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LGBT Muslims see Orlando shooting as opportunity to confront their leaders

Omar Mateen’s attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando has touched off a discussion of homosexuality and Islam.
Omar Mateen’s attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando has touched off a discussion of homosexuality and Islam. AP

Ani Zonneveld, the founder and president of Muslims for Progressive Values, was in Geneva when she heard Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, on CNN talking about “standing shoulder to shoulder” with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community after the recent shootings in Orlando. The assertion, she said, made her angry.

“I want to challenge mosques and imams to give an anti-homophobia sermon this Friday,” she said in an interview. “I want to challenge them to do away with homophobic teachings in Sunday schools and I want to challenge the community to talk about LGBT rights from within the sacred texts.”

Zonneveld has been working with LGBT Muslims for more than 10 years. She said she’s seen little acceptance from the leaders of her faith in all that time. Now in the aftermath of the horrific shooting at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando, Florida, that left 49 dead and dozens injured, gay Muslims are asserting themselves while Muslim leaders are struggling over how to come to terms with their existence.

This is a conversation that Muslims have never had and while it can be defined in one moment, it is something that needs to be worked on over the years to come.

Robert McCaw, Council of American Islamic Relations

“The truth is that this tragedy cannot be neatly categorized as a fight between the LGBTQ community and the Muslim community,” said Sahar Shafqat, a founding member of the Muslim Alliance for Gender and Sexual Diversity, using a longer acronym that includes those questioning their sexual identity. “As LGBTQ Muslims, we know that there are many of us living at the intersections of different identities. We recognize that no community is a monolith.”

Robert McCaw, the director of government affairs for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, perhaps the country’s most prominent Muslim group, acknowledged that religious leaders are struggling with the questions that the attack in Orlando has raised about Islam and homosexuality.

“This is a conversation that Muslims have never had, and while it can be defined in one moment, it is something that needs to be worked on over the years to come,” he said.

“The Muslim community is as diverse as the American community,” he added. “But they do definitely have a long way to go to accept these traditionally marginalized views.”

On Tuesday evening, Nabeela Rasheed and Fawzia Mirza, two prominent members of the LGBT Muslim community of Chicago, hosted an interfaith dialogue of sorts at their house. The group of 75 included not just LGBT Muslims, but also an imam, a Muslim chaplain from Loyola University and dozens of “straight,” or non-gay, Muslims.

A lot of us have to create our own version of Islam to be validated.

Imi Rashid, Muslim

One of the attendees, imi rashid, who spells her name without capital letters, described the opportunity as a way to bring together Muslim leaders and the “queer” Muslim community.

She felt the conversation was needed, but was disappointed that no action plans resulted. “Many of the stories that went around that day were about how a mosque is unaccepting of the queer identity, about how we are all failing to reconcile Islam with queer,” she said. “A lot of us have to create our own version of Islam to be validated.”

Some Muslim leaders say the Orlando massacre has accelerated a conversation that needs to be had among Muslims.

“If any scholar tells you that being gay is haram (forbidden), then the scholar is absolutely wrong,” said Mus’ab Abdalla, the imam of a small mosque in San Luis Obispo, California. But he acknowledged the conversation about gay Muslims has yet to begin.

“We need to have safe spaces to have such conversations and I think it is time to stop sweeping this under the rug,” he said.

Urooj Arshad, an associate director at an advocacy center for teenage sexual health, said gay Muslims are “not an abstract concept.”

“This is the time that we can finally have an honest conversation with the leaders. It is time to talk about how they can engage LGBTs in their communities. There is definitely a whole shift that has come about, and we want to build on this momentum,” he said.

But Suhaib Webb, an American Muslim scholar who lives in Washington, D.C., said it may be difficult for Muslim leaders to engage in an open and frank discussion about homosexuality.

“American Muslims are traditionally from immigrant backgrounds, and they have not been around this long to deal with this issue,” he said. He said hesitancy to engage in an honest dialogue might be an issue for all sides.

“While some members of the LGBT community would be more willing to have a conversation about their sexuality, others might not.” he said. “Families, personal stories, come into play. I think that is where we need to iron these factors out on a community level.”

Javaria Khan, 202-383-6011, @javariakh

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