“What’s his name?” I asked my husband as he woke me to tell me of the carnage in Orlando. “It’s going to be a Muslim name.”
I just knew it. I had never been one to racially profile my own community. But this time my premonition was right.
A few years ago, in Islamic year 1432, I was in Mecca on the hajj pilgrimage. I shared a meal with an older Yemeni at Al Baiq, the Saudi version of KFC. We discussed the monstrous Kingdom Tower looming over the Kaaba, the beating heart of my faith, where millions of Muslims converge every year to perform the rituals that make up Islam’s highest calling. The bin Laden family was responsible for its construction, along with the destruction of countless historic sites and artifacts of Islamic history to pave the way for resort hotels and other conveniences reserved for the 1 percent.
“It’s like King Abdullah’s erection,” I told the man.
“But Sheikh Osama destroyed America’s largest penises, didn’t he?” the man replied with a chuckle. His casual joking about the slaughter of thousands chilled me.
And “Sheikh Osama”? I could not return his laughter. This man seemed to be able to tolerate my Americanness, but if he’d had any idea that I was gay, he would have yanked his arm from my shoulder and walked away without a word.
The carnage in Orlando has shaken my very core, but after my experiences traveling throughout the Middle East as a gay man (open in some countries, fully closeted in others), I cannot say I am surprised. Any identity I have ever claimed now lies exposed as a wound that will never heal. Saying “gay Muslim” seems like a reason for damnation.
I’ve spent the last decade of my life making two films. The first, A Jihad For Love, is about the lives of gay Muslims throughout the world. The second, A Sinner In Mecca, dealt with my own personal journey and my effort to reconcile my faith and my sexuality in Islam’s holiest places, surrounded by people who would sooner see me publicly beaten, thrown off a cliff or beheaded.
These are strange times. It is a season of Islamophobia in America, where Donald Trump whips up xenophobia with a tweet. What he doesn’t realize is that he’s attacking a religion that’s already at war with itself. Muslims like me have fought hard not to become casualties. We have always had our Omar Mateens. In the U.S., they manifest as lone crazed gunmen. But in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, they are on the royal payroll.
A cursory look at the pages of ISIS’s glossy magazine, Dabiq, reveals the group’s ideology. They gloat—and show high-res photos—about throwing homosexuals off the tallest buildings that somehow remain standing in the wastelands they’ve created.
The latest American news reports suggest Omar Mateen himself was a closeted gay Muslim who harbored an immense self-loathing. A few nights ago, he murderously redirected this loathing toward dozens of young brown gay men who were enjoying their first tastes of a profound freedom and acceptance that he probably felt he could never truly enjoy with the same carefree abandon.
The same defensive, apologist Muslims are called upon every time something like this happens. I, too, have been called several times, but have so far refused the TV parts because I am not sure what I have to say is palatable. Mateen, the homophobic gay Muslim, is not a new phenomenon. The Muslim religious elite is directly responsible for inspiring the guilt and self-hatred that this man must have felt, needlessly struggling with his sexuality. And then he became a mass murderer, whose actions can never be condoned.
What I do know is this. As a devout gay Muslim I am not going to make a claim that “Islam is a religion of peace.”
Growing up in a small Indian town with a large Muslim population, I heard young men talking about jihad in Kashmir and Palestine. I have even heard such matters discussed in hushed whispers at Manhattan’s 96th St. mosque, where I sometimes go and pray on Fridays and where subjugation of women is discussed in the open without the blink of an eye. The mosque was built largely with Saudi money, and its Imams often come equipped with the perversions of Wahhabi ideology.
A few weeks after September 11th, its Imam at the time, Sheik Muhammad Gemeaha resigned and left hastily for his native Egypt. He was quoted in The New York Times as having said amongst much else including the familiar deriding of “homosexuality” “‘only the Jews’ were capable of destroying the World Trade Center” and added that ‘'if it became known to the American people, they would have done to Jews what Hitler did.”
Calling Islam a religion of peace is dangerous and reductive. Like the other two monotheisms that precede it, it has blood on its hands. It’s time we Muslims start looking inward at our own communities so that the bloodshed can stop. I’m convinced that Mateen’s attitude is not fringe. It can be found everywhere from Mecca to my own mosque in New York City.
The vast canon of Islam that emerged after the Prophet Muhammad’s life has enough sanction for violence, if you know what you are looking for. And there is no lack of homophobic condemnation either. The Quran itself remains vague on the matter, lazily regurgitating the Old and New Testament’s story of the Nation of Lot. And for the majority of 1.6 billion Muslims, many of them plagued by poverty and illiteracy, the debates going on amongst the Western Muslim pundits, will make no sense. What they listen to is Khutba (Friday sermon) after Khutba that talks about homosexuality as a sin amongst other matters of religious import.
Yes, most Muslims are muddling through life, putting food on their families’ tables just like everyone else. There are countless sectarian divisions within the vast faith. But if even a fraction of a percentage of this population believes gays should be put to death, we have a problem that cannot be dismissed so easily.
I, too, fear backlash from a fearful conservative America. I finally won an American passport last year and am officially an American citizen. Will I be singled out at the airport with increasing frequency? Will Muslims like me, desperate to get into the United States, be able to taste freedom here?
I went to my first gay bar almost 20 years ago in New York City. I had just landed in the United States. My cousin who hosted me on my visit swears that I kissed the ground (though I suspect he’s embellishing). I lost myself in the music, the dance, and most importantly the love. There are millions of other gay Muslims in the world, desperate to experience such love.
In 2010, I stood outside a nightclub called Acid, perched on a Beirut cliff. It was Ramadan, and Acid was one of the precious few openly gay nightclubs in all of the Arab Middle East. I shared a cigarette with a friend called Babak as a car with Saudi tags rolled up.
“That’s a rich Saudi prince!” Babak said. He often comes here to cruise! You have no idea how many rich Saudi fuckers come here. We Beirutis must screw well! The Saudis? They walk around like they are so butch but once naked they are all bottoms.”
Babak was the twentysomething founder of Bear Arabia who organized “Bear” tours of Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan for western gay men keen to sample the delights of the region. Bears, for those unfamiliar with Western homosexuality, are the gay men who do not confirm to “body fascist” stereotypes and flaunt the hair on their bodies and the ample meat on their bones. Or as my husband Keith liked to say, “They are just gay men who have given up.”
I was in Beirut to do open screenings of my first film for the first time in an Arab capital. It felt like a special moment. Babak, who I would call an activist like any other, was furious at the time because a New York Times article had come out labeling the city the Provincetown of the Middle East. To me it seemed absurd. From our vantage point we were looking at the expanse of Dahiyeh, Beirut’s southern suburb. That was Hezbollah land, bombed to smithereens in 2006. This remained a deeply divided city.
On that journey, I hooked up with a handsome man who later confided in me that he was a member of Hezbollah’s social media division. We’d met on Manjam, a gay hookup website. He was married, with three kids. When we were finished, he performed the elaborate, obligatory post-sex cleansing ritual called the ghusl at almost 4:30 in the morning.
For a brief moment I wondered how the world might be different if these closeted Muslims, from Saudi princes to Hezbollah warriors, could experience the love that I now feel in the arms of my husband Keith. The best chance they have is coming to America, and I’m now afraid that door is closing shut.
Parvez Sharma is the director and producer of A Jihad for Love and A Sinner in Mecca. He also writes for The Huffington Post and is a speaker on Islam and sexuality. His upcoming book on his Hajj to Saudi Arabia will be released next year by Ben Bella Books.