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Gay Muslims Unite in Face Of Rejection


He was only 19, active in his mosque, a leader of Islamic youth groups. He fasted during Ramadan and tried to pray five times a day. But none of that could assuage his deep pain.

And so on a cold day in November 1997, Faisal Alam tried something he hoped would help. He sat down at the computer and typed a shocking e-mail to Muslim student associations across the country:

"Is anyone out there a gay Muslim?"

The response was immediate.

Hundreds debated the issue, with many condemning the very idea of homosexuals practicing Islam. Most interpretations of the Koran find that it forbids homosexual actions. In a few majority-Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, it is punishable by death. "Being gay and Muslim is impossible," one message said.

But ultimately, Alam found he wasn't alone.

"I didn't know there was anyone out there like me," one of the messages read.

With that e-mail, Alam started what has become the first and largest group for gay Muslims in the United States. The group, Al-Fatiha, which means "the opening" in Arabic and is the title of the first chapter of the Koran, now has more than 300 members and seven branches, including those in Washington, Atlanta, New York and San Francisco.

"Being gay and Muslim is not an oxymoron," said Alam, 22, who now lives in the District. "We are living proof that it's not."

The group tries, in the increasingly open urban centers of the United States, to begin conversations about what it means to be gay and Muslim during a period when Islam is growing and changing in America. Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the United States. There are about 6 million American Muslims.

It also comes at a time when the country's largest group of rabbis has sanctioned gay unions and legislators in Vermont have moved toward establishing "civil unions" that stop just short of gay marriages.

"In many ways, Al-Fatiha exactly parallels where gay Catholics were 25 to 30 years ago," said Marianne Duddy, executive director of Dignity USA, a gay Catholic association with 2,800 members. "Our first five years were all about just putting the words gay and Catholic together. Al-Fatiha and Faisal really are pioneers. I pray that they will have very deep faith."

Alam, who wears baggy pants with giant pockets and a sprout of hair on his chin, looks more like a Gap model than a religious activist. But at 22 years old, he has been praised and cursed. He commits verses of the Koran that touch on gay acts to memory because he is asked about them so often.

"I have read these verses more times in my life than I've read anything else," Alam said on a recent night as he ate Indian food in Adams-Morgan. "Sometimes, I wake up and I think, 'What if I am leading a whole group of people into the hellfire?' Then I think: 'There is no way that God could hate individuals. It's people that hate individuals.' "

Most scholars agree that, like most Christian denominations and Orthodox Judaism, Islam condemns homosexual activities. Similar to the Old Testament, the Koran includes the story of Lot (Lut in the Koran), in which men act out their lusts on other men and are punished.

Alam and other gay Muslims argue that the Koran does not specifically outlaw homosexual acts. But many Muslim leaders say there is no interpretation of the Koran that would allow for it.

"I don't see how it is possible to be gay and Muslim," said Iqbal Unus, vice president of the All-Dulles Area Muslim Society. "They are two contradictory things. I can't imagine what circumstances or situations would bring about any kind of accommodation."

Other Islamic scholars said even the most progressive majority-Muslim countries don't have openly gay factions.

"In more liberal Middle Eastern cities, people may turn a blind eye to homosexuality," said Ejaz Akram, an editor for the Global Examiner, an online magazine for Islam and an instructor on Islamic movements at Catholic University. "But it will never be accepted, even in the United States."

Others disagree. "At least now with Al-Fatiha, they are discussing it," said Peter Awn, professor of Islamic religions at Columbia University. "Now that there are a lot of Muslims in the United States, they are no longer in environments that are determined by religious culture. This will bring a different setting to the debate."

As an immigrant from Pakistan, 10-year-old Alam found Islam a comfort when he arrived in a small town in Connecticut, where there "were more cows than people," and hardly any South Asians.

His previously secular parents turned to Islam because they were the only Pakistani family in town and they felt isolated without their faith.

When he was 16, Alam went through an identity crisis. Dating put enormous pressure on him because, at the mosque, South Asian teenagers would mingle and go to dances. He knew that he wasn't attracted to girls. At the same time, there was pressure to become more American, with classmates teasing him about his family's curry-spiced food and asking if "Mom wears a dot or towel."

So he became a leader in Muslim youth groups. He even joined the mosque's basketball team and started organizing retreats. All the while, he worried that he was different. "Something I didn't have a word for," he said.

Soon he started a relationship with an older male convert to Islam. He knew what the imam said about homosexuality: It was not allowed; it was something sinful. He would call his lover on the phone and read him passages of the Koran and sob.

The relationship eventually ended, and Alam became engaged to a woman who was very religious. There was no physical contact, which Alam called the "perfect relationship."

But the woman broke off the engagement during Ramadan. She told Alam that she "had a feeling in my heart that something was wrong."

Alam became deeply depressed when he was in college in Boston and living a gay lifestyle--always thinking how Islam would view his choices. It was then that he turned to his computer and started the e-mail group.

As Al-Fatiha grows, he worries about criticism not only from Muslim leaders, but also from gay Muslims who see the group as a painful reminder of a religion that rejects their way of life.

"I don't know that acceptance will happen within our lifetime," said Aisha Jae, 27, a member of Al-Fatiha who asked that her home town not be mentioned in this story. "It can be very discouraging. I get hate mail that says they hope I die of a disease."

Others see the goal of Al-Fatiha as simply letting others know they exist.

"I don't think anyone is ready to start arguing at the mosques," said Faris Malik, 34, a member of Al-Fatiha who lives in the San Francisco area. "But at least now we have someone to pray with and we can be together on Muslim holidays."

Al-Fatiha often holds holiday celebrations. Members had a Ramadan party at a Dupont Circle Middle Eastern restaurant over hummus and spinach pie. The group has had retreats in New York and Boston. It is planning an international retreat in London next month. Members also work with other gay religious groups.

Inside a crowded Northwest home, Alam recently presented a copy of the Koran to a group of Jewish gay leaders, including U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.).

When Alam was introduced, there was a stir in the audience. Some people said they were surprised there was a group for gay Muslims. He smiled bashfully. At least they knew he existed, and for now that was good enough. - The Washington Post

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