The threat posed by queer Muslims

The threat posed by queer Muslims
Comment: Our very existence endangers the dominance of racist ideologies and heteronormative narratives, writes Idris Martin.
6 min read
06 Mar, 2019
Queer Muslims threaten homophobes and Islamophobes in nearly equal measure [Lightbox-Getty]
Classes on the first day back at Malaysia's schools after the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami had an odd tone to them.

Some teachers dedicated time to remarking how tragic it was. Some chose to ignore it. One decided it was important to explain to my Year 8 class of 14-year-olds what happened.

"Allah punished us," he declared. "Because men were having sex in their bums."

Classroom hysteria aside, I knew enough about myself by that point to be uncomfortable.

And by the time I left Malaysia at 16, the lesson had been well-learned: to be queer was to be a clear and present danger to society.

Not only could we corrupt the minds of the young and cause the breakdown of families, but our mere existence risked provoking the wrath and punishment of Allah.

Society's rejection is something queer Muslims are too familiar with. Within Muslim-majority countries, inherited legal systems from colonial administrators have been co-opted into local culture to the detriment of queer Muslims. 

Meanwhile, in the Western world, contemporary rejection of queer Muslims manifests as the increasing anti-Muslim rhetoric that has emerged since 9/11 constructs an artificial barrier between queer and Islamic identity, and claims the two identities are mutually exclusive.

In queer spaces, assumptions about the Muslim experience tend to dominate interactions between Muslim and non-Muslim queers. Too often, there are implicit demands that queer Muslims discharge themselves of any Islamic values before they can be fully accepted into queer spaces.

Ideas of the regressive, savage Muslim create a suspicion of queer Muslims. Following the tragic shooting at Pulse in Orlando, as details continued to emerge regarding the shooter's identity, the narrative of a closeted Muslim man struggling with his identity lashing out in violence against innocent members of the queer community was a powerful one.

Of course, we still don't know what motivated Mateen's horrific attack.

Conflicting witness testimonies and FBI evidence make it difficult to ascertain what led to this hate. However, it was enough for many to cast further suspicion on Muslims - queer or not.

Fatima el-Tayeb's research paper, Gays Who Cannot Be Gay, explores this dynamic in depth and demonstrates how queer Muslims are silenced by narratives from both religious and queer communities to create a false dichotomy between being Muslim and queer.

This leaves queer Muslims in an ultimate quandary - to be queer is to threaten Islam, and to embrace Islam is to threaten queerness.

The threat of queer Muslims is alive and well in the minds of people today.

But historically, the Muslim world was not always immediately associated with the oppression of queer-identifying people.

Depictions of same-sex love was not uncommon in the literature and art of much of the Muslim world, and complex understandings of gender can be found in history across the nations where Islam had spread.

Read more: "It was not homosexuality but homophobia that was a Western import to the Middle East"

The Tanzimat of the Ottoman Empire included reforms that decriminalised homosexuality in 1858, before much of the Western world.

But times change, and political leaders have rarely shied away from finding and exploiting fault lines within the collective identities of their nations to secure power.

The demonisation of those who do not conform to the patriarchal and heteronormative paradigm exists alongside the Othering of white supremacy within queer Muslim bodies. Like the "gay panic" defences reveal much of how society views and fears queer people, the "gay Muslim panic" speaks volumes.

The image of the regressive and savage Muslim Other whose faith demands violent hatred of queerness is shattered by the actuality of life as a queer Muslim

Whether it is thought to be a risk to the social fabric of society or because of a perceived greater potential for violence, queer Muslims too often walk through this world as "things to be wary of" instead of as "people".

The simple truth, though, is that while queer Muslims are not particularly a risk of committing violent or sexual crimes, to say we are not a threat is to ignore the reality of our existence.

Embracing both the Islamic faith and queer identity can feel impossible at times, but those who unapologetically exist as both Muslim and queer stand in testimony against the presumptions and ideology that underpins the fear of queer Muslims.

The image of the regressive and savage Muslim Other whose faith demands violent hatred of queerness is shattered by the actuality of life as a queer Muslim  one whose faith does not detract but rather complements their sexuality or gender identity.

Muslims from the LGBTQ+ communities take part in London's Pride marches every year [Getty]

Queer Muslims offer alternative perspectives on how to live an Islamic life that do not conform to either of the images the Western and Muslim worlds have demanded adherence to.

In leading lives that follow coherent Islamic values reconciled with queer identity, queer Muslims ultimately do threaten mainstream conceptions of what it is to be Muslim.

In the Muslim world, this threatens heteronormative structures and cultural norms that perpetuate archaic attitudes towards women, family and the workplace.

In the Western world, the threat is to the white supremacist ideology, which claims an incompatibility between Islam and the values of Western society to underpin the surveillance and criminalisation of Muslims.

In contemporary Malaysia, the recent election of a new government has, despite hopes to the contrary, marked a continuation of persecution against the queer community.

Despite somewhat softer rhetoric, prominent political figures have called for the queer community to "maintain privacy" and "not intrude on wider society", drawing on ideas of the public danger the queer community poses.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration's recently announced push to globally decriminalise homosexuality should ring alarm bells following alarming levels of anti-Muslim rhetoric and domestic anti-queer policies emanating from the White House.

Some commentators have connected the campaign to the administration's desire to further isolate Iran, and it's not hard to see how the campaign could rhetorically align with the president's previous proposal to shutdown Muslim entry to the United States.

The prioritisation of European campaigners over locals also points to the disingenuous nature of the campaign.

Our collective voice endangers racist and heteronormative narratives of identity too common across the West and the Muslim world

The struggle to define the nature of Islamic values and queer identity persists between two forms of cultural hegemony that are not interested in experiences that do not conform.

Political forces in both the West and the Muslim world are not blind to the inconsistencies of their values and assertions in the face of queer Islamic life.

To claim that Islam is inherently regressive and will always cause hatred of the queer community is demonstrably false.

Likewise, to claim that queer identity is completely incompatible with faith in and worship of Allah is clearly far from truth.

And because of this, as queer Muslims we must embrace the threat we pose. The threat we pose is not a violent one, but it is an existential one  an existential threat to the dominance of ideologies that define Islam and queerness as immutable in their opposition to each other.

In a contemporary digital age where queer Muslims can connect and organise across national identity, our collective voice endangers racist and heteronormative narratives of identity too common across the West and the Muslim world.

And through connecting, organising, and remaining unashamed of who we are, queer Muslims will lead the way in creating a world where queer love is not judged  by men like my Year 8 teacher  to be a sin.

Idris Martin is a writer based at the University of Adelaide. Follow him on Twitter: @IdrisMartin