First International Retreat for Lesbian and Gay Muslims Is Held Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

GLBT Muslims, who founded the Al-Fatiha Foundation in 1997 as an online community, held its first international retreat to reconcile sexual orientation or gender identity with religion, namely Islam. The group has held annual conferences, mostly in the United States, since its founding retreat. Al-Fatiha’s existence has been met with both positive reinforcement and encouragement and with fierce opposition and controversy.

Summary of Event

Until the late 1990’s, many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Muslims thought they were alone. Some of them struggled to suppress their sexual orientation or gender identity, as they thought their faith and sexuality could not coexist. Others thought that being both Muslim and gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender was irreconcilable and thus felt compelled to abandon Islam. There were also those who lived as Muslims during the day and lived as a GLBT person at night. Faisal Alam belonged to the last category. [kw]First International Retreat for Lesbian and Gay Muslims Is Held (Oct. 9-12, 1998) [kw]International Retreat for Lesbian and Gay Muslims Is Held, First (Oct. 9-12, 1998) [kw]Retreat for Lesbian and Gay Muslims Is Held, First International (Oct. 9-12, 1998) [kw]Lesbian and Gay Muslims Is Held, First International Retreat for (Oct. 9-12, 1998) [kw]Gay Muslims Is Held, First International Retreat for Lesbian and (Oct. 9-12, 1998) [kw]Muslims Is Held, First International Retreat for Lesbian and Gay (Oct. 9-12, 1998) Al-Fatiha Foundation[Al Fatiha] Religion;Islam Islam, and homosexuality [c]Religion;Oct. 9-12, 1998: First International Retreat for Lesbian and Gay Muslims Is Held[2500] [c]Organizations and institutions;Oct. 9-12, 1998: First International Retreat for Lesbian and Gay Muslims Is Held[2500] Alam, Faisal Khan, Surina Nahas, Omar

Born in 1977 to Pakistani parents, Alam immigrated with his family at the age of eleven to the United States. After he had come out as gay at college in Boston, he was asked to resign from his position as secretary of the national Muslim Students Association. Alam turned to the Internet in 1997 and started a Listserv for GLBT Muslims, thus founding the Al-Fatiha Foundation. After months of online discussions, Alam organized the first international retreat for GLBT Muslims, which took place October 9 to 12, 1998, in Boston, Massachusetts. Forty-five individuals—Americans, Canadians, Indians, Lebanese, Maldivians, Pakistanis, Saudis, South Africans, Swiss, Syrians, and Turks—flew from all over the world to attend the retreat.

The workshops addressed topics of faith and sexuality, historical perspectives on GLBT behavior in Muslim societies, and the current oppression of GLBT persons in some Muslim countries. Furthermore, retreat participants, including Omar Nahas, examined the different interpretations of Prophet Lot’s story in the Qur՚ān. The story refers to the punishment of the people of Lot for their lewd acts: Married men raped male travelers to dishonor them, did not treat their guests honorably, and attempted to molest Prophet Lot’s guests, who were angels disguised as handsome young men. Lot’s story is traditionally referenced to condemn homosexuality, but the story does not address consensual homosexual relationships between adults.

A key player at the retreat was Surina Khan, a Pakistani American who was, at the time, a researcher who monitored the “ex-gay” movement and the Christian Right in the United States while working at a progressive Boston think tank. She was executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, becoming the first Muslim-raised lesbian to lead a major GLBT organization. She held that position from 2000 to 2002. At the first Al-Fatiha retreat, Khan was instrumental in placing women’s issues at the top of the agenda of the newly born GLBT Muslim movement.

Significance

The highlight of Al-Fatiha’s retreat was the collective decision to establish an international organization for GLBT Muslims. “Al-Fatiha,” which means “the beginning” in Arabic, happens to be the title of the opening chapter of the Qur՚ān. Qur{hamza}{amacr}n[Quran] The name caused some controversy.

Although progressive organizations and the media hailed the efforts of GLBT Muslims to organize, conservative imams in countries of all faiths were opposed to GLBT Muslims reclaiming their faith. For example, a conservative magazine broke the silence on homosexuality and published a cover article in Arabic. The article, translated into English as “The Latest Catastrophes for Arabs in the Twentieth Century: Islamic Conference and Arab Organizations for Sexual Deviations” (Al-Majalla: The International Magazine of the Arabs, October 24-30, 1999), Al-Majalla: The International Magazine of the Arabs[Al Majalla] detailed the work of Alam and of Al-Fatiha, work the journalist considered a threat to Muslim youth.

The reporter interviewed Sheik Abdel-Azim El-Motaeny, a professor at Al-Azhar University in Egypt, who affirmed the death sentence for homosexuals who do not repent. In the same article, however, Ramzi Zakharia, the head of the Gay and Lesbian Arab Society (GLAS) in New York, affirmed the basic rights of GLBT people. Al-Majalla’s coverage of the GLBT Muslim movement, while scornful, fueled awareness in Arab countries, where many GLBT people came to discover they were not alone, and they flooded Al-Fatiha and GLAS with requests to join the two organizations.

Anissa Hélie, a French-Algerian feminist working for the international solidarity network Women Living Under Muslim Laws, wrote,

Why is sexuality and sexual conformity the focus of so much attention by fundamentalist forces? A possible answer is that, when people exercise individual choice, it appears as a challenge: autonomy—especially for women—is seen as a threat. It is interesting to note that, in past centuries, Arabs attributed homosexual behaviour to the bad influence of Persians. Today, it’s much the same story,…homosexuality is currently denounced as a “Western disease.”

The GLBT Muslim movement developed rapidly. Chapters of Al-Fatiha were founded in major U.S. cities, and affiliate organizations were established in Canada, the United Kingdom, and South Africa. Muslim scholars who joined Al-Fatiha include Ghazala Anwar, a renowned South Asian Muslim feminist and lecturer in religious studies at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, and Imam Daayiee Abdullah, an African American Muslim scholar who joined Al-Fatiha’s board of directors and became the first out gay imam.

Alam has coordinated the yearly conferences, the first of which was held in New York in May of 1999. Annual conferences have been held in London in 2000; San Francisco in 2001; Washington, D.C., in 2002; Toronto, Canada, in 2003; New York in 2003; and Los Angeles in 2004. Al-Fatiha’s conferences provide not only a space to discuss sexual orientation and gender identity within Islam but also a chance for breakthrough reform toward a progressive Islam. During the conferences, women have prayed alongside men (a traditionally prohibited practice), and women and transgender people have led prayers. Al-Fatiha’s chapters in Toronto and Philadelphia started their own GLBT mosques.

Addressing homosexuality as a human rights issue, Khalid Duran (in Homosexuality and World Religions, 1993) suggests that GLBT Muslims’ only hope is to find a “theological accommodation” with Islam by developing a “new shari’a [Muslim law] comparatively detached from the social climate of seventh-century Arabia,” a law that emphasizes “the ethical principles of freedom and justice enunciated by the Prophet Muhammad in Mecca.” Al-Fatiha Foundation[Al Fatiha] Religion;Islam Islam, and homosexuality

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duran, Khalid. “Homosexuality and Islam.” In Homosexuality and World Religions, edited by Arlene Swidler. Valley Forge, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1993.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hari, Johann. “Outcast Heroes: The Story of Gay Muslims.” Available at JohannHari.com.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Khan, Badruddin. Sex, Longing, and Not Belonging: A Gay Muslim’s Quest for Love and Meaning. Bangkok, Thailand: Floating Lotus Books, 1997.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Murray, Stephen O., and Will Roscoe. Islamic Homosexualities: Culture, History, and Literature. New York: New York University Press, 1997.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schmitt, Arno, and Jehoeda Safer. Sexuality and Eroticism Among Males in Moslem Societies. New York: Haworth Press, 1991.

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