For seven years, filmmaker Parvez Sharma followed a dozen devout gay and lesbian Muslims around the world. The result is A Jihad for Love, a documentary that screens at Portland's Lesbian and Gay Film Festival on Monday, Sept. 22. It's a first-ever look into the lives of gay Muslims in countries like Egypt and Iran, and it further confirms what I've heard from talking to gay Muslims in Portland: Being both is hell on earth.
The film provides no easy answers. Neither did my conversation with Sharma, a 35-year-old native of India, who says that after this project he feels "75."
"[Islam] right now is having a battle for its soul," says Sharma, who is openly gay and spoke to me from New York. "On one side you have extremists who are seeking to define the religion in terms of violence. On the other you have the majority of Muslims in the world who don't agree with that definition at all. If you look at the broader picture, there's a rise of religious extremism that's increasingly involved in politics. So in '08 we are facing this worldwide battle of religions, and religious principles."
Sharma says it's only been in the past few decades that his religion took a radical right turn in regard to queers. "If you look at the last 1,400 years of Islamic history, I'd make the argument Muslims have been the most tolerant of homosexuality," he says. "After colonialism is when the extremist viewpoint around Islam and homosexuality starts to find a voice."
Personally aware of the pressures queer Muslims face, especially in Islamic countries, finding anyone who was willing to share their stories on film proved difficult, if not impossible.
"My biggest struggle has been taking my camera into what has, until now, remained invisible," says Sharma, whose subjects include a gay imam in South Africa and gay men from both Iran and Egypt. "For the most part, as long as it has remained invisible, it's been trouble-free. Many scholars make the argument that taking the "gay rights agenda," as we talk about it in the West, and applying it to a Muslim context is highly problematic. And sometimes I agree with them. But, in my mind, I was making a film about Islam, not about homosexuality. The people in this are coming out as Muslims, and claiming their Muslim identity as their primary identity. And let me tell you, the conflict with religion is not just something confined to Muslims."
For Sharma, it's the policing of people's morality that's the real problem. "Nothing is more powerful than mixing religion and politics together. In America, when you're about to elect John McCain and Sarah Palin, it's clear the policing of morality will happen here, as it has been happening there," Sharma continues. "Palin shares exactly the same viewpoints as many people in Iran in regards to abortion and certainly around gay rights. It's pretty ridiculous. But there's already so much hate in the world.... This film is called A Jihad for Love, for a very strong reason."
A Jihad for Love
For more on being queer and Muslim, see this WW cover story.