In the wake of the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, that took the lives of 49 people, there has been much speculation around gunman Omar Mateen’s motives for the attack.
The rationale for the crime, first considered to be a straight man’s act of homophobic violence, became self-loathing when it came to light that for years Mateen had corresponded on gay dating apps and was a regular patron of the very club on which he mounted his murderous attack.
In each case, Mateen’s religion of Islam was isolated as the underlying cause of violence. I have been solicited countless times to “explain” Muslims’ alleged homophobia, before but especially after the Orlando tragedy, and each time I have wondered why this homophobia is taken as a given.
What is Islam’s stance on homosexuality? This question is highly vexed and impossible to answer, as there are not one but many stances, not one but many Islamic schools of thought, and scholars have rightly offered much-needed criticism of the idea that there is one monolithic body called Islam that can be consistent over time and space, let alone have stances.
An equally thorny and interesting question regards what we mean by “homosexuality.” Can we define it as same-sex desire, homosexual acts, or is homosexual identity more central to its meaning?
The answer to this question greatly impacts whether this highly variable assembly of beliefs, practices, institutions and texts we call “Islam” actually condemns what we might think it condemns.
Starting from the terrain of the obvious, we can get some misunderstandings out of the way. The word homosexual does not appear anywhere in the Koran, and indeed it couldn’t, because the word is an invention of the late 19th century, when medical societies in Europe tried to place groups of people who took part in similar sex acts under a common category, which they then labeled “homosexuality.”
Later on, the community of people pathologized by this term rallied together under the term of their persecution and began to demand recognition, equality and, finally, rights. The passage from acts to identities is crucial here, as it also constitutes the greatest stumbling block in debates about whether or not “Islam” condemns same-sex desire.
Since I am no theologian, I defer here to thinkers who have meditated deeply on the place of sexual diversity within Islamic cultures. As scholar Khaled el-Rouayheb explains in his historical survey of same-sex desire in the Islamic world from 1500 to 1800, sexual identity categories we use today have not been relevant Islamic categories.
The human subjects he studies may have engaged in (copious amounts) of same-sex acts without ever speaking of what they were doing in terms of identity, or developing communities of like-minded individuals around these practices.
With this understanding, el-Rouayheb titled his study “Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Muslim World” (emphasis mine) in a move that may have seemed to be erasing homosexuality from the historical record but was really just affirming that this modern term could not describe the same-sex eroticism of this Islamic period.
As recently as last year, during a British televised debate on the subject of whether one could be both Muslim and gay, some Muslim guests claimed that this was a moot question because “Islam” does not ask Muslims to conform to a particular sexual orientation (another modern concept).
Muslims do believe, however, that it is their duty to seek out marriage and have children, which is not the same thing as sticking to a sexual orientation, though some have interpreted it as such.
In contemporary times, Western travelers to Islamic countries have marveled in bafflement at the ability of local men (and women) to engage in same-sex acts while remaining committed to child-bearing marriages.
“Is this hypocritical? Or a different world?” veteran gay journalist Rex Wockner once asked. “Are these ‘straight’ men really ‘gays’ who are overdue for liberation? Or are humans by nature bisexual, with Arab and Muslim men better tuned into reality than Westerners?”
It is this instability of desire that confounds the binary categories of sexual identification that are common currency in North America and Western Europe, as critic Joseph Massad has insisted in his book Desiring Arabs.
Up till this point, I have only broached a set of problems related to the distinction between acts and identities. I have much less to say about the possible sexism of the broad category of Middle Eastern or Mediterranean cultures, which is not my province here: I am trying to bear down not just on what the Islamic stance on same-sex desire might be, but especially what it means in the West, where this stance is most interrogated.
Globalization has complicated the question because many (though certainly not all) of the Muslims who engage in same-sex sexuality have chosen to adopt LGBT identity markers in our era.
Some of them, who have since emerged as imams or religious scholars like South Africa’s Muhsin Hendricks, France’s Ludovic Mohamed-Zahed or the U.S.’s Daiyiee Abdullah, have taken great pains to show that the Koran does not discuss let alone condemn homosexual identity explicitly. Rather, it talks about certain sinful acts (rape, violations of hospitality, lack of reproduction), many of which are related to the story of Lot.
The Koran, however, is not the only source of legislation governing Muslims’ behavior: Many also put faith in the ahadith, sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad and his companions. They are grouped according to reliability (weak, strong), a factor judged differently according to the Islamic school of thought.
Some Muslims, aligned in the Quranist school, prefer to reject all ahadith because they would violate the completeness and perfection of the Koran, because the Holy Book would be incomplete if the ahadith were allowed to exist as a competing authority.
Interestingly for this topic, the clearest and most explicit condemnations and punishments of homosexuality exist in these ahadith, and it is thus no wonder that many Muslims who identify as LGBT take the Quranist position and reject them.
Some Muslims reject the rejection of ahadith and accuse LGBT Muslims of picking and choosing what they want to follow. But the reality is that many LGBT imams have strong semantic and textual arguments that provide at the very least grounds for debate.
These imams underline the importance of another Islamic cornerstone—interpretation (ijtihad)—pointing to the fact that Muslims, throughout their history, have lived in or at the intersection with non-Muslim societies, and have had to adapt their beliefs and practices to foreign restrictions, novel circumstances and inventions.
They insist that one has to view homosexual identity (which is not the same thing as homosexual activity) as one such novel circumstance not governed by the Koran. Muslims who are queer have often turned to one another, or neutral academic scholars, for edifying arguments and interpretations that could help secure their place in the community of believers, when local imams were unsympathetic.
And yet the perception of Islamic homophobia persists. This would have to do, in my argument, with a double standard in our perception of the great monotheistic religions and the degree to which we must literally follow them: We expect that Muslims will obey the literal word of the Koran and especially the ahadith, while Christians and Jews are free to interpret their holy texts figuratively, take it or leave it.
It is my experience that many Muslims more exemplary than myself do not follow the word to the letter, and remain actively engaged in interpretation every day, especially when it comes to the Koran’s more abstract or poetic passages.
The Pew Research Center, in its study of Muslim American attitudes over time, reinforces this view and finds that U.S. Muslims’ acceptance of homosexuality is increasing (perhaps slower than some of us would like), especially among the young, with tolerance levels comparable to other monotheistic religious communities.
One must remember that many Muslims in the Diaspora are immigrants or descended from them. The experience of being cut off from a home culture can strengthen attachments to religious identity markers, sometimes with the misguided result of entrenching homophobic beliefs, even if they are sometimes erroneously formed, as I’ve tried to show.
The perception that Muslims are homophobic has far-reaching consequences, already evident in the way political contenders have made promises to halt Muslim immigration or redouble their efforts to bomb ISIS in the wake of the Orlando tragedy.
As a researcher of immigration debates in Europe and how gay-friendliness is politicized within them, I am deeply aware of the way that perceptions of Islamic homophobia have been used to argue against engagement with Muslims, replacing outright racism against Muslims with a sophisticated form of sexual demonization targeting the Islamic faith.
Immediately after the mass shooting in Orlando, media outlets made sure to mention Omar Mateen’s history of wife-beating, macho bodybuilding and his father’s anecdote about his revulsion at men kissing in the same breath as Mateen’s Islamic heritage.
These allegations of a generalized Muslim homophobia often conceal more than they reveal, in terms of historical evidence.
From the earliest contact points between the Christian and Muslim civilizations, Muslims were faulted not so much for their sexual intolerance as they were for their sexual permissiveness. Orientalism and colonialism both presented Muslims as perverts, prone to bisexuality, and were thought to have untamable sex drives.
Sex tourism in the permissive “lands of Islam” was born of this fantasy, and was practiced by a whole generation of the Euro-American gay intelligentsia, remnants of which continue in North Africa today.
However, it is in the last 20 to 25 years that perceptions of the Middle East as a homophobic inferno have really taken hold, changing the character of “us vs. them” arguments about Western influence in the Middle East into a “sexual clash of civilizations,” to borrow an unfortunate phrase.
Some critics, like Joseph Massad, have argued that the laws and ideologies restricting sexual freedom in the Arab world are often the result of conserved colonial-era laws, or emerged from a complex evolution which saw Arab societies (that had previously been judged as “perverse” in Western eyes) attempt to erase same-sex desire from Arabic heritage, a process which often happened in elite circles.
It is telling, as a widely shared article has shown, that the five Islamic countries with no anti-homosexual laws on the books were those never colonized by the British. Article 534 in Lebanon, which criminalizes “sexual intercourse contrary to nature,” was derived from the French colonial Mandate period.
In the Muslim Diaspora in the West, many individuals have chosen to keep their sexual lives separate from their religious lives, as Mateen (who used gay dating apps) had done.
When his “secret” gay life was revealed, the narrative about his motives switched to self-hate, with many in social media declaring that the “closet,” which contained so many of us not that long ago, was the problem, and that leading a double life would eventually lead to schizophrenia, and possibly a violent break.
We should be careful not to pathologize the closet in this way, because many people, not just Muslims, choose to keep their private lives private for valid reasons that have nothing to do with self-hate, and more to do with refusing the imperative of “outness” and mandatory sexual disclosure.
As a developing story, the rationale behind Mateen’s horrible crime seems to shift every time a new character trait is revealed.
We found out that he was born in New York and idolized the New York Police Department, was a silent type who used to smile a lot, worked for an international security firm that trained him in the use of weapons, made racist comments, abused his ex-wife who thought he was bipolar, was deemed mentally unstable by co-workers, had anger management issues, was a friend to a drag queen and frequented gay clubs, drank heavily and used steroids and was also Muslim.
Which, if any, of these elements best “explains” his fatal act? By focusing on one, can we wash our hands clean of the others?
Mehammed Mack is assistant professor in French studies at Smith College. His book Sexagon: Muslims, France, and the Sexualization of National Culture will be published by Fordham University Press in January 2017.