MUSLIM WORLD: Film about gays and Islam shown for first time in Arab world

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Can one be gay and a pious Muslim at the same time?

That’s the topic that Indian Muslim film director Parvez Sharma explores in his controversial 2007 documentary ‘A Jihad for Love’ through a range of colorful characters.

Among others, viewers are introduced to a group of homosexual Iranian asylum seekers in Turkey, an openly gay Muslim imam, and a devout Egyptian lesbian who is struggling to cope with her faith and her sexual orientation.

Sharma recently traveled to Lebanon for the screening of his film in Beirut, which marked the first public showing of ‘A Jihad for Love’ in an Arab country.

Babylon & Beyond sat down with Sharma to talk about his film, Islam and homosexuality, and his upcoming controversial projects.


‘I was a bit apprehensive at first because I realize that people in Lebanon have a complex relationship to religion, so I was worried how they would react to such a shamelessly religious film,’ he said. ‘At the same time I was aware it was elite crowd. It wasn’t exactly Hezbollah coming to see it. So I don’t think all of Beirut saw my film. I think a small bubble of it did.’

You’ve shown the film in other countries with large Muslim populations but never before in an Arab country. Why is it so hard to screen it in the Arab world but not in Indonesia for example?
I think there is a greater influence of Wahhabi ideas in the Arab mindset. But I also think it has to do with democracy. Being censored as an artist is part of life [in the Arab world], which is not really the case in Indonesia or in India. There is greater artistic freedom elsewhere than Egypt, which is like a dictatorship and a police state. There is also sometimes a close-mindedness when it comes to people who are not being in a complete participatory democracy.

I am not saying India and the others have problems but they are different in that experience than people in the Middle East. War and totalitarian regimes .... such things close cultural spaces somehow. You can feel it in the air.

What was your goal with the film and do you feel like you have accomplished it?

My goal was to open the discussion and to stop the silence. Have I stopped the silence? Yes. Have I found a solution for this issue? No. I don’t know if a Koranic solution is possible. First, because I think Muslims are taught not to mess with the Koran. Secondly, there are more than 1 billion in the Muslim world. Do you think the entire umma will agree that homosexuality is OK? Muslims are too divided to agree on one thing.

So what’s the solution in your opinion?

Does one approach the issue from a religious or from a human rights perspective? I don’t know. But one thing is important: to reform religion you need to do it from within the religion. Only religious people will find a solution. Religious Muslims will find a solution but someone from outside will not.

Do you feel that there is a difference in how Shiite Muslims and Sunni Muslims view homosexuality?

I think Sunni is influenced a lot by the Wahhabi ideology, and I think cultural of disagreement is more pronounced in Shiite Islam.

What’s the overall feedback on the film been like?

It’s been divided. But ... the film has not been attacked by conservative Muslims because I think they realized that mine is a Muslim camera. I am not attacking my own religion. The film is not an attack on Islam. If it was, I would be dead.

-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Photos, from top: ‘A Jihad for Love’ film poster; film director Parvez Sharma. Credit: Parvez Sharma