Is it easier to be gay in the Muslim world than straight? In Saudi Arabia, a country notorious for its adherence a puritanical strain of Islam, it’s forbidden to mix with an unrelated person of another gender. That makes dating straight near impossible but dating gay quite easy, even undetectable (within limits). A gay man in the Atlantic’s Kingdom in the Closet put it this way: “It’s a lot easier to be gay than straight here. If you go out with a girl, people will start to ask her questions. But if I have date upstairs and my family is downstairs, they won’t even come up.” It’s a fascinating turnabout of expectation.
And that got me wondering: What does it mean to be a gay Muslim? First time director Parvez Sharma set out to an answer just that question, and 5.5 years + 12 countries later he’s painted a study in contrasts: from relatively moderate Turkey to fundamentalist Iran to the the opening scenes with Muhsin Hendricks, South Africa’s openly gay Imam.
We watch a group of young Iranian men flee their homeland for safety in Canada. We meet Mazen, a member of the Cairo 52, and hear his stories of being tried and imprisoned simply for his sexual orientation. We travel with lesbian couple Ferda and Klymet as Klymet meets mom-in-law for the first time.
But more than anything we see people searching for acceptance — from family, the law, their religion. And, particularly in the last case, we see so many of them denied. Time Out New York asks the question perhaps many of us have:
Why would gay Muslims stay true to a religion that hurts them? Shots of beautiful mosques and kneeling supplicants pad out a brief running time that still feels too long because we’ve already heard of the abuses; Islam’s strict social censures are not news. Sharma forgets to push his subjects to a deeper truth — not on the courage to recognize one’s self and bear the consequences, but to leave dead things behind.
But that fundamentally misses the point of the film. What Sharma does brilliantly is show why Islam is very much alive in the hearts of his subjects — the calls to prayer, the value of family, the deeply held teachings of Muhammad, the beautiful writings on paper. If anything, the film shows us why it is so difficult, so painful for gay Muslims to make just that choice — the intractable choice between earthen love and love for God. And it shows why the work of people like Muhsin Hendricks, the gay Imam working to reconcile homosexuality and Islam, is so important.
The real power of A Jihad for Love, though, comes in quieter moments. Words between lovers, a phone call to a mother far away. It’s deeply humanizing. There’s a scene about halfway through the film when Mazen (of the Cairo 52) dons belly dancer garb and dances among his friends, men and women, gay and straight. The camera lingers on him — we see clear joy in his eyes. It’s a beautiful thing seeing someone express themselves, be themselves, without fear. You see into their soul. And, in showing us that, A Jihad for Love is a special document indeed.