that it clearly isn’t. They also accuse Sharma of bias: As a gay Muslim man, they argue that he began the project with prejudices and a predefined position on homosexuality.
There are two main arguments Sharma and those featured in his documentary use to defend the way they live their lives. Presenting the opposing views is Moez Masoud, a young Egyptian daa’y (caller to Islam) and media expert who has studied under traditional scholars (including the Grand Mufti of Egypt Ali Gomaa). Masoud aired an episode in his 2007 Ramadan program The Right Way that was unprecedented in the history of religious TV programs: It was filmed in front of a gay cinema in London’s Soho district and openly discussed homosexuality.
Argument one: Homosexual inclinations are not a choice, but rather they are biologically driven. In an online article, Sharma wrote that “homosexuality, a ‘condition’ as natural as heterosexuality, has thrived as long as Islam has, and has often spread rapidly through Islamic lands with the blessings of rulers, artists, poets, musicians, Sufi mystics and many others.” Sharma then reasons that since it is an innate disposition, homosexuality cannot be a sin.
In his The Right Way episode, Masoud noted that the existence of a ‘gay gene’ remains an unproven theory, and there are other explanations behind homosexual inclinations – a widespread, though largely unjustified, example is sexual abuse. Many Muslim scholars agree that even if the ‘gay gene’ does exist, Islam stresses that humans are only responsible for actions they do voluntarily; inclinations, therefore, are not a sin, only the act.
“The argument is as follows: if the inclination is gene-related, then it is ‘not bad’ and can be followed,” says Masoud. He points out that even if specific behavioral tendencies are wired into you, “that doesn’t […] make these behaviors good, nor should it lead society to allow and ‘accept’ them.”
The reason Masoud believes a societymight accept homosexual activity, although it definitely wouldn’t hesitate to arrest and punish a mugger with biologically explainable aggressivetendencies, is that this type of society “is based on a philosophical acceptance of materialism and a denial of the existence of the spirit […] and so is only able to see material losses but not spiritual harms.”
A human being, according to Masoud, is made up of body, self and spirit, and therefore has a physical, psychological, and spiritual dimension to him. So even if there is shown to be a ‘gay gene,’ orthodox Muslim scholars will see it as God giving these men and women both a tribulation which they have to combat and an immense opportunity to draw closer to their spirituality.
“In that sense,” he continues, “they will then truly be mujahideen (those involved in jihad). The [documentary] is correct in its use of the term of jihad but defines it incorrectly. When people who have homoerotic desires struggle against their inclinations, they are struggling against an act that satisfies their physical body  but is against their spiritual self.
“The word sex is now assumed to be anything to do with pleasure and anything orgasmic. But sex is the unison of pairs, of male and female. The word ‘know’ in the Bible occasionally means sex. ‘He knew her’ means he slept with her, which means he got to know his other half, and acknowledged the ‘other.’ Sex cannot be devoid of acknowledgment of the other, so when it’s two similar and not two opposites there is no knowing, no acknowledgment and no sex.”
Masoud also points out that in addition to spiritual harms, homoerotic activity results in “severe witnessable physical harm,” since it is not compatible with the human body’s design. Increased vulnerability to sexually transmitted diseases and to the HIV virus is also a risk, as well as to other diseases.
“We have to make a clear distinction between the act and the desire,” explains Masoud. “The compulsive desire is not a sin, and only those who act upon it are sinning. Many people say that the person who engages in homosexual activities is an apostate, but Islam really says — and agrees with [Sharma] on this point — that the person is still Muslim, Muslim, Muslim, as long as he acknowledges that he is sinning. We need to reach out to these people, and I [personally] get many emails and telephone calls from youth suffering from this problem thinking they are damned even though they don’t act upon their desires. We need to help them without disarming them of their spirituality. We, too, need to tell them who they are, but on all levels of existence: body, self and most importantly spirit.”
Argument two: Sharma rebuts orthodox Islamic scholars who have interpreted the Qur’an and Hadith as forbidding homosexual relations by stating “that story [in the Qur’an] has nothing to do with consensual homosexual relations — it is about male-to-male rape. [Also] the Hadith of our beloved Prophet have been misinterpreted for centuries by men.”
Sharma and those who agree with him have reached this conclusion through their own ijtihaad, the personal attempt to interpret scripture. “We were instructed by our Prophet (peace be upon him)” explains Sharma, “to actually engage in discussion about Islam after which we can form an opinion based on it with our own intelligence.”
Scholars point out the hole in his logic—which is that the process of ijtihaad is not open to anyone, but only to those who have rigorously studied. Otherwise, anyone can open any book and make any fatwa (religious verdict) to suit his needs based on limited knowledge and information that is out of context.
“Only around 20 of over 100,000 companions of the prophet were “ahl estembat” (those who considered themselves qualified enough to actually interpret Qur’an and Hadith)” says Masoud. “Ijtihaad needs intensive training in language, purpose of Shariah and an academic awareness of the reasoning behind all other specialized mujtahids’ (those who practiced ijtihaad) derived rulings. Unqualified, post modern readings of scripture are too focused on personal freedom and individual pleasure that they unintentionally take the verses out of both spiritual and scriptural context. Specialization is respected in all realms of life, and Sacred Law should be no exception.
“Also, if you [start the process of ijtihaad] with preconceived notions and then search for ‘proof’ in the Qur’an, you will see what you want to see — just like terrorists find justification for killing innocent non-Muslims in the Qur’an.”
In the end, Masoud notes, one has to remember that “jihad is to struggle in the cause of good. It’s a struggle for the sake of goodness, beauty, justice and truth. Homoerotic activity is not a manifestation of these universal principles; it’s a violation of them and is in antithesis to the spiritual dimension. I love the title [of the movie] but when defined differently. We need to have jihad against extremism in society so we can learn to love the sinning person that is struggling, even though we hate their sin. And so, I too, call for a jihad for love.” et