Plenty of people know what it is like to grow up gay in a conservative, homophobic household, but every single one of them at some point felt like they were completely alone.
Think of the Muslim kid growing up in Syria, or Iraq, or even France or the UK, it’s isolating and terrifying.
One man, Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed, is on a mission to make those people feel less lonely.
He is a gay imam, the founder of mosques inclusive of LGBTIs and women based in Paris. He also made headlines a few years back as one of the first openly gay Muslims to enter into a same-sex marriage.
Zahed was in London for Stonewall’s first multi-faith seminar with religious leaders, discussing the possible introduction of an interfaith network of LGBTI people in the UK.
GSN sat down with Zahed to learn more about his life and the lessons he wants the world to know.
Tell me about your trip to London.
In London we are organizing with Stonewall the interfaith LGBT seminar talking about sexual diversity, gender identity issues within religious, faith-based communities. We’re going to have a panel with people from the academic background and religious background talking about those issues how individuals can be both a believer and LGBT and how they can face issues in the world around them. We are going to challenge discrimination, ask politically what can be done, and calling on people to free themselves from prejudices both about sexual and gender minorities and also of religion.
What would you say to someone who says you cannot be both gay and Muslim?
I generally say Muslims cannot be homophobic, misogynistic, anti-Semitic and call themselves a Muslim. Islam is meant to mean peace. Islam is supposed to be universal, it’s meant to be for everyone. When it comes to include everyone, they have a problem – I don’t. The problem is on their side. How can you say Islam is universal when you’re excluding people? We know scientifically that people do not choose to be gay or choose to be transgender. There’s nothing in Islam condemning homosexuality.
When they talk about Sodom and Gommorah, people of Lot, it’s never quoted “homosexuality” in the Qu’ran. They’re talking about raping people in terms of violence. They were not homosexuals, they were pirates and thieves and rapists.
The prophet, peace be upon him, used to even house and protect what we would call transgenders today, or hijras. Those traditions are in the very same book that others claim say we have to kill gays. The rule of hospitality is much, much stronger than the one that condemns anything. It has been invented, it is weak. From a philosophical and a political point of view, Islam is not a fascist system. You cannot say to be Muslim you have to be any one way, that’s fascism. The problem is not Islam, it’s the fascist ideology some attach to the religion.
You’ve said before that if the prophet, Muhammad, was alive he would be marrying gay couples. Do you stand by that?
Absolutely. Islam was a revolution at that time, he gave rights to slaves and women. The elite at the time was against this. He wanted to, as I see it, a good teacher to progress step by step. The people he housed who we would call gay or transgender, because they were dressing like women and in make-up, he defended those people against those who want to kill them. This is the same thing with slaves, he called on people to make people free men or free women to clear themselves from the sin of owning slaves. So today, I do believe he would defend the rights of sexual minorities if the prophet was alive today. He preached for love and peace and we are now ready for this kind of equality.
I want to go back to what led you up to this point. What was the reaction from your family to when you came out?
When I came out, it was a matter of survival. In my home at that time I was a teenager, I went to the mosque to study for five years to become an imam and during that time I realised I was gay. My brother was beating me up because I was not masculine enough, my father was not saying anything because he thought the violence could have some good influence. When I came out, at home I could not be threatened. It was to survive. I was very weak, completely lost. I was very confused. I couldn’t differentiate between spiritual Islam and political fascism dressed as Islam.
Did you try and do anything to stop being gay?
Never, that was my only strength. I never doubted that I was a bad person. It was hard, people were insulting me and beating me, but deep inside of me I always believed I was right and didn’t do anything wrong. That saved me, I think.
What was the relationship with your family like then and how does it compare to today?
I think they love me very much, especially my mother, sister. But also my father, he’s proud of me today. He was not, because he was ignorant as he didn’t know being gay was natural. After 10 years, I explained again and again, they understood I was fighting for my life and my rights and now they are proud of me.
So what led you to create the Association in Support for Gay French Muslims in 2010 and how did that lead to the creation of the LGBTI inclusive mosque in Paris?
With the association, it was something that just had to be done. Even though I said to myself, people are going to think I’m crazy, I knew religion and sexuality had to be reconciled in Islam. Even though there are a lot of people who longed for such an organization, it’s very hard to get that push to know something like that is needed. I launched it to help support people, give them a safe space. In 2012, we had a lot more people like me and we had more LGBTI people practicing Islam like me. So we realised the group needed to find somewhere to exercise their spirituality. We decided after one year to create a sister organization, with another kind of safe space, we founded the inclusive mosque. We never thought anyone would talk about it, but it was truly the first in Europe.
What challenges did you face while trying to set up a mosque for people who believe in gay rights?
It was a social need, we needed to help one another. But we understood, how political it is, to have an inclusive mosque. We understood afterwards it was very powerful, it was a much more positive reaction than we were expecting. Some people opposed it, some said it was not right for Islam, but that violence almost showed us the reason why we needed to do this. We can’t allow Islam be a fascist political agenda, we have to show all sides.
You made headlines again when you got married. What was that like with the reaction?
With the wedding, it was much more. We got married in South Africa, and got together in France, but to talk about it in the media we thought about it a lot. We wanted to get involved into the debate concerning LGBTI rights in Europe, and especially at that moment with the marriage debate in France. It was hard, we were targeted by extremists. Everywhere we went, we were told we should be killed and so on. But it was necessary for us to prove Muslims are also involved positively for LGBTI rights and for same-sex marriage. Not all Muslims are homophobic and transphobic. It was also to show Muslims you can be gay and Muslim at the time.
What was it like facing death threats? That can’t have been easy.
It was hard but we received much more encouragement. We were showing that we are the true Islam. We were showing Islam is a religion of peace and connectedness and love, it is not a religion of terrorism or hatred. It was hard for us to receive death threats, but it was far more important for us to stand our ground.
Why do you think Da’esh, or Isis, is so seductive to bigots? What do you think is pulling people there?
With fascism, we have seen it can be dressed up as communism – but it’s fascism. Fascism that is dressed up with a religious face. Last century, Europe was going through a identity crisis. It’s something that is more rooted in our human dynamics and animal instincts. The problem, the main factor in determining facism, is the socio-cultural identity crisis. It’s not Islam, it’s not Europe, it’s not related to anything specific. it’s related to fears, it’s related to people not knowing what to do and that’s why it is so seductive. With the French revolution, it took us 100 years to have a more stable political system. In the Arab world, because it has gone through so many crisis, it will take some time for that world to find a more democratic and more inclusive system. Those uneducated guys, who are coming from Europe and other places, are being given a reason by these extremists to live and to die. If we want to fight back Da’esh, we have to give those young guys a reason to live here.
I have a final question. What advice would you give to a 13-year-old gay Muslim living in a conservative, homophobic household? What would you tell them?
I would tell them: never doubt of the fact you are a good person. That is what is destroying us more than anything. Second of all, read. Be empowered. Get knowledge about who you are because you are not alone in the world.