Battling for gay rights, in Allah's name

Published: October 24, 2011

LOS ANGELES — Like other aspiring reformers before her, Ani Zonneveld takes positions that make her unpopular with her religion’s spiritual leaders, in this case America’s Islamic elders.

Not only does she lead prayers — a task normally reserved for men — but she is an outspoken advocate for gay, bisexual and transgender Muslims. Later this year, she plans to officiate at the Islamic wedding of a lesbian couple, which is perfectly acceptable by her reading of the Quran.

“The community we are building is very different from most of the mosques you would walk into,” said Zonneveld, a 49-year-old Malaysian-born singer-songwriter. “We are very inclusive of all Muslims, gay Muslims, mixed-faith couples. … We also don’t segregate (the genders) when we pray, and we allow women to lead prayer. Our values are very egalitarian and we really live those values out.”

Muslims for Progressive Values, which Zonneveld co-founded in 2007 with Pamela Taylor, a feminist American Muslim, is based on 10 principles. They include a commitment to equality of genders and for LGBTQ (or lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning) people, repudiation of militarism and violence and the need for “critical engagement with Islamic scripture.”

Some of the group’s aims dovetail with those of other emerging Muslim groups that challenge the orthodoxy they say is preached in the majority of U.S. mosques. But the nonprofit’s embrace of the LGBTQ population is unique, even among these reform-minded groups.

The American Muslim population, estimated at between 3 million and 6 million, is diverse, including immigrant populations from all over the world as well as U.S.-born faithful and converts. Nearly half said they attend mosque at least once a week, according to a 2011 Pew survey, while many worship privately or infrequently. According to the survey, 37 percent believe there is only one way to interpret the religion. Some wear traditional garb, like head coverings, and grow beards, but more do not.

Parsing the Quran
Even so, unlike the Protestant world, where debate over Biblical interpretation has led to varying positions on homosexuality, few mosques and Muslim organizations question the orthodoxy that homosexuality is banned.
This position on homosexuality typically cites the Quran’s references to “the people of Lut” — the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah, who were said to have been destroyed by Allah, presumably because of their ‘perverted’ sexual practices. In at least six majority Islamic countries, homosexuality is considered a capital crime.

The most influential Muslim religious organization in the United States has taken a position similar to that of the Vatican.

"Homosexuality is a moral disorder. It is a moral disease, a sin and corruption,” Muzammil Siddiqi, former president of the Islamic Society of North America, has written. “No person is born homosexual, just like no one is born a thief, a liar or murderer. People acquire these evil habits due to a lack of proper guidance and education.”
Siddiqi did not return calls requesting an interview.

That does not mean that homosexuals are shunned, said Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, an umbrella organization for mosques and Muslim organizations with approximately 500,000 members.

“Islam doesn’t cast out anyone," said Syed. "No one will condemn them. LGBTQ people can do whatever they feel is right in their own way and we respect that. But if one seeks sanction from the faith, they will be disappointed.”

When the California Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage in 2008, the council issued a release expressing “deep dismay” at the decision. “We believe that the (ruling) is a violation of God’s law as clearly given in the Quran and the Bible,” it said.

But such statements do not mean the mosques are full of homophobes, said Arsalan Iftikhar, a human rights lawyer and author of the book “Islamic Pacifism, Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era.”

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