From the New York Blade - May 17, 2008
Parvez Sharma's documentary 'Jihad for Love' follows gay Muslims in 12 countries. It opens May 21 at IFC Center in New York City.
Struggles of Gay Muslims
Local filmmaker Parvez Sharma discusses homosexual Muslims—and the trouble with U.S. activists who try to help them.
By TRENTON STRAUBE
Friday, May 09, 2008
Parvez Sharma's documentary, "A Jihad for Love," traverses 12 countries and nine languages as it follows the lives of disparate Muslims who try to reconcile their sexuality with their faith. Produced by "Trembling Before G-d"'s Sandi DuBowski and shot during five years, "Jihad" offers a rare glimpse into a complex and controversial world.
"Jihad" covers a variety of Muslims, from those living under extreme sharia law to those practicing the mystical Sufism. Is it a challenge for American audiences to put each person's story in its proper cultural context? Even the term "jihad" is usually interpreted in the U.S. as "holy war" though you're reclaiming it to mean "inner struggle."
My primary audience was a Muslim audience, otherwise I wouldn't have been able to make a film that was respectful of Islam. I knew that if I could get to Muslims, I could open doors to other audiences. That's what the film has been doing: Educating people tremendously about the complexities of Islam.
I try to present Islam with a little bit of sanity and with a perspective only an insider Muslim can have. I tried hard not to attack Islam. If I did, it would have been an angrier film and would not have won any credibility with any Muslims.
This is not a traditional coming-out film. We're all coming out as Muslims. The primary identity of all these people—including the filmmaker—is religion.
That begs the question, Why stay in a religion that condemns you?
Answering that was my primary impetus to make the film. So many of us as queer people have abandoned religion completely. Islam calls upon you to be part of a family and culture outside of the mosque. So abandoning religion is a difficult choice—you're abandoning religion, family, culture, a lot of things that go with being a Muslim.
In your film, a gay South African Muslim challenges the anti-gay interpretations of scripture, saying, as many liberal Christians do today, that Sodom and Gomorrah isn't about homosexuality, but about rape or hospitality. Are more Muslims open to newer interpretation of the Koran?
Scholars of all descriptions are engaged in looking at the Koran in light of the 21st century. Islam maybe has more ground to cover in a modern context [compared to Christianity and Judaism]. But a lot of it is happening.
The last battle that remains to be won—around marriage—is true of all religions. In my lifetime, I don't see the Christian church or Vatican or Islam saying homosexuality is okay. What I think is going to happen is people will look at the religious text, for example of Sodom and Gomorrah, and come up with readings that are different.
You've shown the film around the world, recently in Canada, Australia and Turkey. Have reactions varied?
Toronto reacted from point a view of knowing a little more about Islam than Americans. In Sidney, as they were celebrating the hedonistic celebration that is Mardi Gras, people became aware of how hard it is to be gay in other places. And then in Turkey, which is 99 percent Muslim but also secular, young people said the film should be more critical.
Critical of Islam?
In Turkey, extremist Islam is making a comeback and a lot of people living in big cities like Istanbul feel threatened. They'd rather be part of the European Union than be an Islamic country that implements the headscarf. [Their criticism of the film] comes from that place that's fearful about Islam.
A lot of people make the case that the spread of Islam is bad for gay rights and human rights in general.
I don't agree with that at all. Islam is exactly the same for gay rights as Christianity or Judaism. There are only six Islamic states that implement sharia (Islamic) law, and this is where it starts becoming a problem. It is when the state starts interfering in personal sexual life. But again, I want to stress that a majority of Muslims are living outside sharia law.
Paradoxically, under even the extremist regimes, same-sex sexual encounters are not uncommon, correct?
Definitely. There's greater level of fluidity. You're not talked about if you're holding hands with another man. Or a woman with a woman. Certainly the avenues for having same-sex contact in a purely sexual context are much more easily available because many times the sexes are segregated. Sexuality is fluid and very open in most Islamic societies. The act is not associated with guilt. In Christianity, there is a lot of guilt around sex and reproduction. But if you're taking on a political identity like having a gay bar or gay pride or gay marriage, you start having a problem.
I take issue with a lot of Western activists, the ones who are bashing Iran for example, who have the arrogance to assume their models of gay liberation can be applied to this context. I know for a fact that they cannot.
Two lesbians in your documentary mention online dating. Is the Internet a popular and safe mode of gay liberation and communication?
Absolutely. Iran has the worlds' richest blogosphere. But what's also happening is that a lot of content is monitored in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran. A lot of activism is happening through the Internet, which has huge advantages and disadvantages. In Egypt, the government used the Internet to entrap (and imprison) gay men. So the Internet can be freeing, but [the users] have to use judgment with whom they talk to and how they talk.
Let's talk about asylum-seekers. "Jihad" follows an Egyptian who fled to France and Iranians who head for Canada via Turkey.
People have felt the film portrays the West in more positive light, like the West means freedom automatically. I don't agree with them. You see in the film how much the Egyptian has had to struggle. It's an uncertain freedom if you seek asylum in the West post-Sept. 11 where being a Muslim refugee of any color is a problem and having a Muslim name is a problem.
Is claiming homosexual persecution a viable reason to seek asylum?
Increasingly, it has been viable because there has been a wave of gay immigration cases. I'm afraid to say not all of them are genuine.
The question is: When people from Iran start seeking asylum in a Western country, does that give the opportunity in this climate to take that agenda of Iran bashing even further? I feel that a lot of this agenda picked up by gay activists in the West is Islamophobic and Iranphobic as well. I'm not the only person saying that. Even the Human Rights Watch has exercised a lot of judgment in how these individual cases are perceived in the press.
How would you rate Western gay press' coverage of LGBT issues in countries like Iran?
The U.S. gay press for the most part has been fairly immature. It's not entirely the fault of the gay press in U.S. It's part of a climate of ignorance. The sensationalism of cases out of Iran has been problematic. We are in political and social climate in which it is fashionable to attack Islam or to attack regimes that are seen as problematic regimes. When we attack these regimes, we make it more difficult for people living within those regimes. For example, when you accuse [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad of carrying out a systematic campaign against homosexuals you make that issue visible and force them to react a certain in which they weren't doing in the past.
There needs to be a greater responsibility exercised in criticizing regimes like Iran of carrying out pogroms against homosexuals. That is not the case. Ahmadinejad has bigger fish to fry.
Ahmadinejad was publicly ridiculed in the press for his infamous statement last fall at Columbia University.
I thought that was irresponsible reporting around the semantics of his comments, which was sensationalized profoundly. What he said was, "We don't have gays like you have in the West." The statement that was reported was "We don't have gays in Iran." He's quite right because of the different context of being. How do you explain these complexities? It's going to take a huge effort of responsibility not just of the press, but of filmmakers, activists, everyone, to do that.
Are Americans receptive to learning these complexities?
I think so. I've lived in the states for eight years. I'm as proud to live here as much as I've been alarmed. But Americans are definitely responsive to learning. The release of the film will engage them. I've seen that in so many countries. I see no reason for that to not happen in a city as rich as ours.
"Jihad for Love" opens Wed., May 21, at IFC Film Center, 323 Sixth Ave. @ Third St. Visit ajihadforlove.com for details, including special events featuring the director, producer and Muslims from the film.