On 22 May 2016, I was delighted to speak on the panel “No Sex, Please – We’re Muslim!” at the amazing Bradford Literature Festival. My co-panellist was the imam Alyas Karmani and the discussion was moderated by the Muslim journalist/activist Abdul-Rehman Malik. (Another panellist, Shuruq Naguib, had to pull out because of a major family emergency.) Neither Alyas nor I spoke from a prepared script – we mostly answered questions from the chair and the audience. I responded to the majority of concerns about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI) Muslims and the larger question of sexual diversity in Islam. My heart was warmed by the number of Muslims in the audience, especially those with such thoughtful questions about LGBTQI Muslims. I came away energised and proud of the discussion, a dramatic contrast to how devastated I am now after the massacre at Pulse, an LGBT nightclub in Orlando – the deadliest mass shooting in US history.
The Orlando massacre is doing many things to me, including feeding my deepest fears and anguish as an LGBTQI Muslim particularly since the killer was a Muslim, too. But one memory I am clinging onto is that the night before the Bradford panel, I had dinner with a Muslim writer/activist whom I respect and love immensely and consider a kindred spirit. I told her I was afraid of being on the panel and of making too strong a case for pro-LGBTQI understandings of Islam. I felt like I just didn’t have the authority to argue for it even as someone with a PhD in the sociology of religion. “No,” she said, gently and firmly. “People come to these things hoping to be convinced and you must convince them that the Qur’an does not justify hatred or discrimination against LGBTQI people.” She amazes me with her uncluttered faith as a heterosexual Muslim who understands the Qur’an as embracing all forms of diversity.
Yet, for some moments, the Orlando massacre undid all of my positivity. The massacre makes me sick with fear for my LGBTQI friends who enjoy clubbing and who are physically affectionate with their romantic partners in public. It also makes me sick with worry for my Muslim friends in the West who will now have to brace themselves for the inevitable Islamophobic backlash. My heart breaks especially for my friends who are both LGBTQI and Muslim and who, judging from their Facebook updates, are feeling terrified, bewildered and helpless.
One of my findings in my doctoral research was that LGBTQI Muslims are most vulnerable when they do not have communities of support. In Britain, many of the people I encountered felt alienated from the wider LGBT scene (which can be racist and Islamophobic at times) and their Muslim communities (which are often anti-LGBTQI or in denial that LGBTQI Muslims even exist). The happiest, most well-adjusted LGBTQI Muslims I met were those who felt they had supportive communities – either of fellow LGBTQI Muslims, or of Muslim-friendly LGBTQIs, or of pro-LGBTQI Muslims.
On the other hand, I met another Muslim activist once who dismissed pro-LGBTQI Muslims as “marginal” in the wider landscape of Islam. She would probably dismiss the Orlando killer’s homophobia as “marginal”, too. But, I’d want to ask her, then what is “mainstream” Islam?
Really, I don’t accept this dichotomy between “mainstream” and “marginal” with Islam or any other religion. And this is why I am holding onto that dinner conversation with my Muslim friend in Bradford for comfort. We’re both up against something that’s bigger, nastier and more powerful than we can comprehend. We’re both grieving for the Orlando victims and their loved ones. We both know that this is not a Muslim problem but it’s also not not a Muslim problem. And we’re both trying our hardest to be part of the solution, and we’re in this together.
Shanon Shah’s PhD research focused on the lived experiences of LGBTQI Muslims in Malaysia and Britain.