2 Sept 2010

'A Jihad for Love' comes to Beirut

Looks like a minor 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.


  1. "Why not just abandon religion altogether because it blatantly contradicts a very important part of who they are?"

    I couldn't agree with you more. Very well written article.

  2. To rephrase my dyslexic tweet or rather put in the missing articles and vowels; I agree with your position, but I can also understand the need or desire for homosexual believers to try and find some room for them within their communities. Particularly those who accept their homosexuality as a natural inclination, are not concerned with making grand political statements, and find that there can be some sort of harmony between their sexual predilections and system of belief. I don't see how they can manage this particularly in light of the dominant inflexible and hardly tolerant interpretations of religion. Still, they may find it easier to negotiate a space for them within their contexts than it is to do away with religion altogether. Again I agree with your view here but it doesnt bother me if he/she may result in an unintentionally subvertive act..

  3. Anonymous 1, thank you for your kind words.

    Anonymous 2, ;), don't get me wrong, although I'm an atheist, I am not a fundamentalist anti-religion Richard Dawkins-type person. I am all for people trying to negotiate a space for themselves that allows them to reconcile their sexuality with their religion. I am definitely against anyone forcing them to be either secular or to abandon their religion.

    But on the other hand, for me emancipation is about overthrowing the authority of old institutions. 'Softening' religions so that they can be compatible with our modern sensibility seems hypocritical to me. We have to choose between determining our own destiny or submitting to outside authorities, such as religion, community, etc. But ultimately, individuals should be given the choice to make those decisions for themselves.

  4. I have to agree with Anonymous 2, it seems to me that your main argument is against religion in principle. If someone wants to believe in eternal salvation - be they gay or straight or bi - as you said, it's up to them. But your argument seems to pick out homosexuals in particular, somehow alluding that they alone are better off without the scripture. Either this is true for everyone or for no one. I don't see the need to specifically mention one group.

  5. I concede the point that it is wrong to single out gay people in this argument, and admittedly this posting taken on its own seems to suggest that. My attitude to this is more general though, and it applies to everyone experiencing a conflict between individual disposition / aspirations and social expectations. And it's not only about religion, but all institutions that prevent us from becoming autonomous.

    And to emphasize again, I am not against religion. I would like to see proper separation between 'church' and state in Lebanon, but I have no problem with people having individual faith, nor its my right to make such a judgement. All I am pointing out is that we can't win the argument for liberty and freedom based on 'modern' interpretations of religion, instead we should have a secular framework that guarantees that.


Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.

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