"Chop off their heads and throw them off a mountain," someone suggests. "Cut off their arses," says another. These are some of the reactions to homosexuality within Islam depicted in the documentary A Jihad For Love. In some parts of the world, those responses are made manifest as beatings, imprisonment, and even the death penalty.
And yet the film opens with some words from the Koran which are part of the Muslim call to prayer. It is a remarkably traditional invitation into this intimate study of the lives of gay and lesbian Muslims.
Director Parvez Sharma is currently in Sydney to present the film, which he describes as his "life’s work," as part of Queerscreen’s Mardi Gras Film Festival. Filmed in 12 countries in nine languages over six years, it took Sharma to many corners of the Muslim world – and into dangerous territory.
In Egypt, for example, oppression of homosexuality is rife, with 2001 seeing the raid of gay venues and arrest and imprisonment of the ‘Cairo 52’. Images of the masked defendants crowded into a cage at court are potent. Sharma describes these raids as a "pogrom" against gays and lesbians. "I used [that term]very deliberately and carefully," he says.
Given the context, filming had to be done carefully. "I was doing all my filming with tourist visas, for my own safety but also for the safety of the people I was leaving behind in these countries," says Sharma, who blurred many of his subjects’ faces, used handheld cameras, and bookended his tapes with ten minutes of tourist images to get them in and out of Egypt.
The release of A Jihad For Love has not been trouble-free either. The depiction of a gay South African imam was particularly poorly received by clerics in that country last November.
"The Muslim Judicial Council in South Africa issued a judgement against the film, saying homosexuals are committing apostasy – the sin of apostasy in Islam carries the death penalty," says Sharma. Surprisingly, he is quick to see the upside of such reactions. "As a result, there was a debate in South Africa – many straights came to see the film and were transformed by it. There was a tremendous amount of positivity from Muslim countries."
Sharma speaks as a man accustomed to turning the conflict between his homosexuality and his faith into a constructive experience. He is a filmmaker with an agenda to challenge and transform the perceptions of others. One such challenge is the use of the term "jihad" in the title of the film, which Sharma admits is a controversial move.
"A violent minority have seized upon this term jihad as holy war … I am reclaiming one of the most contentious words, not just in the West but in Islam orthodoxy. Jihad is the struggle with the self," Sharma asserts. This notion of "struggle with the self" is played out by each participant in the film in introspective moments which deal with shame, family and culture – moments which will also resonate with many non-Muslim gay, lesbian, transgender, and queer people.
But the struggle is also with conservative doctrine. "For a film that is calling for change within Islam to use this word is revolutionary," says Sharma. "It is revolutionary to put it next to love as well," he adds, almost as an afterthought.
It is Sharma’s mission, it seems, to open the channels for dialogue about diverse experiences of Islam. The filmmaker has been watching the frayed relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims in Australia with interest.
"Islamophobia here [in Australia]is unfortunate. It is a direct result of the constant misunderstanding of Muslims in the mainstream media. The vast majority of Muslims are human beings with the same struggles in life as anyone else. The minority that speaks for Islam does not speak for [this majority]."
"As far as Australia is concerned there needs to be a better understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims. And I think both groups, both sides, if I can use those words … carry responsibility for that. Both sides have to understand and engage in dialogue."
So who is it more important to reach – straight Muslims, gay non-Muslims, or the mainstream?
"I see my film as a film about Islam, not a gay film. All the subjects in this film are coming out as Muslims. They are claiming Islam and saying they have a right to it. They become Islam’s most unlikely storytellers."
"Look around you – who gets to speak for Islam? George W Bush and Osama Bin Laden. Neither of them are telling the truth about Islam."
Speaking against such extremes, Sharma is earnest. But when I ask him about Australia’s reluctance to recognise homosexuality as a factor in processing asylum seekers, the filmmaker is more hesitant. "Not everyone is suffering but there are regimes, Iran and Egypt for example, which are very problematic … there is definitely a new issue of gay Muslim asylum seekers in many countries. All of these cases need to be considered carefully," he says.
The film traces the journey of four Iranian asylum seekers in Turkey who are hoping to make it to Canada, a country which now recognises homosexuality as one of the reasons for persecution which can lead to grounds for refugee status. In October last year, Ali Humayun, a 26-year-old detainee at Villawood, had his application refused despite arguing that returning to Pakistan would endanger his life. He was refused asylum on the ground that his homosexuality was "a result of being incarcerated."
Some institutions can be havens for homosexuals unwelcome in mainstream society, and the film also explores the Sufi mystical tradition, which saw men (and sometimes women) lead monastic lifestyles in the pursuit of their Islamic faith. The 15th century Persian Sufi poet, Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi, who wrote of his great love for his friend and teacher Shamz-i-Tabriz, has skyrocketed in popularity in the West.
"Within Sufism, there have been more opportunities for sexual expression," Sharma says. Rather than the haven offered by cloistered communities, Sharma attributes this to Sufism’s concept of "god being your lover as opposed to god being something you fear."
There is far more complexity in the Muslim world than is usually acknowledged in the West. But even that complexity can have its own problems. Might an Indian Muslim meet with any resistance from Arab clerics?
"If I was a white western film-maker I wouldn’t have been able to make this film," says Sharma. "I am gay and I am a Muslim but I also had the advantages of growing up in India, in the world’s biggest democracy, with all the advantages of secularism."
"The Arabs have a great sense of entitlement over Islam, but the vast majority of Muslims live outside the Arab world. I feel that Islam needs to be shared equally."
Sharma admits that diversity within Islam is not often encouraged. "I have long been a critic of aspects of Islam – that people in India, Indonesia, Pakistan for example have to learn the Koran by rote but do not learn the meaning."
As for the often homogenous and superficial gay scene in Australia, which can be slow to accept diversity, Sharma is clearly happy to be here, challenging perceptions. "It’s really good to bring a film like this into something like Mardi Gras," he says, "to bring some real struggles into the mix."
Last week’s screening of A Jihad for Love on Sydney’s Oxford Street spilled over into a second cinema. Clearly there is an appetite for the perspectives of these unlikely storytellers.
For information about the film see Parvez Sharma’s blog.
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