Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Allah was a Liberace Fan

First order of the day, after the morning cup, was to find out not only what the traditional Muslim greeting As-salaam alaikum means but also how to spell it. Two seconds on the internet and I had a translation - peace be unto you - straight from America's sweetheart, Elijah Muhammed.

That issue was quickly settled, but just as quickly I stumbled upon another.

In a nation that has no qualms about confronting social issues, we have grown accustomed to debates about abortion, the death penalty, and the hot issue of the times - gay marriage. After judges across the country began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2003 and 2004, a clear violation of the Defense of Marriage Act that President Clinton (surprise!) signed into law, the conservative backlash culminated with President Bush calling for a Constitutional Amendment prohibiting the practice. Amendments to our secularly holy gospel of jurisprudence are no light matter; these things are usually reserved for monumental social and legal leaps such as the 19th, which gives women the right to vote or the 22nd, which sets the limit on presidential terms. Amendments to the Constitution have historically proven progressive, giving new rights to people who had been denied them earlier (excepting, of course, the Prohibition debacle of the 20s.) In any case, the precedent that could have been set by Bush's proposed amendment would have been disastrous, but much to the dismay of gay-bashers countrywide, conservative might did not prevail this time; the proposed amendment died peacefully on the Senate floor on July 15, 2004 and never even made it for state consideration. Guess they should have been praying harder.

The issue of gay marriage, however, arguably sent Bush back to the White House for a second term, which begs the question - would you rather have a dead straight son or a living gay one? We'll save that for another time.

What I'm leading to is not a discussion of the Constitution or even the legality of gay marriage, but a glance at a tiny and well-cloaked sector of the gay community that you probably never knew existed. Homosexuality among Christian cultures is no surprise to Americans, thanks in part to the surprisingly high percentage of Catholic priests who have earned many times over their honorary membership cards for NAMBLA. Among other religions it is still a mystery to us.

After 9/11 nothing gravitated more attention than Islam. Americans started researching it, converting to and from it, but most importantly becoming aware of the existence of this religion with over 1.2 billion adherents worldwide. What does this religion, with its roots and many of its characters, beliefs, and scriptures coming from the same place as Christianity, think about gays and lesbians? After all, with over a billion people, chances are pretty good that there is at least one Muslim who kisses his boyfriend goodbye before strapping on the homemade explosives and heading off to a crowded bus in Tel Aviv.

And chances are he belongs to an group called al-Fatiha. Founded in 1998 by Pakistani American Faisal Alam, the organization provides social shelter for those who find almost none from their families and religion. "The Muslim community as a whole is in complete and utter denial about homosexuality," he explains. "The conversation hasn’t even begun. We are about 200 years behind Christianity in terms of progress on gay issues. Homosexuality is still seen as a Western disease that infiltrates Muslim minds and societies." Al-Fatiha includes 7 branches in the US and several in England, Canada, and South Africa. Needless to say it's going to be a while before their Mecca and Tehran offices open.

It is a terrible time to be gay and Muslim. Every country that treats homosexuality as a crime punishable by death is Islamic. The current strength of Islamic fundamentalism and its willingness to engage unfavorable social issues with voracious violence poses a clear and present danger to the openly gay. The website for Al-Fatiha has been shut down, perhaps for security reasons. Just today influential Iraqi cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called for a queer jihad, stating that gays should be killed in the "most severe way." This is coming from the man who is considered the highest Shi-ite authority in Iraq, and in the past had advised that Shias not resist the American invasion force and later encouraged Iraqis to vote in the January 2005 election. In other words, he is a moderate. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to imagine what extremists think.

This is not to say your run-of-the-mill everyday Muslim, even in Iraq, is polishing his scimitar for the day when he can run it through the belly of a drag queen. There are huge progressive movements across the board within Islam. From human rights to feminism to non-violence to simply a less traditional interpretation of the Qur'an, there are Muslims hard at work revising their religion. Gay and lesbian rights are still in their infancy, but as more and more Muslims feel comfortable admitting their homosexuality to their families and mosques thanks to organizations like al-Fatiha, the movement will grow.

Until then, even in Western countries gay Muslims will have to contend with leaders such as Dr Muzammil Siddiqi, director of the Islamic Society of North America whose views on the subject are very clearly polarized. "Homosexuality is a moral disease, a sin, a corruption… No person is born homosexual, just as nobody is born a thief, a liar or a murderer. People acquire these evil habits due to a lack of proper guidance and education." At times like these it's important to remember that counterparts have and still exist for Christian gays who have managed to survive, prosper, and laugh it off with a peach bellini in hand. Despite Jerry Falwell blaming gays and lesbians, among others, for the 9/11 attacks, Brokeback Mountain was still a mega-blockbuster.

And of course for every bigot there is always someone willing to help.

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