American Muslim Community Must Search its Soul After Orlando Massacre

Shaykh Hamza Yusuf and Miroslav Volf discuss Yusuf's vision for a life worth living at Yale Center for Faith & Culture. Photo credit: Román Castellanos-Monfil
Shaykh Hamza Yusuf and Miroslav Volf discuss Yusuf's vision for a life worth living at Yale Center for Faith & Culture. Photo credit: Román Castellanos-Monfil

After the horrific mass murder of LGBT clubgoers in Orlando on June 12th, American Muslims have once again been made vulnerable to backlash, wondering what will become of their community in a dangerously Islamophobic atmosphere. More than 200 American Muslim leaders swiftly issued their condemnation of the massacre, proclaiming an “openhearted” and “inclusive” Islam and rejecting “hatred” and “intolerance.” It may be tempting to think that all American Muslims are obligated to do is to mourn, pray, condemn, and oppose the collective blame assigned to their community every time somebody commits an atrocity in the name of Islam. But they must go further.

As a gay Muslim, I stand at the crossroads of two cultural and political identities often seen as mutually exclusive, simultaneously combating homophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry. Yet it is this hyphenated identity which uniquely positions LGBT Muslims for commentary on the Orlando shooting. We are making demands of the LGBT community, the American government, and conservative non-Muslim religious leaders who continue to fan the flames of anti-gay prejudice. Many of us are also calling on the mainstream American Muslim community to address the problem of homophobia in its midst.

A common reaction to this internal criticism of one’s community is that it’s not the right time for it—we should at least wait until the sadness, anger, and hysteria surrounding “radical Islam” have subsided before taking our own people to task. But how are we to know when Islamophobia has reached a level tolerable enough for us to talk honestly about socially regressive attitudes within the American Muslim community? The reality is that homophobia in the American Muslim community very likely played a causal role in producing Omar Mateen’s hate crime. It certainly wasn’t the only source of homophobic bigotry influencing him, but it was one such source, and that is reason enough for American Muslims to resist the anti-gay sentiment in their mosques and community centers.

For proof of homophobia in the American Muslim community, one need look no further than the statements of highly popular preachers, such as Yasir Qadhi and Hamza Yusuf. Qadhi, for example, has only provided another excuse for American Muslims to deny the problem by proposing a false binary to explain Mateen’s actions. Either he was psychologically disturbed and conflicted about his sexual orientation, or his viciously homophobic brand of Islam led him to kill LGBT people. In other words, either we focus on his psychology or we focus on his religion; Qadhi would have us concentrate solely on the former. Islam’s stance on same-sex love is therefore “irrelevant” to Mateen’s heinous behavior. How could he have been a religious homophobe, Qadhi asks, and a homosexual at the same time?

The trouble with this line of reasoning, however, is that it ignores the trauma that results from loathing oneself for having the “wrong” sexual orientation. This kind of bigotry—directed at oneself—often treats its object as an illness to be cured. And Qadhi should know, as he has himself compared same-sex love with substance abuse. It’s a mode of conservative religion that pathologizes same-sex love, causing gay people to internalize homophobia and thus endure unnecessary suffering.

This isn’t to say that Mateen’s homophobia explains why he slaughtered dozens of innocent people, just that it was a significant factor in his decision to specifically target LGBT folk for hatred. That’s why Qadhi’s attempt to deflect any criticism of his anti-gay theology falls flat. He attacks a straw doll when he says that it’s unfair to have to choose between accepting people’s same-sex relationships or admitting that viewing them as a sin leads “those people” to murder. On the contrary, it’s entirely fair to be asked to stop pathologizing same-sex love on the grounds that this creates, or at least exacerbates, internalized homophobic bigotry. American Muslims can’t stop every murderer, but they can help stop people from hating themselves for no good reason.

Hamza Yusuf, once described by the Guardian as “the [W]est’s most influential Islamic scholar,” is similarly a part of the problem. In a recent interview, he rightly reprehended mass murder and vigilantism, but went on to say that there is no room in Islam for an “active homosexual lifestyle,” recommended “celibate lives” for those “struggling” with same-sex desire, and offered his “sympathy” for them. This is the same man who once suggested that homosexuality is “pathogenic” and that people can become gay by watching pornography. Yusuf fundamentally misunderstands the nature of sexual orientation, incorrectly portrays same-sex relationships as constituting a “lifestyle,” and, like Qadhi, regards same-sex love as a disease in need of treatment.

LGBT people have every right to feel insulted by this anti-scientific framing of same-sex intimacy, one that is by no means restricted to Muslim communities. There isn’t a shred of evidence to show that same-sex desire or attraction is pathological, and it is irrational to attribute it to the “proliferation of sexual images” or the “increasement of public sexuality” in society. So too is it irrational—even cruel—to prescribe lifelong celibacy for an entire group of people whilst enjoying sexual and emotional intimacy oneself. What’s especially disturbing about Qadhi and Yusuf’s thinking is that, for all of the differences between their religious practice and that of Muslim extremists, their homophobic reading of the Qur’anic narrative of the Prophet Lot is essentially the same.

It’s all well and good for American Muslims to condemn the barbarity of groups like ISIS, but those who promote the view that same-sex desire is a perversion must still take responsibility for subjecting LGBT Muslims to a form of psychological abuse which all too often kills them. The good news is that, according to polls, the mainstream American Muslim community is becoming increasingly accepting of homosexuality. American Muslim leaders must make a stronger effort to advance progressive, queer-positive interpretations of scripture, forge meaningful alliances with LGBT groups, and spurn the prevailing homophobic theology which drives LGBT Muslims to despair and misery. Only then can they justly claim to be practicing an openhearted, inclusive Islam.