|Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed, French Muslim|
Fienet Kor’tün fe Früesskjleeda,
en Je’spräakj tweschen twee ooda mea
French Muslim Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed has got some balls, to say it bluntly. In a 26 Nov 2012 commentary for the London Guardian, he undertook to answer the question, “Why I want to open a gay-friendly mosque in Paris?” As Mennonites, we are still fighting over having women- and gay-friendly Mennonite churches – and I’m used to thinking that as stubborn as we might often seem, we are still light-years ahead of Islam. Well, maybe not…
In as much as the difficulties with Zahed’s vision are readily self-evident (if a bit stereotyped), readers’ comments reflect a bit of skepticism with quotes such as “well, good luck with that,” and “wouldn’t it just be easier to give up religion entirely?”
With memories of Theo van Gogh’s assassination and the political harassment of Ayaan Hirsi Ali as outspoken advocates of the rights of women and the homosexual community in the Muslim environment of the Netherlands, I leave unspoken my questions having to do with security and safety. [An aside, Ian Buruma, author of Murder in Amsterdam: Liberal Europe, Islam and the Limits of Toleration, dealing specifically with van Gogh’s murder, is an ethnic Dutch Mennonite.]
|Facebook image of 'gay' men being held hostage and threatened by Libyan militia|
Nor am I overreacting. Huffington Post reported on the same day that photos and anti-gay messages were posted on Facebook by a Libyan militia holding twelve men whom they identify as “third sex” or gay, hostage, and are now threatening them with execution. So much for the Arab Spring.
The group has since been identified as Al-Nawasi militia who claim to be working with the Libyan Interior Ministry.
Not that we can be too hard on them. News coverage also indicates numerous Anglo-American Fundamentalist leaders stumbling over the question of whether or not practicing gays should face the Biblical death penalty – a situation American-backed “Christian” conservatives in Uganda seem too close to implementing. (Try placing that one in the Minnesota constitution!)
One can’t help smiling at similar groupings of terms such as “religion, guns, militia and homophobia” with American states such as Texas or Montana. Has anyone yet identified a pattern?
Just last year the Church of the Brethren faced the reality of viable death threats against their national treasurer – a woman who represented a combined target for both anti-gay and anti-woman sentiments as a lesbian church leader.
Just last month, several churches in the larger Mennonite Church – USA family shuffled and/or left their historic conferences over the fear of having to positively address, or in too many cases, even admit to the reality of the gay issue in their congregations.
In all of the rhetoric amongst Fundamentalist Americans, Africans and Mennonites, one easily wonders, “Where does one draw the line?” While the Christian Fundamentalist church, The Salvation Army, has been deeply criticized for the last decade over its anti-gay policies, it was in 2012 that Major Anthony Craibe, an Australian official for the group, stated in a public interview that putting gays and lesbians to death was in fact “a part of our belief system.” (Craibe's comments were later recontextualized by the church.)
So in truth, Zahed’s French Islamic world in Paris might be a bit more gay-friendly than that of the Mennonites in Oklahoma, Illinois and Texas.
French Muslim homosexuals have received greater visibility over the last decades and more positive media attention thanks in part to films such as Gaël Morel’s À Toute Vitesse (1996) dealing with the life and experiences of Samir, a young Algerian-born gay, and his Le Clan (2004) which follows the lives of three half-Algerian French brothers and their homelife after the death of their mother. Drugs, ethnic identity and homosexuality are all openly dealt with in the frames of Le Clan.
Similarly, Israel’s Eytan Fox takes on similar issues and the reality of gay Palestinian Arabs in his Walk on Water (2004) and The Bubble (2006).
But back to Zahed’s mosque …
|Tunisian artist Mehdi Smirani|
In 2010, Zahed founded HM2F, an association for gay Muslims in France, similar to Brethren and Mennonite Council in the United States and Canada, and has written a book Le Coran et la Chair about the Muslim gay community. He states, “I'm a French Muslim who is gay, and a feminist. I no longer want people in my country to think that it is an impossible blend, and that these different aspects of my identity are incompatible.” Noting that in France, gay teens struggling with issues of sexual orientation are 15 times more likely to commit suicide than is the general population, he also sees HM2F as an urgent ministry.
This eventually led me to plan an inclusive mosque in Paris … As a teenager, when my representation of Islam was a radical one, I learned half of the Qur'an by heart. I was bewitched by the beauty of the texts, which were steeped in universalism. But at the age of 17, I came to terms with the fact that I was gay. After more than 15 years of reflection on the matter, I now understand that the Qur'an does not explicitly refer to "homosexuality", nor does it refer to women as "inferior". Indeed, the strict and dogmatic interpretation of some verses of the Qur'an is no longer unanimous …… I also realised that neither homophobia or misogyny respect Islamic ethics, to which I adhere fully. I now want to share my love and search for a peaceful spiritual path with as many people as I can, drawing on new foundations to represent the daily experiences of French Muslims in their spiritual quest. This is why I want to open a place of worship where people will always be welcomed as brothers and sisters, whatever their sexual orientation or ethnicity. My project is supported by men, women, trans people and even fathers who tell us that they do not want to leave a radically exclusive Islam to their young daughters as their legacy….… My plan is not strictly about opening a "gay mosque", or even about celebrating gay marriages. … Unlike the Catholic church, for example, which continues to unilaterally decide who may or may not marry, Muslims do not regard marriage as a sacrament. … Common prayer, practised in an egalitarian setting and without any form of gender-based discrimination, is one of the pillars supporting the proposed reforms of our progressive representation of Islam.… I don't believe that the issue of minorities' rights allows citizens to carry specific claims, or make exceptions. It simply allows us to address issues that concern all French Muslims, and beyond that, all of our citizens. Looking at feminism and homosexuality within Islam permits us to look at our relation towards religious authority, to question institutional dogma and by extension, to ponder freedom itself – the freedom to define our identity, without concession, compromise or submission.” (The Guardian, see below).
Personally, I think Zahed is onto something – but is also missing a huge market – non-Muslims who are looking for safe and open places to learn about Islam and find commonality with other persons of faith from other communities.
While touring the Persian Gulf, my group of mostly Mennonites, were welcomed into the Gulf’s many beautiful mosques. We were welcomed as guests and subjected to the highest standards of civility and hospitality – rivaling even Mennonite standards of fastpa hospitality.
I have to admit, that I would much more likely to visit a mosque back home that was in active dialogue on all social issues and to members of the entire Islamic community – even if it lacked acres of hand-woven Persian rugs and three-story tall chandeliers. Even for those Muslims who disagree with Zahed’s plan or his homosexuality would benefit from the public face of Zahed’s prayer and discussion group in its ability to build bridges and relationships between Christian, Jewish, and yes, even Buddhist groups and France’s Islamic community.
Nor is Zahed’s vision that far off. In his Nobel Prize-winning Cairo Trilogy, Naguib Mahfouz bluntly takes on issues of history, feminism, intellectualism, modernity and even homosexuality in the Islamic Egyptian context. Like Salmon Rushdie, Mahfouz, who publically defended Rushdie’s right to publish, received death threats from extremists and fundamentalists. In 1994, he was stabbed in the neck by an intended assassin outside of his home in Cairo.
Zahed’s mosque is a truly visionary project, but is has already been partially realized with the establishment of a prayer group that meets in a Buddhist prayer hall. And, Zahed is in good company with the likes of Mahfouz, Fox, Morel and many others seeking to create open and welcoming dialogue within the context of the Islamic faith. May this work be blessed and may God keep Zahed and the congregation safely in the palm of His / Her Hand.