Earlier this month, the youth group at the Prince George’s Muslim Association (PGMA) mosque in Lanham hosted a discussion before a packed crowd on how Muslims should understand issues related to homosexuality and interact with members of the LGBT community.
When I first saw the promo email’s subject header in my inbox, I almost deleted it without opening it thinking that it must have been spam since it’s pretty rare for mosque lectures to touch on hot-topic issues.
The panel discussion idea was the brainchild of Manaar Zuhurudeen and I also give credit to the PGMA youth group and the mosque leadership for being progressive and pragmatic enough to take the first step to make the mosque a safe place where serious and relevant discussions can take place. I used to love going to the mosque but my enthusiasm has waned over the years as the mosque with its penalty boxes and other make-shift barriers has come to symbolize a place of increasing cultural isolation, irrelevance, and loneliness.
At PGMA, men and women pray in separate rooms but for this event women were allowed into the main hall both for prayer and to listen to the panel discussion. Still, there were barriers erected to divide the hall in half and by gender.
Dr. Adeyinka Laiyemo, a physician, opened by mentioning that frank discussions about sex are still largely considered taboo in the Muslim community. Dr. Laiyemo’s powerpoint presentation included a few graphic photos of certain disorders like Turner Syndrome and Klinefelter Syndrome, so I knew this would not be a typical mosque lecture.
Working in health care these definitions and photos are routine but it I found it remarkable how we as a Muslim community could come together in the mosque to discuss these issues with pictures in a such a matter of fact manner when we’re still so uncomfortable even sharing a hallway or prayer space. It occurred to me that this is probably similar to the way many issues were discussed openly in the mosque of the Prophet (peace and blessing of God be upon him).
PGMA’s imam Dr. Ahmad Azzaari, also a physician by training, spoke next about the history and prohibition of homosexuality in Islam. Imam Azzaari said the issue of homosexuality is addressed a number of times in the Quran and that this repetition and emphasis indicates the seriousness of the matter. He read verses in the Quran that mentioned the story of the people of Lot whom many Muslims believe were punished by God for their homosexuality and a number of hadith from the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him). Azzaari also offered a rebuttal of the interpretation that the destruction visited on the people of Lot was due to their lack of hospitality and attempted rape of their guests.
In another welcome change from the typical mosque lecture, two women were included on the panel. Dr. Naseem Sharieff, a pediatrician and community activist, and Sarah Yazback, a doctoral candidate in education counseling, who has been involved social work and counseling in the Muslim community for many years.
Dr. Sharieff used a white board on stage to illustrate her points and began my mentioning that every person has his or her strengths and weaknesses and that the challenge is in what we do with those weaknesses. In a nod to Muslim converts, Sharieff acknowledged that there is a difference between those born into Muslim families who are Muslim by chance and between those who are Muslim by choice through conversion and commitment to practice.
In choosing to be Muslim and to practice the faith, Sharieff advised that patience in the face of tests and trials makes a person stronger. She encouraged Muslims to not despair when faced with life’s hardships but rather to turn to the Quran, which contains both prevention and cure for what ails the heart. As she closed, Dr. Sharieff reminded the audience that they could maintain their beliefs and still treat others with respect and accord them their rights.
I found Sarah Yazback’s presentation to be the most enlightening part of the discussion. She began by acknowledging the importance of creating a safe space where people especially young people feel empowered to discuss relevant issues like homosexuality particularly for young people growing up in this society as homosexuality, gay marriage, and the repeal of discriminatory laws continue to be in the news and become more mainstream. Acknowledgement, Yazback clarified, does not mean justification and that legitimizing feelings does not mean legitimizing specific behavior.
She highlighted the underlying assumption of the discussion, which is to see homosexuality, believed to have begun in time of Prophet Lot, as a deviation from the norm. Yazback cautioned the Muslim community to avoid dismissive talk, stigmatization, and using this issue to brand people as outside the fold of Islam, all of which she said can be counterproductive and alienate a person from his or her faith.
She then moved to distinguish the meaning of the words lesbian, gay, and bisexual as an orientation or behavior from transgender, which is an identity i.e. how the person identifies is different from his or her biological sex.
Yazback spent some time discussing a range of psychological issues, which may influence or lead toward a propensity toward a particular sexual orientation. Included in the discussion were issues of nature vs. nurture, personality and temperament, sexual abuse, unsatisfied physical and emotional needs, and the power of suggestion.
While there may be an association between some of these factors and sexual orientation, Dr. Laiyemo argued that association does not prove causation. So it would be a stretch and incorrect to say a person’s sexuality is determined by any one of these factors.
Sarah Yazback encourages communities to develop safe and anonymous avenues to foster discussion possibly by creating a “warmline” (not a hotline to avoid negative connotations) for people to seek help. The power of stigma should not be underestimated and makes it unlikely that a person will just come to the mosque and openly seek help. Whatever support that is offered should be tailored to the individual as there is no quick fix or one-size-fits-all solution.
I took exception to some of the comments from the speakers particularly during the question and answer session, which I hope to mention tomorrow in the second part of this post. Along with a few words on the fragility of women’s inclusion and space in the mosque demonstrated by the change in barrier position between the maghrib and isha prayer.
From the Storehouse: Islam & Homosexuality: Muslim Perspectives