What does it mean to be LGBT and Muslim in the UK?

"I was born a Muslim...and I will die a Muslim. But I was also born a gay man, and I will die a gay man, too."

Fazal Mahmood was 14 years old and living with his Muslim family in Northern England when he began to question his sexuality. It was 1974 and there weren't many places he could go for answers. The people he knew didn't talk about these things. One day Mahmood found a book about homosexuality in his local Bradford library. It sat in a glass case. When he asked to see it the librarian wondered why, and told him it was for perverts and sodomisers. Mahmood read it anyway, but the words went over his head. Two years later, still confused and looking for answers, he decided to run away from home. He made it as far as London before his family caught up with him. It was 1976, and it would take Mahmood another 10 years to build up the courage to tell them that he was gay.

Sitting today in his London kitchen, a 52-year-old Fazal Mahmood is talking about his subsequent 26 years spent working with other LGBT Muslims in Britain. It began with a youth group he started in Bradford in 1986, and has carried through to his involvement today with the London-based LGBT Muslim support group, Imaan.

"When I first came out," Mahmood says, "my parents said to me, 'What about the community? What are we going to tell the community?' And, still today, I see that attitude as being our main concern. The prevalent issue we face is educating our parents, our grandparents, and our communities."

Stemming largely from their varied interpretations of the Koran, many Muslims and scholars remain vehemently opposed to homosexuality in the Islamic faith. While there is no specific mention of the word "homosexual" or direct criticism of homosexuality in the religious text, its stories refer to and denounce certain sexual acts, which are themselves open to interpretation. The story of Lot, for example, has been interpreted by some to be a direct condemnation of homosexuality, while others say it refers instead to acts of male rape and violence.

The strict adherence to the varied messages that can be taken from the Koran, and the staunch opposition to homosexuality that exists within the Islamic faith, form the foundation of many of the issues that LGBT Muslims face. There are currently seven countries in the world that impose the death penalty for homosexual acts, and all of them are Muslim.

There’s a relatively greater acceptance of the LGBT Muslim community in the UK. But the persecution that openly gay and lesbian Muslims in the country encounter is still endemic. On a day-to-day basis they face issues like interrelated prejudice, multiple discrimination, being rejected by family and friends, domestic violence and forced/arranged marriages. As a result, some flee their homes and end up on the street, some are prone to depression, some turn to self-harm or suicide.

“The stigma still exists,” Mahmood says. “It will take time to change that."

Coming out and keeping it inside

Data published in 2010 by the Office for National Statistics suggests that one in every 100 UK residents say they are gay or lesbian. This is the first report of its kind in the UK, however, and many believe that that number is actually much higher. A widely held belief is that one in every 10 people are homosexual. And with over 1 billion Muslims in the world, that would suggest that around 100 million of them are homosexual.

But there are still some in the Muslim community who feel that homosexuality is an illness, or a "phenomenon", and who stress an avoidance of one's homosexual desires in an effort to keep in line with their Islamic beliefs.

Rasheed Eldin is a 30-year-old London-based Muslim who works for various charities and community organisations. He also runs the "Eye on "Gay Muslims'" blog, which he started in 2006. Eldin views homosexuals as "strugglers" and says the purpose of the blog is to present an opposing view to Muslims who support the LGBT community and homosexual advocacy groups, which he says distort the teachings of Islam to suit their agenda.

"I believe that their arguments ought to be addressed in detail in a specialised context, no matter how weak they are," Eldin says. "The rise of this phenomenon [homosexuality] ought to be observed by the Muslim community as a whole and approached properly, not ignored. As well as people twisting the religion, there are many sincere people affected by same-sex attraction and homosexualist discourse, so there needs to be support and understanding from the community. Nothing is achieved by mere condemnation, let alone persecution. In this regard, we have had some posts addressed to Muslim 'strugglers' guiding their way, and to the Muslim community explaining the issues."

Eldin says that "obedience to God is more important than anything else in life". He says that, according to the Koran, one's sexual desires may only be fulfilled in the context of marriage, and that marriage can only occur between man and woman. "Our scripture goes further and prohibits homosexual relations particularly," he says. "On that basis, the only path for someone who — for whatever reason — is attracted to members of his or her own sex is to resist those desires. That does not make them any less as human beings or as Muslims. In fact, 'struggling' in this way is a noble example of ‘jihad’ in its true sense. Our perspective is that those feelings, or orientation, does not define a person. What matters is what we choose to do with whatever hand we are dealt."

The Eye on "Gay Muslims" blog incorporates guest posts from members of the Muslim community. One of them, Taleb Haq, 32, is an online moderator for the StraightWay Foundation. Haq says the organisation aims to provide an online forum "where Muslims dealing with same-sex attractions can talk openly about their concerns, ideas and support related to such topics".

"Our views, simply put, is that our faith and our commitment to God comes above everything else in life," Haq says. "We believe that having same-sex attractions is not inherently evil and that it is a test that some people have in life. We believe that in Islam the proper outlet of sexual desire is through marriage between a man and a woman."

But there are many others who believe that repressing one's homosexual desires can be very destructive.

University College London Professor Michael King, who published a study in 2009 on the use of "gay cure" therapies in the UK, says that past attempts to treat homosexual feelings have not proven effective, and they can actually be quite harmful. Instead, gay affirmative psychotherapy, which encourages acceptance of homosexual desires, has become the standard in the UK, as well as in the US, where the American Psychiatric Association has banned the use of aversion therapy to treat homosexuality.

The fact that some in the Muslim community promote it, is troubling. Not only does it exacerbate the stigma within the community. But it encourages extreme behaviour against those seen to be disobeying their Islamic faith. These stories of extreme acts are the ones that tend to attract mainstream media attention, and feed into pre-existing stereotypes from outside communities.

The media and the bottom line

In July 2010, near the Jamia mosque in Derby, three Muslim men walked along Rosehill Street handing out a series of leaflets. One read "Death Penalty?" and showed a wooden figure hanging from a noose. To the right of the figure was a passage of text suggesting that homosexuals should be burned and stoned. A second leaflet read "God Abhors You", using the letters of the word "gay" in the form of an acronym. A third read "Turn or Burn" and showed the word "homosexuals" with a red line drawn through it.

The three men responsible were convicted in January of inciting hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation, and jailed in February. And while their crime was not directed exclusively at LGBT Muslims, it was an example of the interrelated prejudices LGBT Muslims face.

The story had the potential to prompt mainstream media outlets to take a greater look at the issues LGBT Muslims face, but it instead seemed only to provide them with more content to fit their narrative. One Daily Mail report focused mostly on the "Muslim fanatics" and "Muslim extremists" in the story, rather than the deeper issue at hand. Additionally, albeit more subtly, the article centred heavily on terminology and sentiments that link Islam and violent extremism together, and suggest that there is a communal fear that extremist groups are trying to turn England into an Islamic state.

That's not to say that the men's crime wasn't extreme; it clearly was. But the coverage that followed fed into religious stereotypes, and presented another rehashed narrative in which LGBT people were portrayed as victims and Muslims were portrayed as villains. These story lines only serve to further isolate the groups, and in turn, further persecute LGBT Muslims.

Had there been a deeper investigation into the farther-reaching issues, the narrative may have moved in a new and more progressive direction. But there wasn’t, and it didn’t.

Even so, Mahmood is frustratingly aware that this lack of coverage is at least partially due to a resistance within the LGBT Muslim community to talk. "We're such a small group, relatively speaking, it should be us out there contacting the journalists, saying this is an issue they need to cover. How else are we going to get that message through?" he asks.

So Mahmood’s goal remains opening that dialogue. It’s why he continues to speak out, and why he encourages others to do so when they are ready.

"I am a Muslim," he says proudly. "I do my prayers in the privacy of my own home, in the privacy of my own body. For me, Allah is in here." Mahmood moves his hand over his heart. "I don't need to prove my Islamic beliefs to people. I was born a Muslim. I was raised in a Muslim family, and I will die a Muslim. But I was also born a gay man, and I will die a gay man, too."

 

A placard carried by a gay man during a pride march in London. Photograph: Getty Images

Brian Leli is an American writer, photographer and journalist. He's a supporter of art, science, education, sustainable living, liberty and justice for all. He owns a room in Chicago, Illinois but lives outside of rented ones everywhere. He's currently in London making a book. He tweets @brianleli.

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.