Saturday, 9 January 2010

'I'm a pariah' says Muslim scholar who is gay

Source: Edmonton Journal

By Elise Stolte

Muslim Junaid Bin Jahangir realized he was gay while a student at the University of Alberta. He decided to throw his energies into researching the topic, and educating the Islamic community.

Muslim Junaid Bin Jahangir realized he was gay while a student at the University of Alberta. He decided to throw his energies into researching the topic, and educating the Islamic community.
Photograph by: Greg Southam, The Journal, Edmonton Journal

Junaid Bin Jahangir was such a devout Muslim that when he arrived in Canada he ate only yogurt for two days until he was sure which food followed halal dietary rules.

The university student prayed five times a day, and joined a local mosque.

Then one day, at age 27, he started to wonder why he had never been with a girl. "Why don't I like women that way?" he asked, and it led him to a counselling office, where he sat, sobbing, with the realization that he was gay -- a pariah to his community.

Mainstream Islamic leaders say gay men should be shunned and some around the world are killed each year.

Jahangir's world imploded; work on his PhD ground to a halt.

But out of that despair, Jahangir began to work on another project: Understanding the teachings of Islam on homosexuality. From his office at the University of Alberta, he contacted experts, read everything he could on the subject and studied the scriptures intensely for two years, rebuilding his own identity in the process. His work is starting to be recognized internationally.

Now he argues Muslims misinterpret the Qur'an if they consider the ban on homosexuality to be as firm as bans on alcohol or pork. The common story from which most Muslims draw their teaching is about violent homosexual rape, he says, and it's time to rethink the possibility of consensual, supportive relationships.

Although his PhD in economics is still incomplete, Jahangir was asked to contribute a chapter to a new anthology on homosexuality compiled by a noted Australian academic. The book Islam and Homosexuality, edited by Samar Habib and published by Praeger Publishers, appeared recently in bookstores.

But he remains fearful of talking about the subject. He doesn't want his face shown in photographs, and when he agreed to do a presentation at the U of A in the run-up to the book launch, organizers asked campus security and a local newspaper to attend in case someone wanted to cause trouble.

The meeting went well, and it appeared that some Muslim students attended, judging by the half-dozen head scarves among the crowd. But he still complains no Imams or professors with the university Islamic Studies department will speak with him or about the topic. The silence is so deep it's frustrating, he says.

"The apathy is unbelievable. How many more marriages do we want to fail as we pretend this doesn't exist?

"Gay youth are committing suicide," he says. "The 13-or 14-year-old girls, they are the ones who need this. (If they believe they are lesbian), what do they do? Get married and follow through the motions? What joy do they have in their lives?

"Let's at least talk about the issue because it affects us all."

Jahangir wrote his views in an opinion piece published in the Gateway, the U of A student newspaper. But the local Muslim student association simply sent an e-mail to its members recommending they avoid him. Now he avoids the Muslim community, and any local mosque, too, he says. "I'm a pariah."

Jahangir grew up in Dubai and studied to earn a bachelor's degree in Pakistan. He came to the U of A for his master's and PhD. He was goal-oriented, and totally focused on his studies until about four years ago, when he finished the field exams for his commerce degree.

He still had a thesis to write, but that's when he first seriously asked himself the question: "Why don't I like women that way?"

"Does this mean I'm gay?" he asked the student counsellor.

"'That's for you to decide,'" the counsellor answered. Jahangir broke down crying.

From then on, he couldn't focus on his thesis.

He went to see a local Imam and told him his fears. " 'You're effeminate,' " the Imam told him. " 'I want you to go to the gym and keep a diary.' "

Jahangir discarded the advice. "I said this is no solution."

He sought help from an Islamic counsellor on the Internet. "All she said was, 'You seem like a good person. I'll pray for you.' "

He went to a doctor to get hormonal tests, but they came back normal.

Finally, he went to a professional local counsellor, who turned out to be Jewish, and she taught him that holy scriptures have been interpreted by people differently over the years. The common interpretation is not always the truest, he says. He kept visiting her regularly for five months.

"They are as conservative as we are," he says. "I really learned a lot from her. That boosted my confidence to study on my own."

It has now been four years since he first took on the motto -- "knowledge is your shield" -- and started searching for books and articles on the subject. He's still working on his economics degree, but being included in the anthology for his work on homosexuality feels like having published a second thesis.

In the book, Jahangir examines the story of Lut, or Lot, a nephew of Ibrahim (or Abraham), who is often remembered from Christian Sunday school lessons as the man whose wife turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back at Sodom and Gomorrah burning in fire and brimstone.

In the Qur'an, Lut was a prophet sent to warn the people of the city to turn away from evil practices. Angels in the form of young male travellers came to warn him to flee because the city was about to be destroyed.

Lut persuaded the strangers to stay at his house for protection, and during the night, the men of the city threaten to break into his house demanding the strangers be given to them for sex.

Lut and his family fled during the night.

Mainstream Islamic thought interprets the sin of Lut's people primarily as homosexuality. But Jahangir argues the sin discussed here should be recognized as rape, not loving same-sex unions. "This is rape as a violent tool. That's how you humiliate your enemies," says Jahangir.

Most major sins in the Qur'an are spelled out, says Jahangir, such as the prohibition against incest, "forbidden to you are your mothers and daughters, your sisters."

But why draw such a firm prohibition against homosexuality from a story, he asks. "A story can be interpreted in so many different ways. Why does it have to be this?"

"Even sympathetic people will say it's a test for you from God," he says. "Where does that leave you? You can't expect them to be robots. If it is a test, the majority will fail."

Instead, Jahangir argues, Muslims should apply the principle from the Qur'an that states anything not expressly forbidden is permissible.

Marriage is a basic need for a healthy life and Islamic law is mindful of genuine private and public need, he says. Since science has demonstrated homosexuality is not a choice, he argues, Islamic principles should support loving same-sex unions.

"It's not about sex. It's about being alone in old age," he says. "It's about living the full civil life of responsibility."

The community has ostracized Jahangir because of his views, he says. But he's not worried for himself anymore; he has the support of his family back in Pakistan.

He spends his time teaching and in advocacy work, and has a new circle of supportive friends, many found through Edmonton's Pride centre.

Loneliness comes when he sees couples walking together and friends with children. "But I have an amazing group of close friends here. (Being alone) doesn't bother me that much," he says. "This is where my adopted family is."

Jahangir says he knows girls who have run away from homes in Edmonton rather than get married and who are still hiding from their parents. A young male relative was suicidal, but seems to have found a measure of peace through reading his work, he says.

Mainstream Canadian culture is much more supportive of homosexual youth than it once was, he says. "It's really the task of the day to work in the Islamic context as well. These books, hopefully, will ignite the conversation."


uk-gay-muslim-500Image by solomonsmfield via Flickr

Hope exists for LGBT Muslims

Source: The Gateway

April 1, 2008

By Junaid Jahanagir

Edmonton, despite Alberta’s redneck fame, is home to both the oldest North American mosque and the first North American Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT)youth camp. Both the Pride Centre and Muslim Community act to support their respective members; however, it’s nearly impossible to bring elements of both together owing to intransigence on the Muslim side, the limited resources of the LGBT, and the unwillingness of Muslim LGBT to reconcile the diametrically opposed facets of their existence.

It’s not news to say that both sides are subject to discrimination and sterotypes. The American Muslim community has, at times, been wrongfully portrayed as potentially abetting heinous acts of terrorism, and on other occasions, you’ll find messages that paint all queers as disease-infected child molesters.

Naturally, queer practicing Muslims weave a cocoon of restrictive pretence. Whereas the hijab or a beard expose them to the scrutiny of the general public, their refusal to marry unleashes the wrath of forbidding cultural traditions. But despite the barriers they face, there’s still hope.

Western LGBTs have made great strides toward the integration and cementing of their rights in the post-2005 era of same-sex marriage. Affirming United Churches wed same sex couples, libraries have sections on queer literature, support groups provide resources to LGBT parents, and academia works on cutting-edge queer theory. However, such achievements aren’t shared by their Muslim peers, in whose lives words like “sodomy” overpower those like “heteronormativity.”

Though the LGBT community has accomplished much, these successes mean little to practicing Muslim LGBT. The language of a tradition based on civic rights can’t simply be used to address other cultural norms that employ the language of Classical Islamic jurisprudence.

Fortunately, an alternative, yet mainstream, Muslim discourse exists that can be summoned to address the status quo in a firm yet respectful manner so that future generations of Muslim LGBTs won’t face freezing silence from their faith-based family.

Indeed, a whole school of Muslim scientists deemed homosexuality as an inherited trait hundreds of years before the revolutionary American Psychological Association statements. Moreover, the strong opinions of revered scholars like Ibn Hazm and Abu Hanifa on the Qur’anic verses on the people of Lot (Sodom) who oppose the use of these verses for injunctions on homosexual conduct. Their opinions lend support to the alternate belief that the divine addressed violent rape as wrong, not loving same-sex unions.

Furthermore, in Islamic scriptures, there’s an absence of any express directives in regard to same-sex unions. And if you begin to consider rules of Classical Islamic jurisprudence—such as “necessity trumps prohibitions” and “general rules always allow for exceptions”—they can be seen to form a strong counterweight against the rigid traditions, which scholarly work has estimated to be weak and concocted.

Given the above, one wonders if it would be too much to ask the mainstream clergy to address the plight of Muslim LGBTs. Perhaps this is why some mainstream Imams like the late Zaki Badawi have gone so far as to encourage gay Muslims to form chaste civil unions with their same-sex partners under British law. However, no North American Muslim scholar has as yet effectively addressed the subject—perhaps due to the more pressing concerns of a community that finds itself under duress from the Islamophobic generalizations within society at large.

Hope lies in the efforts of fringe queer Muslim groups like Salaam Canada, openly gay Imams like Daayiee Abdullah, and alternative groups like the Muslim Canadian Congress. Paradoxically, hope also lies in statements coming from religious discussions in Muslim countries like Indonesia. Recently, some moderate Muslim scholars have boldly stated that homosexuals and homosexuality are natural and created by God, and thus permissible within Islam.

Classical Muslim thought has within it the capacity for a discourse that is tolerant and respectful of queerness. And with more work, more voices, and above all the determination of Muslim LGBTs, it will only be a matter of time before mainstream Islam will support same-sex unions.
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