This year Sydney Mardi Gras gave many people the opportunity to say something about the issues that concern homosexuals. Most floats in the parade voiced their support for same-sex marriage. Muslims Against Homophobia, a support group for queer Muslims recently formed in Sydney, made a ground breaking appearance in the parade, and said something equally important and urgent: "Queer Muslims need Acceptance!"
There is much stigma attached to homosexuality in Muslim societies. In some Muslim nations homosexuality is still criminalised, and even punishable with death penalty in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran.
In the past most Muslim societies were sexually permissive, and even viewed as lascivious people by colonial Western nations. Some Muslim countries, especially those in the Middle East, had a widespread homosexual culture that tolerated sexual relationships between men. But the moralistic colonial authorities, mostly strict Christians, disapproved of anal sex between men and banned it. And more recently with the rise of harsher forms of Islam, in conservative Muslim circles homosexuality is now viewed mostly as a sign of Western decadence that poisons Muslims.
Most Muslim societies do not recognise homosexuality as a different identity, but what they generally stigmatise and criminalise is sexual intercourse between men. And there are many social and political obstacles, which make it hard and impractical to advocate homosexual rights in these conservative societies where different identities and subcultures can't usually freely flourish.
Although sex is a natural part of life according to Islam unlike in Christianity which traditionally promotes celibacy, it is generally strictly regulated to take place ideally only between married heterosexual couples. And the most important obstacle of all is the repressive regimes in most Muslim countries, which do not provide the mainstream people with rights and freedoms, let alone minorities like homosexuals.
But despite this gloomy picture, homosexuals in these countries, which don't usually allow their people to express their diverse identities honestly and freely, generally live in secrecy and network quietly unlike the out-and-proud Western homosexuals. They avoid getting into trouble by leading a double life, some managing a heterosexual marriage and a same-sex relationship at the same time. And for instance in Turkey, a secular and more liberal Muslim country, homosexual community in Istanbul has a pride week and a gay and lesbian parade in late June every year as part of a niche counter culture.
Homosexual rights in Muslim countries will be probably achieved as part of a general struggle for civil rights in these nations- just like the civil rights movement in the US in 1970s, which also triggered the homosexual rights movement. But progressive-minded Muslims can also make a difference. For instance, today some Muslim scholars like Scot Kugle interpret Koran in a progressive way to include and accept different groups like homosexuals. And the organisations like the US-based Al-Fatiha, an organisation that promotes acceptance and justice for queer Muslims have also an important role to play.
On the other hand, the ideological use of Islamic homophobia, just like the headscarf issue, by some hostile Western groups to demonstrate that Muslim societies and communities are less civilised and incompatible with Western values doesn't help queer Muslims, but only exacerbates Islamophobia. But Western groups, in particular Western homosexual groups can make a difference only by genuinely understanding the specific needs and circumstances of different Muslim homosexual groups and by co-operating with them to promote homosexual rights.
As Arab-Australian scholar Samar Habib points out most queer Muslims in Australia are very reluctant to talk in public about their real identity since most of them are still in the closet to their families, unlike those in the US and Canada who have come out. And lack of any gay-support groups make this harder.
Muslims Against Homophobia aims to fill this gap, and establish a generous platform to support queer Muslims in Australia and inspire progressive Muslims everywhere to speak out against homophobia. And this is the only way to make a real difference!
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