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A gay imam, fighting for tolerance

Naomi Conrad, Berlin July 22, 2016

Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed has dedicated his life to fighting against those who believe Islam and homosexuality are incompatible. It's an uphill struggle and risky, as Naomi Conrad reports.

Imam Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed in Marseille (AP Photo/Claude Paris) |
Image: Getty Images/AP Photo/C.Paris

When his mother told him that she no longer thought he was sick and weak, degenerate even, Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed says he felt dizzy, too shocked to feel any pride or relief : "She said: 'You can have a husband if you want, like your sister. I accept you."

Zahed, a slight man who talks with the intensity and eloquence of one who is used to fighting his case over and over again, smiled: It had taken him 10 years to convince his Tunisian family that he was not a "faggot who could be insulted and beaten like a dog," but rather a gay man and a practicing Muslim who opened what he calls an "inclusive mosque" in Paris in 2012. In 2011, he married his partner. His mother, he told DW, attended their wedding.

Zahed said Muslim societies had historically been more tolerant of homosexuality than Christian cultures, many of which might consider queerness to be "deviant"; nowadays, however, the tables have seemingly turned. European countries have increasingly enacted LGBT-friendly laws as homophobic views have gained prominence in many Muslim countries.

In countries such as Iran or Saudi Arabia, homosexuality is a capital offense; in others it carries long prison sentences - and often homosexuals are forced underground and into unhappy marriages to keep up the pretence.

'Everybody's welcome'

Though pockets of tolerance exist, they are often precarious: LGBT activists in Egypt, a country that has cracked down brutally on homosexuals in recent months, told DW of the fear and suffocation of leading a double life and the daily necessity of using encrypted messaging devices and code words. And a feisty, outspoken transwoman who lives in Beirut, recalled the fear that she might one day meet her uncle, a high-ranking member of the Shiite militia Hezbollah, on the streets. "He would kill me," she said matter-of-factly.

Zahed Blessing a lesbian couple (Photo: Roger Schederin | picture-alliance/dpa)
Zahed blessing a lesbian couple in Stockholm, 2014.Image: picture-alliance/dpa/R.Schederin

A spokesman for the Al-Nur mosque in Berlin, which preaches a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, responded brusquely to DW's question about homosexuality and Islam in his mosque: "I'm sorry, you just woke me up. I can't answer such a question right now. Call back later." DW tried several times to reach him at the agreed time, but he didn't answer his phone again.

Others, though, are more welcoming: Ender Cetin, a spokesman for the Sehitlik mosque in Berlin, which belongs to Germany’s largest association of mosques, DITIB, has in the past repeatedly stressed that his mosque is open to homosexual Muslims and that he would "strongly oppose" any discrimination in his community should it ever arise. "Everyone's welcome in our mosque," he told DW.

But Cetin's professed tolerance may be an exception: The big mosques "are far from welcoming towards homosexuals", Jörg Steinert, from the Lesbian and Gay Association (LSVD) in Berlin, told DW, "even the ones who present themselves as open and liberal." And often, he added, that tolerance was no more than mere lip-service.

Muslims forced to lead 'double life'

Steinert, whom DW met in his office plastered with huge posters showing kissing same-sex couples, has met many Muslims forced to lead a "double life." Forced marriages are not unheard of, he said, nor are threats and mistreatment by family members. And many Muslims who seek help in his office are torn between their sexuality and a religion which they believe rejects them as "sick."

That's why Steinert and his colleagues invited Zahed to Berlin - to show them that homosexuality and Islam are indeed compatible: "I struggled with my two identities, too: I was lost and torn between my religion and my sexuality," he told DW. But then, he said, he realized that Islam holds a message of tolerance and peace - and that he could be both: gay and Muslim.

Life as an LGBT in Bangladesh

Since then, he has made it his life's mission to convince others, too, to fight the closed-minded, intolerant interpretation of Islam that he calls "fascist."

'Risking my life'

The Quran, he stressed over and over again, does not condemn homosexuality. But what of the often-cited reference to the abomination of Sodom and Gomorrah? Zahed shakes his head. That, he is convinced, is more about "ritual rape," not homosexuality. "There are different ways of interpreting it: It's a lesson about sexual violence, rather than the evil of homosexuality."

And that modern interpretation is something "I'm risking my life for,” he added quietly. Zahed, who lives in France, is used to vitriolic Facebook messages, which inform him that he is "defiling Islam" and should "burn in hell."

He shrugged: At times, he admitted, it felt like he was constantly fighting against windmills of hate and prejudice.

And yet, he said, he is convinced that Islam would "God willing" eventually be reformed and modernized. The recipe? A mix of government support for liberal mosques and organizations, imams trained "to embrace democracy and human rights" rather than imported from abroad, dialogue, and, above all, economic growth and political stability in the Arab World.

"Look, if you have work and a future, then you just don't care about who's in bed with who," he said, smiling wryly.