Sunday, 3 October 2010

Praying for Pride

Gay muslimsImage by hebedesign via Flickr
By Andy Haden

When a gay friend was forced by the Lebanese police to disclose the identities of other homosexuals, Jimmy’s real problems started. The police came to his house to find him, and caused Jimmy to flee the country as a result.

“When my father found out, he said he doesn’t accept me in the house. He would accept me as a criminal in the house but not as a gay, because this brings shame upon the family name.”

Tolerance & taboo

Islam and homosexuality are not two words that tend to be associated with each other, conjuring up images of prejudice, shame and violence, even death. Some claim that the two are in no way compatible, with this passage from the Koran (7:80-81) being used to justify their beliefs:

“We also sent Lut: He said to his people: “Do ye commit lewdness such as no people in creation (ever) committed before you? For ye practice your lusts on men in preference to women: ye are indeed a people transgressing beyond bounds.”

The Netherlands has long been a bastion of liberalism, with a rich history of tolerance and acceptance of all cultures and minorities. Fearing for their lives, many LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) Muslims from around the world flock to what is described as the ‘pink pillar of light’ in the Netherlands. However, regulations on asylum are being tightened up, with those fleeing because of their sexuality having to prove that they are both in danger, and actually gay. Islamophobia is also on the rise in some sections of Dutch society. What must life be like for those caught in the middle of this – those who dare to be gay and Muslim?

Jimmy’s story

‘Jimmy’ (his preferred pseudonym), 30, talks openly about the time he nearly died whilst trying to ‘cure himself’ of his homosexuality. The near tragedy occurred 10 years ago in a Lebanese research hospital, when a doctor attempted to correct a hormone imbalance he thought may be causing Jimmy to be gay.

“There was a hospital in Lebanon that specialised in human body research. I gave my body to them, and went to a famous professor who told me “There is nothing I can do, but let’s try playing with the hormones. Maybe there is a problem there; I will give you testosterone because maybe the female hormones are too high.” He gave me testosterone, and after two weeks, I went into a coma for three days. I almost died. After I came out of the coma, the professor told me “Listen, you are not sick; there is no virus for gays. You just have to accept yourself.”

What drives a man to nearly kill himself to cure something naturally occurring is almost beyond comprehension, but that was not the start of Jimmy’s problems with his sexuality. In 1998, at the age of 18, he visited a psychologist, who prescribed medication to try and counter the feelings he was having. When this didn’t work, he submitted himself to the research hospital where he nearly lost his life. Prior to this, Jimmy had turned to his Aunt for assistance, who told him that: “You’re not the only one in the world, but please promise me that you won’t tell anybody you’re gay”. Upon his release from the hospital, he embarked on a two-year quest to try and discover if he could be “cured”. His aunt took him to a local mosque in Lebanon, in the hope that he could be cured through religious studies.

“We went to the Imam in the mosque in Lebanon, and he told me that maybe I have a devil in my mind, and that I should pray five times a day, read the Koran and live in the mosque. I stayed and studied Islamic science, and prayed five times a day. However, when people came to pray, they started to say their prayers but I’m looking for guys. I went to the Imam and he said that what you are doing forbidden, as I’m going for the guys instead of praying. The imam told me that my place isn’t here and to move from the mosque.”

This rejection by his own religion drove Jimmy to even more extreme measures; joining the Orthodox Church in Lebanon and studying to become a priest, hoping that maybe Christianity would be the way to solve his issues.

Jimmy stayed at the church for 3 months but had to leave once his fellow priests made complaints against him.

“The main priest called me in and told me to move from the church, as “You’re still gay inside”. I was still scared myself, as I had this idea that I’m sick and the only one in the world.”

In a final attempt to discover what was ‘wrong’ with him, and to find a cure, Jimmy visited a man he describes as an Islamic matchmaker.

“My auntie took me to Syria, to see the matchmaker. I remember telling him my story, and he gave me a kind of oil and arm bracelets. He said I had to wait until the sun went red, put my head seven times in the sea, and then read a small piece from the Koran. I remember it was winter and very cold, but I did it. I put my head seven times in the sea, put the oil on myself, but nothing helped. My aunt asked me how I feel, and I said I felt the same. She said “Do you now finally accept yourself?”, and I said yes. I’m like that, I’m not sick, there is no virus; I’m like that. God made me like that, and I accept myself like that. Still, I don’t dare to talk to my family because I am like that.”

Despite this series of ordeals, Jimmy’s real problems only started in 2000, when a gay friend of his was forced by the police to disclose the identities of homosexuals he knew. The police then came to Jimmy’s house to find him.

“When my father found out, he said he doesn’t accept me in the house. He would accept me as a criminal in the house but not as a gay, because this brings shame upon the family name.”

This rejection forced Jimmy to flee Lebanon in fear of attacks from his family, and he arrived in the Netherlands shortly after, where he has rebuilt his life, has a partner he has been with for 3 years, and now works as a voluntary counsellor to help others in a similar situation.
Asylum issues

This reaction to homosexuality is not uncommon in the Muslim world and some of the Islamic community in The Netherlands. However, there are organisations that are working towards increasing awareness & tolerance of homosexuality within Muslim communities.

Secret Garden works directly with LGBT Muslims, providing counselling, advice & assistance on a variety of issues, ranging from sexual health & protection to talking about problems or personal feelings. From their headquarters in Amsterdam, they organise events to help support and raise awareness of LGBT Muslims.

At one such event, a short film is being screened to highlight the ordeals faced by gay asylum seekers, some of whom were verbally and physically abused whilst in detention centres. Dutch asylum policy for homosexuals is strict, requiring many to prove that they are actually gay, as well as any actual danger they would be in if they were deported to their original countries. This is seen as an impossible task, as there is no way to actually prove your sexuality. After the screening of accounts from those struggling through what seems to be an increasingly constrictive asylum system in The Netherlands, some of those featured spoke about their experiences.

Abdulla, a 24-year old Jordanian, talks about how he had to flee his home country in fear of his life, but has now ended up in an asylum camp. Before he could flee Jordan, his family tracked him down and his own father shot him in the leg. Fortunately, a friend he describes as a general in the Jordanian military managed to get him a short-term visa for the Netherlands, which allowed him to fly in before making his asylum claim. The experience seems to have destroyed all thoughts of religion for Abdulla, who says he used to be a Muslim, but doesn’t believe anymore because “no religion accepts gays. I don’t need religion; I am a good person already, and it isn’t needed.”

Another participant in the film was Ammar, a 43yr old Iraqi. He claims that after the invasion in 2003, there was no government, no police stations and above all, no rule of law. This exposed him and other homosexuals in Iraq to a wave of violence and attacks, and he was told that under Sharia law, he would be stoned to death in a public place because of his sexuality and appearance. After surviving for 5 years in Baghdad, he fled to the Netherlands and has lived there since 2008, claiming asylum. The Dutch courts refused his first application, and he is currently awaiting a decision on his appeal. However, Ammar claims that he can never go back to Iraq. Opening his bag to reveal a selection of make-up, he demands to know how he will make it through security at Baghdad airport alive whilst carrying such items. In contrast to Abdulla, however, he claims to still be religious, reading both the Koran and the Bible regularly, and says that in the Netherlands, it is easy to be both gay and Muslim “Yes, I am a believer, and I am gay. That is fine; it is my opinion, but others may not agree.”

Breaking taboos

The rise of Islamophobia and the popularity of anti-Islamic politician Geert Wilders has shocked many in The Netherlands, and is putting even more pressure on Muslims who thought they’d finally found somewhere to live in peace. Speaking about Wilders, Jimmy says what kind of society he thinks Wilders wants to create.

“He has a problem with a group here, and he thinks everyone is the same. He wants the Netherlands to become an island where nobody can come in or go out; where it is only for blonde Dutch people who have to stay in the country. We are now in 2010; it is a shame to think like that. If Wilders thinks like that, he is wrong. There is nothing written in the Koran about Bin Laden or 9/11; those who did this are sick people”

Jimmy talks passionately about the role of these support organisations, as well as his work as a volunteer.

“I am the one who dares to talk about homosexuality and my life in public & be open, so I break the taboo. I take the first step, and enable the Muslim or Arabic gays to take the first step to say that because there is someone saying this before me, I can dare to talk about this as well.

First, we have to show Muslims that homosexuals are people with red blood. We have feelings, we can cry, we can laugh, we can talk about whatever we want. We are not only thinking about sex, sex, sex and that’s it. There is misunderstanding about homosexuality within Muslim communities because they won’t discuss it. They only have in their mind that it is forbidden because the Koran says it is so. You have to read deeply what this means in the Koran. Homosexuality doesn’t mean I have to be a sissy boy, a naked man or always looking for sex. I have a partner I have been with for three years now; I would never go with someone else. My partner loves me and I love him. All my neighbours don’t know I am homosexual, but if they asked, I would happily tell them.”

There is an overall feeling amongst the LGBT Muslim community that they want to be accepted for who they are in The Netherlands. The overall feeling is that there needs to be more support from the Dutch government, a loosening in asylum regulations to help those most at risk, and a bigger push by gay rights organisations to educate Muslim communities in the Netherlands. However, the main word used is acceptance, and until this comes from within their own communities, those praying for peace will never be able to find it.

The Dutch government, Amsterdam council and a variety of Islamic organisations in The Netherlands were contacted as part of this investigation. All declined to comment.

Andy Haden is an emerging freelance journalist working with video, print & radio (and vague pretensions of being a snapper). Andy's interests include domestic and international news on a wide range of topics, and has had work used by a variety of international news organisations.

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