First Run Features has released a daring documentary from Logo and Channel Four Films (K), Halal Films, directed by Parvez Sharma, called simply “A Jihad for Love” (blog). It is about how Islam deals with homosexuality. We all hear the stories about the harsh treatment of gays in Islam, particularly men. But the picture is more complicated.
At the outset, we have to state a contradiction. In its most literal sense, a “jihad” is supposed to be a spiritual journey dealing with moral and spiritual issues. Anyone can experience this. You don’t have to be a Muslim to fight a holy war within yourself over a fundamental issue. One woman in Pakistan says this toward the end of the movie. Yet, very early, the documentary shows an interview with an iman (in Egypt, I think), who minces no words on the supposed terminal penalties for homosexual acts required by the Koran. There is no right to question scripture, he says. Yet, with the Koran, as with the Bible in Judaism and Christianity, there is genuine opportunity for different interpretations. In the Koran the most important scriptural controversy concerns how to interpret the well known story of Sodom and Gomorrah. And Islam has no pope who can issue centralized edicts. By its essential structural nature, and despite the political desire for a caliphate, in Islam matters of scriptural interpretation are decentralized.
The film moves among multiple countries. In South Africa, where a man marries but “comes out” and is “excommunicated” by his Mosque, only to be invited back later to speak. In Egypt, a young man is jailed and abused, but somehow gets to Paris where eventually he gets and apartment and work as a drag queen. Iran presents the most terrifying picture; some young men journey to central Turkey, in a snowy winter, for asylum, and two eventually go to Toronto. Nevertheless, the film cannot show or name of one the men, out of fear of what could happen to parents or siblings back home in Iran.
Pakistan and northern India (the home of the second largest concentration of Muslims) are shown as a bit more “open” in practice, with vestiges of old British laws rarely enforced. That may be surprising. The film also covers dervish Sufism (here's one link about it) as potentially more tolerant. One wonders why the film did not visit Indonesia or Malaysia, or central Africa and the Sudan.
Religious objection to homosexuality is often states in terms of the authority of scripture. Rarely is there an intellectual rationalization, to get around the libertarian harmlessness argument. It’s clear, however, that the most strenuous anti-gay attitudes occur in patriarchal cultures where men have a lot of “emotional” investment in the “power” that they gain from fathering and heading a family. The forbidding of homosexuality is supposed to reinforce the emotional rewards of power, so that the father will “take care” of everyone. Gay men, as often in Christian culture, say they cannot be "themselves" and easily meet the social expectations that their families believe that they have a right to demand of them, let alone the interpretation of religious law.
Lesbianism usually does not bring the extreme sanctions in Islam of male homosexuality (the Koran says very little for women), but women feel pressure to marry and bear children, sometimes too young. In a few primitive countries there is mutilation. In some countries (like Egypt) lesbians who wear veils say that they actually feel freer from the advances of men.
I saw this at the second showing at the Landmark E Street in Washington DC on a Friday afternoon, with about 25 people in the largest auditorium. The film was shown by digital projection and ran 81 minutes. The director was due for the later shows but I came early because the tropical storm was approaching.
Nadya Lani had an interesting story about covert gay life in Saudi Arabia in the May 2007 Atlantic, discussed on my LGBT blog here in April 2007.
This film can be rented for viewing on YouTube for about $3 (as of Sept. 2011).