United Kingdom: Imams help gay Muslims embrace new social identities
Some British Asian gay Muslims are embracing a new identity, based as much on race and religion as on sexual orientation with a number trying to do it with the help of their local imams. When Khalid Habib decided it was time to come out about his sexuality, the first person he chose to confide in was not anyone in the family but his local imam. "It was really important to me because I am a practising Muslim. It was about my personal relationship with Allah," said the 35-year-old media professional from the north of England.
"I sat in his sitting room struggling to get the words," he said.
"I told him I have issues, but couldn't bring myself to utter the words 'with my sexuality'. We spent many hours sitting in silence," he recalled
When Khalid finally told him, he was struck by the imam's reaction.
"He was really honest. He told me that in his 25 years of experience as a leader in a British Muslim community, he had never thought about homosexuality in a practical sense.
"So, he had approached it in the textbook sense, preaching that it was immoral, wrong and 'haram' in Islam. But he had never looked at it in a human sense."
Khalid says that as a British Muslim, he feels gay men have yet to find answers to some very difficult questions: "If it is wrong to be gay, should we force ourselves into heterosexual marriages?
"And in doing so, should we lie to the women we get married to? Or should we go for marriages of convenience with lesbians? Or, should we just remain celibate?" he asked.
Unlike Britain's wider gay community, the Asian gay scene is still largely underground.
They may go to gay clubs or support groups, but most remain in the closet.
But the fear of rejection, humiliation and in some cases physical harm from their own communities keeps many Muslim gays isolated.
Iranian-born Zeinab, 18, is a case in point.
I met her on a Friday evening at a gay pride event in London's East End borough ofTower Hamlets.
Even though the neighbourhood is home to one of the highest concentrations of British Asians, there were only a few Asians in the crowd.
Zeinab was there with two of her girlfriends - a lesbian wearing a hijab and a British Asian woman who described herself as bisexual.
She said: "When I came out to my family last year, they were shocked and angry. They said it was all in my head and that I was fooling myself.
"We had so many fights. I wanted to leave home. I was really depressed. I wanted to commit suicide."
Zeinab says she is fortunate to be in Britain where she has the freedom to go out with friends to gay events and be herself, unlike Iran or Saudi Arabia wherehomosexuality carries a death penalty.
But at home, Zeinab's sexual orientation remains a tense, taboo subject. She says the family refuses to recognise for who she is. So, they just don't talk about it anymore.
"I would say I am quite religious. But I also know I am attracted to girls," said one of her friends.
"The way I understand Islam, I don't believe homosexuality is a sin because Allah is kind and generous."
An overwhelming majority of Muslims worldwide reject this argument and believes gay Muslims are trying to re-interpret Islam to justify a lifestyle that is simply not permitted.
Asif Qureshi, a key worker at The Naz Project, a London-based support group working with British Asian gay men said: "In my experience, the number of Asian gays coming out has almost tripled over the last three years."
In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that those who dare to come out and seek long term same-sex relationships are sometimes not content with the idea of civil partnerships.
They desire religious recognition of their union, with some reportedly taking the daring step of entering into nikkahs (Muslim marriage contracts).
Mr Qureshi said he was aware of couples who had opted for such nikkahs but stressed that these were performed by imams in absolute secrecy.
Muslim gay activist Ibrahim Ismail has been working on sexual health issues for many years.
He said: "Some of their families and friends may even attend these nikkahs, but they would never publicly admit it for fear of being ostracised by mainstream Muslims.
"They are very much invisible."
Even though it is something entirely covert, the idea of Muslim gay marriages sheds light on the role some imams could be playing in helping people reconcile their sexuality and their faith.
As Khalid Habib said, when he came out to his imam three years ago, little did he know that this would be the beginning of a long process to come to terms with sometimes uncomfortable aspects of his faith.
He said, since then, he's been engaged in an ongoing dialogue with three separate imams to discuss what Allah would have to say about various aspects of his lifestyle.
"It has been a difficult but a mutually rewarding process.
"At least I have found an imam who has agreed to perform my nikkah when I get married," he said with a smile as he discussed his plans of having a traditional South Asian wedding one day.
Some names have been changed to protect the identity of individuals interviewed for this piece.
By Shahzeb Jillani
13 July 2010