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August 6th, 2008 Byron Beck | News Stories
 

The Queer and the Qur’an

Ali is gay. And Muslim. Can he be both?

     
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DOUBLE LIFE: Ali struggles with being gay and Muslim.
IMAGE: Tim Gunther

“ALI” IS LIVING THE GAY GOOD LIFE.

At 29, 150 pounds and 5-foot-10, he has the looks of a male model: piercing brown eyes, the thin outline of a beard, glistening studs in each ear and the shaved, fit body of someone who works out.

He and his partner, “Bill,” who works in advertising, live in a lavish condominium in Northwest Portland. They travel often, collecting art and artifacts from across the globe. They drive nice cars, sport designer threads, eat at the best restaurants and are seen at all the right events.

In certain circles, Ali is called a “power gay,” or “A-list gay,” not unlike the local restaurateurs, doctors, and other queer power brokers of Portland. You see them every second Tuesday of the month at “Salon Q,” a mixer—Bill is one of the organizers—for affluent gay guys that’s become a de facto queer “networking” community.

And although Ali may look like he worships at the temple of all that is gay, none of that really matters.

That’s because Ali is a devout Muslim. And to Muslims, queer is not just wrong—it is wicked.

“I’d be just as happy to live a humble life as it is written in the Qur’an,” says Ali, who in many ways is a devout Muslim. He prays several times a day. He doesn’t eat pork. He celebrates Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting. His life is full of the customs of his faith, including the ritual cleansing of the body prior to one of five daily prayers. He follows Islamic teachings religiously.

And he knows very well what the Qur’an says about homosexuality.

“It is wrong,” he said.

It’s the reason Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told a group of students at Columbia University last year: “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals, like in your country.”

Even in 2008, in a progressive city like Portland, there are gays who remain in the closet: They don’t want their employer or co-workers to find out; they worry their families or friends might not understand. Sometimes it has to do with the fact they haven’t come to terms with it themselves.

Ali has a different reason he stays—and will continue to stay—in the shadows. He knows his religion could denounce him or, in some countries, something much worse. Gays in the Middle East have been arrested, stoned, beheaded or hanged in the public square (it was widely reported this was the fate of two gay teens in Iran in 2005). This summer there have been several arrests of men who’ve reportedly displayed gay behavior in Middle Eastern countries.

That said, it’s not the fear of death that concerns Ali.

His fears run much deeper. If he were to come out as a gay Muslim, he would lose things dearer to him than his own life: family, community, identity.

IN THE SUBURBAN HILLS OF SOUTHWEST PORTLAND, 10 minutes from downtown and not far from Interstate 5 and a strip mall that includes a McDonald’s and a Starbucks, stands a two-story building surrounded by a white picket fence.

This is the home of the Islamic Center of Portland, Masjed As-Saber—the largest of seven mosques in the greater Portland area. Worshipers from about 40 countries gather here to pray and commune. In 2002, the mosque made national headlines when some of its leaders, known as the “Portland Seven,” an alleged terror cell made up of local Muslims, tried to join al-Qaeda forces in their fight against the U.S. military and coalition forces in Afghanistan.

Sheik Mohamed Abdirahman Kariye is the Somali-born imam, or spiritual leader, of Masjed As-Saber. Kariye was arrested by the Joint Terrorism Task Force on Sept. 8, 2002, as he tried to leave the U.S. for Dubai. He was held for allegedly having traces of TNT on his luggage, an accusation later proved unfounded in tests by the FBI. He was charged with illegal use of a Social Security number and unlawful possession of government documents. Kariye eventually pleaded guilty to fraud charges in March 2003 and was sentenced to five years’ probation and ordered to pay a $1,000 fine.

Despite his notoriety, Kariye remains one of the most influential Muslim leaders in the Portland area. And he is quite clear about the conflict between Islam and homosexuality.

“I don’t understand how anyone could say they are gay and Muslim. It is not compatible with our teachings,” said Kariye from inside the mosque. After thoughtful consideration, the skullcapped, heavily bearded imam said, “If someone was to claim they were gay, they would not be allowed to be a Muslim anymore.”

The imam, who doesn’t see why there should be a separation of church and state, went on to say Muslims view the acceptance of homosexuality as one of the downfalls of Western civilization.

In fact, in an interview with WW on Wednesday, July 30, he was asked if it was OK to kill gays. “Yes,” he said, “our teachings say it’s OK.”

The next day, when this reporter read him back his quotes, he said the reporter had misunderstood his words.

MOST MAJOR RELIGIONS FROWN ON HOMOSEXUALITY. That said, few faiths are as rigid as Islam.

The hadith, which are statements ascribed to the Islamic prophet Muhammad, contain numerous statements about homosexuality. One such passage, attributed to Muhammad in his farewell speech, says, “Whoever has intercourse with a woman and penetrates her rectum, or with a man, or with a boy, will appear on the Last Day stinking worse than a corpse; people will find him unbearable until he enters hellfire, and God will cancel all his good deeds.”

By contrast, members of some faiths are moving slowly to acceptance of gays and lesbians. The Metropolitan Community Church—an international fellowship of Christian congregations with 250 member groups in 23 countries—specifically reaches out to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender families and communities. Even the Episcopalian Church has elected a gay bishop.

Judaism has in many cases become sympathetic to homosexuality. “There has been a massive policy shift in the Conservative Jewish world,” says Sandi DuBowski, director of the 2001 documentary Trembling Before G-d, about gay and lesbian Orthodox and Hasidic Jews. “They now permit ordaining gay and lesbian rabbis and same-sex marriages. But it’s up to the actual rabbinical seminary, synagogue and communal organizations. Not all of them are that open.”

Tara Wilkins, who is a lesbian, is executive director of the Community of Welcoming Congregations, a statewide coalition of nearly 100 faith-based organizations in Oregon that reach out to gays and lesbians. The group’s members include Quakers, Mormons, Jews and Methodists, but no Muslims.

“Like Islam, Christianity is struggling to figure out how to be faithful in the 21st century. In a word, it’s shifting,” says Wilkins. “But all [religions] are not created equal in their position on homosexuality.”

Professor Norman Metzler, chair of the Division of Theology at Concordia University, a Christian college in Portland, says, “I know Islam to be generally more restrictive [than other religions] about homosexuality.”

Adds Paul Powers, associate professor of religious studies and a specialist in Islam at Lewis & Clark College: “Same-sex sex acts have been a human practice forever, but prior to the past 200 years, there is no religion on the planet that even considered the possibility of homosexuality in the way we think of it today in the West. Yes, it’s true that Muslims both in America and the rest of the world have trouble accepting this version of homosexuality.”

Is Islam the least tolerant? “Saying that Muslims are the worst,” says Powers, “gives us a false sense of comfort about how tolerant the world is today.”

ALI IS WELL AWARE OF HIS FAITH’S ATTITUDE about his lifestyle. It’s the reason he has yet to visit a local mosque, even though he’s lived here for two years. It’s also why he doesn’t want to use his real name.

Which raises the question: If Ali is gay, why does he continue his devotion to a faith that rejects and renounces his sexuality?

It’s a twist on an age-old question other persecuted minorities—African-Americans, women—have faced throughout history. What do you do when your faith considers you a second-class citizen?

“It’s all about my purpose in life,” says Ali. “The world is evil; my [faith] gives me something to value more than myself. My passion is the shadow of my soul, my devotion is for my God, and the purpose of my life is love.”

Then why continue to behave in such a fashion that so violates his faith?

“If I could, I would not choose to be gay,” he says. “Why would I choose this life?”

While Ali leads something of a double life today, it pales in comparison to his upbringing.

Born in Denmark to poor, Muslim parents from Pakistan, Ali says his father was distant and abusive, he was the quintessential “mama’s boy,” and his family was very pious.

“My father, and sometimes my mother, would beat me if I didn’t say my prayers,” he recalls.

Although he felt pressure from his family to date women, which he has done, including having sex with them, he says he has known he was gay since the age of 9.

He knew he could never openly express his gayness and still be a member of his family or community.

At 19, his secret caused him to become depressed; he stopped eating and lost half his body weight.

“I went from 150 down to [close to] 75 pounds,” says Ali.

Hospitalized for four months, Ali harbored thoughts of suicide. He said he would never take his own life, due in part to his faith—and some good meds.

After he got out of the hospital, he moved into his own place and lived the double life of a gay party boy and a devout Muslim son. During his early college years, he was paid by the Danish government to travel throughout Denmark and lecture on what it was like to be an “ethnic role model” (i.e., someone with darker skin, including Africans, Arabs and Indians) in Danish society. At the same time, Ali performed in Sweden as a go-go dancer at gay and straight clubs for the same fee he received to lecture.

“Every day is a double life for me,” says Ali. How he speaks to his sisters (he has three who still live in Denmark) is very different from how he speaks to friends. “I have learned to keep everything separate.”

For all the complications in Ali’s life, the reason he came to Portland was a common one.

Ali met Bill online. Shortly after, Ali moved to Portland to be with him.

While Ali still tries to be discreet about his sexuality, he is at least partially out of the closet. He and Bill, who is not Muslim, registered as domestic partners in Oregon. Most of Ali’s close friends here, including a handful of fellow Muslims, know he is gay. That said, he doesn’t go to Muslim events, nor does he spend much time in gay bars. “They are so boring here,” says Ali. “I’d rather go to a circuit party in Miami.” As for visiting a mosque, he continues to go daily—that is, when he is home in Denmark.

“My family, and most of my Pakistani friends back home, don’t know I am gay,” says Ali, who is in the third year of a five-year student visa. Currently enrolled at a local college in design management, he works on campus.

Ali doesn’t know what the future holds for him. He doesn’t plan to return to Denmark, he doesn’t want to get married to a woman, and he definitely doesn’t want to come out of the closet. It is something that he believes will never happen.

Truthfully, Ali’s life may not be all that much different from that of a “cafeteria Catholic” who takes communion but supports abortion rights and the death penalty, or a “Jack Mormon” who maintains his faith but doesn’t always show up for church. But Ali says his faith is paramount. “My identity is being a Muslim. Before I am gay, Danish or Pakistani, I am a Muslim,” says Ali. “It’s my purpose in life.”

At the same time, he adds, “Being gay allows me to love someone else, and feel that love in return.”

DARIUS REJALI, 48, is chairman of the political science department at Reed College and author of the book “Torture and Democracy.” He’s Muslim. For many years, he served on the board of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. He’s reluctant to discuss his own sexuality, for reasons he says are far more complicated than simply because his faith so completely rejects homosexuality.

Rejali believes, for Middle Easterners, there are much more important things than letting people know you are “gay.” He also maintains that the benefits of faith outweigh whatever pain is caused by the fact that his faith spurns being gay.

“For Westerners, the opposite of freedom is slavery. But for most cultures, the opposite of slavery has never been freedom but community,” says Rejali, by which he means that whatever loss of freedom gays suffer from Islam’s rejection of homosexuality is more than made up for by the sense of community and belonging that Islam provides gays.

ALI PRAYS SEVERAL TIMES A DAY, including on the floor of his condo, where he faces Mecca. On one particular Thursday, his prayers were for his deceased mother. He knelt several times and whispered his prayers. Then he prepared an offering, which on this night was fruit. When he was done, he said, “I want to be allowed to be both gay and Muslim,” though he didn’t offer much hope. “I will never give up my faith, and I will never come out.”


According to a 2000 report by the Pennsylvania-based Association of Religion Data Archives, there were an estimated 3,939 Muslims in three congregations in Multnomah County. Imam Mohamed Abdirahman Kariye now believes that number to be much larger - between 7,000 and 10,000.

When Bill goes to see Ali's family in Denmark, as he recently did, he goes there as his "boss."

A recent book, Illegal Citizens: Queer Lives iIn the Muslim World, follows gay Muslims in more than 20 countries. "In many of these countries, people disappear without a trace," says author Afdhere Jama.

A recent documentary about gay life in Muslim culture is titled A Jihad for Love. For six years, filmmaker Parvez Sharma followed and filmed gay Muslims in 12 countries. The film doesn't yet have a Portland screening date.

Islam is the religion of more than 1.2 billion people worldwide.

Wikipedia on legality of homosexuality: "In some Muslim-majority nations, such as Turkey, Jordan, Indonesia or Mali, same-sex intercourse is not specifically forbidden by law.... Homosexuality, while not legal, is tolerated to some extent in Lebanon, which has a significantly large Christian minority, and has been legal in Turkey for decades."

Wikipedia on "modernization" of Islam's approach to homosexuality: "Some liberal Muslims, such as the members of the Al-Fatiha Foundation, accept and consider homosexuality as natural.... They regard Qu'ran verses condemning homosexuality as obsolete in the context of modern society, or point out that the Qu'ran speaks out against homosexual lust and is silent on homosexual love."

 
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