Whistling in the dark about Islam and reform

Whistling in the dark about Islam and reform December 3, 2012



Has anyone seen a story in the U.S. press about the opening of France’s first gay-friendly mosque? I’ve not come across anything in the U.S. mainstream media so far, but the story has received a great deal of play from the European press.

Now the cynic in me would want to feign shock at the New York Times not having picked up this story as it deals with an issue dear to its heart. However, it is the foreign policy ramifications of this story that I thought would attract the attention of the U.S. media elite — for the underlying theme of this story has been the philosophical principle behind U.S. Middle East policy. All right-thinking people — government leaders, columnists, the professoriate — believe Islam can be reformed and its tenets brought in line with the Western liberal mind. I am surprised not to have seen America’s public intellectuals jump all over this story.

On Friday Le Monde published a tight, nicely written story entitled « Une “mosquée” ouverte aux homosexuels près de Paris ». Drawing from a Reuters wire service story and its own reporting, Le Monde reported that a gay French Muslim had opened a mosque in a borrowed room on the grounds of a Buddhist dojo outside Paris.

Reuters reported:

Europe’s first gay and lesbian-friendly mosque opens on Friday in an eastern Paris suburb, in a challenge to mainstream Islam’s long tradition of condemning same-sex relationships. The mosque, set up in a small room inside the house of a Buddhist monk, will welcome transgender and transsexual Muslims and seat men and women together, breaking with another custom where the sexes are normally segregated during prayer. Its founder, French-Algerian gay activist and practicing Muslim Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed, will also encourage women to lead Friday prayers, smashing yet another taboo.

“It’s a radically inclusive mosque. A mosque where people can come as they are,” said Zahed, 35, whose prayer space will be the first in Europe to formally brand itself as a gay-friendly mosque, according to Muslim experts.

M. Zahed sounds like he has latent Episcopalian-syndrome and uses all the right sort of Christian left buzz words. The story offers a few more words of explanation from M. Zahed, negative reactions from French Muslim leaders and closes with comments from a French academic.

“The goal of these Muslims is to promote a form of Islam that is inclusive of progressive values,” said Florence Bergeaud-Blackler, an associate researcher at France’s Research and Studies Institute on the Arab and Muslim World. The push by gay Muslims for acceptance comes as a younger generation of Muslims is questioning some of the existing interpretations of the Koran as over-conservative. “Even though they are still a extreme minority, their views have a solid theological basis. So their message is not having an insignificant impact,” Bergeaud-Blackler said.

The Le Monde story goes a bit deeper. The comments from French Muslim leaders are much harsher than those reported by Reuters.

« Il y a des musulmans homosexuels, ça existe, mais ouvrir une mosquée, c’est une aberration, parce que la religion, c’est pas ça », estime Abdallah Zekri, président de l’Observatoire des actes islamophobes, sous l’autorité du Conseil français du culte musulman (CFCM).

Which I roughly translate as:

“There are Muslim homosexuals. They exist. But to open a mosque, that is an aberration because homosexuality is contrary to our religion,” said Abdallah Zekri, president of the Islamophobia (sorry AP but that’s what Le Monde calls it) Observer for the CFCM.

 Le Monde also has some choice quotes from M. Zahed as well.

« Les musulmans ne doivent pas se sentir honteux. L’homosexualité n’est condamnée nulle part, ni dans le Coran ni dans la sunna. Si le prophète Mahomet était vivant, il marierait des couples d’homosexuels. » Il rêve d’un islam « apaisé, réformé, inclusif », qui accepterait le blasphème car « la pensée critique est essentielle pour le développement spirituel ».

Which I understand to mean:

Muslims should not feel ashamed. Homosexuality is not condemned either in the Koran or in the Sunna. If the Prophet Muhammad were alive, he would marry of homosexual couples.” [Zahed] dreams of  “peaceful, reformed, inclusive” Islam which which accepts blasphemy as “critical thinking essential to its spiritual development.”

Le Monde frames the story in a sympathetic light to M. Zahed. He is the underdog seeking to reform an ossified, dyed in the wool religious establishment. The article offers both sides of the debate — M. Zahed’s beliefs and the institutional response. However, I am surprised this item has not received the New Yorker 10,000 word treatment. A Muslim who speaks like an Episcopalian I imagine would be catnip to the mainstream American media.

The Islam of M. Zahed is that of Presidents Bush and Obama. Government policy since 9/11 has been predicated on the belief that Islam is like Christianity or Judaism. Given enough time, money and jawboning, Islam can reform and accommodate itself within a secularist pluralist society.

Le Monde‘s article about M. Zahed and Islam is written from a Westernized Christian worldview. Change the location to Texas and Islam for Southern Baptists and you would have the exact same story — even down to the buzz words and phrases proffered by M. Zahed. How often is it repeated that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality?

However, Islam is fundamentally different from Judaism and Christianity and this difference is what makes it nearly impossible for Islam to reform. And, it is the consensus of Islamic scholars that Islam is in no need of reform. Writing in the Asia Times under the pen name Spengler, David P. Goldman’, stated:

Hebrew and Christian scripture claim to be the report of human encounters with God. After the Torah is read each Saturday in synagogues, the congregation intones that the text stems from “the mouth of God by the hand of Moses”, a leader whose flaws kept him from entering the Promised Land. The Jewish rabbis, moreover, postulated the existence of an unwritten Revelation whose interpretation permits considerable flexibility with the text. Christianity’s Gospels, by the same token, are the reports of human evangelists.

The Archangel Gabriel, by contrast, dictated the Koran to Mohammed, according to Islamic doctrine. That sets a dauntingly high threshold for textual critics. How does one criticize the word of God without rejecting its divine character? In that respect the Koran resembles the “Golden Tablets” of the Angel Moroni purported found by the Mormon leader Joseph Smith more than it does the Jewish or Christian bibles.

Now almost 10 years old, Spengler’s “You say you want a reformation?” remains fresh and his observations stand as a challenge to U.S. government policies that believe Islam can be transformed into another variety of American Protestantism.

Speaking at the U.N. in September, President Obama said of the Arab Spring:

“True democracy—real freedom—is hard work,” Mr. Obama said. “Those in power have to resist the temptation to crack down on dissidents. In hard economic times, countries must be tempted— may be tempted—to rally the people around perceived enemies, at home and abroad, rather than focusing on the painstaking work of reform.”

Can Islam, which allows for no distinction between church and state, reform? The academic cited in the Le Monde piece believes it can. France’s first gay mosque will be a symbol of the younger generation’s desire for an “Islam that is inclusive of progressive values,” she stated. A contrary voice speaking to Islam’s response to minority voices (past and present) would have been a welcome counterweight. And give pause to those expecting peace to break out all over the Muslim world.

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18 responses to “Whistling in the dark about Islam and reform”

  1. Where are BGLT-friendly Moslems to look for theological ideas, other than to liberal Christianity? Where else is found a BGLT-open religious community struggling with an authoritative text holding some baleful passages? Of course, if one is shocked by the thought that religious traditions might rifle one another’s contents — well, I have a big iron bridge in New York for you.

    • Perhaps they could look to the gay Buddhist activist who is hosting the mosque. But putting your rhetorical question to one side, there is a difference between theological method and theological truths. One can draw upon methods found in other traditions without compromising truth.

      • The Buddhist tradition springs from the wider Dharmic traditions of South Asia which are quite different from the Abrahamic exclusivistic monotheistic traditions of the Middle East.

        Islam and Christianity have their root in Judaism.

  2. Goerge,
    Goldman is kind of right and kind of wrong. Jewish tradition states that the Jewish People, past, present and future, stood at Sinai to hear G-d speak. They got through the first or second commandment (I forget which) before they fled in terror. G-d is said to have dictated the remainder of the Torah directly to Moshe–in its entirety (excepting the last eight verses, which describe Moshe’s death)–twice. Each of the faith traditions you cite has something in common with the Jewish experience, but none are identical. No other group of people, as a *people* has experienced G-d in this way.

    “Islam is fundamentally different from Judaism and Christianity and this difference is what makes it nearly impossible for Islam to reform. ”

    Maybe. Islam has split into at least three different, well-defined traditions, which suggests some degree of flexibility. I’d like the writer to elucidate what it is that he believes makes Islam more rigid . So much is similar to Judaism; in many, many ways the two are more closely intertwined than either is to Christianity. Does the shift to a more conservative iteration mark a return to true Islam or is a response to more secular pressures? I’d also like to see input from scholars on the topic of homosexuality, since many Muslim countries tacitly condone what is outwardly forbidden (e.g., dancing boys). But on the issue of the NYT, perhaps this is not big enough news to merit an article, though it’s easy to see how it could be incorporated into a larger overview article.

    “Zahed’s mosque is not supported by any formal Muslim institution and many imams in France oppose it. The Muslim world tends to be more hostile to homosexuality than Judaism or Christianity, where a few denominations welcome gays.”

    Um….which Judaism and Christianity? Some denominations, yes, but others a resounding no. An outstanding example of overgeneralization to support a point. Oh, boy! And why no explanation of the firm theological basis stated later in the article? Some facts would be helpful.

    • “I’d like the writer to elucidate what it is that he believes makes Islam more rigid.”

      Perhaps another way of stating your question, but I’m curious to know where these Muslims originated from; I assume they’re the children of immigrants, but as we know Islam is practiced somewhat differently in some traditions, I’m curious how much of this ‘liberality’ came along with their parents’ luggage – or not, of course.

      • This is true. Some cultures mix Islam with Pre-Islamic traditions or have an allegorical/mystical view of Islam.

        I think there’s a tendency to view Islam or the Muslim world in too monolithic a fashion. The cultures of the Minangkabau, Wolof, Yemenis, or Azeris are all mostly Muslim but are also quite different from each other. The kind of rigid/unbending thing he speaks of is largely true of Islam in the Arab world, and much of South Asia, but there’s a good deal of Islam outside those core areas. In many views on women, representational art, religious pluralism, and change are quite different.

        That being said there is maybe a bit more limits on change and I’m not sure I know of justification for accepting homosexuality within Islam. I believe there are some parts of Indonesia where Muslims somewhat accept “cross-dressers” as part of a pre-Islamic worldview and I’ve read of Muslim cultures that tolerated clandestine homosexual relations, but affirming them is a bit different.

  3. ” In that respect the Koran resembles the “Golden Tablets” of the Angel Moroni purported found by the Mormon leader Joseph Smith more than it does the Jewish or Christian bibles.”

    I know it’s tangential to the article, but as a Mormon I couldn’t let this pass. I’m so tired of all the clever people in the media who think they know everything about the Book of Mormon but have never even read it (or even read the introduction to it!)

    The Book of Mormon is most emphatically not a direct dictation from the mouth of God. It claims to be a record of various prophets (similar to the Jewish Scriptures) which were abridged, compiled and edited by a pair of ancient authors who readily admitted their “weakness in writing” (Ether 12:40) and then translated, correctly but not perfectly, but a modern Prophet.

    The irony is that there is a book of LDS scripture called the Doctrine and Covenants which is strikingly similar to the Koran in format, although it is not held up as the comprehensive, eternal and immutable word of God, but is rather considered as a collection of modern revelations on a variety of topics to different individuals.

    Once again, sorry, but I couldn’t let that pass.

    • I am happy you commented on this because I was about to do so. That sentence has so many things wrong with it.

    • I was about to say the same exact thing. One things Mormons don’t believe in, or shouldn’t at least, is the perfection of ANY scripture. Even the Doctrine and Covenants that is closer to the Koran in theory is not seen as untouchable as a text. Joseph Smith himself edited and re-edited his revelations as written down as he felt new truths illuminated his earlier understandings.

  4. The way the media deal with this story may lead to the conclusion that honosexuals are not allowed in traditional mosques, which is not true. The religion condenm the ACT of homosexuality, not the person itself , not even the fact of being homosexual. It just requires them to refrain from having homosexual relationships.

  5. Reform means to improve with change. This necessarily implys that the thing being reformed was flawed to begin with. Most (of any religion) will argue that original texts and beliefs should not be changed and to do otherwise distorts the truth.