When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told an audience at New York’s Columbia University in 2007 that his country had no homosexuals, he was soundly booed. His absurd claim that homosexuality is exclusively a Western phenomenon is even more emphatically — and eloquently — refuted in Parvez Sharma’s new film, A Jihad for Love.
The award-winning documentary, which opens July 18, focuses on 13 gay Muslims from six countries as they struggle to reconcile their sexual orientation with their religious faith. The subjects include victims of state persecution — such as Mazen, a young Egyptian who spent a harrowing year in prison, and the Iranian Amir, whose back still bears the marks of 100 lashes — as well as devout believers in more permissive nations like Turkey.
The film’s title comes from Muhsin Hendricks, an openly gay imam in South Africa who refers to his personal battle as "a love jihad." He uses the Arabic word in its broadest sense: a struggle. The crusading Hendricks is one of the few subjects in the film who allowed his face to be photographed; Sharma had to pixelize or otherwise obscure the appearances of many of his interviewees to protect them from potential reprisals.
"I often say it was a jihad to even make the film," says a tired-sounding Sharma during a recent telephone interview from New York. "It was a tremendous challenge." The 34-year-old journalist and first-time director says there’s a good reason why A Jihad for Love took six years to make. "I had to not only find people who would talk to me, but then embark on a very long process of winning their trust and convincing them to actually be a part of this film. I think it certainly helped that I am gay and Muslim myself."
The Indian-born Sharma was motivated to make the film while studying at American University in Washington in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. It grew out of his desire not only to give a voice to gay and lesbian Muslims but to reclaim his religion from the fanatics.
"I felt the discussions about Islam had been hijacked by an extremist minority within the religion," Sharma says, "and also by the U.S. administration, other western governments and the media. I felt a tremendous amount of anger at that point at the way Islam was being portrayed. I thought it would be really compelling to actually empower gay and lesbian Muslims to become the storytellers, if you will, for the faith — to have Islam, its practice and beliefs, expressed through their lives."
The result is a gentle, reverential film that shows sincere believers wrestling with the interpretations of Islamic scripture that are used to prohibit same-sex relations. Sharma’s subjects consult and argue with imams and scholars, or offer their own justifications. As Kiymet, a Turkish lesbian in a loving relationship, reasons, "If God has planted this love in my heart, then it is legitimate." Some, like Hendricks and Maha, an Egyptian lesbian, at first tried to deny their nature by entering into unsuccessful heterosexual marriages. Others, like Maryam, Maha’s Moroccan lover, are wracked with guilt and feel they should be punished.
"I thought it would be really compelling to empower gay and lesbian Muslims to become the storytellers for the faith — to have Islam expressed through their lives."
The film offers a spectrum of gay and lesbian life in the Muslim world. In a theocracy like Iran, homosexuality thrives underground in defiance of the mullahs. Mojtaba, one of four Iranian refugees living temporarily in Turkey as they await immigration to Canada, fondly describes how he was secretly wed to his lover in Shiraz. In secular Turkey, by contrast, couples can live together openly. In one of the film’s sweetest moments, Kiymet’s partner, Ferda, introduces Kiymet to her mother, a jolly 80-year-old woman who warmly accepts her daughter’s female lover.
After finding gay Muslims who would appear on camera, Sharma faced the hurdle of filming them discreetly. He entered countries posing as a tourist and book-ended his video interviews with innocuous travel footage in case the film was confiscated by the authorities. He did most of the shooting himself, using a hand-held digital camera. "I never used tripods, in order not to attract attention," he says. "In many ways, it was guerrilla filmmaking."
He found a sympathetic producer in Sandi DuBowski, maker of Trembling Before G-d, an acclaimed 2001 documentary about gay Orthodox and Hasidic Jews. A Jihad for Love’s $2-million US budget was bankrolled with help from Germany’s ZDF/Arte, the U.K.’s Channel 4 and Sundance’s documentary fund, among others. It had its premiere at last year's Toronto International Film Festival and since then has screened in three of the countries where Sharma filmed: India, Turkey and South Africa. While some Muslim authorities and media outlets called for the movie to be banned, Sharma says that only increased its publicity. The film ended up playing to large, appreciative audiences. Sharma notes that about 1,300 people saw A Jihad for Love’s two screenings at the Istanbul International Film Festival. "They really liked it. In fact, they pointed out that the film should even be more critical of orthodox Islam."
Sharma has been equally heartened by the film’s recent reception at showings across the U.S. "I’m surprised by the level of intellectual curiosity that Americans can bring to this kind of work," he says. "I’ve learned, even in a red state like Texas, how much people really want to engage with issues of Islam and how little they have to go on."
Non-Muslim audiences no doubt find a resonance, too, in the similarities between Islam and the other great monotheistic religions. As with Christianity and Judaism, Islam derives its attitude toward homosexuality primarily from the tale of Lut (or Lot), a version of which appears in the Qur’an as well as in Genesis. Allah is said to have destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah after the preacher Lut accused their inhabitants of practising "abominations," which is often interpreted as sodomy. The exact nature of their sin and the reason for their punishment has long been subject to debate.
But the film also disabuses viewers of the notion that Muslim cultures are inherently homophobic. Arsham, one of the Iranian refugees, points out that male love is celebrated in classic Persian literature. And there is footage of a popular Pakistan festival honouring the 16th-century Sufi mystic and poet Shah Husain, who had a Hindu male lover. "Islam has a rather long history of not just tolerating but also celebrating homosexuality openly," Sharma says.
Still, that was long ago. Why does Sharma remain devoted to a religion that in some interpretations is so hostile to homosexuality?
"My God," he replies, suddenly vigorous, "it’s a faith that you grow up with. You don’t necessarily know any other way. There are very beautiful passages in the Qur’an that I draw a lot of sustenance from. I draw sustenance from the festivals and the rituals and the sense of community and family. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Islam. I offer my critiques when necessary about what is wrong, and the film is an expression of that. But at the same time, I do not believe in reforming religion without working from within it."
A Jihad for Love opens in Toronto on July 18.
Martin Morrow writes about the arts for CBCNews.ca.