“Those who commit acts of violence in the name of religion often also have a history of abuse of women” – my interview with Margarida Santos-Lopes for Expresso (Portugal) now in English

Margarida Santos Lopes interviewed me for the Portuguese weekly “Expresso” in June, following the horrific attack on the Pulse nightclub. It is now available in English, posted below (you can also read it on her blog, here).  To read the full article in Portuguese, click here.

“Those who commit acts of violence in the name of religion often also have a history of abuse of women” – by Margarida Santos Lopes

Raquel Evita Saraswati is an American Muslim activist who focuses primarily on issues related to the status of women and girls in Muslim-majority societies and communities. She is also a member of the steering committee of the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity (MASGD). She gave me this interview a few days after Omar Mateen killed 49 people and wounded 53 others inside the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida, on June 12. This massacre was considered the deadliest incident of violence against LGTBQ people in U.S. history, and the deadliest terrorist attack in America since 9/11.

What was your initial rea­­­ction when you heard about the dreadful massacre in Orlando? 

I initially heard reports of a shooting in a nightclub and was saddened but not shocked – we continue to have a problem with gun violence in the United States, and nightclubs are certainly not immune. When I heard that there were twenty victims, I knew something was different.

Then the news came that there were nearly fifty victims, and that the act was potentially carried out by someone who claimed my faith. At first, all I could do was cry. Out of sadness for the victims, the horror of their last hours, and the pain of their community.

I received a phone call from a friend – someone who is like a brother to me – checking to see if I was ok and calling to coordinate a response. I spent most of that terrible day in tears. At the same time, I was aware that this would initiate a national conversation, expose tensions between communities, and add petrol to an already noxious political climate. I was devastated and frightened.

How do you assess the events – terrorism/religious fanaticism, self-hating, addiction to violence (he allegedly abused his ex-wife, idolized the NYPD, worked for a security company…), easy access to guns…?

As someone who has looked closely at these issues for over a decade, the narrative surrounding Omar Mateen comes as no surprise. I have for years been drawing the connection between misogyny and extremist ideology, noting that those who commit acts of violence in the name of religion often also have a history of violence against and abuse of women.

Even now, the only reason we are talking about Omar Mateen’s history of domestic violence is because he ultimately killed [almost] fifty people – and the discussion of his misogyny has been but a brief footnote. Further, it is also true that many of those who endorse radical extremism, as well as those who carry out the acts, often have a history of indulging in the very acts their radical ideology condemns.

Radicals recruit these individuals with the promise of salvation in exchange for their full membership in what is ultimately a cult. It is my view that if there were more conversations about this, we could understand and counter radical ideology well before blood is spilled.

However, it is simply true that the lives of girls, women, and LGBTQ people are valued less in our society than the lives of those who would seek to oppress us. Thus, these conversations are not had, signs are missed, lives are lost – and the media and politicians pull out the same cue cards they use after every massacre – “we are shocked” – “what were the signs?” – etc., and the same five self-appointed experts are invited to comment, offering nothing useful to say.

The attack revived a perception of “Islamic homophobia”, not only in countries like Saudi Arabia or Iran – where gays have been subject to imprisonment, corporal punishing or even death penalty -, but also in the American Muslim community. Is this perception right and how do you explain it? What should be done to change it? 

I do not believe that my faith is homophobic, but unfortunately there is rampant homophobia within my community.

Following the Orlando attacks, self-appointed “representatives” of the Muslim community rushed to condemn it, and some even feigned support for the LGBTQ community. These individuals are leaders of the very organizations who host “scholars” and preachers who believe LGBTQ people are sick, criminal, and worthy of death.

As tragic and disgusting as this past week has been, it has caused many to see through the charade. It also now provides us with an opportunity to hold these individuals and organizations accountable once the cameras and microphones are off, and to demand that they live up to the words they uttered for the press.

In addition to holding these organizations accountable, we must fight with urgency the rise of far-right fascism and the ignorance that tells us that identities like LGBTQ and Muslim are mutually exclusive. They are not. There are many of us living at the complicated and at times deeply painful intersection of these identities.

Further, it is worth noting that some of the conservative voices who have used this opportunity to condemn Muslims and Islam for homophobia themselves support measures to restrict the rights of LGBT people. Some of these individuals and groups in the United States even support murderous policies – such as the notorious “Kill the Gays Bill” in places like Uganda. We must also demand accountability from these individuals and groups, and let them know that we are not fooled.

Scholar Mehammed Amadeus Mack writes in Newsweek: “The word homosexual does not appear anywhere in the Koran, and indeed it couldn’t, because the word is an invention of the late 19th century, when medical societies in Europe tried to place groups of people who took part in similar sex acts under a common category, which they then labeled ‘homosexuality.’ Later on, the community of people pathologized by this term rallied together under the term of their persecution and began to demand recognition, equality and, finally, rights.” What is your opinion? 

It is true that the word “homosexual” does not appear in the Quran. Indeed, it has been interpreted that the Quranic story most often used to condemn LGBTQ people – the story of Lot – is not about same-sex attraction, but about a people cursed for their violence – including sexual violence – and other forms of cruelty and abuse. The fact is that interpretations of the Quran based in what we believe to be the nature of God – merciful and compassionate – DO exist.

It is also true that these interpretations are theologically sound. They are not fringe or un-Islamic. They have, however, been pushed to the margins and made difficult to access. This has been done by those within our community who have malignant and political intentions; and by governments who continue to ally and exchange favors with the very regimes who murder people like me – women and LGBTQ people especially.

Saudi Arabia condemned the attack in Orlando – why? Because gays were shot rather than beheaded? Because it was in a private establishment rather than in a town square? And then Barack Obama rushed to meet with Saudi leadership. This would be a joke if it weren’t so dangerous.

How do you characterize the Muslim American community and the LGBT Muslim American community? At to what extent what happened in Orlando will influence them? 

Both communities are diverse; and while they hold political and social power to some degree, are also marginalized. The attacks in Orlando provide an opportunity for each community to reposition itself as a stakeholder in the conversation about today’s political and social climates.

How this is done, and with what level of integrity and consistency, is what we will come to see. It is absolutely true that both communities have been and will continue to be pushed into the national spotlight. I continue to hope for and advocate for accountability from those in positions of power, though that hope is currently hard to come by.

You belong to the steering committee of an association for gender equality. Can you give us some information on its work? And also on your other roles as a human rights activist? 

The Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity (MASGD) was founded in 2013 following the dissolution of al-Fatiha, an organization many of us were involved with. The mission statement of MASGD is as follows:

“The Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity (MASGD) works to support, empower and connect LGBTQ Muslims. We seek to challenge root causes of oppression, including misogyny and xenophobia. We aim to increase the acceptance of gender and sexual diversity within Muslim communities, and to promote a progressive understanding of Islam that is centered on inclusion, justice, and equality.” We host a retreat for LGBTQ Muslims each May.

My own personal work outside of MASGD is focused primarily on the rights of women, girls and minorities in Muslim-majority societies and communities. I work to combat various forms of gender-based violence, and while I absolutely do this work outside of my faith community, my primary focus is my community. I work to combat honor-based violence, forced and child marriage, and female genital mutilation (FGM), as well as other violations of human rights and decency.

Would you share with us some personal info on what does it mean to be a Muslim woman in America, and what impact did the Orlando massacre had in your daily life?

In the past week, I’ve been harassed on the street – first called a “stupid terrorist [expletive]” by a non-Muslim man who pushed me in the street; and by a Muslim man who screamed at me, accusing me of apostasy.

While these examples are extreme, they are true – and they encapsulate perfectly what it’s like to be a Muslim woman who wears the hijab and advocates for universal human rights. Because I exist at the intersection of Muslim womanhood and the LGBTQ experience, the past week and a half has been especially raw and painful.

It must be said, however, that many people have been incredibly loving, and that there is great power, beauty, and strength in my communities. I would not sacrifice who I am for any price or promise of ease. I choose instead to live in love, working for our full liberation.

Extracts from this interview were included in an article published in the Portuguese news weekly EXPRESSO on June 25, 2016


International Business Times – June 16, 2016

Click here for the original article.

By Elizabeth Whitman

The Twitter account Garrett Fugate created under the pseudonym Hanif Kiriakos in September 2012 gave him the chance to finally speak freely and openly about his frustrations. Reassured by an online safe haven that included Muslims like him, Fugate, then a 24-year-old college student, began the process, little by little, of coming out as gay.

First, Fugate told his local lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) group. Next, he told his family, whose members were very accepting. And then, he told his roommate. A year passed before he had the hardest conversation of all, with his close-knit group of Muslim friends. The news spread with shocking speed through the local mosque in Lawrence, Kansas, where he lived. Soon, some members responded with stony silences when Fugate offered the standard Islamic greeting of peace, “Assalamu alaikum.”

Fugate’s experiences and those of other LGBTQ Muslims were catapulted into the public spotlight this week after reports that Omar Mateen, an American Muslim who allegedly killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, Sunday, might have been gay himself. Prompted by one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history, this sudden scrutiny both bolsters and imperils recent, painstaking progress by LGBTQ Muslims to gain recognition and acceptance by their communities and the broader American public.

“Right now, we’re at this very difficult and painful nexus in American and global history,” said Raquel Evita Saraswati, an American and Muslim on the steering committee of the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity (MASGD). Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S., LGBTQ Muslims have found themselves grappling with thorny questions of political identity, instead of focusing primarily on shoring up emotional or theological support for their community while countering anti-Muslim and anti-LGBTQ bigotry, Saraswati said.

With the mass shooting in Orlando, “now you have a terrorist to talk about,” Saraswati said.

The motives of Mateen, the alleged shooter who was slain by police, are unclear, but, in the midst of the carnage, he called 911 and declared his allegiance to the Islamic State group, as he also reportedly did in a Facebook message posted before the rampage got under way. Meanwhile, Mateen’s father suggested that hatred of gays inspired the attack, even though Mateen himself may have been gay or bisexual.

The mass shooting highlighted how, in a country where homophobia is alive and well — almost 21 percentof about 6,000 hate crimes in 2013 were associated with sexual orientation — the LGBTQ community remains a target. And the religion of the alleged killer left Muslims once again defending their faith from being painted as the source of such violent extremism, even while fearing potential backlash.

In the U.S., to be either LGBTQ or Muslim is to be a member of a minority group that regularly faces discrimination. To be both is to exist even further on the margins.

“I’ve actually never met an openly gay Muslim,” said Jim Sues, executive director of the New Jersey branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Many Muslim societies reject homosexuality for reasons of culture, religion or both, even though the question about what Islam actually says about homosexuality has no single answer. With the Sunni sect alone having four schools of jurisprudence, Islam is not monolithic, and even the term homosexuality encompasses a spectrum of behaviors, feelings and identities. Still, those who identify as queer risk being shunned by families or communities that hold on to traditional views, including those in the U.S.

In response, various organizations have striven for decades to foster solidarity and support among LGBTQ Muslims.

For example, the Lavender Crescent Society served queer Muslims in San Francisco in the late 1970s. Al-Fatiha Foundation originated as a listserv in 1997, but quickly blossomed into a full-fledged support group, hosting events and providing other resources to LGBTQ Muslims. It disbanded in 2008, but not before amassing 800 members across four countries.

In 2013, MASGD took up Al-Fatiha’s national mantle. Every May, it holds a retreat in the Philadelphia area, at a location that it does not publicize for security reasons. Meanwhile, local groups such as the Queer Muslims of Boston organize gatherings, prayers and readings, as well as iftars, meals to break the Ramadan fast.

By now, these groups have learned to operate carefully, out of caution not just for personal security but also to protect members who otherwise remain closeted.

With so much at stake, the locations of events for LGBTQ Muslims are frequently kept under wraps, Saraswati said. When Al-Fatiha hosted a retreat about a decade ago, she recalled, some attendees were afraid that the event was not initiated by other LGBTQ Muslims, but in fact by extremists bent on killing them.

Such fears were not unfounded. In 2000, the group almost canceled a retreat in London after a conservative Muslim group issued a threat.

But at the most recent MASGD retreat in May, attendees felt safe, as if they knew they were with family, Saraswati said, adding, “That’s a pretty remarkable shift.”

The internet has been central to these precious gains, from the early years of the Al-Fatiha listserv to the current private Facebook groups and other online initiatives, such as a Tumblr showcasing photographs of queer Muslims.

“A lot of the support networks for me — and a lot of queer Muslims — are online. That’s how a lot of us find each other,” said Fugate, who is now 28 and seeking a doctorate in Islamic studies at Boston University. “So many of us are closeted in our own communities,” he said.

However, the massacre Sunday shone a light on this community that has long hidden in plain sight. This invisibility has served to protect its members, but it does not necessarily help facilitate recognition or foster tolerance and acceptance.“I’ve actually never met an openly gay Muslim,” said Jim Sues, executive director of the New Jersey branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group.

As Fawzia Mirza, a child of Pakistani parents, explained it, “You have never met a queer Muslim — that you know of.”

When Mirza was first grappling with reconciling her identities as a queer Muslim, she initially felt she would have to sacrifice one or the other. “They don’t always necessarily play nice with each other,” she said of being LGBTQ and Muslim.

For her and for others, the fear of stigma and rejection can inhibit a willingness to come out to family, friends and the Muslim community at large. But Mirza also encountered questions from the broader LGBTQ community and sensed that there, too, she was different.

“When I was first going to gay bars, people wanted to know where my name was from, what it meant,” Mirza said. “So many people in the gay community had never met a gay Pakistani or a gay Muslim before.”

Mirza, an actor, producer and writer in Chicago whose work very publicly tackles very private questions of identity, eventually came out to her mother through the Google instant-messaging service some call Gchat.

She was fresh out of a breakup, sitting in an airport and feeling wretchedly alone and sad. So she told her mother about the relationship. “You’re so broken, and you just want unconditional love,” Mirza said, describing herself.

Her mother was shocked, Mirza recalled. For a while, they stopped talking. Even after many years and conversations, they still don’t see eye to eye — what mothers and daughters do? Mirza asked — although now they speak regularly, and Mirza said she is “living openly and authentically in a way I feel very good about.”

Fugate, at Boston University, said he felt privileged because, as a convert to Islam, he did not have family ties to one particular mosque or Muslim community. Yet since moving from Lawrence to Boston last year, he has kept quiet about his sexuality, at least at his local mosque.

“It’s like a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy,” he said. After he came out in Kansas, he lost the Muslim community there. In Massachusetts, he was not so much afraid that he would be ostracized. Rather, he was focused on being part of the other community of other queer Muslims he has worked so hard to find, online and off.

As a student, Fugate focuses on gender issues and sexuality in Islam, a religion built on centuries of scholarly interpretation and reinterpretation of the Quran and other texts. He mentioned at least one modern-day scholar who has already begun tackling theological questions about homosexuality’s place in Islam.

For Fugate, such study fuels hopes that perceived conflicts between being gay and Muslim might someday be fully reconciled.

“Sometimes, I feel like it’s a contradiction. In other ways, I don’t,” he said, before repeating, quietly, “It’s just who I am.”

The Root – June 13, 2016

Click here for the original article.

By Allison Keyes

“All I could do was cry,” says Sadiya Abjani. “Cry for my dead community members, cry for the future of my Muslim community, cry for my friends and chosen family who are about to live the next few months constantly looking over their shoulders.”

Abjani, a queer Ismaili Muslim in New York, is describing her reaction when she heard about the shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., that left 49 people dead. The shooter, Omar Mateen, 29, had been twice investigated by the FBI before carrying out the worst mass shooting in American history. He pledged his allegiance to the Islamic State group in a 911 call before opening fire at the Pulse club, killing 49 people and wounding 53.

Abjani says she woke up at 6 in the morning on Sunday, saw that her phone had 23 messages on it and then thought how such a horrific act shouldn’t be happening during Gay Pride Month.

“This was quickly followed by a very selfish thought. I really hoped the killer wasn’t Muslim. Then it turned out he was, and my ability to function crumbled for about 30 minutes,” Abjani writes in an email to The Root. Now she worries and prays that her community is spared from the hate she believes is headed its way.

“Our community is hurt and scared, and still struggling to process,” Abjani says. “A majority of us are queer and trans people of color. That could have been any one of us in that club. But in the same breath we take to mourn our lost queer family, we’re scared for the backlash that’s about to come.”

Abjani was chair of programming for the 2016 Retreat for LGBTQ Muslims and their partners, held at the end of May in Philadelphia. There was a major backlash against the Muslim community in New York City and many other cities around the nation in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. She says that though the imams in New York have been supportive in the wake of this tragedy, as a recent New Yorker who has lived in both Washington, D.C., and Texas, she felt safer in the Lone Star State than she does in the Big Apple.

“Whenever one of Hijabi Muslim sisters is on a train platform, even if I don’t know her and have never met her before, I’ll stand close to her, because I’ve seen and heard the hate that gets tossed at openly identifiable Muslims,” Abjani says, referring to Muslim women who wear hijab, or a Muslim headscarf. “At the mayor’s office vigil for Orlando, someone walked by screaming, ‘Arrest all the Muslims, get rid of them; that’ll solve the problem.’”

Abjani is on the steering committee for the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity, which was among several Muslim advocacy groups that put out statements denouncing the attack and the shooter. The Council on American-Islamic Relations held a press conference Sunday to condemn the shooting, saying it “violates our principles as Americans and Muslims.” The Los Angeles-based Muslims for Progressive Values issued a statement calling on imams across the country to address the mass shooting in Orlando at their upcoming Friday sermon during this holy month of Ramadan.

‘While we understand that every community struggles with homophobia, today it is abundantly clear why the American Muslim community needs to address homophobia in our community and institutions,” MPV’s statement reads. “We must challenge divisive interpretations of Islam that may encourage those like the gunman in Orlando.”

Raquel Evita Saraswati, also on the steering committee for MASGD, says many in the Muslim LGBTQ community are dealing with the effects of both anti-Muslim bigotry and homophobia, both inside and outside of the faith community.

“Still others are dealing with sectarianism, oppression due to their dissent with mainstream interpretations of the faith, colorism, anti-blackness, transphobia and more,” Saraswati says in an email to The Root. “We are not single-issue people, and those burdens are heavy.”

Saraswati identifies as an American Muslim and says many in the LGBTQ Muslim community find themselves in a painful and contentious nexus of this tragedy: “Members of our community were slaughtered in cold blood by a person who proclaimed our faith. This act of terror occurred during the holy month of Ramadan, when it is said the ‘devil is in chains.’ As we saw this past weekend, though, evil knows no restraint.”

She notes that Mateen also carried out this evil act at a time when LGBTQ people are most open about their identities because it is Gay Pride Month. Saraswati adds that the shooter fits a profile that’s been seen before, i.e., a person with a history of violence against women who has been permitted to roam freely, a person who is known not to be especially religious but becomes radicalized “by those who promise salvation through misogyny, hate and violence.”

President Barack Obama spoke out in support of the LGBTQ community in statements following the attack, but Saraswati says she is unimpressed.

“While President Obama and other politicians have said some of the right things, the fact remains that our government, including both major political parties, continues to ally and exchange favors with the very theocrats and fascists responsible for censorship, criminalization, repression, torture and murder of my people,” she says.

Saraswati says that many in the LGBTQ Muslim community are afraid, though she thinks that fear is exactly what terrorists seek to instill in people.

“They wish to strike fear into our hearts, fix a muzzle over our mouths and to tell us that we have no sanctuaries,” Saraswati says. “We must fight this with every cell in our bodies, and every breath in our lungs.”


Allison Keyes is an award-winning correspondent, host and author. She can be heard on CBS Radio News and WTOP News Radio, among other outlets. Keyes, a former national desk reporter for NPR, has written extensively on race, culture, politics and the arts.

Jumu’ah dispatch #3 – Friday news updates

As always, Muslimah Media Watch brings us the latest in news from the Muslim world, focusing on women’s issues. Check out this week’s (very thorough) update. Some selections:

* Women have started a group called Sisters Against Violent Extremism. The idea? Courageous dialogue will not just transgress national boundaries – but mobilize women to make positive change. They’re redefining the conversation from Sri Lanka to New York. Stay updated by subscribing to their newsletter.

* If you’re already at the Women Without Borders website, you’ll see a link to Men for Change. They feel that “to be free means being equal in every way” – and they’re taking on issues from honor killings in Pakistan to domestic violence in the United States. Mashallah.

* Iran steps up threats against Shirin Ebadi.

* A community in Uganda has banned female genital cutting. Community leaders are petitioning the country’s government to ban the practice nationwide. They’re not waiting around for the United Nation’s goal to “significantly reduce” female genital cutting by 2015.

* A Muslim woman was brutally attacked on her campus in Chicago. This follows a string of anti-Muslim incidents at the school, including the vandalism of the young woman’s locker with hate speech.

Check out the rest of MMW’s weekly links here.

This Muslim knows how to have fun & great minds to watch out for

We all have our vices, whether we like to ‘fess up to them or not. Mine are slightly embarassing. But I’m willing to own up to them:

* Independent bookstores: the one in my neighborhood has the most incredible Middle Eastern politics, current affairs and history sections I’ve ever experienced. It’s tiny, but hard-to-find and rarely-encountered volumes abound. I’m like a kid in a candy store.

* Caffeine: I don’t drink alcohol (no, not at all). Nor do I smoke. But I drink a good four shots of espresso a day. Six if my hours are especially long. Yes, my doctor and I talk about this. She’s not thrilled with me. At least it’s fair trade and organic, right?! (If you’re ever in San Diego, you must check out my favorite coffee shop in North America).

 * Miscellaneous: book-collecting, za’atar, the feeling I get after a great workout, the smell of jasmine, orchids, and clean floors (swoon).

But the worst of my vices? The one that makes my friends think me truly bizarre?

CNN / MSNBC / the whole political-commentary universe that is auto-programmed on my cheap analog set.

I can’t get enough. I even get glued to the commentators who make my skin crawl. After all, what’s more invigorating than countering their slimy, often empty points with scholary and sassy remarks?

Love, you say? Fortune? No way. I’ll take my nerd-time over both any day. Politics never bore. I can’t say the same for romance. Sorry – do I sound bitter? Must be all of that espresso.

Last night, when my internet cut out for several hours, I spent my Friday night (this is the “this Muslim knows how to have fun” part) simultaneously cursing at and commending MSNBC.

In a feisty conversation about Obama’s presence on the world stage and McCain’s – uh – blathering at a restaurant (‘scuse me, he was blathering at “Schmidt’s Sausage Haus” – closest he could get to Berlin I guess), I ruminated on some recent commentary by one of my favorite pundits, well, ever. I’m talking about the hyperintelligent, quick-as-a-whip Rachel Maddow.

My Friday night TV-watching buddy didn’t know of Ms. Maddow – nor do a lot of people I come into contact with. Sad, considering that most people can recognize at least a name or two off the roster of ornery old dudes she outshines on MSNBC.

I won’t belabor you with biographical data – that’s what Google’s for. I will say that I personally think she should have her own show — perhaps she could replace the one show on CNN I simply cannot stomach.

Below, one of my favorite debates: Rachel Maddow vs. Pat Buchanan on healthcare. It’s just too delish.

Afghanistan: the latest


A friend recently wrote to me on the subject of Afghanistan. She wondered if, given all of the attention being given to other situations worldwide – Afghanistan has slipped many people’s radar screens. She elaborated: people are still suffering there. Civilians and military forces are still losing their lives. Yet, it seems that people are talking about the situation less and less. 

We can’t forget about Afghanistan. And we’ve just been issued a serious reminder.

Last week, Taliban insurgents (did you think Bush got ’em all? Sorry to disappoint) invaded the region just north of Kandahar – taking over 7 to 18 villages.

The Taliban may be making a comeback. That is, if you believe they were successfully suppressed to begin with.

See also: Afghan President Hamid Karzai on the potential risk of conflict with Pakistan. There are plenty of reasons to be concerned.

More to come, but for now: let us not lose sight of this devastating situation. And let us not forget those who are still suffering.