Faisal Alam

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Al-Fatiha Foundation

Faisal AlamAl-Fatiha began in 1998, when we starting thinking about creating an organization to reconcile Islam and sexuality – and, later, gender identity. We grew up in communities where they were considered incompatible.

Our name comes from the first chapter of the Quran. The word “Al-Fatiha” means “beginning” or “opening.”

At first we thought that focusing on theology would resolve everything. Within a year we learned that is not the first struggle people face.

Most of our community lives in diaspora. Living in the West has brought up many other issues. Our constituency faces issues like HIV and AIDS – as well as the concerns of the second generation coming out and dealing with immigrant parents. What happens to families within the religious community when their children come out? Living in the US, there is a clash of culture and religion.

Being Muslim is also a cultural identity. For my parents, their Muslim identity was never their first concern. Coming to the US strengthened the Muslim identity because there was less of a cultural context. We moved to a small town in Connecticut – the mosque in Hartford was the only place people could congregate. We spent Sundays in the mosque, and Saturdays at parties in the South Asian community. Sometimes men and women mingled, sometimes they didn’t – but everyone knew that the next day in the mosque a different behavior would be expected.

There were many clashes of culture and religion. The cultural context in the US was more diverse. I had to pick a hat, and I picked the Muslim hat.

Different cultures around the world influence how people interpret Islam. Weeding out patriarchy and misogyny is very important.  The patriarchal attitudes inside our own community mean that Muslim women face more pressures than men. Muslim men have access to educational institutions, public space – it’s okay for men to travel to college. But girls have to stay home and attend a local college. The inequality is unquestioned, it’s a given. Many young women have rebelled – for example by being with an American boyfriend.

There is also a lot of internalized racism and internalized homophobia within our community. People live a dual life, keeping Muslim and gay separate. “Muslim and gay don’t go together.”

People who felt spiritually wounded left the faith. They lost or forgot the rituals, the tenets, or theological aspects like the five pillars of Islam. Or maybe they know the rituals, but not their inner meaning.

As immigrants, living in diaspora, many hold on to the idea that one day we will go back and we’ll all be together. This influences LGBT people, who don’t want to go back. There are many other issues, like living a double life.

We began in ’98 with an international scope, to bring dialogue to predominantly Muslim countries. Since the beginning we have been structured through local chapters.

We sponsored rap groups but nobody came. Then we held parties, or gatherings in restaurants – for that people turned out because they wanted to meet other people.

Different chapters developed very differently. Toronto became very political very quickly – working on Israel-Palestine, participating in the Pride parade, forming bridges to different communities. They became very visible as queer Muslims for social justice.

The London chapter was scared to join the Pride parade or organize public events or interfaith gatherings – only social and support activities. The paranoia was so great that in 2001 when 52 gay men were arrested in Cairo, they refused to participate in issuing a statement condemning the arrests. Overall, the Muslim community in England is very conservative, very organized politically, and not as diverse.

In the US the Muslim community is very splintered among different cultures and different languages. It is still only an emergent political force.

Our initial focus was on supporting people around coming out, dealing with their families, their religious concerns. Everything changed in May of 2001, with the case of the Cairo 52, gay men who were arrested in a raid on a discotheque housed on a boat.

Many in the group were resistant to making ourselves a target. People argued, that is not our mission, we are not a human rights group. But what happened in Egypt was so unprecedented that we all felt compelled to speak out. People were facing torture and abuse. We didn’t know where they were detained. People on the ground were feeding information to us and appealing to us to speak out.

In August 2001, Al-Fatiha organized an international day of solidarity, in collaboration with Amnesty [International] and IGLHRC [the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission], with 12-15 demonstrations around the world. There were protests in Malaysia, the Philippines, Europe – Berlin, Frankfurt, Paris, London – and New York, Washington, and San Francisco. Fifty different organizations endorsed these protests.

There was a a front page story in Al-Hayat, a London paper distributed throughout the Middle East, with a picture of me — it was reported all over the world on BBC. The Egyptian consulate was bombarded with e-mails and faxes, so many that many of their systems were shut down.

The news spread across Egypt – to mixed reviews. Many of the men were released and fled the country. Some said the action made things worse – that a Western-style action strengthened the idea of homosexuality as a Western import. The Egyptian media said we were financed by Israel to “defame the Muslim world.” This is the first time, however, that a Muslim organization, working in coalition with queer Arabs, took the lead in protesting repression in the Muslim world.

It was a remarkable experience – then a month later Sept. 11 hit. …

LGBT oppression is not a religious phenomenon. We see it more as a political manipulation of religion. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan all rely on Western funding. Sodomy laws there are all remnants of colonization. They do not reflect sharia law but British colonial law.

These issues are difficult to address in countries with authoritarian governments. A freer civil society would allow the emergence of civil rights movements, including LGBT movements.

Sexuality is diverse and fluid in most of the Muslim world. Gender segregation has created many kinds of bonding within the same sex. At the same time, in most of the Muslim world, really in most of the developing world, being queer is not a political identity. Everyone knows who you are, it’s very understood. Often the upper class does identify as LGBT, while poor and working class people do not.

In some places it’s a very live debate. For example in India, every city has an LGBT support center, where one night is for effeminate and cross-dressing men, one night for transgender people; one night for Hindu speaking, one for English speaking – and one night for people who were socialized into a European-style identity as LGBT and Western.

Here in the US we’ve built a lot of bridges with non-Muslim LGBT and straight people; the next phase will be building bridges to the mainstream Muslim community. That’s where the real transformation will come from…

In the aftermath of 9/11, it was, oh my God, here we go again. You brace yourself because you know what will happen.

From September to January things were really bad. We heard many reports of verbal and physical harassment. The Gay and Lesbian Arab Society in New York was not allowed to meet at the LGBT community center. When it was safe enough to go, people were verbally harassing them. People were being profiled left and right. Every friend I have who was not white was stopped in airports. Many were banned from planes.

There was one incident where an apartment was vandalized with swastikas. The victim called the police and they arrested him and took him down to the precinct. He is a third or fourth generation Moroccan – someone who is very light-skinned but wears religious garb. That’s why he was targeted.

Six months after 9/11 we surveyed our membership about their experiences. Seventy-five percent felt physically unsafe. Things haven’t changed since then. People don’t feel they could call the police – but also that they can’t call on their mosques for support.

People felt really stuck. Many people fled to Canada – we helped people connect with others in Toronto and Vancouver.

Special registration threw people off. We don’t have the capacity to deal with something like this, all we could do was refer people to other organizations. AALDEF [Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund] did a lot around special registration, we were sending a lot of people there.

No one in our circle was deported – most had legal status. There was one case, a young Moroccan man fleeing family violence, who was jailed because of a visa overstay; ultimately he got asylum.

We aren’t able to really know even the scale of the damage. A male Pakistani couple was separated when one was deported. A young man fled to Canada when his family went back. Everyone’s family was affected – someone they knew was deported, scared, and so on.

Mainstream Muslim and Arab groups are as scared of us as we are of them. We are in same coalitions – antiwar, pro–human rights. I’d say that these organizations are not homophobic, but not especially welcoming. In general we haven’t approached them yet to build a bridge.

We’ve taken on a lot of work responding to horrendous stuff in LGBT media, which hasn’t stopped. The National Enquirer called to ask about a rumor that Mohamed Atta was gay, which the gay media then picked up. A Russian anthropologist wrote an article arguing that the 9/11 hijackers were sexually repressed because they live in segregated societies. That sort of thing.

The Bay Windows, an LGBT newspaper in Boston, attacked Surina Khan [then director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission] because she spoke out against the war on Afghanistan, saying she “should go back where she came from.”  Of course, she can’t, because she would be killed as a lesbian…

We’ve never been more visible or had more media attention, from the mainstream as well as the queer press. We’ve never had more work to do than we do now – organizing on so many different levels, different issues.

There are so many queer Muslims who did not identify as Muslim before. We are going through a cultural and political awakening. There are more people at our meetings and conferences. In the Arab community especially, religion is what people are fleeing, so most people identify more with their national background. Attacks on Muslims, though, lead to an embracing of Muslim identity.

In the past, Bilal became Billy, Mohamed became Mo. Now more people are reawakening and reaffirming their Muslim identity.

The progressive Muslim community has been very fragmented and spread out. Now they have suddenly realized their role and begun building a national and international movement. For many, dealing with issues of gender and sexuality has not been on the radar screen. Al-Fatiha is a leading example of what a progressive Muslim community can look like. Many straight progressive Muslim without a faith community are joining Al-Fatiha and helping to strengthen the emergence of a progressive Muslim movement that is working for religious change as well as social change.

Recreating Islam as an inclusive faith environment is an enormous challenge. It is hard to organize on a religious level because of our alienation. Ramadan is when our chapters are most active in breaking the fast together, especially with Eid at the end. We’ve met an open, interested response from chapter of the Muslim Students Association on various campuses. Young people who grew up in US can connect with issues our community is dealing with – culture crisis, post-9/11 issues…