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“A Jihad for Love”: New Film Explores Challenges Facing Gay Muslims Worldwide

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Muslim gay filmmaker Parvez Sharma spent five-and-a-half years documenting the lives of gay and lesbian Muslims in twelve countries. His subjects include a gay imam in South Africa, an Egyptian who fled to France after his imprisonment and torture, and a lesbian couple in Turkey. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to a new documentary that’s just out. It’s called A Jihad for Love, a new film exploring the challenges faced by gay Muslims worldwide. Muslim gay filmmaker Parvez Sharma spent five-and-a-half years documenting the lives of gay and lesbian Muslims in twelve countries. His subjects include a gay imam in South Africa, an Egyptian who fled to France after his imprisonment and torture, and a lesbian couple in Turkey.

In this clip of the film, a gay Iranian man describes a beating he suffered at the hands of police.

    GAY IRANIAN MAN: [translated] I was four when my father died in the Iran-Iraq War from a mustard gas attack. In August 2004, a friend invited me to a gay party. We were raided, and they put us in jail. The police said, “You’re the son of a martyr, and you do these things?” To them, I had disgraced my father’s name. The judge said, “The physician will find out whether or not you are gay.” He told us we could be stoned to death. I was terrified.

    I received 100 lashes in an hour. My mother was notified that I was lashed. When I took off my shirt, she cried. Because of her, I left. I didn’t want her to suffer and see my pain anymore. She held the Koran over my head for protection before I left. I think I will remember that until my very last breath. But there is someone that is with me every step, helping me, and that’s my god.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of the film A Jihad for Love. Parvez Sharma is the director of the film, a New York-based journalist who has worked for several international media outlets, including India’s Star News Channel, BBC World Television and Democracy Now!, where he worked as a producer. A Jihad for Love opens in New York at the IFC Center on Wednesday night, on May 21st.

Parvez, welcome to Democracy Now! Welcome back, I should say.

PARVEZ SHARMA: Amy, it’s lovely to be here back with you again. I’ve admired you for so long.

AMY GOODMAN: I am glad to see how productive you have been since you were here. And a remarkable film. Talk about why you have been doing this, why you produced A Jihad for Love.

PARVEZ SHARMA: I think that Jihad for Love is a really important film right now. There’s a battle for the soul of Islam post-September 11th. And what has been really problematic is all the discussions about Islam that have been undertaken by the mainstream media. So, essentially what is happening in this film is that everyone is coming out as a Muslim. They’re not coming out as gay or lesbian, but they’re claiming their Islamic identity, and they’re saying that they have as much of a right to be Muslim as anybody else. And I think that is where the true power of the film lies. It’s been demonstrated in fifteen countries already. I’ve traveled the world with it.

AMY GOODMAN: What has been the response? Where have you been?

PARVEZ SHARMA: The response has been really remarkable. Fifteen countries. We premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, then we premiered in Berlin. But what is most notable were the premieres in India and Turkey — Turkey, just three weeks ago.

The whole country is caught up in the debate about the hijab, and there is a fear increasingly that radical Islam is going to, in some way, come and take over the personal liberties that especially the young crowd in Istanbul, for example, enjoy. So I had 1,500 people at the theater in Istanbul, and it was really interesting, because the majority of them were saying that they felt that the film should have been more critical of Islam.

AMY GOODMAN: Why wasn’t it?

PARVEZ SHARMA: You know, Amy, right now it’s so easy to be an apologist for my religion. I think way too many Muslims had been doing that. And what is really important, when you try and create dialogue within orthodoxy, is to work from within the religion and to work with respect for the religion. Islam is under so much attack from within and from outside. So, as a Muslim filmmaker, I did not think it was my job to criticize the religion without showing the respect for it, so I used a very Muslim lens in making the film. And even simple things, like how do you frame the Koran? How do you translate that into —- how do you translate faith for the camera? How do you talk about a religion that is the world’s fastest-growing religion? And how do you try and make it meaningful from a perspective that is not about violence, that is not about this violent jihad, but is about a different kind of jihad?

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe the Turkish lesbian couple who you profile?

PARVEZ SHARMA: They are two remarkable women. They actually were there at the screenings in Turkey, and they got a standing ovation. They’re a Sufi -—

AMY GOODMAN: Was their mother there, as well — one of the women’s mother?

PARVEZ SHARMA: Their mother passed away and — earlier last year. But they were there. They broke up. But they are Sufi, and there’s a strong tradition of Sufi Islam in Turkey, which is really interesting for me, because what I was also trying to do was to present the complexity, if you will, of the religion.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain Sufi.

PARVEZ SHARMA: Sufi Islam is very much the mystical tradition within Islam. It has existed parallel through 1,428 years of Islamic history. The Wahhabis, the Tablighis, the more orthodox sects of Islam, have often looked down upon the Sufis. But traditionally, there have been better spaces for expressing yourself and especially expressing same-sex desire in Sufi Islam, and there’s a long history of this, which I try and touch upon in the film.

AMY GOODMAN: And there are different laws, I mean, in Turkey, less restrictive for homosexuals, for gay men and lesbians.

PARVEZ SHARMA: Definitely. Turkey is a very interesting place. There are no laws that prohibit same-sex intercourse. It’s a very remarkable country going through an amazing transformation. It’ll be interesting to see what happens in Turkey in the next few years and if these freedoms that people enjoy can still be upheld.

Of course, in Iran, well, there are differences of opinion about this, but some people feel that the death penalty can be easily implemented against homosexuality, and some people strongly disagree.

AMY GOODMAN: Parvez, I want to turn to another excerpt of A Jihad for Love. This focuses on the South Africa man believed to be the first imam to be openly gay.

    MUHSIN HENDRICKS: [translated] God is everything to me. He’s the source of my strength. He is the center of my life.

    RADIO INTERVIEWER: You said, over national radio, “I am Muslim, I am an imam, and I’m gay.” Did it ever occur to you that, “Listen, I’m going to be hurting the feelings of thousands of Muslims?”

    MUHSIN HENDRICKS: Yes, I fully understand that, but what we also need to understand is that the issue of homosexuality within the Muslim community is real. These are the lives of people all over the world. On a daily basis, I deal with young Muslims who have a problem, and they are struggling with reconciling their Islam with their sexuality. So instead of them leaving Islam or committing suicide, what I basically do in my work with counseling with them is to tell them to accept Islam for the goodness that it comes with and reconcile it with their sexuality, because their sexuality, at the end of the day, is not something that’s going to disappear. Stick to the Islam and let Allah be the judge of it at the end of the day.

    CALLER 1: I think Muhsin should be thrown off a mountain or burned or something like that.

    CALLER 2: You can’t call that guy a brother, man, a Muslim brother. They must cut off his [expletive] arse, man.

    CALLER 3: We should definitely bring back the death sentence for this guy. It’s unacceptable. He’s bringing down the name of Islam.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of A Jihad for Love. Parvez Sharma is its director, in our studio today. Tell us about the South African imam and his journey.

PARVEZ SHARMA: A really remarkable man. He went to religious school in Pakistan, where he was trained to be an imam, had three children, got into a heterosexual marriage, of course, was exiled from his community when he came out as a gay man, was prohibited from teaching at the mosque, became quite a powerful voice in the new South Africa, which as you know has one of the world’s most remarkably open constitutions for change in those communities. Last year —-

AMY GOODMAN: What about the constitution?

PARVEZ SHARMA: The South African constitution is a really powerful constitution that guarantees equal rights. Also, it goes beyond this whole discussion of civil unions. It really is same-sex marriage. And it’s really interesting to see that the community of Muslims that Muhsin comes from in South Africa is a very conservative community. So they’re actually functioning in the space of a very liberal government, if you will.

And last year, when we were showing the film in South Africa, there was a lot of protest. The Muslim Judicial Council in that country issued a judgment saying that people should not go and see the film, and they called Muhsin and myself apostates. Now, the sin of apostasy in Islam carries the death penalty. This was read out in 300 mosques in Cape Town. But what was really interesting was that Muslims turned up in very large numbers to see the film because of what the Muslim Judicial Council had said. So -— and his daughter, who is now fourteen, stood up on stage with her father, and she said, “I don’t care what the Muslim leadership thinks about my father. If they think being gay is a problem, that’s their problem, not ours.”

AMY GOODMAN: You fuzz out a number of faces in the film, including of course his family.

PARVEZ SHARMA: Yes. It’s a very deliberate decision. Clearly, I mean, in his family’s case, I was dealing with minors, and they still live with their mother. They all go to religious school, so I did not want to expose them to that kind of scrutiny. Of course, right now they’re all out in the press and talking about their father.

AMY GOODMAN: The girls are covered.

PARVEZ SHARMA: Yes, and the girls are covered. They also wear the hijab at a very young age.

With some of the others, I mean, especially with the Iranian characters, you know, their families still stay in Iran, and there is a tremendous amount of risk in Iran, especially around this issue, especially given the whole brouhaha that happened last year after President Ahmadinejad came to Columbia. So —-

AMY GOODMAN: Explain. Explain what he said or what people thought he said.

PARVEZ SHARMA: I think it’s really about what people thought he said. Of course, the rightwing press wants to pick on any opportunity to bash Iran, and that is what has been happening. I have a slightly different opinion about what’s going on in that country. I don’t think that Ahmadinejad’s government has carried out a pogrom against gay men as much as, let’s say, Hosni Mubarak did in 2001 in those well-documented “Cairo 52” cases. There are certainly problems in Iran.

What is most important is this whole issue about semantics -— what did Ahmadinejad say? Apparently, what he said in Farsi was that there are not gay people in Iran like you have in the West. And, of course, this has also been endlessly debated in the blogosphere. Now, if he said that, I agree with him, because certainly the context of being homosexual in Iran is not the same as what we have in the West. But — and we also have to realize — I mean, which president — not this one, certainly — is going to stand — or George Bush in the States — is going to stand up and talk openly about homosexuality? So it’s really interesting how that conversation was played out in the media.

AMY GOODMAN: But what do you mean, “We don’t have gay people like you do here”?

PARVEZ SHARMA: I think what has been debated by a lot of Iranian activists, especially friends of mine — I’m in touch with Iran — is this whole idea of whether homosexuality can be defined in the same terms as we use here, all the categories that we use here, like GLBTQI, whether that culture of gay bars, of having a gay pride exists in Iran. So that is the debate that has been taken on by a lot of responsible activists in the Iranian blogosphere who felt that when Ahmadinejad came to Columbia, there were many other important things going on, and they felt that this issue was played out out of proportion.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned Egypt, and you follow a young man from Egypt who got political exile in France. Explain his journey and what happened to him in Egypt.

PARVEZ SHARMA: Mazen was one of fifty-two gay men who were arrested on this nightclub called the Queen Boat in the summer of 2001 by the Egyptian government. It was a really interesting time. A lot of observers saw it as Hosni Mubarak trying to appease the Ikhwan, the Muslim Brotherhood, and using this whole issue of morality to drum up support, if you will, the traditional Islamists in Muslim sort of — in the Muslim Brotherhood. These men were put into prison. They were tried in the same courts that the Egyptian court — Egyptian state uses to try terrorists. Mazen was tortured. He was put into prison for an entire year. He was raped, and he talks about that in the film.

When he was out on bail is when he fled the country, and he got asylum in France. His first name is Mohammed, and it’s certainly not easy being an asylee called Mohammed in France. And he actually just arrived in the States a couple of days ago for his first time in the US. He’s going to be present at our theatrical event, so it is really interesting to see how much his life has changed since the film came out.

AMY GOODMAN: And the film is opening this week in New York. Also around the country?

PARVEZ SHARMA: Yes, the film is going to travel around the country. It’s also getting a Canadian theatrical. I’ve been blogging from the road from fifteen countries at ajihadforlove.blogspot.com. And many interesting responses. Also getting lots of hits from Egypt, Pakistan and Iran.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about the title, A Jihad for Love.

PARVEZ SHARMA: It’s really, as I said — I mean, there’s this battle for the soul of Islam. “Jihad” is almost an English-language word now. And this whole idea of the Jihad al-Nafs, which is the struggle with the self, and the greater jihad within Islam is rarely spoken about. I feel there is a very major movement right now in Islamic thought for progressive Muslim voices to take back some of the discussions that have been taken away from us. So this whole idea of taking “jihad,” a very contested word, and putting it right next to “love,” I think is very powerful. Some of the critics think that the title is silly and ridiculous, but I think it really explains the film.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, the first name that comes up when the film starts: executive producer, Michael Huffington, the ex-husband of Arianna Huffington. Explain his role.

PARVEZ SHARMA: Well, Michael Huffington is one of the executive producers of the film. Amazing man. He has supported a lot of documentaries recently. He was really excited by this. And we approached him, and he wanted to support us, so he is the executive producer of the film. And he did a lot of good — he’s a former Republican, by the way, so it’s really interesting.

AMY GOODMAN: And he ran for Senate and then came out as gay.

PARVEZ SHARMA: Yes, yes. So, great to have him as an executive producer. I think the film brings together actually a very wide coalition of people who supported it.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much, Parvez Sharma, for coming back to Democracy Now!

The film, A Jihad for Love, opens this week, actually on Wednesday night at the IFC Center in New York and then around the country. Again, the website?

PARVEZ SHARMA: Ajihadforlove.com and ajihadforlove.blogspot.com.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to see you, Parvez.

PARVEZ SHARMA: Thank you, Amy.

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