The melodic strains of the Muslim call for prayer reverberate off the walls of the odd-shaped room as a handful of men and women gather side by side in a row up front. Eventually, the small assembly of faithful bend and bow in the familiarly graceful motions that constitute the Muslim prayer.
But this is no mosque, and certainly no ordinary gathering of Muslims.
It is an all-day conference for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Muslims and their allies. The Saturday, August 9, event is sponsored by Al-Fatiha, a national organization of gay Muslims, and is being held at The New York City Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center on West 13th Street in Greenwich Village.
It is just after 2 p.m. when the afternoon prayer begins. There are probably 70 or so people squashed against the back wall of the Caplan Assembly Hall, downing Diet Cokes and turkey or roast beef sandwiches from Subway. The chatter drops to a dramatic whisper when the prayers begin, but most people do not leave the room or stop their conversations just because of the service. It is not a lack of respect, but rather a reminder, I think, of how deeply ingrained religion is in daily life for those of us who grew up Muslim. This is why we do not feel the churchlike compulsion for grave silence in the face of the Almighty.
I do not join in the prayers. Even to say that I am a lapsed Muslim is stretching the truth. My father did his best to pass on his religion to my sister and me, driving us half a dozen times a year from where we lived in small-town Hershey, Pa., to the closest mosque some two and a half hours away, in Washington, D.C. Like a good son, I memorized the passages from the Koran in Arabic that I barely understood and robotically waded through the ritual motions of prayer.
But the Muslim thing was a difficult sell to an Americanized child in the 1970s. Diversity was not yet the buzzword it has now become, and it was tough enough having an Arabic name and a dark-skinned father in lily-white Chocolate Town, USA. I would never really count myself as one of the followers of the prophet Mohammed.
Over the years, I have forgotten and relearned the gestures and passages of prayer numerous times, though as an atheist I seldom indulge in the ritual. Still, I never tire of the sonorous call to prayer or watching groups of believers move to their faith in elegant unity. And ever since September 11 — and the subsequent vilification of Muslims in American society — I find that the Muslim prayer carries a heightened sense of nostalgia and culture for me.
Those feelings are magnified many times over at this gathering, where those carrying the dual identity of Muslim and gay congregate to share their faith in their religion, and in each other.
Particularly in a post-9/11 America, gay and lesbian Muslims can be torn by both sides of their identities. Many have experienced acute stereotyping and discrimination here since the terrorist attacks. Sadly, the community that many of them had always considered a safe haven — the gay community — is just as fraught with anti-Muslim sentiment as the general population.
Yet, most mainstream Muslim organizations and mosques remain unfriendly at best, and outright hostile at worst, to their gay and lesbian followers.
The net effect has been to draw many gay and lesbian Muslims back to their roots, to reconnect with their spirituality or their culture.
“I had so many issues with my faith, including ones around my sexuality, that I had rejected my religious history,” said Atif Toor, a graphic designer. “September 11 definitely changed that. I found myself defending Islam on a regular basis, where before I’d been a skeptic. But I found that even as a skeptic of Islam, the religion wasn’t the image of terror and oppression that is the popular perception in the USA. So 9/11 had a profound impact on my relationship with Islam. I was forced to reconcile parts of my personal past that I’d been ignoring.”
But the conference is not merely a therapy session on how to reconcile sexuality and faith. Most of the people I speak with are not embroiled in dark personal struggles pitting their sexuality against their religion. Like gay and lesbian people of all beliefs, the people here have learned how to use their religion as a source of strength rather than conflict.
The panels reflect that sensibility. Only one panel deals directly with bridging sexuality and faith: one that offers an alternative interpretation of the story of Lot.
The other discussions center around more immediately pressing issues in the lives of people who are here, such as how to face increased discrimination since September 11, how to deal with the new and troubling developments in immigration, fighting sexism within the religion or where gay and lesbian Muslims fit into the larger picture of an evolving Islam.
The attendees seem to be looking for more than simple affirmation that they can indeed be gay and Muslim; they already realize that. Instead, they appear to be working toward a new Islam, part of what is loosely referred to as the progressive Muslim movement, made up largely of modernists and feminists.
But even there, it can be an uphill battle. “There’s not a lot of us [who accept homosexuality] on the ground, yet,” said Saadia Yacoob, a heterosexual ally of Al-Fatiha and a founding member of the Progressive Muslims Network. “In scholarship and online, yes, but people able to stand up in their local communities or at their local mosques, no.”
The problem among progressives, she said, is less of outright homophobia than of fear of being alienated for openly supporting something that is widely unpopular in the traditional cultures from which most Muslims hail.
But, she notes, there has been significant advancement in that arena. In its mission statement, the Progressive Muslims Network specifically names homophobia — along with such other social ills as sexism, racism and classism — as an enemy. Gay and lesbian Muslims are invited to speak at progressive religious conferences, and a newly published book, “Progressive Muslims,” includes a chapter on homosexuality.
“We’re definitely moving forward,” said an optimistic Yacoob.
Change will probably be slow and hard, as it always is. But watching the small group of men and women worshipping together, hoping together, in the small corner of the community center this day I, too, am filled with a new kind of faith — if not in the religion itself, then in the foot-soldiers here who are determined to reinspire it.