Shifting perspectives among Muslims: LGBTQ rights and Islamic faith

By Emily Rohof

 Disclaimer: this report does not necessarily represent the author’s views

On March 20th 2018, students and other interested people came together in an overcrowded room at Leiden University’s Law Faculty. Here, Dino Suhonic, Director of Maruf (platform for Dutch Queer Muslims), gave a lecture about the relation between Muslims and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) community, both in Muslim majority countries as in Muslim minority countries. The lecture was organized by Leiden University Pride (LUP) and Amnesty International Nederland Student Group Leiden.

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WorldPride in London, 2012

Colonial minds

During his lecture, Suhonic argued that before the beginning of the 20th century,  homosexuality as identity did not exist in Muslim majority countries. For example, there is no information about a case of punishment for being homosexual during the 400 years of Ottoman rule. ‘Homosexual deeds’ were forbidden, but diversity in punishments existed. First of all, there was legal diversity. In practice, judges made differences between ‘active’ and ‘passive’ homosexuals and between married and unmarried ones. In both cases, the latter were less severely punished. Second of all, there was regional diversity among Muslim scholars in how they viewed homosexual acts. Therefore, the severity of punishments differed per region.

Due to an increasing influence of colonial powers in Muslim majority countries, sexual acts became an identity like in Western countries, rather than a performance of certain sexual acts. Homosexuals suffered a rise in oppression and higher numbers of punishments. Especially France, but also Britain, eliminated the diversity in punishments of homosexuality. Legal and regional diversity were abandoned by imposed processes of nation-building, in which there was no room for difference from the colonisers’ norms and values. The Telegraaf (a Dutch newspaper) wrote in 1920 that homosexuality was spreading [“voortkankeren”] in Mecca, presenting this matter as an explicit problematic issue. So, as a side note, it should not be forgotten that Western countries in the (recent) past framed homosexuality negatively.

 

Islamic faith

“Sometimes religion is an oppression” and more recently “Islam is used as an oppression tool of the state”, according to Suhonic. However, this ‘Islam’ is often different from what the West thinks Islam is, namely a mixture of fiqh (jurisprudence), kalaam (theology) and sharia (which is often confused with fiqh). Therefore, Suhonic advocates for using the term Muslim rather than Islam, since this leaves more room for cultural, regional and local characteristics of understanding Islam.

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LGBT pride festival in Washington D.C., 2012

As mentioned previously, in the period before the colonizers imposed their norms and values upon Muslim societies, ‘homosexuals’ were viewed in different ways. Some scholars viewed ‘homosexuals’ as sinful and therefore they argued ‘homosexuals’ should only suffer God’s judgement, protecting them from earthly punishments. Other scholars, however, argued ‘homosexuals’ were breaking the laws and therefore they should be punished in their mundane lives. With the rising oppression of homosexuals in the 20th century, the Hadith (a legal source in which Muhammad’s words and deeds are written down by his followers) was increasingly used for setting up sharia laws and to justify punishments. Suhonic explicitly mentioned that a unified legal body of sharia laws, which would result in the same punishment for homosexuality among all Muslims, did and does not exist until this day. Internationally, there is still a lot of debate among Muslim scholars about Islam’s stance on homosexuality.

It is remarkable that Muslim scholars – both in the past and present – have always focused on criminalizing penetration and therefore focused on men. Men that were the ‘receiving’ partners, the ones penetrated, were viewed as more ‘woman-like’ and ‘feminine’ and therefore more sinful and punishable. The views of Muslim scholars on lesbian sex was rather different. Lesbians were often not acknowledged to exist and in cases they were recognized, they were not viewed as problematic because there was no penetration involved, according to the Muslim scholars. Moreover, sex between lesbians is hard to prove because there is no penetration involved and is therefore in practice less punished.

The Quran usually is used as a moral source to disapprove homosexuality rather than a legal source. The story about Lut is mostly used to demonstrate Islam’s disapproval, just like Christian and Jewish communities do. In this story, the prophet Lut is sent to the cities Sodom and Gomorrah to spread God’s word. However, the inhabitants did not accept his message and homosexual deeds and rape continued. Therefore, God ordered Lut to leave the cities and He subsequently destroyed the people.

 

Current situation and what to do

Suhonic mentioned that he is currently noticing more and more Imams identifying themselves as homosexual in Western Europe and North America. Furthermore, in Muslim majority countries such as Pakistan and Malaysia, more grassroots movements are cooperating with universities and Muslim scholars in their fight for LGBTQ rights. One of the ways in which grassroots movements are doing this, is by increasingly reinterpreting the Quran themselves (instead of following religious dogmas) and thereby they challenge the current power relations and status quo. They use Islamic sources to justify their claim for recognition of their rights. For example, they emphasize Islam’s stress on human dignity and mutual respect rather than Islam’s supposed rejection of ‘unnatural sex’.

Throughout his presentation, Suhonic highlighted that the West should not try to universalize Western norms concerning the LGBTQ community. In addition, local activists and individuals should not only take over Western concepts of gender and sexuality, since this results in replacing Muslim ‘tradition’ by Western ‘modernity’. It would be harmful to impose Western processes of LGBTQ acceptance on Muslim majority countries. Their rights should be established from inside out and within their (Muslim) context. Support of Muslim traditions and grassroots movements and providing resources to local activists creates social acceptance of the LGBTQ community, according to Suhonic. This will help Muslim individuals to accept themselves and to decolonize the whole concept of homosexuality in the region. The focus should be laid on the decriminalization and the social acceptance the LGBTQ community simultaneously: work bottom up instead of top-down.

 

Conclusion

The lecture gave an interesting Western critical insight on the anti-LGTBQ stance in Muslim majority countries. Also, the fact that Suhonic mentions some current movements fighting for LGBTQ rights within the Muslim context resulted in a non-Eurocentric perspective on the topic. Next time it would be interesting to hear more about the region’s diversity in dealing with LGBTQ rights and the exact groups that oppose LGBTQ communities.

Do you like this topic? For more information check the website of the platform for Dutch Queer Muslims Maruf.

Sources used by Dino Suhonic

Joseph A. Massad, Islam in Liberalism (2015).

Vanja Hamzic, Sexual and Gender Diversity in the Muslim World: History, Law and Vernacular Knowledge (2015).

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