Dear Leaders, Activists, and Community Members,
The Orlando massacre has thrust the Muslim community once again into the national spotlight and this time the American people demand to know what Islam has to say about homosexuality and the “LGBT liberation” movement. We need to be open, unambiguous, and principled in answering these questions now, speaking with a Prophetic voice in times of great confusion.
Let me start by reiterating what many Muslims have been saying. I sympathize with those who have lost loved ones in this killing spree. Furthermore, gunning down people, whether they are at a school, a church, or a gay club, is a grave crime as far as Islam is concerned. I understand that some Americans will never believe such assurances, but there is little that we could say to convince such naysayers. After all, if the veritable freight train of cultural capital known as Muhammad Ali could not, in life or in death, convince the American public that Islam is not a murderous ideology of hate, what hope do the rest of us have?
Spurred by this shooting and the Muslim community’s subsequent condemnations, the public has been asking, Does Islam support LGBT rights? This has put tremendous pressure on imams and community leaders to respond in a way that is true to Islamic teachings but is also sympathetic to the recent tragedy and, even more importantly, is conversant with the wider cultural discourse on the LGBT identity and lifestyle.
Given the circumstances, the question itself is unfair. The implicit binary is that either Muslims are fully in support of the LGBT movement or they are no different from Omar Mateen, i.e., bloodthirsty bigots on the verge of gunning down the nearest gay bar. But there is a third option.
A Question of Affirmation
In my past writing on this topic, I have been clear that bullying, assaulting, or indiscriminately killing people merely because they self-identify as or are presumed to be gay is something Muslims around the world should oppose according to their religious principles and traditions. For example, if a Muslim were to come upon a person being attacked in the street for “being gay,” it would be that Muslim’s Islamic duty to intervene and help the victim.
That being said, I maintain that Muslims cannot uncritically and unconditionally endorse the LGBT rights movement without simultaneously violating basic principles of Islam.
It would be easy to portray this lack of endorsement as “homophobia” or a callous indifference to people for who they are. But let me emphatically dispel such a simplistic and reductive portrayal. In actuality, I do care about those who consider themselves gay, lesbian, or transgender, whether they are Muslims or non-Muslims. In fact, I deeply care and I believe other Muslims should care as well.
But that care does not translate into support for much of what the LGBT rights movement stands for. As Muslims, we do not have grounds to believe that the assumptions and goals of that movement benefit in the short or long term those individuals who self-identify as LGBT. Rather, this movement and the lifestyle it assumes and enables is harmful to the very people it purports to liberate — harmful in the physical and metaphysical senses. So, how could I or any other Muslim lend support?
Along these same lines, if “standing with the LGBT community” means supporting the LGBT movement in all its implications and demands and, hence, enabling those identifications and those lifestyle choices that I, as a Muslim, believe to be incorrect, immoral, and, ultimately, harmful, then clearly I do not and cannot take such a stand. But again, that does not mean that I do not care for the well-being, happiness, and success of my fellow human beings. In fact, from my perspective, I care a great deal more than others who are eager to enable and normalize what I and my religion maintain are self-destructive behaviors.
Of course, others will vehemently disagree on the destructiveness of same-sex sexual behavior, but that is beside the point. Truth be told, all religions and life philosophies commit their adherents to a certain moral outlook when it comes to sex. Even secular humanism has its do’s and don’ts when it comes to people’s sex lives. (Simply consider the severe taboos and laws against incest, pedophilia, and so forth. Or consider the inherent normativity implicit in modern psychiatry’s extensive categorization of sexual “dysfunctions” and “paraphilias.”) Be that as it may, in present day America, one specific, idiosyncratic kind of sexual morality is the dominant view, a view that is increasingly being established in federal and state law. It just so happens that that view conflicts with Islamic sexual morality on the question of same-sex intimacy.
Sure, we can have a conversation about which of these systems is the right one, which is more compelling, more just, etc. I am more than willing to discuss that (and have written to this effect elsewhere). But, at the end of the day, Muslims’ most deeply held beliefs on this issue do not allow them in good conscience to support, let alone “celebrate,” the LGBT movement.
A Question of Reconciliation
Now, the question is, Do Muslims have a right to their beliefs, or will they be bullied and silenced into a position that is fundamentally opposed to their deepest ethical and theological commitments?
The claim that secular democracy makes is that it can accommodate a diversity of beliefs, even conflicting beliefs. And if liberal secular democracy is truly tolerant of a diversity of beliefs, then my religious beliefs ought to be meaningfully allowed and protected. If liberal secular democracy is what it claims to be, especially regarding its treatment of religious plurality, then it ought not to force Muslims (or other religious groups) to accept something that is so contrary to their faith.
Yet, how can liberal secularism claim to tolerate religious belief if it requires certain groups essentially to abandon their faith? If tomorrow laws are passed that, for example, require Muslim institutions not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, require Muslim leaders to refrain from calling same-sex behavior a sin, require Muslim communities to abide by homonormative speech guidelines, require Muslim businesses to serve same-sex weddings, require Islamic schools and mosques not to discriminate on the basis of professed sexual ethical commitments in their hiring practices, etc., etc., then how can this be called tolerance when all of these things would, from our perspective, destroy the moral fabric of our communities and radically undermine our faith and autonomy?
The point is that the issue of reconciling “freedom of faith” and “gay rights” is not a problem for Muslims to solve. This is a problem for liberal secularism to solve since it is the one that claims to be able to reconcile diverse communities and divergent belief systems under one legal system and one government. If liberal secular states, like the U.S., force Muslims to accept something antithetical to their religion, then this proves that the liberal secular vision of universal tolerance, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, etc., are a mirage and that such states are not unlike any other authoritarian or theocratic regime that imposes beliefs on its populace by force of law.
A Question of Reciprocation
What is often brought up in these discussions is the fact that numerous LGBT groups and individuals have bravely stood with Muslims in advocating for Muslim rights, whether protesting Guantanamo Bay, or pushing back against anti-Muslim bigots who want to shut down mosques, or opposing aggressive U.S. foreign policy that has resulted in wars, occupation, and the loss of millions of innocent lives across numerous Muslim countries. If LGBT activists are willing to stand for Muslim rights, then shouldn’t Muslims return the favor and stand for LGBT rights? Isn’t it hypocritical for American Muslims to demand rights for themselves but withhold support when it comes to the rights of gays, lesbians, and transgendered people? The question is, How can Muslims insist on fair treatment in the Western context while also opposing, or at least not actively endorsing, the LGBT movement?
This question requires an in-depth response that I have provided elsewhere. Suffice it to say, however, that the same liberal dilemma applies. Why are Muslims required to compromise central parts of their faith – by accepting and normalizing same-sex intimacy, something they consider impermissible according to their faith – in order to secure their basic religious rights in the West, religious rights which one would think are guaranteed by the US Constitution in the first place? Why are Muslims placed in this lose-lose situation? Is this something unique to Muslims or are other groups challenged with analogous requirements? Is this conundrum inescapable in liberal secular societies?
A Question of Imposition
Another misconception that I would like to address is the contentious issue of Muslim democratic participation on the basis of Islamic ethics. Can I as a Muslim living in a Western democracy support public policy positions on the basis of my religious values? For example, if, prior to the Supreme Court decision, the question of gay marriage was on the ballot, should I take my religious beliefs into account in voting against it? Or would this be nothing more than illegitimately “imposing my beliefs upon others”?
Recently, a large number of American Muslim community leaders signed a joint statement condemning the Orlando shooting and also testifying to the “cherished political right” of “individuals [who] are at liberty to pursue happiness as each sees fit,” and that Muslims have no right to “impose” their views on non-Muslims since, as we read in the Quran, “There is (absolutely) no compulsion in religion.” The joint statement leaves it open to interpretation whether this “freedom from imposition” applies equally to Muslim societies overseas, the majority of which have laws against homosexuality that reflect Islamic notions of sexual morality. Also ambiguous is whether those “individuals who are at liberty to pursue happiness” in loud and proud same-sex relationships will be welcome, right here in the United States, to teach at the Islamic colleges, schools, and institutes of the signatories or to lead prayers at their mosques. Given that the entire thrust of the statement is to express condolences for the death of LGBT community members and to emphasize the importance of “inclusivity, tolerance, and respect for all,” it would not be a stretch to assume that many will interpret the statement in a “pro-LGBT” light as typically understood in contemporary American society (including full endorsement of the moral neutrality of same-sex behavior).
The fact that the statement, in places, uses the very language of the LGBT rights movement only adds to that impression. It is LGBT activists, after all, who claim that all they really want is “equality before the law” and “the liberty to pursue happiness as they see fit.” If the signatories did not intend the statement to be interpreted thus, I am afraid they have inadvertently opened the doors to accusations of hypocrisy from LGBT activists, who could easily and very publicly cite the statement in putting pressure on their Islamic schools, businesses, mosques, and other organizations in demanding space, resources, and institutional support for their movement. It is not clear that most American Muslim institutions could hold up against such pressure. Potential confusion could have been avoided entirely had the statement stuck to condolences and condemnation of wanton murder and not wandered into an acknowledgement of the irrational liberal secular paranoia regarding the “religious imposition of belief on the non-believing masses.” Well, how ought one address this paranoia?
In a liberal secular democracy, the theory is that citizens are expected to participate according to their values and beliefs. All citizens are expected to want to “impose” their political views – i.e., to see them implemented by force of law – whether those citizens are Democrats, Republicans, Trump supporters, libertarians, socialists, vegans, etc. They can register their views through the electoral process and other democratic avenues.
Now, if this theory is truly coherent, then by definition everyone is striving to make such “impositions” upon everyone else. And those “impositions” are based on one’s most cherished personal values and beliefs, whether they be formally religious or not. Some people have deep moralistic beliefs about firearms and will participate in the democratic process on that basis. Others have deep moralistic beliefs about the environment, about poverty, about corporate greed, etc., and will vote, lobby, speak, and organize accordingly. This is just what democratic participation amounts to.
Yet, all of these views are no less “moralistic,” or “deeply held,” or “personal” than any particular religious value. (In fact, some people are downright religious when it comes to their views on certain social issues.) Thus, it follows that if I believe certain sexual practices to be immoral, I have a prerogative to publicly denounce them and to politically participate in democracy on the basis of my beliefs; that is simply what political participation means. And if I am not allowed to participate politically on the basis of my moral values in this way, then in what sense can it be said that I am meaningfully participating in democracy, as a citizen, at all?
A Question of Discrimination
As it turns out, American Muslims have long been living in a society that does not share many Islamic sexual values, whether it comes to the licitness of premarital sex, adultery, casual sex, “hooking up,” and any number of other practices. Presumably, if there ever were a referendum or policy initiative against these practices, Muslims would have to vote according to their conscience. But the question of homosexuality, in comparison to these other practices, is very different politically and legally. For example, there is no question that an Islamic college or Catholic university would be within its legally-defined prerogative to deny, say, a professorship to a person who openly and unabashedly promoted adultery, or anything else that conflicted with that institution’s code of ethics. But when it comes to the promotion of another sexual behavior – namely, same-sex sexuality – then to deny a professorship could be seen as discrimination. But why?
Sure, according to the dominant sexual mores, one’s sexual orientation is conceived as constituting a person’s essential identity and, as such, it would be immoral and even illegal to discriminate on the basis of that identity. But Muslims and other religious groups do not necessarily share these beliefs. From an Islamic perspective, it could be conceded that something like sexual orientation exists and is immutable – i.e., that some people simply are attracted to the same or opposite sex. Yet conceding this does not compel one to maintain that this sexual orientation should be regarded as the core of people’s identity, i.e., defining who they are, who they see themselves as, and how others are required to treat them. There are, for example, Muslims and Christians who experience same-sex attraction, but they do not self-identify as “gay Muslims” or “gay Christians” – they simply consider themselves as Muslims and Christians who happen to have certain kinds of sexual desires.
To understand the significance of this, consider the following. Recent scientific research claims that people’s inclinations or disinclinations to commit infidelity are biologically hardwired. Given this, we could say that the tendency to be unfaithful constitutes a portion of people’s inherent, immutable sexual orientation. Based on this, would there be a need to categorize people into identity groups or communities based on that? For example, would those with a greater pull to cheat self-identify as “extrasexuals” with everyone else identifying as “intrasexuals”? Would there be “extrasexual pride parades” and an “extrasexual rights movement” that would demand that Islamic and Catholic schools make space for “alternative (read, ‘adulterous’) lifestyles” and give voice to loud and proud cheaters? Would refusal by these institutions then be stigmatized as “extraphobia”?
We can duplicate this maneuver for any given sexual behavior or inclination and thereby dictate to and control religious institutions accordingly, all on the basis of “anti-discrimination.” In fact, in recent times, groups like the Virtuous Pedophiles have argued along these exact lines, which goes to show how contingent and subjective the appeals to recognize and accommodate LGBT identities really are.
A Question of Compassion
Finally, the notion of “hate the sin, not the sinner” is important to note. There are a lot of Muslims today around the world who struggle with same-sex desires and inclinations. They do not want to have these desires but they are there and they are struggling to abide by Islamic moral norms and refrain from prohibited sexual behavior. We need to support these brothers and sisters, not by encouraging them to cave in to their desires, but to provide a shoulder to lean on and an ear to hear their concerns, to support them in their resistance to engaging in forbidden behaviors without shaming them. This is the same support that should be provided to other Muslims struggling with opposite sex attraction who feel strong desires for premarital or extramarital sex. After all, from the Islamic perspective, sexual desires (shahawat) are treated equally, whether those desires are fixated on the same or the opposite sex.
Furthermore, mosques should always be open to these community members and faith-based counseling should be facilitated to help them manage their desires and find ethical solutions for them. Yes, I understand that such a suggestion is considered highly offensive and taboo to the dominant discourse, which considers it oppressive to discourage a person from acting out according to their sexual orientation and identity. But, again, Muslims do not share these particular assumptions.
I understand that those who consider themselves part of the LGBT community (and its allies) will adamantly disagree with and take offense at much of what I have expressed here. Ultimately, my aim was to address the most common questions and challenges that are posed to Muslims in light of the LGBT movement so that we can be prepared to provide reasonable, compelling answers that are fully concordant with Islamic principles. Even if these arguments are not convincing to others, my hope is that at least we can avoid the accusation that Muslims’ public positions on the LGBT movement are backwards, irrational, inconsistent, repressive, and unmerciful.
WaAllahu ta`ala a`lam.
Image Credit: The All-Nite Images