Bronxville, New York -- I am tingling; my heart is beating fast as I lead the Maghrib (sunset) prayer here at a Sarah Lawrence College hall at the very first conference of Muslims for Progressive Values, June 17.
It's such an honour, I'm thinking, to pray with this group of people, because they all speak with such passion of their faith, though they come from different races and experiences.
Of the two dozen attendees, four of the men are gay; one woman identifies as lesbian. But their sexual orientation is an issue at the conference only as it relates to the challenges of advocating for the human rights of LGBTTIQ (lesbian, gay, bi, transsexual, transgendered, intersexed, queer) persons.
The meet is the result of the work of Zuriani "Ani" Zonneveld, a writer/singer/activist, and Pamela K. Taylor, well known for leading mix-gendered Muslim prayer. As Taylor has written on her Newsweek blog, "If accidents of birth race and ethnicity are of no import to me, then why should another accident of birth heterosexuality or homosexuality make any difference?"
Being here makes me look back 16 years to when I started Salaam for lesbian and gay Muslims in Toronto. Then, I had no concept of where the movement would be today. We were a small group that grew into a list of over 80 people from as far away as San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver, Quebec and New York-- all before the Internet, when communication was by snail mail or costly telephone.
The birth of the organization generated excitement among LGBTTIQ Muslims, many of whom were isolated because of fear of family, community and even God.
Eventually, in 1993, out of frustration and due to threats, Salaam Toronto was put to sleep. It lay dormant until resurrected in 1999 as Al-Fatiha Toronto and then the Salaam Queer Muslim Community (QMC). Our greatest achievement to date is the International Queer Muslim Conference held in Toronto in June 2003 and attended by over 150 people, some of them supportive non-queers.
Other progressive Muslims have been a huge source of encouragement. In reaction to 9/11, many began to reaffirm their faith and question the conservatism and fundamentalism that had been taken for granted as the only face of Islam. That catastrophic event forced many out of the Muslim closet to assert, "Not in my name."
More and more, social justice Muslim groups throughout the world like the Muslim Canadian Congress, which I helped found, the U.S. Progressive Muslim Union and others in Europe are taking up gender justice issues and to some degree LGBT rights.
Many of us have taken heart from a 1993 book, Progressive Muslims: On Gender, Justice And Pluralismâ edited by Omid Safi, which included a chapter by professor Scott Kugle revisiting the Quranic story of Lot. His alternate reading to the traditional heterosexist and homophobic interpretation of the sacred text furthered the cause of an inclusive Islam and of Allah as truly al-Rahman (The Gracious), al-Raheem (The Merciful) and al-Wadud (The Loving).
Sheikha Fariha al-Jerrahi of the Nur Ashki Jerrahi Sufi tradition, who led the Zikr (remembrance rite) at the meeting last week, puts it this way: "Allah is all-embracing, all-forgiving, all-providing Mother. We are with our Beloved in the open space, in the great freedom of only Hu, where Love alone is real."
I am not deluded. Atrocities continue to be committed in the name of Islam against women, LBGTTIQ people, minorities and others. The majority of sexually dissenting Muslims live in fear in societies where their rights and lives have little, if any, value.
While change is slow, there is change. And there is hope.
El-Farouk Khaki is a refugee and immigration lawyer who represents LGBT people andwomen fleeing gender violence. He is secretarygeneral of the Canadian Muslim Union,a board member of Salaam and federal NDPcandidate for Toronto Centre.