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Film about Gay Muslims Wins GLAAD Award

New America Media, Audio, Q&A, Parvez Sharma & Sandip Roy Posted: Apr 12, 2009

Editors Note: For over five years, director Parvez Sharma traveled through Iran, Egypt, Turkey and India, 12 countries in all, filming gay Muslim men and women, who try to embrace both their faith and their sexuality. A Jihad for Love has won numerous awards, most recently as Best Documentary in the GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) awards in March. Sandip Roy, host of New America Now, interviewed Sharma when his film came out in 2007.

When you started making "A Jihad For Love, I heard that you were filming stories of Muslims in America, but you decided against that. Why?

There is a difference in your life when you actually wake up to the call to prayer you know, and you hear it over loud speakers five times a day. I realized during the making of the film that the Muslim experience of living in a Muslim country, or in an intensely Muslim community like in South Africa, is in many ways much more complicated than the diasporic Muslim experience, which is complicated in different ways, but makes for a way different film I think.

Talk about the gay Imam you met in Cape Town.

Mohsin is now in his forties, a father of three children. He married at a very young age and comes from a very conservative family in South Africa. His mother and his father have been Islamic teachers, and his grandfather was also an Imam.

In South Africa, you have Muslims who have traditionally been very isolated because of apartheid. Being isolated meant that they actually embraced a form of Islam that has a lot to do with Wahabi Islam. It is the kind of Islam that comes out of Saudi Arabia, essentially. So coming from that background and then going to Pakistan to study Islam, Sharia, makes him a very legitimate figure, if you will, in the eyes of many Muslims.

He got married while he was in Pakistan. He actually did come out to his wife one week before he was going to get married, and she said that she would cure him and that it was something that would go away.

His daughter was born while he was in Pakistan, and then he moved back to South Africa, and he started teaching Islam. He also started teaching Arabic at two mosques in Cape Town.

When he came out as a gay man, after he had fathered three children with his wife, he was excommunicated from his small community of people and was asked to leave his job. In the film, interestingly, the same people who had asked him to leave, ask him to come back and do a workshop with them about Islam and homosexuality.

Why do you think he was able to do that? How was he able to change the attitudes?

When you work within religion, as I have realized, you have to work within the community, and Mohsin has taken small incremental steps over the years, very slowly building his knowledge of the Koran, his theological arguments that he now presents very wonderfully and accurately.

It's not easy even now because while we were showing the film in South Africa last year, the Muslim judicial council, which is the primary body in that country, issued a judgment calling Mohsin and myself apostates, or out of the fold of Islam. They actually requested Muslims not to go and see the film. But of course when all this happens, they generated more publicity for the film and many more Muslims came to see the film.

Talk about the conflict when people think that asylum is the answer to persecution.

Asylum is not the answer. People (usually) arrive into a very uncertain freedom that is hard fought, not easily won. That certainly continues to live out in peoples lives in very challenging ways.

(For instance,) Iranians are a deeply proud people, very proud of their ancient history. It's one of the oldest civilizations in the world and the Iranian national identity is kind of engraved in you at a very young age.

The idea of being connected to Iran is very important. But for any immigrant, leaving your homeland, your family, your culture, everything that you hold dear, and coming into an uncertain place where - in many cases - you will not be welcomed with open arms, certainly not if you are Muslim, or if you happened to be called Muhammad, then it's hard, it's difficult, it's challenging, and it's way more complex than my film can describe.

What was it like for you to film people deciding to seek asylum, or being there when they get asylum and have to tell his boyfriend back in Iran that he is going to go away, maybe to Canada?

It was very hard. I was very personally invested and involved in everyone's life. As a documentary filmmaker I was battling with the camera, in that I was trying to make it invisible as much as possible.

A lot of the pain that the people carried with them in some ways I ended up carrying myself. I am also an immigrant in this country, but under very different circumstances, and I understand deeply now that national borders and the ideas of freedom are complex ideas and you know freedom in Iran is way different from (what it is) in America, and it is way different from freedom in Egypt.

This film could lead people to say, Oh those poor oppressed people in the other parts of the world, but they don't really want to leave their countries.

I'm a little bit tired of well meaning, liberals always wanting to jump on the save-Iran-from-itself bandwagon. Perfect examples in "A Jihad For Love are the Turkish lesbian couple, or the young men in India who are perfectly happy where they are.

We tend to assume the Western model of this GLBTQ identity. Unless theres a pride parade youre not really free. These ideas are way more complicated than that. Sexuality is so complex in Eastern and Islamic cultures.

Transcribed by Adela Genochio


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