What do you get when you mix a bunch of gay Muslims, ex-Muslims and ex-Christians – all led by the veteran human rights activist Peter Tatchell – and let them loose outside the UK’s most influential mosque at Friday prayers, pressing LGBT flyers into the palms of worshippers? A ladle of curiosity, a sprinkling of warm-hearted support, and a generous dash of hostility, is the answer.
Several of us did exactly this before Friday prayers at Regent’s Park Mosque last week, moving soiled placards out of the drizzle and away from mosque boundaries, and beaming at worshippers as we engaged them in conversation. We impressed upon people the commonalities between lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans communities and Muslim communities: both experienced workplace discrimination at disproportionately high levels, both were more likely to be victims of hate crime than the general population, and both were more likely to need protection from equality laws.
Naturally, there are major differences between the two communities as well. The notion of having an identity – even if it it’s one of many facets of a person’s identity – based on your gender identity or who you are sexually attracted to, is anathema to huge swathes of Muslim communities. Sadly, even heterosexual sex is still a taboo in many of these communities. But all the more reason to discuss these issues with openness, honesty and respect.
And of course, a good number of people identify as LGBT AND Muslim. No less than four worshippers came out to us as gay during our outreach session last Friday. Therefore, we reasoned, why not increase solidarity between members of the two communities, and encourage them to work together, or even build genuine friendships?
The current deadlock – much of which is motivated by mainstream interpretations of the story of Lot in the Qu’ran, and its apparent condemnation of same-sex relations – can be broken by emphasising the protections that equality law has afforded to Muslims and LGBT people, and the importance of reciprocity between different minority communities.
When members of our team deployed theological arguments – such as mentioning a particular scholar who said there was no condemnation of homosexuality in the Qu’ran – they were less successful. Crucially, this was not just because there was a flurry of disagreement, but because few ordinary Muslims trusted their own judgement on this issue. One young male worshipper said we ought to cross-check such a fatwa with other theologians.
What was really telling – but not surprising to anyone who has grown up Muslim, like myself – was that many worshippers seemed to care more about the image of Islam, rather than what the religious texts actually said, and the impact these would have on anyone who did not strictly follow a heteronormative lifestyle. For instance, one young man was horrified that a member of Peter Tatchell’s team was filming some of the conversations, because we were “making Islam look bad.” Yet he had nothing to say about the struggles faced by some LGBT Muslims, who were quite often torn between their religion and their sexuality, and sometimes put up a façade of a straight lifestyle to placate their families and communities.
The most horrifying response was from an frizzy-bearded man who kept stabbing the air with his finger. This individual exclaimed, mainly in Arabic, to my appalled (white, Irish, atheist) partner that homosexuals “should receive the death penalty.” Other negative responses included one man who growled that it was “totally unnecessary” for us to hold up placards outside a mosque, and an older man who refused to talk to me because I am an ex-Muslim with uncovered hair. The fact that I had been a practising Muslim for 12 years prior would have made no difference: such people would have simply invalidated my views anyway, when they found out that I did not subscribe to the mainstream Muslim position on homosexuality.
Female worshippers at Regent’s Park Mosque were far less polarised in their responses than the men. Most women just accepted our flyers and nodded, but did not stop to talk. Only one woman (a non-headscarf wearer, natch) took my flyer eagerly when she saw the “Muslim” part of LGBT-Muslim solidarity, then handed it back when she saw the “LGBT” part. This is a sad reflection on the state of some Muslim communities: they are keen to secure their own rights, but do not care about the rights of other minority communities in British society, or are actively opposed to them having their rights upheld.
Of course, there were some pleasant surprises throughout the afternoon as well. A group of youths with heavily urban accents approached me – and instead of throwing the flyers away, they stuffed them into their backpacks to read later. The most positive interaction of the day came from a young, cheeky, smiley man in a jubbah, who said that he “completely got” our mission of bringing LGBT people and Muslims together, and told us to keep up the good work!
Not everyone will agree with ours and Peter Tatchell’s way of working, but this is exactly the kind of outreach that is needed: it shakes people out of their comfort zone and makes them think, but in a respectful manner that puts love and solidarity at the forefront.
You can find more out about The Peter Tatchell Foundation here
UPDATE: The BBC has a video, here