In late June, CNN aired a six-minute segment covering what reporter Lucy Pawle and the network evidently believed to be an ISIS flag at London’s gay pride parade. In reality, the flag featured Muslim scripture spelled out in sex toys. CNN even called on their esteemed terrorist expert, Peter Bergen, for consultation on the matter. This oversight provoked an onslaught of jokes at CNN’s expense, including from John Oliver on Last Week Tonight.
However, what many missed in their coverage of CNN’s gaffe—including the flag’s creator, a white man named Paul Coombs who wrote for the Guardian, “Isis is deserving of mockery and disrespect. I never thought CNN would think it was real”—is that the ISIS flag features the Shahada, which is a proclamation of faith for all Muslims. By replacing the words of the Shahada with “sex aids,” Coombs was effectively mocking the words Muslims say during the five daily mandatory prayers, when ill, before bed, and whenever else they feel compelled to do so. It is one of the five pillars of Islam and all new converts to Islam recite the Shahada as a first step.
In Coombs’ piece, he wrote, “It was important that I didn’t try to replicate the writing on the flag, because the words and their subject—Islam—are not the target.” Still, Coombs’ flag appears to show a visible replication of the text, which would mean his flag defames the entire Islamic creed rather than ISIS, who have hijacked the faith for their own extremist agenda. Though Coombs maintained on Twitter that he was not spelling out any writing on his flag, many Muslims disagree, myself included. Coombs seemed unwilling to take action in response to our concerns.
The incident with Coombs is reflective of the broader ways queer Muslims often face double marginalization: In addition to navigating homophobia within the Muslim community, they then must confront Islamophobia within the queer community. Rather than trying to “start a dialogue” at the expense of all Muslims, would-be allies should allow queer Muslims to speak for themselves as they try to establish themselves in spaces that often silence or ignore them. Allies to Muslims should also acknowledge that Muslims have been starting these conversations and to boost our own autonomous voices, including when we condemn fringe extremists.
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Like many other religious communities, homophobia is pervasive in the Muslim community. Many Muslims choose to interpret text in very stringent, socially conservative ways. Queer Muslims are among those being killed by ISIS and Western foreign policy. Although newer interpretations of Islamic texts are emerging to challenge older schools of thought, including the recognition of transgender men and women in some regions, many communities still persecute, shame, and silence queer Muslims. At the same time, queer Muslims are often unable to cultivate safe spaces within LGBTQ groups as well.
I’ve witnessed the effective erasure of Muslims in queer communities firsthand myself: Last year, I attended the World Pride Human Rights Conference at the University of Toronto. More than 50 sessions were hosted; I myself attended more than a dozen after trying to scope out those that would mention minorities within queer communities. In my experience, people of color were hardly addressed at all. From what I could tell, the intersection of being queer and Muslim was only specified in one session, to be shared with two other Christian groups. It was also apparently scheduled without religious needs in mind: A Muslim man present pointed out that he had to make a decision between attending the standing-room-only session or going to Friday prayers, an obligatory prayer for every adult Muslim male.
I’d felt a similar unease months before at the Rainbow Health Conference, a space for the queer community and allied health-care workers. Unfortunately, I’ve found that in these kinds of sex-positive spaces, there often exists an attitude among both panelists and attendees that those who are Muslim and abstain from sexual relations until marriage, or wear covering garments, are “backwards.” While sex-positivity is a good thing, overemphasizing it can mean isolating those who autonomously chose not to have premarital sex. Individuals present at these events can also indulge and propagate tropes that many racialized groups are more homophobic than Western nations, when really sodomy laws are a documented result of colonialism. Furthermore, many people default to presuming that uncovered Muslims do not practice Islam, and that covered Muslims would never be queer.
This year, Pride Month has overlapped with Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, causing a new type of isolation. Ramadan requires fasting during daylight, which makes it difficult to attend events that might be focused on sharing food. Pride events also often involve alcohol. In general, Islam does not encourage being around people drinking, although for those in diaspora this is overlooked. Personally, during Ramadan I try to avoid these situations, as do many others. The parades, too, are also also in the summer: The combination of being outdoors in the heat and actively attending or marching in a parade could put fasting Muslims in danger of dehydration, faintness, or more serious health problems.
Young queer Muslims deal with these kinds of complications and erasures in a variety of individual ways. Ayaan Mohamed, a college freshman studying political science and English with plans to become a human rights attorney, currently works through an anonymous peer support system to help other queer and trans Somalis struggling with their identities. As a queer Muslim who lives in the United States, she told me via email:
On Ramadan and Pride overlapping is that it is difficult as I want to attend Pride, but I also want to maintain my fast and I’m still trying to piece together my identity as it is and when there’s a lot of Islamophobia and racism within Pride parades and when my community shuns the idea of a Muslim girl attending Pride, there’s a lot of anxiety and guilt coming from all sides that makes it too hard to enjoy going to Pride, especially during the month of Ramadan regardless if I’m fasting or not.
Ahmed Hussein, a student at University of Toronto, sees the overlap of Ramadan and Pride as a potential launch point for collaboration in the future. As he told me via email:
As for the overlap between Ramadan and Pride, it’s actually exciting. It’s a unique opportunity to highlight the issues queer Muslims face and to center the voice of Muslim queers (empower instead of talk over us).
For example, he suggested that local LGBTQ communities could gather at the meals with which Muslims break their fasts during the holy month:
In an ideal world, I dream [of] an iftar hosted by a mosque for Muslim queers during Ramadhan, an LGBTQ-Muslim event that can really reinforce the existence of Muslim queers but I don’t have much hope sadly. Maybe the next time Ramadhan overlaps with Pride, which should be in 30 years or something? Yeah, long way to go.
Rather than drowning out Muslim voices by ignoring their existence or creating so-called activist symbols that mock their faith, allies can help queer Muslims to create safe(r) spaces many yearn for. Unfortunately, some queer Muslims believe that non-Muslim LGBTQ people try to do that by trying to combat homophobia in communities with which they don’t identify. Hussein told me:
Non-Muslim allies need to know that they can be doing way more harm than good. There seems to be this widespread notion that queer individuals in Muslim communities need saving from some terrible fate, a white savior complex of sorts. While queerphobia is no doubt an endemic issue in the Muslim communities, and as much as it pains me to say, sometimes it’s better to pick one’s battles. The Muslim community currently has a wide array of issues including systematic racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia. Trying to barge in and impose what is essentially an outsider’s perspective will only elicit mistrust towards all queer people. LGBTQ rights must come from within the community, as a grassroots approach.
Ayaan, too, urged members of both the Muslim and queer communities to stop trying to speak for her and other doubly marginalized people:
I want Islamophobic queers and homophobic Muslims to STOP trying to “guide” us into their “right” way of thinking; I am a human being capable of existing in Islam and in existing as a queer without both sides trying to convince me I’m wrong. I also want allies to listen to our stories, stop speaking over us, let us be the owners of our identities, let us define ourselves, and start calling out (if they feel safe) those who are hurting us.
Silan Ahmed, a queer student, activist, and poet from London, where Coombs’ flag was spotted, agreed. She wrote via email:
From non-Muslim allies, I want them to stop using Islamophobic language and just stay in their lanes, when it comes to Muslim issues, it must be discussed by and started by Muslims. They can amplify voices without speaking over us, we have a voice.
Queer Muslim groups do exist, and they are adamantly working to combat anti-LGBTQ sentiments in the Muslim community. In Toronto, for example, El-Tawhid Juma Circle Mosques, also known as Unity Mosques, are spaces where queer Muslims are openly accepted. In the United States there is a yearly queer Muslims retreat held in Philadelphia. Both offer resources, dialogue, and emotional support in a safe environment.
Queer Muslims often face a twofold marginalization, one that can be intensified if they are racialized or visibly Muslim. Within queer and progressive spaces, along with Muslim spaces, queer Muslims remain at the fringes. Uplifting groups and mosques that support these communities is essential and necessary. Allowing queer Muslims to tell their stories but also creating programming that is considerate of their lives, including during Ramadan, is a first step. Having queer Muslims as integral parts of Pride and other leadership roles in queer organizing would likely help in highlighting a community that exists and is more than capable of starting their own dialogue. The resources are there, and queer Muslims are ready to speak; they just need support rather than ignorance.