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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.