The Orlando shooting was a hate crime against gay people — even if, once it emerged that the attacker had been a Muslim, many people claimed this as a terrorist attack rather than a hate crime. And, in an important sense, this was also a terror attack, since its aim was to spread fear in the LGBT community.
Since the massacre, there has been a lot of speculation about Islam and homosexuality, and there are fears that one man’s despicable act of terrorism could fan the flames of Islamophobia and other forms of social exclusion, leading to discord and unrest in an era of elevated Islamophobia.
It is difficult to define the “Islamic position” on homosexuality, as a monolithic phenomenon, simply because Islam is a very diverse faith group with some 1.6 billion followers on six continents. In most Muslim countries, homosexuality is illegal, and in some countries, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, it is punishable by death. But in others, such as Jordan and Turkey, homosexuality is not considered a crime.
Most Islamic scholars are in agreement that homosexuality is incompatible with Islamic theology. They tend to draw on the story of Lot in the Koran (also in the Old Testament) which recounts the destruction of the tribe of Lot allegedly due to their engagement in homosexual acts as “evidence” for God’s condemnation of homosexuality. Many scholars also cite the Ahadith (statements attributed to the Prophet Muhammed) that are condemnatory of homosexuality. Theological and legal condemnations of homosexuality can engender perceptions at a social level that homosexuality is wrong and that it should not be permitted.
Muslims on homosexuality
In 2009, a Gallup survey revealed negative attitudes towards homosexuality among European Muslims. In France, 35 percent of Muslims viewed homosexuality as “morally acceptable” (versus 78 percent of the general public). In Germany, 19 percent of Muslims viewed it as morally acceptable (versus 68 percent of the general public). In the UK, none of the Muslim respondents viewed homosexuality as morally acceptable (versus 58 percent of the general public who did).
Earlier this year, a survey commissioned by Channel 4 was conducted among a random sample of 1,081 individuals who self-identified as Muslim. The results found that 18 percent of the British Muslim respondents agreed that homosexuality should be legal in Britain while the majority (52 percent) disagreed. Conversely, only 5 percent of the general public thought homosexuality should be illegal. Furthermore, 47 percent of the British Muslim respondents indicated that they did not believe that it was acceptable for a gay person to become a teacher. These data suggest that there are low levels of acceptance of homosexuality in Muslim communities in the UK.
However, qualitative interview data can provide more nuanced understandings of what Muslims think and why they might hold these views.
In my research into attitudes concerning homosexuality among samples of first and second-generation British Muslims of Pakistani descent, I found that attitudes tend to be largely negative. Although research into attitudes towards homosexuality in the general population points to demographic variables, such as age and level of education, as key determinants of the nature of attitudes, this has not been the case in my own work with British Muslims. Muslims of various ages, education levels and socioeconomic backgrounds have participated in my studies and generally perceive homosexuality in negative terms. In substantiating these attitudes, people often draw on holy scripture. As one 54-year-old woman said:
It says it in the Koran that it’s wrong and sorry I’m not the one who made it. It’s what the God revealed to the Prophet so it’s the truth and that’s my belief system.
Many interviewees draw upon holy scripture as the basis of their views regarding homosexuality. There appears to be a desire not to “re-interpret” holy scripture — to accommodate homosexuality — because of the divinity of its origin. Moreover, there was a fundamental rejection of essentialist arguments concerning the origins of sexual orientation — that people are born gay and that they do not “choose” to be gay — and interviewees often argued that people had “chosen” to be gay. One 28-year-old man said:
God doesn’t create gay people. It’s a path they’ve chosen, and that’s an incorrect path according to our faith.
Indeed, previous research has shown that believing the essentialist argument regarding homosexuality is correlated with less discrimination and greater acceptance.
Although many British Muslims may disapprove of the concept of homosexuality, several individuals reported positive first-hand experiences of contact with LGBT people. A 45-year-old man said:
Homosexuality is wrong, I believe … I have a gay neighbor, and he lives with his partner. He’s a very nice guy — both of them [are]. They are very respectful. We consider them friends.
Some people spoke fondly of their LGBT friends, neighbors and acquaintances, suggesting that first-hand contact may challenge homophobia which exists at an abstract, conceptual level. It is also vital to stress that the Muslim interviewees overwhelmingly rejected violence against LGBT people. As one woman put it:
Violence and hate crimes are un-Islamic. We are not supposed to kill or hurt others, as Muslims. No, they can’t have it both ways, so they won’t be accepted in our community but it’s for God to punish, not us.
It was difficult for British Muslim interviewees to accept homosexuality given the overwhelming “evidence” of its prohibition in Islam. Individuals simply had no positive theological frame of reference given the absence of LGBT affirmative voices at an institutional level. This led some individuals to view endorsement of homosexuality as a violation of their religious faith and its norms:
Being gay is un-Islamic and so is encouraging it.
Put simply, the acceptance or endorsement of homosexuality was perceived as contravening key tenets of Islam.
Gay Muslims speak out
Clearly, the stigma attached to homosexuality in Islamic communities can have profound effects for those Muslims who also self-identify as gay. For almost a decade, I have been researching the social psychological aspects of being Muslim and gay. In view of the generally negative attitudes towards homosexuality in Muslim communities and the silence that can surround discussions of sexuality, most of my Muslim gay interviewees have manifested a poor self-image and low psychological well-being. Many view their sexual orientation as “wrong” and, thus, express a hope to change it in the future. One young gay Muslim man said:
It’s [being gay] wrong, really, isn’t it? … In the mosque, we’re told that Shaitan [Satan] tries to tempt Muslims because he is evil and he makes us do evil things. I know that doing gay things is evil, but I hope I’ll change my ways and take the right path soon … It’s all about temptation, really. Life is a big test.
Those gay Muslims who conceptualize their sexuality as immoral and wrong can understandably struggle to derive self-esteem, which is key to well-being. They may come to view their sexual orientation as “evil” and resist it. Some attempt to change their sexual orientation, sometimes by entering into marriages of convenience. This conceptualization of homosexuality stems from their understanding of the Islamic stance on it. Said by a 28-year-old man:
What the Prophet said was right and that’s always going to stand, yeah. Men having sex with other men was wrong in his eyes. He hated it.
It is easy to see how belief in the negativity of homosexuality from the perspective of one’s faith (which, in countless studies has emerged as an important identity among British Asian Muslims) could cause some gay Muslims to develop internalized homophobia and, in some cases, to doubt the authenticity of their Muslim identity.
Gay Muslims may cope with this internal conflict in a number of ways. While some hope to change their sexual orientation and to “become” straight, others may deny that they are actually gay:
Maybe I’m not bisexual because I’ve never been with a woman, but I can’t call myself gay either … I refuse to do that because I just don’t feel gay.
Crucially, in making sense of the “causes” underlying their sexual orientation, some gay Muslims were of the view that they had “become” gay as a result of their social environment and consequently blamed British society:
I’m gay because I was brought up here [in Britain] but I reckon if I’d been brought up in Pakistan then I would have turned out straight because this doesn’t happen that much there. Like I haven’t heard of any gays in our village. Here there are clubs and that and so I just kind of fell into the gay culture.
We tend to attribute aspects of our identity that we see as undesirable to external factors. This is a means of protecting one’s sense of self from threats. Some of the gay Muslim interviewees in my studies have identified British (or Western) culture as the reason for their sexual orientation.
Reconciling homosexuality and Islam
Many individuals of religious faith struggle to accept homosexuality given the centrality of heterosexuality to faith life, according to most faith groups. Muslims are no exception. Individuals use all sorts of strategies for protecting their sense of identity, and some of these strategies can actually have poor social and psychological outcomes. Social psychologists have long argued that intergroup contact is a good starting-point for improving relations between different social groups.
Universities are obvious contexts in which different groups can come together — LGBT and Islamic student societies on university campuses could collaborate with the aim of increasing inter-group contact between Muslims and LGBT people (and indeed those who identify with both categories).
Of course, inter-group contact needs to be characterized by positive images of the out group. So there needs to be much more discussion of homosexuality in Muslim communities — which will admittedly be difficult given the cultural taboo around sexuality. Faith and community leaders should broach the topic. My view is that people need to be exposed to LGBT positive images. This has already happened to some extent.
As I’ve written elsewhere, the EastEnders storyline concerning Syed Mehmood, a gay Muslim character who struggles to come out to his parents, generated some discussion in the British Muslim community and led some individuals to acknowledge the existence of homosexuality within their community.
This is a positive step forward and one that can be built on. Similarly, there needs to be more acknowledgment and acceptance of faith groups in LGBT contexts which tend to be secular. In my research, I’ve also found that gay Muslims can face Islamophobia on the gay scene, which can hinder their sense of belonging in these spaces.
In addition to improving relations between groups, it is likely that this exercise will have positive outcomes for well-being among those individuals who self-identify as Muslim and gay. Growing up in an environment in which you are led to believe that your sexual orientation is wrong, sinful or symptomatic of mental illness can lead to profound social and psychological challenges, including internalized homophobia, low self-esteem, depression and, in some cases, suicidal thoughts.
The reasons underlying the horrendous attacks perpetrated by Omar Mateen in Orlando may never be fully understood. But if it is true that he was a closeted homosexual — it was reported that he had used gay dating applications and frequented gay bars, including the one that he attacked — he clearly had a very difficult relationship with this aspect of his identity. There is already some empirical evidence that homophobia is associated with homosexual arousal, which suggests that homophobia might be a means of distancing homosexuality from one’s sense of self.
Could it be that his actions were in part a result of his internalized homophobia? Did he attack the LGBT community in an attempt to distance his own sexuality from his sense of self?
In any case, we as a society have a responsibility to acknowledge diversity and to allow people the space and opportunity to self-identify in ways in which they choose. We have a responsibility to challenge prejudice (of all kinds) when it shows its ugly face. We have a responsibility to support and protect minorities who are vulnerable to marginalization and exclusion. Sometimes this will be challenging particularly when it means that we have engaged with sensitive issues such as religious norms and customs, but we must persevere — for the sake of freedom, peace and well-being for all of society.