An American flag flies at half-staff at Lake Eola Park in Orlando. (John Taggart/European Pressphoto Agency)

Mirna Haidar is a member of the steering committee for the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity — a group that, before last weekend, few Americans knew existed.

The Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity (MASGD), founded almost a decade ago, is one of only a few organizations of its kind. It tries to create gatherings and a sense of community among LGBT Muslims who want or need to embrace both their sexual and religious identities and remain connected to the culture, practices and concerns of both.

After the massacre in Orlando, more than a few public figures — including Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) — seemed to decide that they were the authorities on Islam and its proscriptions for gay people. Haidar and her colleagues, who have been inundated with calls from reporters, would beg to differ.

As in any faith, Haidar says, Muslims embrace a range of views and ways of interpreting what the Koran says about homosexuality.

Haidar's self-description includes the words "queer, gender-non-conforming person." Raised in a Muslim family that she describes as "religious in a beautiful way," Haidar's parents were part of a mixed-sect marriage. Haidar's mother is Sunni and her father Shiite. Her mother opted to wear a hijab daily, while most women in her family do not. Theirs was a family that attended Friday prayers each week and observed the month of Ramadan (this year, June 5 to July 5). Haidar has been involved in advocacy and activism around gender and sexuality issues in two countries, the United States and Lebanon, for about 10 years.

What follows is a Q&A with Haidar conducted via email. It has been edited only for clarity and length. One final note: Because Haidar spends a lot of her time in the company of activists, she uses a fair bit of language that may not be familiar to all. We've added links to definitions and deeper explanations of key terms where possible.

Let's start with something basic but important. What does MASGD aim to do? When and why was it created?

MASGD aims to create a safe space and community to connect people nationally and internationally who share these different intersectionalities. [Editor's note: Click here for a definition and here for a full explanation of "intersectionalities." In short, it is the experiences, forms of discrimination or personal concerns that overlap, combine or intersect because, for example, one is both LGBT and Muslim.] We also provide a safe retreat space once a year where 100 LGBTQ Muslim folks gather mainly just to be together and around each other — to show the possibilities of being all of what we are, sitting with all of our identities (Muslim, Arab, South Asian, Latina/x/o, African-American Muslim, White [Muslim] convert, trans Muslim, Black-Arab queer Muslim, and the list goes on).

At this retreat, people who choose to be practicing Muslims pray together in a gender-free space where women often lead prayer and call the Azan (the call for prayer). I personally cried the first time I heard a woman give the Azan. I was actually brought to my knees by the overwhelming emotions and sense of belonging as a Muslim woman.

MASGD started six years ago.

What were things like after Orlando?

The [48 hours afterward were] very challenging to all of us on different levels — whether it be personal or political or religious. We have been overwhelmed with how the media focused on the terror discourse from an Islamophobic framework, which erased our community. We live at this intersection between Islam and queerness and have to survive both these hateful rhetorics (Islamophobia and homophobia) while mourning.

Now that we know more facts about the person who committed this crime, now that we know that he has been frequenting gay clubs for three years, the narrative has shifted. Even with this shift, there's an Islamophobic lens — blaming Islam for his struggle to be gay. Instead, we should be focusing on generalized homophobia in this country, which is not at all unique to Muslim communities. We should also be focusing on the access to guns and to toxic notions of masculinity — that pressure men feel to act in violent ways if they can't conform to certain expectations.

How is MASGD involved on the ground in Orlando?

Unfortunately, MASGD steering committee members are not geographically present in Orlando. But we do have some members who grew up in Florida, and they are reaching out to folks in the community to offer our support.


Candles are lit around a sign during a vigil held in Kathmandu, Nepal, mourning the shooting in Orlando. (Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters)

I noticed last Sunday that MASGD, CAIR [the Council on American-Islamic Relations] and other similar organizations issued statements and participated in press conferences where it seemed the goal was three-part: One, to express sympathy and concern for the victims in Orlando. Two, to disavow the shooter's actions and ideology. Three, to remind those listening or reading that Omar Mateen is not representative of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims. Is that a fair description? 

This is a fair description. It is very important, because it is time for the world to see that there is not one Muslim world. Islam is a religion spread globally, locally and differently like any other monotheistic religion. Painting the Muslim community in broad brush strokes is inappropriate. Painting Islam as one uniform entity serves Islamophobia by making us easy to blame, target, and “attack” like many politicians say lightly on the news.

This is very problematic, and we only hope that our statement can speak to this in a way that awakens politicians, leaders and individuals in general to the dangerous repercussions of this Islamophobic discourse. MASGD believes that the victims of this crime should come first. Even though we are responding in a time of crisis to combat both homophobia and Islamophobia, we acknowledge that this distraction and shift of focus away from the victims is a direct, harmful result of Islamophobia. The folks who matter now are trans Latina/o/x people of color, each and every one of the victims and — most importantly — those who survived have to live with this trauma every waking moment of their lives.

What would you say to someone who says that the latter effort — trying to remind or state clearly that Islam is not a religion that sanctions terrorism — is a type of capitulation or an acceptance of a group responsibility to renounce, explain and/or apologize for the behavior of one person?

I personally don’t believe that we should be expected to apologize for this. In fact, we strongly believe that expecting an apology is an Islamophobic act against us and an assumption that it is Islam and Muslims to blame for this heinous crime. Others, mainly white communities, are never expected to apologize on behalf of one person or even their governments for inflicting trauma on Muslims, brown and black folks, or queer and trans bodies.

The person who was found heading to LA Pride with two rifles is not even coming up in the news. No one is talking about him because of his whiteness. As a white man, his actions don't bear weight on an entire community. At the same time, we have to be realistic that our silence will be used against us. Even with our voices of condemnation, Islamophobia has dominated the official narrative. Can you imagine how bad it would be if we had not spoken up?

Also, it would seem that the particular location and nature of this mass shooting — inside a gay club — raises some challenges and questions. There are lot of things being said and assumed. What do readers need to know about the way that homosexuality is formally regarded in the Islamic faith?

The Islamic faith does not have a formal structure of authority, unlike the Catholic or Orthodox churches, for example. As such, Muslims are really, really heterogeneous. There is no formal view on homosexuality in Islam, there's a range of opinions and interpretations as is the case with many faiths.

This is an uncomfortable, perhaps unreasonable, question, but I feel that I must ask: How widespread does the belief that violence or death sentences should be carried out on gay individuals remain inside the faith?

This question is indeed difficult because it includes an assumption. The Torat [Torah] and the Old Testament speak of corporal punishments, yet we do not often hear Christian or Jewish scholars get asked these questions. There are many debates around this matter and the legal interpretation of the text by Islamic scholars or under Islamic law. I do not wish to speak on these. But I would like to quote this verse that represents the sentiments of the [Koran] I was taught and to which my community adheres:

“… if any one killed a person, it would be as if he killed the whole of mankind; and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole of mankind…” — The Holy Quran (Chapter Five, Verse 32)

How do you anticipate that the events in Orlando are shaping conversations — if at all — inside Muslim families about homosexuality?

It is unfortunate that it took us to get to this tragedy for our community to come forward publicly speaking out in solidarity with LGBTQ communities. Things are shifting very quickly, and these events have identified the different organizations with whom we can build. We are also aware that this “bridging” and solidarity cannot shift [be built] overnight, nor will it be carried out in all the communities.

We are certainly aware that there is a lot of intentional building with one another that needs to happen and that that could still be challenging as we work to overcome [typical and traditional] power dynamics, such as patriarchy, etc. We do also see much hope in that this has opened windows and opportunities for people who are struggling with both these identities (queer/Muslim) to have access to a community that long existed and will continue to exist. It also made it possible to see an older heterosexual Muslim couple in Detroit attending pride. This picture (to view it, click here, advance to image number 13) in particular meant hope for me because you don’t see this in the media usually.

What does the emerging information about Mateen frequenting the club and using gay dating apps mean or say to you?

The emerging information about Mateen’s sexuality only emphasizes that this is not a Muslim issue but rather that it is an issue with people like Omar getting/gaining access for support that they need (what MASGD offers) to be able to grapple with the different identities that someone can hold. It also very important to note that his love for arms, cops and violence has nothing to do with his sexuality nor his religion. Access to arms is still a problem, lack of access to mental support that is not Islamophobic is crucial for people like Omar who struggle with being both Muslim and queer.

It is worthwhile to note how Islamophobia still manifests itself with the new information. To be Muslim in the United States is not safe. Our communities are surveilled, under attack, and [we are] incarcerated for the simple fact of being Muslim. And to be Muslim and queer is to be a person who is living and fighting two different systems of oppression all at once. That is difficult to bear for many of us.

Queer people of color are also a direct target and are more impacted by police brutality in this country. In fact, the Anti-Violence Project just launched a report that speaks to this directly. [A full] 60 percent of LGBTQ people who survived violence [around the country] were people of color (see page 20 of the report). It is important that we are aware that we have a lot of work ahead of us to work within our community to combat homophobia. However, it is important not to label this as “Islam’s intolerance to homosexuality.”

What is your sense of what it means to be out and Muslim? What is your sense of how common or uncommon this is?

Coming out is [a] Western, alien concept that could be and is a very destructive narrative to many from our community and in other communities. This “coming-out” narrative that is encouraged and enforced by mainstream LGBTQ organizations is done with no care and often is more harmful than beneficial. We do offer support for people who want to explore this notion. However, we understand and are well aware that being “out” can take different shapes, forms and paths. To many of us, it is an ongoing journey of acceptance not just for who we are with regards to our sexuality but to all what we are made of.

Given that, where and how does MASGD focus its attention and efforts? How has the shooting in Orlando changed this?

MASGD's focus and attention since the events is ensuring that our community is “surviving” and that they have the support they need from us and from each other. We also have been focused on bringing as many voices from our community to the forefront and encouraging community members to speak from their personal narratives [experiences]. I could say that the shooting in Orlando has taken us away — temporarily — from our priority, which is building our community on a local and national level. We have been serving as the bridge between our community and others (media, other organizations etc.).

Is there anything I have not asked that might be important for our readers to know or understand?

We are not one … but all of us together can combat all forms of hate and be present in a way that supports, empowers and inspires one another.

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