© PlusNews/Mercedes Sayaguse
JOHANNESBURG, December 3, 2007 (PlusNews)
– Suhail AbualSameed looked calm, yet he was shaking inside. He was seated
before a row of ulama, distinguished Islamic scholars, from Afghanistan to
Yemen at the International Consultation on Islam and HIV/AIDS, organised by
the charity, Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW), in Johannesburg, South Africa,
The previous day, several of them
had denounced homosexuality as un-Islamic and evil.
Today, AbualSameed had something to
“As a gay Muslim, I feel unsafe,
unloved and unrespected in this space,” he said.
“Were I to become HIV-positive, the
first thing I would lose is my Muslim community. I couldn’t come to you guys
You could cut the tension the room
with a knife.
AbualSameed continued: “I wish you
did not refer to gays with the (Arabic) words ‘shaz’ and ‘luti’ – perverts
and rapists – because we are not.”
Two men in keffiyas, the gingham
headcloth worn by men in many Muslim countries, waved their arms to silence
him but the chairman nodded for him to continue.
Spellbound, the audience listened
as AbualSameed, a Jordanian living in Canada, did the unthinkable: outing
The groundbreaking consultation
brought together Muslim community leaders, academics, doctors, relief
workers and HIV-positive activists to rethink the Islamic response to HIV
and AIDS. One key issue was HIV prevention among hard-to-reach vulnerable
groups like sex workers, street children, injecting drug users, and men who
have sex with men.
Jaffer Inamdar, the HIV-positive
founder and programme manager of the Positive Lives Foundation in Goa,
India, told IRIN/PlusNews: “Lots of sex, drugs and gay activity take place
during the high season from September to April in this popular tourist
destination. Harsh, condemning language make them [gays] run away, hide and
continue to spread HIV.”
Homosexuality is forbidden and
considered a crime in most Islamic countries. Six officially Islamic
countries (Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and
the 12 northern states of Nigeria) invoke sharia – Islamic religious
law – and maintain the death penalty for consensual same-sex sex, according
to human rights watchdog Amnesty International.
Other countries punish
homosexuality with fines, jail or lashes, coupled with social stigma and
blaming Western culture for introducing gay lifestyles.
Not surprisingly, AbualSameed was
“I saw their gaze, their body
attitude, and my memory told me there could be a physical reaction,” he
But he had nothing to fear.
“Afterwards, veiled women, bearded
men, the most religious types, came to me and apologised if they had said
something offensive, if they had made me feel unloved or unsafe.”
Each friendly gesture signalled
“This is us: our culture is
intimate, warm, based on relationships. When I outed to my family, they did
not turn on me,” a relieved AbualSameed told IRIN/PlusNews.
The following morning, the ulama
had a surprise.
Conference spokesperson and IRW
head of policy Willem van Eekelen read their collective statement, saying
that although Islam does not accept homosexuality, Islamic leaders would try
to help create an environment in which gay people could approach social
workers and find help against AIDS without feeling unsafe.
“This first time ever that a
high-level religious forum has talked, acknowledged and accepted gays,” said
“This will open the door to talks
with the Muslim gay community and help other gay Muslims to come out in a
To see theologians from Egyptian
and Syrian universities, and imams – Muslim community leaders – from India,
Sudan and Pakistan defy official Islamic homophobia is “definitively a
first,” said sheikh Abul Kalam Azad, chairman of the Masjid (mosque) Council
for Community Advancement, in Bangladesh.
“Homosexuality is a sin but we
should not be cruel. They [gays] suffer a lot in the Muslim world.”
Inamdar welcomed the statement.
“There are many gays in my group
[in Goa]. Islam says it is a sin and we have to follow Islamic rulings, but
we are all human and deserve respect.”
An unlikely ally for gay rights
turned out to be Sudanese sheikh Mohamed Hashim Alhakim, dressed in a white
robe with gold trimmings and a white turban, and his wife, clad in a black
hijab, with their baby just behind him.
Alkahim runs the S-Smart Training
and Consultancy Centre in Khartoum, which also runs AIDS awareness
“I used to be very hard against
homosexuals and sex workers,” he said. “But I learned to respect their
humanity. I advise them to change, but if they are going to continue they
must practice safe sex so they don't harm themselves and their partners.”
During the weeklong consultation,
AbualSameed, who is coordinator of the Newcomer/Immigrant Youth Programme at
the Sherbourne Health Centre in Toronto, had endured homophobic statements.
Just the day before, one scholar
had ranked homosexuality with bestiality and adultery as evils to avoid.
“The harshness of the comments made
me passionate; I had to do something for my own identity and dignity, and of
other gay Muslims,” said AbualSameed.
His decision to speak out was
nurtured in his conference working group, made up of Muslims from Iran,
Kenya, South Africa and Tanzania.
South African psychologist Sabra
Desai spoke about care and solidarity, and recalled the Prophet’s words:
“‘If one part of my body hurts, my whole body hurts’,” she said. “I take
this to mean that if one member of my community hurts, we all hurt.”
Then she squeezed AbualSameed’s
hand under the table and passed him the microphone.
Slowly, he started: “As a Gay
And with every word, the doors of
tolerance opened wider.
© 2007 IRIN/PlusNews,
the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN
Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed
do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
Posted: 03 December 2007 at
18:30 (UK time)