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Sacred Paths - Together, Love and Faith Inspire Beauty - and Pain
June 13, 2008
by Vern Barnet
A Jihad for Love is a documentary film about the struggles that Muslim gays and lesbians have with their faith. Jihad means “struggle” in Arabic, and particularly the struggle we have within ourselves to do the right thing. The movie will be shown June 29 as part of the Gay and Lesbian Film + Video Festival, which starts June 27. When I previewed it by myself, I had two overwhelming and contradictory reactions, which were renewed when I saw it a second time with a Muslim friend.

The first reaction was how incredibly beautiful Islam is. I would not expect most non-Muslim viewers to have this reaction. But I have been to some of the sacred sites the movie shows and I have participated in some of the Muslim rituals. I know how meaningful they are, and from my travels, I know family relationships in those cultures are so important they cannot easily be separated from an individual’s experience of the faith. I cannot get out of my mind the tenderness and devotion of a lesbian couple who trace their fingers over a passage from the Quran carved in stone in beautiful calligraphy as they seek to find their place in their faith.

In a way, this parallels, say, some Roman Catholics in our culture, who love the church, its music and liturgy and sacraments, who follow a vision of a loving Jesus, for whom the warmth of family embrace is molded by reverential practice of the faith, but who are officially “disordered” because they love folks of their own sex.

My second reaction was astonishment and grief at seeing beautiful and devout human beings suffering, with their lives threatened in the name of their faith. It would be easy to be angry, and no doubt many viewers of this film will rage, but the recurring feeling is sorrow. I don’t like hearing a Muslim authority talk about stoning and beheading as a punishment for loving another human being, or seeing a gay man being told he has a psychological illness.

As the film follows individuals and pairs in their jihad for love, we see fear, curiosity, anguish, grief, lamentation. But because they are unwilling to abandon their faith, the anger is restrained.

Locally, when I’ve asked Muslims from abroad or their children about their views on same-sex relationships, many respond by saying, “That is something we just don’t have discussions about.” (You’ll remember that the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said that there are no homosexuals in Iran.)

Of course there is a long, and at times, honored tradition of same-sex relationships within Islam. The film includes a Pakistani holiday celebrating one such couple. But when the West colonized many Muslim countries, anti-gay laws were adopted.

In Arab and other traditional societies (remember that less than 20 percent of the world’s Muslims are Arab), the key to social order is the stability of family and tribal relationships. As long as these are maintained, private activity is, well, private. To some extent, this was true in the United States, as well, before the Civil War, after which homophobia became the concern that today still carries such weight. But now people no longer want to be so secretive, living in a marriage, for example, with an unacknowledged lover outside the marriage. We want to be out.

The film identifies traditional Islamic law, an adequate discussion of which is beyond the intent of the movie and the space of this column. But the film also identifies Islamic sources to permit, and even legitimize, same-sex relationships. One legal methodology mentioned in the film and identified by my Muslim friend is ijtihad, independent thinking. It was once a source in the development of Islamic law but, my friend says, has been neglected in favor of oppressive, automatic interpretations.

The award-winning documentary was directed by Parvez Sharma, who filmed in secrecy and obscured some of the faces. The stories unfold in countries that include India, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, South Africa and France, with an escape to Canada.

The 81-minute movie shows at 4:45 p.m. Sunday, June 29, at the Tivoli Theatre in Westport. After the film, in cooperation with Open Circle, I will lead a panel and audience discussion. Panelists are Josef Walker (Christian), Ahmed El-Sharif (Muslim), and Lynn Barnett (Jewish). I’ll ask questions like, “What most surprised you about this movie?” and “How does the jihad you see portrayed in this movie compare with struggles you know about that people in your own faith have dealt with?” Dear reader, how have you and those you know struggled with sexuality and faith?

The Rev. Vern Barnet, DMn., does consulting, teaching and writing for religious and educational organizations here. His Kansas City Star column appears each Wednesday.

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