Inner struggle for Muslims in US

By Rachel Zoll, Deepti Hajela

Calls for greater tolerance after Orlando attack puts the spotlight on attitudes toward the LGBT community.
There have been vigils around the world for the victims of the attack, including outside the Moroccan Parliament in Rabat, where one couple held a sign that reads l'homophobie tue, or homophobia kills. Picture / AP
There have been vigils around the world for the victims of the attack, including outside the Moroccan Parliament in Rabat, where one couple held a sign that reads l'homophobie tue, or homophobia kills. Picture / AP

After the massacre in Orlando, the head of a prominent Muslim advocacy group stood before a bank of microphones and made remarks beyond the expected condemnations.

Along with denouncing the attack by gunman Omar Mateen as a violation of Islam, and offering prayers for the victims at the gay nightclub Pulse, Nihad Awad of the Council on American-Islamic Relations expressed unequivocal support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights.

"For many years, members of the [LGBT] community have stood shoulder to shoulder with the Muslim community against any acts of hate crimes, Islamophobia, marginalisation and discrimination. Today, we stand with them, shoulder to shoulder," Awad said at a Washington news conference. "We cannot fight injustice against some group and not against others."

Omid Safi, director of the Duke University Islamic Studies Centre, called the comments, and similar statements from other major Muslim groups, a "shocking development" from leaders who until last Sunday's tragedy "would probably have never been seen uttering the words gay and lesbian publicly".

The mass shooting, perpetrated by an American Muslim in a communal space for gays, has brought to the forefront Muslim attitudes toward homosexuality and the plight of LGBT Muslims.

A spokesman for Awad played down the director's remarks as nothing new. But Faisal Alam, who is gay and a founder of the support and advocacy group Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity, said such comments have opened "a historic opportunity for us to talk to one another".

Eman Abdelhadi, a doctoral student at New York University who came out in college, said the attention could provide some much-needed visibility for LGBT Muslims who are "often erased".

"The vast majority of American Muslims are illiterate as it relates to queer issues," said Ahmed Younis, an author who specialises in Islamic law and advocates acceptance of gays and equal treatment for women. He said he hoped for some real soul-searching beyond expressions of solidarity toward fully integrating gays and lesbians into Muslim life.

LGBT Muslims said the shooting sparked a complex set of emotions. They were devastated for their fellow gays and lesbians, while deeply concerned about anti-Muslim bias the shooting would generate. At the same time, they were caught at the intersection of two mutually wary groups: LGBT people who consider Islam uniquely anti-gay, and Muslims prejudiced against gays and lesbians.

Abdelhadi said she feared "Islam and queerness being pitted against each other in a sort of battle and that just making it impossible for me to exist as I am".

The day after the shooting, more than 50 LGBT advocacy groups made an appeal for the gay community to reject anti-Muslim rhetoric. "We know what it looks like and feels like to be scapegoated and isolated in the midst of a crisis," the groups said.

But Younis said the relationship between Muslims and LGBT advocates "is not a natural or deep alliance".

Many US Muslim immigrants come from countries and cultures where gays are often violently persecuted, and harbour a deep antipathy toward LGBT people. But younger generations of American Muslims generally don't share these views, Younis said.

Last year, after the Supreme Court legalised gay marriage, author Reza Aslan and actor Hasan Minhaj published a letter to "our fellow American Muslims", urging them to support civil rights for gays, even if Muslims are uncomfortable with, or outright opposed to, same-gender relationships.

"Rejecting the right to same-sex marriage, but then expecting empathy for our community's struggle, is hypocritical," the pair wrote on ReligionDispatches.org. "We have to fight for the right of others to live their lives as freely as we want to live ours."

A survey last year by the Public Religion Research Institute found four in 10 US Muslims support same-sex marriage - compared with 53 per cent of all Americans who said the same. About two-thirds of Muslims in the survey favoured civil rights protections for LGBT people in jobs, housing and public accommodations, compared to seven in 10 of all Americans.

Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle, an Emory University professor and author of Homosexuality in Islam: Critical Reflection on Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Muslims, said he first began writing about LGBT issues and Islam 14 years ago.

At the time, he said Muslims generally rejected or ignored his work challenging the overwhelming Islamic consensus that same-gender sex is to be condemned. But over the years, Kugle has noted a growing openness in the US and elsewhere to discussing the topic. He sees evidence of this shift in the new films, books, articles and blogs about gay Muslims.

The Duke Islamic Studies Centre is in the midst of a year-long project examining Islam and sexuality, including same-sex relationships, part of a wider scholarly re-examination of Muslim teachings on the subject, according to Safi. The research is mostly occurring in the West, but Muslims from South Africa, Malaysia and other countries participate in the work.

"So many Muslims - especially professionals, university students, and families dealing with LGBT issues - are searching for alternative ways of practising Islam that are inclusive and just. Muslim leaders are lagging behind in this," Kugle said.

Alam, who travels the country speaking to college students about being gay and Muslim, said coming out is still "an incredibly risky proposition" for many. He did so at age 19, to parents he said are "more tolerant than they are accepting". He said he's encouraged by the statements from many Muslim leaders after the attack in Orlando, but he hopes it's more than lip service.

"I think there's a sense within the community of 'Is this too good to be true'? What does this really mean that they stand with us? Is it theological acceptance? Is it just that we won't stand in the way of LGBT rights in this country?" Alam said. "Those are the nuances that definitely have to be worked out."

Dozens owe life to bouncer's bravery

Hero of Orlando shooting Imran Yousuf.
Hero of Orlando shooting Imran Yousuf.

When the terrifying blasts of rapid gunfire filled an Orlando nightclub on Sunday, many clubgoers panicked or froze.

Imran Yousuf, a bouncer at the Pulse nightclub, had an advantage. A marine who had served in Afghanistan, Yousuf was able to use his training to quickly identify the impending threat and remain clear-headed as people died around him, according to the Marine Corps Times. Because of the his decisive actions, he is being credited with saving dozens of lives.

He told CBS News that he knew something was horribly wrong as soon as he heard the familiar crack of gunfire. It was then, he said, that his training took over.

"The initial one was three or four [shots]," said Yousuf, 24,a former sergeant who left the Marine Corps last month. "That was a shock. Three of four shots go off and you could tell it was a high calibre. Everyone froze. I'm here in the back and I saw people start pouring into the back hallway, and they just sardine pack everyone."

Yousuf told CBS that he knew there was a door behind the panicked crowd, but people were too overwhelmed to unlatch it. "And I'm screaming 'Open the door! Open the door!' And no one is moving because they are scared."

If they failed to act, the gunman could have appeared at any moment. If someone took action, they were feet from relative safety.

Yousuf said there was "only one choice". "Either we all stay there and we all die, or I could take the chance of getting shot and saving everyone else, and I jumped over to open that latch and we got everyone that we can out of there."

Asked how many people poured through the exit, Yousufsaid 60 or 70.

"As soon as people found that door was open they kept pouring out and after that we just ran," he said.

Yousuf never credited a particular type of training with steeling his nerves during the attack or helping him identify the rifle in close quarters.

Yousuf said he wished could have done more. "I wish I could have saved more to be honest," he said. "There are a lot of people that are dead."

- Washington Post, AP

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