Shahmir Sanni explains how the only way Muslims can defeat the far-right who demonise them is by joining forces with the LGTBQ community.
There are plenty of resources available on Islam and homosexuality. I don’t want to talk about sexuality, academia or the interpretation of the Quran; explain how you can be gay and Muslim; or debate whether it is possible. The fact is: queer Muslims exist whether you like it or not.
No matter what you believe, there are people in this country who are in love with those of the same gender and also in love with Allah – living, praying, fasting, performing Hajj, touching the Kaaba. Fundamentally, you are not Allah and so do not have the power to claim whether one is a believer in the eyes of God, and who is not. For Shirk is the gravest sin.
Often, we as Muslims, forget that there is more to us than our identity. To compensate we make our understanding of our religion so concrete in our heads that even if we are met with a quote or study that contradicts our own understanding of Islam, we meet it with anger and resilience. When, if we truly followed Allah’s guidance, which was Iqra! Iqra! Iqra!, we would be able to accept change and interpretations and critique as being the very bedrock of Islamic theology. I have been privy to this concrete nature, too.
But again, I am not here to talk about good Muslims versus bad Muslims. We have all sinned. And we have all sought forgiveness from the All-Forgiving. The reason I say this is because I don’t want you to have this conversation based on assumptions about a person before you have met them or got to know them. Just because their perceived values do not match your perceived sense of self this does not mean that they do not deserve your ear or time.
I grew up in Karachi, Pakistan. I went to a good school, went to Jummah prayers every other Friday with my best mates, became infatuated with men, went to dhaaba’s (street-side cafes) to eat. Fell in love (with girls) and out. Passed and failed and passed exams. Bitched about the girls, played with the girls. Had parties with my family and dealt with the chaos of a large family home. Hated my dad, loved my dad. Was told to be a man. Defended my mum. Spent every Eid eating more than I could fit, and spent lots of nights smoking hash with the boys.
I played football, got bullied, bullied others and talked about boobs with my mates, did sheesha at 13 and started smoking cigarettes when I was 14. Moved to Britain at 15. My family and friends back in Pakistan were Muslim, I am Muslim too.
Our lives were nuanced, complex, dynamic. Islam remained the base. When I moved to Britain, I studied and worked and entrenched myself within the deepest corners of the British political establishment. I saw things I still can not talk about for fear of my life, and the things I did talk about led to the British Government outing me as a gay man to my family, my family and friends back home in Pakistan, and to everyone else. My homosexuality was weaponised because the Government understood what it would mean for someone brown and Muslim like me. But I am no different to your brother, your uncle your son, your cousin, your lover, your friend.
My childhood was Islam, it was Pakistan, it was full of love and lust and desire and sadness. Like all of you.
But entering the most powerful halls as a gay, Muslim, Pakistani immigrant to Britain helped me understand the grave problems rooted within my community here, but more importantly, how the British Muslim community was being seriously (forgive me for the insult) f*cked over. Worse was realising that the British Muslim community was many times unaware of the intricacies of structural oppression, not out of ignorance or lack of education. But out of an apathy that has been built from decades of systemic trauma.
Which brings me to my warning.
The British Muslim community has failed to understand the complexities of our own people. We are an entrepreneurial people, an ambitious people, but we are also a persecuted people. We have failed to tackle the crises stemming from Islamophobia because we have failed to build a community that wants to correct it.
Our people live in the poorest wards of this country. Pakistani/Bangladeshi boys are not getting employed. Young Muslim men are the least likely demographic to graduate in this country. Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Somalis remain the most economically suppressed people in Britain.
Yet, while other communities make strides in a system built to keep them at the bottom (the same system we are oppressed by), we have categorically failed in liberating our communities. This is not because we have not tried, but it is because we have failed to employ the right methods of justice and community action against this system. We have failed to fight alongside the people fighting the same policies that keep us at rock bottom. Because that’s where our community is in Britain, rock bottom.
We are the most uneducated minority. We are the poorest minority. We are at risk of violence and every single day policies are brought in across the globe that specifically harm us here and our families abroad.
We have watched the world employ specific tactics that weaponise our perceived ‘barbarism’ in order to mobilise millions of people against people like us. Modi in India, the Uyghurs, the Rohingya, Trump, Fox News, Boris Johnson, the Conservatives and in dozens of European countries. We are categorically losing. And we have no way of winning because the lens of our religion is blinding us to the reality of our situation.
That Muslims across the world have been dying in the millions, by our own hands and others. Some of us have spoken up about Islamophobia. But most of us have been sidetracked or blocked in the justice conversation because we are unable to extend our hands to people we don’t believe can be or are a part of our community. Whether they be black, Jewish, trans, gay or lesbian. There is a categorical failure in understanding that the system other people are fighting is the exact same fight for us. And that our allies are not other Muslims across the globe, but the communities here in Britain that are doing the work. Specifically, communities like the LGBTQ community.
Some will say our liberation comes with economic empowerment and though this may be true, economic empowerment does not mean individual success, it means bringing forward policies that support our communities but also protect them. And so, understandably, we stay within our communities, we stay within our spaces, and even online: we only discuss things that matter to us, the British Muslim.
This self absorption as a means of protection is totally justified, but also incapable of making any difference. Change comes through the community, it comes through action against harmful policies and legislature. But most of all, it comes from putting aside personal opinions and beliefs and centring a greater cause. Islam, can not, and will not ever be the ‘greater cause’ because this country is not a Muslim country.
And so if we want to be safe in Britain, if we want to truly not face the violence of Islamophobia, if you do not want to be called a Paki on your way to work…you must work in tandem with the LGBTQ community. Because the LGBTQ community is working hard (harder than British Muslims) to stop the rise of far-right governments that are only in power because they weaponised the hate people have for us (the Muslim).
I’ve seen how the right work, witnessed them first-hand weaponise the hatred our community has for queer people in order to attain further control of their electorate. And this weapon is strong because at times it is true. We have a homophobia problem and so our reluctance to love LGBTQ people reinforces all the systems that keep us at the bottom. Because if we can not show that we are capable of loving others, irregardless of whether they have sex with the same gender, then in this white, Christian country, we will never truly feel safe and protected. Our children will live in a country that hates them and will never be able to succeed to their full potential
I want to make this clear. The far-right across the globe have used the assumed barbarism of the Muslim community to win elections, and start wars. From Iraq and Syria, to Myanmar, to India, to America, to Britain, to most of Europe. Islamophobia is the bedrock of this new age of fascism and you, the British Muslim, know this better than anyone else.
One must only watch one episode of Question Time on the BBC, pick up an article from the Spectator, watch the Prime Minister in Parliament or speak to a neighbour. Islamophobia, the fear of Muslims, has embedded itself within British politics and culture. From Home Office projects like Prevent, to education projects about ‘British values’, there is a systemic and institutional effort to reinforce the subjugation of Muslim people in Britain.
I want to make this clear. That if the British Muslim community does not work in tandem with the LGBTQ community, the Conservative government and the far-right will win this fight, and we as a whole community will remain the victims of violent Islamophobia for decades more.
Our community is failing in fighting Islamophobia because we have failed to understand that the most powerful gun held to our own head is our own reluctance to allow our community to include and love LGBTQ people and other marginalised communities within the western world.
Fundamentally, the liberation of queer people relies on support from the Muslim world, and vice versa: the liberation of Muslim people from Islamophobia relies on support from the LGBTQ community. It is the exact same fight. It is trans and gay men that are standing up and fighting Modi. It is lesbian women that are fighting against Trump’s Islamophobia. It is black gay men speaking up for the persecution and incarceration of black Muslims. It is queer Muslims going on TV and making films and producing music that continues the legacy of Islamic art and culture, whether you know they are queer or not, they are people who you have already invited in your homes and in your lives.
I write with urgency because I am seeing online and offline the right-wing islamaphobes weaponise homophobia and use it as a way to garner more support for wars in Iraq, and to garner more support to persecute Palestinians, among many other policy changes. The world and culture is changing. If we do not adapt to it, we will be failed by it. We are already being failed by it. Modi, Bolsanaro, all over Europe, in China, in Iraq, in Sub-saharan Africa, and here in Britain and America. We’re losing and we’re losing hard. If we do not adapt our methods, join forces with other communities, will continue to lose.
We are dying because of the violence of islamophobia and we are being kept poor because of it. Embrace those who are dying from the violence of homophobia, transphobia, anti-blackness and misogyny. And our community will have an economic base, a social base and a cultural base on which we no longer will have to rely on hardships and struggles to build character but on happiness and joy.