Some religious communities are not reciprocating the tolerance and respect they insist on from others when it comes to gay rights, particularly in Muslim and some Christian communities. That seemed to be the bleak message at the heart of To Be Straight with You, which was performed at the O’Reilly Theatre in Dublin last week following a sell-out three-week run at the National Theatre in London.
I had been invited to Dublin for a public discussion on issues surrounding religious freedom and sexuality alongside the production’s director, Lloyd Newson, human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, Dr Katherine Zappone and Father Michael Collins.
In Muslim communities the issue of homosexuality is very rarely discussed in a candid manner and is all too often wished away as if it is an affliction that involves other groups, not them. Not far from the surface, however, are reports of gay Muslim men being pressurised into rushed marriages by parents desperate to avoid any social stigma. The woman’s family is never told the truth about her husband’s sexuality, of course, with the result that another soul has to endure unhappiness due to the initial failure to face up to the issue. It is a highly dishonest and unethical approach.
Islamic scholars and imams should ideally be performing a much-needed pastoral role by helping in these situations and providing guidance. At the very least they should insist that any intimidation or discrimination against gay Muslims is unacceptable.
Newson’s show makes mention of Nelson Mandela’s experiences in 1950s South Africa when the teachings of the Dutch Reformed Church were dominant. In order to get around the country and spread his message of black emancipation and freedom, Mandela used to disguise himself as a chauffeur, pretending to take with him a white passenger who happened to be a colleague in the anti-apartheid movement. That white colleague also happened to be gay, and during those many journeys they had the opportunity to discuss many issues. Mandela came to the conclusion that South Africa could not properly be described as a free and liberated country until all its communities, including the gay community, were freed from persecution.
Just over two years ago, I wrote an article for Cif commending the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) for publicly backing new sexual orientation regulations that had just come into effect as part of the Equality Act 2006. The Equality Act brought the goal of a fairer society closer by proscribing — for the first time — discrimination in the provision of goods and services on the grounds of religious belief or sexuality.
The 2006 act did not in any way compel believers to change any view they had about the practice of homosexuality being against the teachings of their religion. However, it did rightly insist that if someone wanted to provide goods and services to the public, then they should do so without discrimination on grounds of ethnic background, faith or sexual orientation.
The MCB, by supporting the act in its entirely, had taken a positive step forward and had inevitably attracted some criticism from within, which I noted at the time.
Would it not be another positive step if the MCB — as a broad-based umbrella organisation — were to include a gay Muslim support group as an affiliate? There does not appear to be anything in the MCB’s constitution that would seem to preclude such groups from joining and indeed the following clause from the declaration of intent section of the MCB constitution is particularly relevant:
“[The MCB] is a broad-based, representative organisation of Muslims in Britain, accommodating and reflecting the variety of social and cultural backgrounds and outlook of the community.”
At its best, Islamic civilisation was more than willing to learn from other surrounding countries and cultures and adopt the best aspects as its own. Actively working to ensure that people are able to live free of discrimination based on one’s ethnicity, gender, religion or sexual orientation is a worthy goal and should be viewed as an Islamic goal.
Inayat Bunglawala is media secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, the largest umbrella body of British Muslims, with over 500 affiliated national, regional, and local organizations, mosques, charities, and schools. This article was first published by the Guardian on 5 October 2009; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.