April 18, 2012

Gay Muslim Activist Bucks Cultural Norm

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On Wednesday, Faisal Alam, a “queer-identified Muslim activist,” spoke at Cornell about issues surrounding two communities — LGBT and Islam — that he said are rarely addressed together.

Throwing in both heart-wrenching and heart-warming anecdotes, and a few unexpectedly irreverent jokes, Alam talked in a fast and lively tone about current movements regarding the struggles  faced by Muslims who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered.

Alam noted in the beginning of his talk that the issue is not well-received as a topic for discussion in many Islamic organizations.

“I have done over a hundred speaking engagements over the last 10 years and this is only the second time that an Islamic organization has co-sponsored an event with me,” he said, thanking Cornell’s Islamic Alliance for Justice for co-sponsoring the event with the LGBT Resource Center.

Alam highlighted the difficulties of reconciling Islamic faith with being gay.

“This topic of Islam and sexuality is very, very complex and very difficult. There are lots of emotions involved because sexuality is a personal topic,” he said.

Showing cartoons and images rife with Islamaphobia to the audience, Alam said that Muslims are often stereotyped in the U.S. as militaristic, radical and oppressive toward women.

Moreover, “within the LGBT community, there’s the widespread idea that Islam is homophobic,” he said.

Alam emphasized that some progressive Muslim groups are now emerging, adding that such movements should be a basis of hope for LGBT inclusiveness within Muslim communities.

“We don’t necessarily equate Islam with LGBT. But in the last 10 to 15 years, there are people coming to the forefront that are saying they are Muslim and LGBT,” Alam said. “Ideas are springing and [people are] saying that these two are not magnets that repel against one another.”

Alam said that it was important to move beyond religious rhetoric and to focus on people’s individual struggles.

“It’s very easy to get caught up in the semantics of theology. There are 10 verses in the Koran that supposedly oppose homosexuality,” he said. “What I want to talk about are people’s lives, people who are thrown out of their homes, forced into arranged marriages.”

Alam also highlighted some of the more subtle difficulties faced by Muslims that identify as LGBT, saying that even language can become a barrier to acceptance.

“How do you describe [LGBT] to your grandmother who doesn’t speak English … when all the words describing your identity in your language are derogatory?”Alam said.

Derogatory language is something that Alam knows well. His family emigrated from Pakistan to the U.S. when he was 10 years old to a small town in Connecticut. There he was taught in his Muslim community that Islam condemns homosexuality.

“No ifs, ands or buts about the conversation — there were no such things as gay Muslims. They didn’t exist. That was it,” Alam said.

Although he knew “something was different” from a young age, Alam was unable to give a name to his sexual identity until high school, during which time he also became heavily involved in the young Muslim community.

At the end of his freshman year, Alam finally faced his “two separate identities” and had a nervous breakdown.

“This level of schism in one’s life can only last for so long until it takes a toll on your body, your soul, your psyche,” he said.

After the breakdown, Alam became determined to “never let something that happened to [him] happen to others like [him] in [his] community.” That is when he began his activism, he said.

He eventually gained enough support to found Al-Fatiha, an organization for LGBT Muslims. While recognizing that there are barriers, Alam said that he is optimistic about the future of the two communities.

“I may not get there with you, but we will get there one day,” he said.

Mariyah Ahmad ’13, publicity chair for the Islamic Alliance for Justice, noted the importance of creating a dialogue about LGBT issues in the Muslim community — issues she said are usually hidden in the Muslim world.

“It’s shocking to me that this is the first time this topic was addressed openly at a place like Cornell,” she said.

Sarah Rahman ’12, president of the IAJ, said that although the students within the IAJ did not all share the same opinions about this topic, it was important to “create a safe space to have these discussions — without fear of judgment or repercussion.”

“This talk is not just about homosexuality, religion or Islam — it’s about something bigger — love, kindness, respect and friendship,” Rahman said. “People need to realize that you don’t have to agree with someone’s belief and way of life to accept them and love them.”

Matthew Carcella, associate dean of students and director of the LGBT Resource Center, who knew Alam prior to his visit to Cornell, said that he was glad to have brought Alam to campus.

“I thought that he was very open and honest and spoke about his experiences, which is something that we often don’t do enough of. And I think that it was touching to a number of people for a number of different reasons,” he said.

Alam’s last few words at the talk expressed both optimism and caution.

“As you go out into the world, I hope you speak and hold onto your truth — no matter how much people may try to oppose your truths,” he said

Original Author: Jinjoo Lee