controversy is brewing in Beirut around the screening of Parvez Sharma's A Jihad for Love. The film explores the relationship between Islam and homosexuality through the eyes of men and women who are both Muslim and gay and are openly defiant about their sexuality and its place within Muslim societies. I saw the film a while back on Channel 4 and was fascinated by it and by the courage of the individuals portrayed in it, many of whom had been beaten, raped and chastised by their communities. Sharma spent six years making the film, getting to know the characters very well and gaining their trust. The diversity of the stories told, covering countries such as Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey and France, gives a comprehensive view of the treatment of homosexuality in Islamic societies today.
The debate in Beirut echoes some of Sharma's views particularly his explanation of the provocative title: 'A very loud minority has hijacked my religion and its pulpits. Jihad represents a life struggle... our struggle is one of faith and understanding.' Many argue today that Islam does not strictly forbid homosexuality but that this is a matter of interpretation. Al-Akhbar newspaper bizarrely chose not to publish a comment about the subject but allowed the commentator to provide a link for an extensive discussion on the subject by a gay man from the UAE.
You can decide for yourself whether the argument is convincing or not, but I personally fail to understand the insistence of gay people from all religions on arguing against 'literal interpretations' of scripture in order to carve out a space for themselves within the fold of religion. Why not just abandon religion altogether because it blatantly contradicts a very important part of who they are? Monotheistic religions in particular take a dim view of homosexuality for very specific historic reasons; they were concerned with organising human society at an early point of its development and therefore had to exclude practices that were deemed to be unproductive and base. Thankfully, we now take a more enlightened view on social affairs. S why this insistence on keeping archaic texts in circulation?
Islamic societies did in particular instances tolerate homosexuality, but that does not mean that the scriptures themselves allowed for that. It was rather a matter of prevailing social sentiments. Those are not the precedents that we should be building our arguments upon. Only a secular and reasoned approach to individual liberty can provide a solid argument in favour of tolerance. The obtuse tendency to argue against fundamentalist or literal interpretations of religion is worrying. Rather than abandon religions altogether, this tendency insists on re-packaging them for the modern world. But what remains of any religion if it reads like a United Nations report? I say, have the courage to live by your convictions: either be religious and accept what that entails or decide that you will not let ancient myths decide how you live your life.
The film is available to watch on 4OD, but I think it only works in the UK. It will be screened tonight in Beirut.