ON 15 Dec 2010, 32 year-old Azwan Ismail, a Malay-Muslim Malaysian, posted a video on YouTube in which he declared, “I am gay and I’m OK.”
One week later, he told the media that he feared for his life. And who could blame him? He now has the de facto minister of religion, the Perak mufti, PAS Youth, Muslim bloggers and several other Muslim organisations watching him, let us say, with great interest. One Muslim blogger even challenged the country’s leadership to kill Azwan, the insinuation being that if we were a real Islamic state, Azwan’s “confession” would be evidence enough to apply the death penalty. All this is apart from the numerous threats of violence and murder made against Azwan on YouTube and various other online forums. Azwan’s video, part of a series produced by sexuality rights initiative Seksualiti Merdeka, was eventually removed amid concerns for his safety.
These violent threats against Azwan have already been condemned by individual bloggers, citizens, and also civil society groups such as the Centre for Independent Journalism and the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality. These condemnations are necessary because whether or not one supports Azwan, violence and intimidation should never be allowed to enter into civil discussions of public interest.
But how feasible is it to have a calm and dispassionate discussion over an issue like this? We hear two extremes of the debate -pro-gay, pro-human rights on one end — and the decidedly anti-gay, self-professed “Islamic” on the other. Is the rest of the country similarly polarised? Or is the gap between these two extremes populated by a diversity of citizens who are either afraid, or ambivalent, or confused, or curious, or nonchalant? How can Malaysians of various backgrounds and beliefs weigh in on this matter when it has been cast by so many as a theological battle?
Facts versus ideology
First of all, there is nothing like a bunch of facts to mess up grand ideological claims. Certainly, condemnations of same-sex relations form a large body of Islamic jurisprudence and Quranic exegesis. No quarrel there. But there have also been disagreements among Islamic scholars regarding the issue of sexuality in Islam. Contemporary ulama and scholars such as imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and the Indonesian kiyai Husein Muhammad assert that prominent commentaries even from Islam’s classical era have acknowledged and probably tolerated sexual and gender diversity.
Historical and anthropological studies (for example Murray and Roscoe’s Islamic Homosexualities) have also raised evidence of non-heterosexual relationships within Muslim societies through the ages.
In light of these facts, why do the “representatives” of Islam in Malaysia insist that the debate on homosexuality is black and white and necessarily entails condemnation and violent punishment? And why is there a tendency, whether among anti-gay Muslims or pro-gay non-Muslims, to think of Islam as a “special case” when it comes to issues of sexuality, gender and human rights in general? Is this assumption valid?
Violence against non-heterosexuals has been used by those in power to interpret the foundational texts of many of the world’s major religions. Islam’s Abrahamic predecessors, Judaism and Christianity, have also had periods of great intolerance towards women, non-heterosexuals and non-believers.
Nevertheless, there are more nuanced debates happening now within these traditions. Liberal and Reform Jews no longer believe women are inferior or that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals are condemned by God. Similarly, several leaders from the global Anglican Church are now making efforts to be more inclusive and less judgmental towards women, LGBTs, ethnic minorities, non-Christians and so on.
Sure, these movements are not unchallenged within their respective religious traditions, but the fact is that this inclusiveness also exists within Islam. However, Islam probably is a “special case” — in the sense that the laws of the state are used to stifle diverse views within the religion in Muslim-majority countries.
Implications versus possibilities
But let us, for a moment, imagine things differently. Imagine if the Islamic authorities had said, “Azwan Ismail, you are what you are, and we respect your decision.” What would be the implications of such a declaration? Would this mean that the authorities would need to overhaul our entire corpus of Islamic criminal laws? Would the authorities need to review Section 377 of the Penal Code?
Furthermore, would this mean that the authorities condoned same-sex relationships? If yes, would it then mean that they would have to recognise same-sex marriage? If yes, then what would it mean for the current understandings of Islamic marriage?
Already, there are numerous substantive and procedural issues in Malaysia’s Islamic Family Laws. How strictly or leniently do the authorities need to treat polygamous marriages? How strictly should the syariah courts compel men to pay maintenance to wives they have divorced, and their children? Are Muslim men really allowed to beat their wives? Are child marriages allowed in Islam?
These are not merely theological concepts— they have very real repercussions on individual lives and on the very notion of the Malaysian state. And so the fear that our “authorities” have towards LGBT Muslims, if we were to acknowledge their existence, is the fear of the unravelling of Islam — theologically, socially, legalistically and politically. This would explain the moral panic.
But where did we get this idea that an entire religion could disintegrate just by the admission of facts and reality? Where did we get this notion that if we didn’t use force or coercion, then religious adherence would cease? Is this in the foundational texts of Islam, or in any religion for that matter?
Certainty versus ambiguity
Perhaps a different illustration is called for here. The American Muslim scholar Scott Siraj Al-Haqq Kugle points towards a prominent hadith (utterance of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him) recorded in Sunan Abu Dawud, Book 41, No 5106), which says:
“Narrated Anas ibn Malik:
A man was with the Prophet (peace be upon him) and a man passed by him and said: Apostle of Allah! I love this man. The Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) then asked: Have you informed him? He replied: No. He said: Inform him. He then went to him and said: I love you for Allah’s sake. He replied: May He for Whose sake you love me love you!”
The hadith is ambiguous about whether or not this is a platonic, spiritual or romantic love. It is, however, very specifically about love between two unrelated men and it is non-judgemental. Between the ambiguity and specificity of this hadith, then, lies a great unexplored space for further debate and understanding. By shutting down the debate, the “Islamic authorities” in Malaysia are denying our vast, diverse citizenry a chance to process for itself the deep wisdom inherent in Islamic tradition.
A vast and diverse citizenry includes those who have either friends, or siblings, or uncles and aunts, or children, or nephews and nieces, or even parents (yes, parents) who are non-heterosexual. Surely a robust theology would not ask them to condemn or punish their loved ones? Surely a relevant and kind theology would explore ways in which human relationships could be celebrated with love and mutual respect?