An item in this week’s LGBT Global Roundup about the struggle to recognize marginalized pro-LGBT voices in the Arab world, reminds us that while religious voices are typically the loudest in denying human dignity, religions are not homogeneous. Here in the US, meanwhile, much of the post-Obgergefell v. Hodges opposition is framed as a religious concern, though it’s seldom noted there have been deep, ongoing debates about inclusion in American Muslim communities for years.
Globally, key movements in the US, France, and South Africa receive the majority of media attention for more progressive discussions on sexuality and Islam, though a 2011 report shows how pervasive (and deep) these conversations truly are. More importantly, a recent report by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) demonstrates that the conversation isn’t restricted to theology and law, but also includes the practical considerations around creating inclusive spaces. [Full disclosure: I am a Senior Fellow with ISPU, and a co-organizer of the conference at Harvard.]
The report, called (Re)Presenting American Muslims: Broadening the Conversation, seeks to move beyond inclusion as simply referring to sexual orientation. Instead, it aims to revive a broader ethos of pluralism and cosmopolitanism, grounded in Muslim traditions, that has historically been the hallmark of healthy, thriving Muslim societies. In many ways, it sets the stage for and goes beyond the open letter to American Muslims published by Reza Aslan and Hassan Minhaj here on RD.
According to the ISPU report, there is a deep desire by American Muslims to return to a religious imagination that isn’t bounded by simple legal edicts, but which calls forth the best of a person through a Prophetic example. As a result, one can no longer see mosques operating in isolation from American Muslim public servants, organizations, activists, advocates, artists, or other worship spaces; they all form part of a larger American Muslim ecosystem, and the conversations in each of these communities are in fact conversations in the larger community.
For many of the participants in the convening that informed the report, it’s important that American Muslims start acting with an “attitude of gratitude,” that centers Muslims in a relationship with God which is grateful, thereby creating a generous relationship with other people. This approach helps set up theological conversations that are determined by ethical conviction, rather than by cultural fear or legalist exclusion. The result is a vision of inclusivity that seeks to meet people where they are, rather than where the community believes they should be.
The conversation then moved easily to thinking about how we create centers that exclude people based on sexual orientation, gender, race, class, school of thought, generation, ethnicity, and myriad other identifications. Part of the concern was the role of the mosque in the American context; that they’ve become spaces of enforcement of what a community thinks it means to be Muslim. Rather than an expression of the community, the mosque is made to function as an enforcer of community.
There’s a need to create beautiful and spiritually inspired physical spaces, which generates the environment for inclusivity and a sense of belonging. There’s also a push to recognize that the mosque represents a place of prayer, and cannot do all the community work that is required of it, unless it’s designed to accommodate those needs. Again, it’s a call back to historical realities when mosques worked with markets, schools, medical centers, and additional worship spaces like dargahs and jama’at khanas.
Ultimately, the report reveals how complicated the community is by showing that the debates around inclusion have more depth and a longer history than is readily apparent, even to those within the community.
In their letter urging American Muslims to stand up for the LGBT community, Aslan and Minhaj wrote that “Challenging the status quo for the betterment of society is one of the very foundations on which Islam was built.” The ISPU report and convening echo this sentiment, only they seek to apply it to a far broader set of issues.