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Muslims building bridges: Sexuality, diversity and faith

Between 24 and 27 August 2012, around 70 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI) Muslims, along with their partners, friends, families and allies, gathered in central London. They were part of the fifth international conference organised by Imaan, a UK-based support group for LGBTQI Muslims. The attendees consisted of British Muslims from all over the UK, Muslims originally from North Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and Southeast Asia, Sunnis, Shi’as, and supportive non-Muslims, too. The conference was appropriately titled “Diversity: the Gift of Islam.”

The plenary and workshop sessions covered socio-political aspects of LGBTQI Muslim issues, psychological and emotional well-being, and fard al-‘ayn (individual religious duties). Therefore, participants alternated between sessions discussing, for example, the global human rights context for LGBTQIs, women and Muslims, and workshops on salah and tajweed.

Although this combination of the spiritual and political was in itself remarkable, the real triumph of the conference was its commitment to the process of making diversity work. Thus, Imaan not only tried to empower its own membership, but also reached out to the larger Muslim community and friends from other religious traditions.

This was not an easy step to take, since some prominent British Muslims have condemned the very existence of LGBTQI Muslims in the past. Nevertheless, the Imaan trustees and conference organisers believed that it was still possible to build critical friendships with “mainstream” British Muslims. After all, diversity can only work when social groups celebrate their internal diversity and build bridges with other social groups.

Building intra-Muslim bridges

It was thus a moving moment when City Circle trustee Yahya Birt opened his presentation during the “Engaging with the Wider Muslim Community” panel on Sunday, 26 August, with an apology. “The Muslim organisations have failed people like you in this room for such a long time, and for that I am truly sorry,” he said. Several Imaan members shed tears at Birt’s sincerity and humility.

Birt said it was important to look at recent developments within the British Muslim community regarding homophobia.

For example, a subsequent search by this article’s author in The Guardian’s 2007 online archives and the Muslim Council of Britain website shows that the MCB backed the Equality Act 2006 as quid pro quo recognition of the rights of religious and sexual minorities. Nevertheless, this invited backlash from some prominent British Muslims.

Despite this, MCB spokesperson Inayat Bunglawala wrote positively on LGBTQI rights. He went on to suggest in a 2009 Comment is free article of his that the MCB include “a gay Muslim support group as an affiliate” in order to demonstrate its commitment to equality. To date, however, it is unclear what the MCB has done either to combat homophobia, specifically within Muslim communities, or regarding Bunglawala’s suggestion.

During the panel discussion, what Birt did say is that apart from Bunglawala, there are other “mainstream” British Muslim leaders who are open to engaging sexual diversity issues. For example, in the “Contextualising Islam in Britain” research series organised by the Universities of Cambridge, Exeter and Westminster between 2009 and 2011, some imams were prepared to engage with the session on sexual diversity and Islam.

This diversity of opinion among British Muslim leaders was also corroborated by Sughra Ahmed of the Islamic Society of Britain (ISB). Ahmed said that British Muslim communities, as with any community, are organic and British Muslims have a range of opinions on a range of issues, including gender and sexuality. She said that stereotypes about Muslims in the dominant discourse – whether led by certain “activist Muslims” or by certain anti-Muslim groups – prevent the wider public from recognising this diversity of opinion among contemporary Muslims.

In the same panel, Shaista Gohir of the Muslim Women's Network UK (MWN-UK) and Paul Salahuddin Armstrong of the Association of British Muslims (AOBM) shared the experiences within their organisations in tackling homophobia and transphobia.

Gohir talked about the MWN-UK’s internal trials when they included a lesbian Muslim on their steering group in 2003 and decided to stick by her despite the staunch resistance from some of the other members.

Armstrong said that the issue of “legitimacy” often colours public perceptions about whether Muslim organisations have a right to engage with gender and sexuality issues. With tongue firmly in cheek, he said, “The AOBM was founded in 1889 by Shaykhul Islam Abdullah Quilliam Bey, who received his ijaza from the last Ottoman caliph,” thus putting the issue of “legitimacy” to rest.

On a more serious note, he said that his belief in Islam is premised on the values encapsulated by the basmallah: mercy and kindness. “When mercy and kindness are absent, Islam is absent,” he said.

Gohir and Armstrong thus attested that their organisations intend to remain faithfully Islamic by taking a stand against homophobia and transphobia. 

Building inter-religious bridges

The discussion that Sunday afternoon then enlarged into lessons that Muslims could learn from their brothers and sisters of other religions. Reverend Canon Giles Goddard, outgoing Chair of Inclusive Church, shared useful insights on the Church of England’s current internal challenges on the consecration of women bishops and recognition of same-sex marriage. Dharam Singh from Sarbat talked about the similar issues that LGBTQI Sikhs and Muslims and face.

Lastly, former president of the World Congress of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Jews Jack Gilbert talked about how LGBTQI Jews, as recently as the 1970s, faced anti-Semitism in Europe, even from some secular LGBTQI activists, and homophobia and transphobia within the Jewish community. He noted the parallels here with how LGBTQI Muslims are currently caught between anti-Muslim sentiments in the West and homophobia and transphobia within some Muslim communities.

Faith and action

In the global context of human rights discourse there is a glaring spotlight on Muslims, specifically with regard to women’s and LGBTQI rights. Sometimes the criticisms and questions are valid, yet often they are motivated by bigotry and racism. But as Birt said, there are many Muslims who are committed to upholding diversity for all because it is a matter of ihsan for them, i.e. demonstrating their faith through socially responsible acts.

Imaan chair Tawseef Khan had the same idea when he said, before the conference, “The title of this, our fifth international conference is entirely appropriate as we ask questions of how modern Muslims honour the promise of Islam: that it is a gift to all peoples; and whether its LGBTQI community has, or is being allowed, its rightful place within the global Ummah.”

By these standards, the fifth international Imaan conference was both a resounding success and a promising start.

Special note: Imaan would like to thank the Muslim Institute for carrying this report of the conference.

Shanon Shah is a PhD student at the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, King’s College London. He is also an Associate Fellow of the Muslim Institute, and contributed to various workshops and panel discussions at the Imaan conference. His essay on Islam and sexual diversity, “Lot’s Legacy”, appears in the Fear and Loathing issue of Critical Muslim