Filmmaker Parvez Sharma shares his struggle to make a film about gay Muslims, a topic close to his heart.
by Ron Lajoie
The making of A Jihad for Love was a jihad in itself. It took years to convince people to be in the film. The entire process took six years of my life, and these six years I cherish dearly for everything they taught me, not just about my own Islam, but of the universal jihad, or struggle, to belong.
As a gay Muslim, I shared the pain of all of my subjects. In many cases, it took me years to build relationships of mutual trust with them. While the camera was on, there was always an exchange of emotion that worked both ways. Our mutual histories, cultures and struggles would result in everything that was shared on camera. I cannot think of another way of working, especially in a community where the silence has been so loud.
Many Muslims today face a fundamental choice: Who will define our Islam for us? Will it be the largely ignorant Western media or will it be the violent extremists within our own religion? This film is the opportunity to have Islam's story told by its most unlikely storytellers: gay and lesbian Muslims. The subjects in this film-and indeed the filmmaker-are coming out as Muslims first, and gay or lesbian second. Picking up the camera to document these lives was an act that the Prophet Muhammad would approve of, an act of courage that befits a true Muslim.
I grew up in India with a multicultural background. Islam was always an important part of my life, but India is a multireligious democracy where religion is not necessarily forced down your throat (as it is in theocracies like Iran, for example). I was able to develop an outlook on my sexuality that was positive and I was also able to come out at age 17.
Interestingly, the labels and identity politics we use to define many of our sexualities in the West do not apply in Muslim societies, where sexuality is not flaunted. It is very private, and same-sex behavior is often the norm rather than the exception. The problem begins when you decide to take on a political and social identity and construct your public persona around your sexuality.
Islam is a complex religion, not the problematic monolith that it is often portrayed as in the West. The majority of the countries I filmed in are not torturing or imprisoning gays or lesbians. Homosexuality is often tolerated in many Muslim societies, as long as it is not on display as in the West. However, there is significant danger in the few countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia that invoke Sharia law and interpret, wrongly, that Islam's condemnation of homosexuality is death.
Islam is ready for this film. It is time that we as Muslims took responsibility for all of our actions and of our communities. Allah has created gay and lesbian Muslims with the same love he has given to all of his creations, and we need to understand that. No one Muslim has greater claim to Islam than another. In the eyes of Allah, as long as we live by the Prophet's Sunnah, as long as we live as good Muslims, we are equal.
For more information and action opportunities on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues: www.amnestyusa.org/outfront