Hey Washington Post: There’s only one (gay) Islam? Really?

Anyone who has been paying attention to debates about the future of the Boy Scouts of America knows that, when it comes to issues linked to homosexuality, there is no one “religious” perspective that journalists need to cover. Even within individual religious traditions — such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Roman Catholic Church — there are people who read the same texts and come to slightly different, or glaringly different, conclusions.

On the Christian left, for example, there is no one pro-gay theology.

On the Christian right, there is no one monolithic camp that opposes homosexuality to the same degree or for the same reasons.

It helps to see some of this written out in clear English. Thus, for a decade-plus I have recommended a helpful, and rigorously balanced, book by a gay evangelical writer, the Rev. Larry Holben, who is now an Episcopal priest. It’s called “What Christians Think about Homosexuality: Six Representative Viewpoints.” For a quick summary, in the form of two Scripps Howard News Service columns from 2000, click here and then over here.

But I raise this subject for the following reason. The other day, the oh-so-edgy Style folks at The Washington Post served up several thousand words worth of public-relations-grade material about a recent “LGBTQ Muslim and Partners Retreat.” This is one of those giant, unavoidable features that is supposed to slap humble readers in the face, starting with the photography and, of course, the symbolic details at the very start:

There was speed dating, a talent show and a baby naming.

But there was also a locked Facebook page. And a strict rule: Attendees should not disclose the retreat’s exact location.

That’s because the 85 people who gathered in the Pennsylvania woods over Memorial Day weekend had come from 19 states and three countries for a somewhat surprising event: a three-day LGBTQ Muslim and Partners Retreat.

Some wore T-shirts that read, “Muslim + Gay = Fabulous.” They prayed. They attended workshops about pioneering progressive Muslims. Ever heard of Isabelle Eberhardt, a.k.a. Mahmoud Saadi, a convert to Islam who challenged gender norms at the turn of the 20th century? And they held discussions on struggling to reconcile their faith with their sexuality, and their sexuality with their faith. (Many folks said that they face Islamophobia from inside the mainstream LGBTQ community.)

Having covered a few off-the-record events myself over the years, I think it would have been best if the Post team members had done what my editors always asked me to do under those conditions — which is to clearly state the precise conditions under which a reporter was allowed into this secret gathering. In this case, all readers were told is this:

This was the third such retreat, and it was sponsored this year by the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity, founded in January to address the needs of LGBTQ Muslims. Another sponsor was Muslims for Progressive Values, a Los Angeles-based group formed in 2007 that parallels, to some extent, Unitarian Universalism and Judaism’s reform movement, and which has nine chapters across the country and abroad.

The Washington Post was invited to attend — the first media organization to be given access.

So were some sessions off limits? Were certain participants pre-selected by the organizers to talk to the Post? Did some representatives of the newspaper take part in the conference, as well as cover it? Was the Post, in effect, (I’m thinking about the degree to which The Baltimore Sun has all but cooperated in Womenpriests rites) a participating organization in the event?

The article also makes it very clear that the version of Islam featured in this event is quite different than traditional forms of the faith.

At the retreat, women and men prayed side by side, rather than in separate quarters as is customary. Some people found potential partners. Others wept in workshops when they talked about their family’s reactions.

Under a blue sky, the final prayer took place on Monday. A woman was allowed to lead both the call to the prayer and the prayer itself.

And in one of the mini-profiles of participants, there was this additional parable of postmodern Islam:

Bre Campbell sat rail-straight in a red and gray flowing skirt, pushing her long red and brown dreadlocks off her neck. She’s 27, lives in Detroit and is a convert to Islam. She also identifies as transgender, male to female. Campbell talked about how it’s often hard to be transgender at a mosque, which segregates men and women.

A few gossipy women at her place of worship have tried to figure her out. “Bre, you know, you shouldn’t pray at the mosque when you have your period, right?” she recalled some of them asking.

Yes, she would answer, she understands. She didn’t want to tell them that she was transgender, partly because it was personal and partly because she realized they might ask to her to pray on the male side of the mosque.

“Not everybody is willing to have that conversation,” she said. “But I feel, God doesn’t make mistakes. I can be myself and keep my faith.”

Now, there is theology soaked into that anecdote and many of the others shared in this completely one-sided report. I guess that is to be expected in the Style pages at the Post, which function as a kind of journalistic time machine that constantly zaps readers back to the heady advocacy journalism days of The New Journalism in the ’60s and ’70s.

But here is what I did not expect: This story makes no attempt, other than innuendo, to describe what Islam teaches about homosexuality. It also assumes that, within mainstream Islam, there is only one position on the issues that surround this very complicated topic. For example, do scholars within Sunni Islam see a difference in the moral status of homosexual orientation orientation and temptations, as opposed to the status of actual homosexual acts? How about the Shiites? Is there a difference among Sufi believers?

Also, the story tells readers next to nothing about what the Muslims AT THE RETREAT believe about their faith or the moral status of their own lives and activities. Once again, the assumption is that all liberal Muslims have similar or identical religious beliefs. At one point, the story compares the participants to Reform Jews or to Unitarian Universalists. Is that a fair comparison, in terms of their beliefs about prayer, God, the Koran, etc.?

In other words, this story does not take conservative Islam very seriously and it — here’s the surprise, for me — doesn’t take liberal forms of Islam seriously, either.

What’s the point?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    It helps to see some of this written out in clear England.

    Presumably as opposed to clear Germany or clear China :-) (full disclosure – I do this kind of thing myself).

  • tmatt

    Jerry.

    Oh my. Thanks.

    Any comment on THE POST?

    • Jerry

      I have to wonder if your criticism is for the style section not being a religious or hard news section. In other words, what is the purpose of a style section and how do you judge it in and of itself? Wikipedia has an entry Style section, with feature writing on pop culture, politics, fine and
      performing arts, film, fashion, and gossip, along with advice columns
      and comics

      So, from that perspective, is asking for hard religious reporting in a section devoted to “pop culture” and “gossip” misplaced?

  • tmatt

    But Jerry, Jerry … This is a serious topic. So you are simply saying the whole piece is out of place? I’m judging the WP’s content on the topic, as it is framed and presented.

    • Jerry

      It’s not so much that the piece is out of place as there should be a serious story properly written about the issue. At least to me, the style section is to serious journalism as camels are to horses. For what the style section is and what it claims to be, I have no special complaints about the story. If that identical piece had been in the news section, all your complaints would IMO be totally justified.

  • Sari

    Perhaps the Style section should be renamed Fads or Trends, because it covers the new and happening: fashion, the social scene, pop culture, the fleeting and the transitory. The article was perfect for its placement.

    Can’t speak to U.U., but the writer made an apt comparison between liberal Islam that allows s.s. relationships and Reform Judaism. Both come from faith traditions with a body of law derived from sacred text, and both declare the law no longer binding. With all the press devoted to Islam post-911, it’s unthinkable that readership would be unaware of Sha’aria Law, its purpose, or that Islam forbids its followers to engage in sexual relations with members of the same sex. The participant’s individual understanding of Islam is irrelevant; attendance was determined by two criteria: gender orientation and self-labeling as Muslim.

    One question went unasked and might have served to open the door. Why was the retreat held in a secret location? What or who made attendees afraid?


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