Saturday, December 13, 2008

An Intefaith Appeal For Equality and Justice -- No on 8

An interfaith community has to be open to considering a great variety of viewpoints, often some very contradictory ones. The Interfaith Movement is predicated on recognizing our differences and diversity. Where the arguments against same-sex marriage are based on theology any church or other religious group may indeed choose not to perform or recognize those marriages. But why should this affect others?

While marriage is an important part of the religious world, different religions regard it differently. Nor is religion necessarily an element of marriage. Non-believers have enjoyed secular, civil marriage for centuries. Many volumes of family, tax, and property law hang on the legal, secular contract of marriage. Our diverse religions have thrived, separately and collectively with the separation of church and state. Under those principles, no law can interfere with ecclesiastical rites and rules of marriage; but neither does any religious institution have the right to impose its particular rules on the state.

We read the same arguments against same-sex marriage repeatedly, but they ring false. All of the arguments against same-sex marriage are never argued as general principles, but uniquely applied against same-sex couples. Any two drunken, infertile atheists who don’t know each other’s names can get married at the All-Nite Chapel of Elvis as long as they are of opposite sex. And they can get divorced two days later, but two men or two women who are deeply committed, have been building their lives together, and perhaps raising children together cannot obtain the legal, contractual benefits that marriage offers.

Acceptance for gay men and women has been growing steadily. History makes one thing obvious: While same-sex marriage can be delayed it will not be stopped. Fight it with whatever sense of righteousness you like. Yes sometimes there is a religious duty to stand against an inevitable tide, but rather than fighting a divisive battle against people who want to solemnize their love, to take the responsible path of their own love and their own faith, doesn’t your church have other, more serious battles? What if the many millions of dollars supporting Proposition 8 were used to feed the poor, to house the homeless, to provide care for the ill? The money, energy, and resources spent on elections to deprive people of equal rights could instead have been saving lives.

Again, I ask as an interfaith activist to other inter-faith activists, what right does any religion have to force their religious rules and reasons on any other? And what kind of interfaith activists are we if our many agreements to disagree aren’t based on universal values of respect for the rights of others? We can agree to disagree on so many issues, but do not ask me to agree to be a second-class citizen subject to the whims of a majority. We’ve seen too often where that leads.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

"Respect" after Proposition 8

One has to wonder whether it’s sheer chutzpah or some utter vacuity that allows so many people who supported Proposition 8 to ask in saccharine tones why I can’t respect their rights when they’ve just dealt a blow to mine? Am I supposed to kiss the boot that just kicked me?

These writers profess that they like gay people but think that marriage is reserved for “one man and one woman” (and God bless the Mormons, relatively new to that concept, who are doing their best to assure us all that they’ve got it down!) But really, Dear, I don’t care if you like me. After all, many slave owners professed that they loved “their people” who were “practically like members of the family.” Of course they were still slaves. It’s very sweet in a condescendingly clueless and offensively hypocritical way. Actually it’s just hollow lip service. I don’t need your love. I got love! And my love and I just want our civil rights.

Your religion can say what it likes about marriage, or about anything. Men hunted dinosaurs into extinction when the universe was only 1,000 years old? Fine. Marriage is only between a man and a woman? Within your church that’s OK, sure!

But the fact is that marriage has been performed – utterly without religion -- in city halls and by justices of the peace all over this country since its beginning. In countries even more secular than ours, even in the atheist Soviet Union, marriage has been performed and recognized as a legal, secular institution, and that has never been questioned – until now.

Once the man I’ve loved and shared my life with for the last 14 years got a chance to make it legal your religious hackles are up. Fine. Have a prayer group about it, but when you’re whining about your religious freedom, remember that has to cut both ways. My religious freedom is not only as valuable to me as yours is to you, but the Constitution says both have to be considered equally. I don’t have the right to make you marry a person of the same sex, and you don’t have the right to force my relationship into your religious rules.

Democracy? Right… Democracy works when the rights of minorities are respected, and all citizens are equal. Majorities don’t get to vote away the rights of minorities. That’s how Jim Crow laws came into place. And it was the courts, not ballot initiatives, that struck them down. Yes, indeedy. _Brown vs. Board of Education_ and _Loving vs.Virginia_ overthrew the popular will of the majority. And thank you, Jesus!

The most amazing feature of this has been the parents protesting that they want to be the ones to decide when and how to inform their children about homosexuality – apparently by having them sing all about it on youtube and waving signs on the streets. OK, you taught your kids about it. Now can I get married?

Heck, all I really want is my rights so I’ll even offer a compromise. If you can change every law in the land that pertains to marriage so that instead of using the precious M-word that you want to keep so exclusively, you can replace it with another term, “civil unions” or whatever… that’s cool, too. But you have to change every law. Every last one. Get that precious M-word out of the law books and reserve it only for ecclesiastical application. Only then will “marriage” not be a legal definition of thousands of specific rights and responsibilities, but strictly a religious rite like you say it is. Then we really will be equal. Then we can really love and respect each other.

Then. Not yet. That’s an awful lot of law, Baby. You better get cracking if you want to feel the love!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Thank God for Sarah Palin!

There have been certain individuals whose self-confidence and passion for what they do has gloriously outweighed their utter incompetence. Film aficionados are familiar with the delicious train wrecks that Ed Wood has put into film. (“Plan 9 from Outer Space” and “Glen or Glenda” are frequently celebrated as the worst movies ever made.) And classical music buffs should know all about the celebrated screech of Florence Foster Jenkins who rented out Carnegie Hall with her own money to put on shows that did sell out, but she never seemed to realize that her adoring fans were all there for the camp freak show, her vocal mangling of operatic arias.

And now we have Sarah Palin, truly the Florence Foster Jenkins of politics. Bless Tina Fey for her underlining of the travesty that governs Alaska. Bless Saturday Night Live and the Daily Show for offering clearer opportunities to laugh in the face of danger, when it seemed a rightwing nutjob with no qualifications could actually come within a sclerotic septuagenarian heartbeat of the presidency. Still even without the constructed satire, Palin herself was auto-satirical in those interviews with Katie Couric, in that meandering non-debate with Joe Biden, in everything from her pushing both for and against a famous bridge to nowhere to the inconsistencies and falsehoods that put McCain’s campaign on a bridge to nowhere.

It has gotten to the point where she doesn’t need a punchline or even a story. Just mentioning Sarah Palin’s name in progressive circles provokes smirks and giggles. And among centrists even raised eyebrows and groans of “Oh, God… What now?” are routinely attached to her name.

It’s hard to imagine that after Spiro Agnew and Dan Quayle the Republicans could sink any lower in their choices for VP. At least those guys won before they became national laughingstocks. But, gosh, y’know? Sarah’s Maverick misfires were makin’ her the national joke right out of the gate.

Already jockeying for a 2012 run Sarah is promising to stick around. Can we have a “Praise Jesus?” As a self-created caricature of the radical right, along with her con-artist snake-oil mix of savvy and ignorance, her erstwhile-secessionist First Dude, her purely academic commitment to abstinence before marriage, her millenialist church complete with a witch-hunter and pray-the-gay-away ministry, her hunting from helicopters, and journalistic illiteracy she is hitting all the political notes with the uncanny comic horror of one of Mrs. Jenkins’ concerts.

Ronald Reagan carefully built on Nixon’s Southern Strategy, cobbling together a coalition of Western Libertarians, Southern Fundamentalists, and Coastal moneybags. With so many conservative Republicans jumping ship and voting for Obama, we can all see that Palin’s hubris is doing a fine job of tearing that alliance apart, dragging the GOP on its knuckles back into the well-deserved wilderness it had previously earned with Barry Goldwater, and again with Watergate.

The Reagan Era was largely a fulfillment of Johnson’s prophecy that by signing the Civil Rights Act he was condemning the nation to Republican rule for a generation. That generation has not entirely passed, but this year’s election has tipped the balance, and if Alaska’s governor remains at the vanguard of the old guard, leading in the traditions of Captain Wrongway Peachfuzz, we may enjoy an unfettered renaissance of progressivism buoyed by the accidentally comic antics of Sarah Palin. Yee-haw!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Suicide, Slavery, and Sarah

Statistics don’t have to be dull if they involve sex, death, and chocolate. In one of those research quests that leads all over the web I stumbled onto http://www.suicide.org/suicide-statistics.html which, about halfway down, has a table of states ranked by suicide rate. The US average is posted with the higher suicide rates above and the more life-embracing states below.

What stood out in this table is that the more do-in-yourself states toward the top of the table are pretty much “Red States” and guess where’s Numbah One? Our most suicidal population lives in Alaska! (Arizona ranks #11. On the other side of your presidential ballot, Illinois is #46 and Delaware ranks #34)

At the bottom of the list, the least suicidal states are the very Democratic turfs of New York (#50) and Massachusetts (#49), but wait! There is an even more Democratic – and less suicidal – population in Washington DC, happily at #51. Even California, famous as the state where dreams go to die of drug overdoses or a leap off the Golden Gate Bridge, is still at a life-affirming #42

Where’s the sex and chocolate here? Aside from the political implications – or maybe not so far aside – the Blue states are the one with the best chocolates and more relaxed sexual attitudes, and maybe those also help people to feel life is really worth living! There really is a serious connection here: It used to be common for a girl who “got into trouble” to end her life rather than face the stigma, and so-called “honor killings” happen even today in America. While it seems medieval, and thank God it’s become more rare, suicide of pregnant teens is still around. Even while that has become rarer, suicide among gay teens is still horribly high. GLBT children raised in homophobic cultures are so taught to hate themselves, so trapped in isolation, that they are much more prone to depression and suicide.

Another interesting correlation should be obvious enough, as the current geographic division is based on Nixon’s racist “Southern Strategy,” but the maps make it clear at:
http://sensoryoverload.typepad.com/sensory_overload/2004/11/free_states_vs_.html
Generally speaking the old slave states and territories are now “red states” and the “blue states” were indeed those that put their boys in blue uniforms against the grays.

Alaska isn’t on this map, but friends who’ve lived in Alaska report that it is indeed very racist. The Alaskan Independence Party quotes “President Jefferson Davis” urging in 1881 to preserve the struggle for the Confederacy. This atavistic bunch claims Sarah Palin as one of their own. She’s not a member, but her husband was from 1995 – 2002, until she got high enough in GOP circles for his membership in another party to be a tad embarrassing. Sarah’s cheery welcoming address to this clan of neo-Confederates is available on Youtube as are several clips of some AIPs enthusing over her progress in politics. As much as Michelle Obama has been grilled for her associations, it would seem only fair to ask Alaska’s “First Dude” about his links to these secessionists. Give him enough rope, and he just might hang himself. Just a figure of speech, First Dude! Don’t boost the stats!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Gays vs. Muslims question

One on of several e-lists I'm on a subscriber from Amsterdam asks a question that I get a lot, one way or another:

"I have never asked this, and I know you are involved in the Moslim thing yourself,but, it seems to me,that the Moslim people over here,and there are A LOT, Turkish and Morroccans, mostly, but a huge and powerful population, anyway-most of them really disrespect and do NOT tolerate Homosexuality. Period.
So...you write always like, "Oh, poor Moslims,"but,In my experience,as a Homo in a place where there are alot of very powerful and empowered Moslims, it seems that the thing I don't like,is that they mostly hate,discredit and disrespect Homos."

My answer:

This is a long and complicated problem, actually an intersection of several issues -- homophobia, racism, colonialism, immigration, and modernization. In early 2001 I realized the importance of studying mid-eastern and Muslim cultures and history and come that September what had been an academic fascination became a screamingly obvious need to struggle for mutual understanding to head off further violence. In the ensuing years I studied simply for the sake of knowledge, with no intent to convert, but the more I learned about Islam, the more it called to me. In that time I was making contact with GLBT Muslims and Muslim feminists, fully aware of the problems, and eager to see how they were being dealt with. Granted it's not often a comfortable place, but there is room for queer and feminist muslims and that room is slowly growing. While my interest in Islam and Islamic cultures and history was purely academic and I had no intention of converting, I did end up embracing the faith in 2003 and have been a practicing Muslim since then.

Yes, there is a lot of homophobia in most Muslim communities -- as there is in a lot of traditionalist religious communities of all types, certainly with the Christian Fundamentalists trying to take over America and in some of the Orthodox Jews who reacted violently to the Pride fest in Jerusalem. Still, there are religious communities within all these traditions that are more open and accepting. The MCC, Dignity, and other Queer Christians have made considerable progress in the last 40 years as have GLBT Jews. Queer Muslims in many countries are about where Queer Christian Americans were in the late 1960's.

The fact of homophobia in Muslim communities does not in any way negate or justify the racism against immigrant communities, or the oppression of neo-colonial regimes, or Israeli terrorism against Palestinians. And the more we use queer issues to define differences between "them and us" the more we become polarized into "them" and "us".

In fact Islam has historically been accepting of sexual diversity, but this changed in the colonial era -- not coincidentally the Victorian Era -- when homophobic laws from France and England were imposed on the colonized nations. Look at any historical map, and you will see that nearly all the Islamic countries were subjugated to European colonialism, and the early colonists were horrified at the rampant "sodomy" which they punished harshly once in power. If you look at a map of colonialism -- any political map from the early 20th century showing colonial holdings -- you may notice that, while, yes, there is a much longer history of tension between Christiandom and Dar-al-Islam, in recent centuries it has been overshadowed by the question of colonialism. Turkey may be the only Islamic nation not to have been colonized, but it was in fact a colonizer of Arab and other nations, both Islamic and Christian. And once released from Ottoman dominance, most Arab lands fell to the French or British.

Skipping ahead to the present our immigrant communities from Islamic countries are mostly fleeing the impoverishment and repression of neo-colonial states. Now the situation in the US is very different from that of European countries. It takes more money and wherewithal to cross the Atlantic than to cross the Mediterranean. Our Muslim immigrants are by and large more educated and ambitious, parlaying their own education and upper-middle class backgrounds in pursuit of the American dream. In Europe you have a lot more people who came in as cheap labor during boom years, and their descendents. (We have Latinos in that niche.)

Such immigrants, be they Morrocans in Rotterdam or Salvadore├▒os in California typically are not so invested in assimilating into a new culture as they are trying to preserve their old ways and hoping to go home with the money earned in the richer country. But life and connections overtake them and they stay in their new land, usually attached to ghettos or barrios where they cling to their old ways. Unfortunately this feeds into the racism that already exists in their host countries. In these insular ghettos the most conservative and traditionalist leaders and tendencies hold stronger sway. And, yes, that means there is a lot of homophbia in those communities.

There is a surprising bit of racism in the gay community, too. And there is no excuse for racism or homophobia. My love of my religion and defense of communities is not to suggest that they are simon pure nor should bigotry on anyone's part be excused or justified. But how do we deal with the problems of bigotry? It's all too common for outsiders to launch verbal attacks, saying for example that Muslims are misogynist and homophobic. Indeed, far too many are. But the religion does not call for that (despite what Wahhabi clerics say) and in my experience of meeting and working with Muslims, a great many are open and accepting.

The hatred and rejection of either side is polarizing, and leaves GLBT muslims in the crossfire. As a middle-aged white convert who's been fighting sexism and racism for years, fine, I signed up for this even if the Islamophobia has turned out to be much uglier than I'd anticipated. It's the Muslim GLBT kids who are very much caught in the middle that I worry for.

No religious community is monolithic or all of one mind on issues of sexuality. Rather than attacking the community and painting them all with one brush (as does Ayaan Hirsi Ali) causing further entrenchment and polarization I prefer the approach of working within the community to effect change. If everyone agrees loudly that Islam is homophobic, then the Muslims cling to their homophobia. If we respect the relgion, understand the Qur'an and the context of the Ahadeeth, and can argue that Islam is not inherently sexist, but that cultural accretion has burdened the religion with hateful baggage; that we can let go of those prejudices to become better Muslims, we have a better strategy to reconciliation of communities.

In the Netherlands of course you have huge, well-developed queer and Muslim communities so the tension is probably more articulated there than anywhere else. That also might also provide the most opportunity for people of good will in both communities to find common ground, build alliances, and work to ammeliorate the situation. There are GLBT Muslim organizations and gay-friendly organizations in the English speaking world, and in Lebanon, Turkey, Malaysia, and Indonesia, plus international groups operating in the Arabic and Persian languages, reaching out and supporting queers in those countries, plus diaspora Arabs and Iranians. I keep a list of such groups and links to them on my webpage at http://www.starjack.com/qmr.html and expect there is most certainly some GLBT and/or progressive/accepting Muslim group in Holland.

Here in the US, the Islamic community is much smaller (proportionately at least) and ethnically diverse. There are two Muslims in congress, both African-American, and both on the GLBT Equality Caucus! It is known at my mosque that I'm gay, and I recently brought my partner (who is not Muslim) to our annual inter-faith dinner. I know this is not representative, but one small opening, and there are many such openings taking place all over. We are organizing, we are building acceptance. It's slow, gradual change. It is arduous work, but the progress is already measurable. Seven years ago when the GLBT pride parade went by the Mosque at Jones and Market, people in the Mosque threw trash at the GLBT Muslims who were marching. Now they welcome my partner and me, and are listed as a welcoming house of worship for GLBT people.

If you really want to do something about Islamic homophobia in Holland I recommend that you seek out the GLBT Muslims and ask them where they need help. And if they have a website, please let me know. I'd love to add them to my online resource list.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A Lyrical Response to Sherry Jones' "Jewel of Medina"

To the tune of “When I was a Lad”
From “HMS Pinafore”,
By Gilbert & Sullivan

I looked for a way to build my fame
And make sure that the world would know my name
My efforts all were failures and I must confess
I haven’t any genius and my talent’s less
(Ev’rything I tried at was an awful mess!)
But irritating the Islamic community
I’ll make myself a millionaire celebrity!

Now, Rushdie I will grant you is a brilliant man
And all the furor set off wasn’t in his plan,
But when he got his fatwa and was forced to hide
His sales were astronomicàlly multiplied
(His sales and recognition reached the sky worldwide)
And when the Ayatollah cried out for his head
Sir Salman hid beneath a very comfy bed.

When Ayaan Hirsi Ali lied to join the Dutch
She found that lying more could lead to very much
She lied about her background and her family
And then declared that Islam’s just misogyny.
(She swore that Muslim women never could be free)
And now she’s sitting very pretty in New York
With magnums of champagne and fancy cuts of pork.

A bodice ripper hacked out by Ms. Sherry Jones
Relates the life of A`isha in breathless tones
Professor Spellman called the research weak
And suggested it could put some Muslims in a pique
(This made the unknown writer the star of the week!)
And now the blogosphere is roiling angrily
For one hack writer symbolizing all that’s free.

The formula for fame is really very clear
I’m writing ‘bout the prophet as a drunken queer
And when my book’s rejected as a load of piss
I’ll blame my failure on the fear of terrorists.
(Fox News will have me on and boost my sales for this!)
And even though my writing is a lying mess
I’ll be declared a hero for the open press.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

A "Muslim Reformation"???

Westerners often talk about wanting a “Muslim Reformation.” In fact it has already happened, and the people who want it the most would probably agree – if they knew Christian history, let alone Muslim history, that it is not necessarily such a good thing.

In 1517 Martin Luther challenged the Catholic authorities with his “95 Theses,” calling for a more strictly Biblical approach to religion. His approach was more austere and literal than the current teachings of the Vatican. This started a new sect named at first after its founder, and the advent of Lutheranism (later broadened into various sects under the general rubric of “Protestantism”) started hundreds of years of religious wars and violence. Animosity between Protestants and Catholics still lingers in some quarters.

In the 1740’s Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab promoted a more strictly Quran’ic view of Islam. His approach was more austere and literal than the prevailing views of the time. This started a new sect named for him, “Wahhabism” and started a wave of violence among Muslims which persists to this day.

In Luther’s favor we can say that he cracked open a monopoly of theological influence and the temporal power that went with it. Abd-al-Wahhab, on the other hand brought his reformation to a religious culture that did not have an ecclesiastical hierarchy, and while Luther’s fortunes became linked with a variety of German princes seeking greater freedom from Rome, Abd-al-Wahhab linked his to the house of Saud. In both cases the financial backing of princes and merchants seeing the opportunities to expand their own power dovetailed with the new religious perspective. Luther’s works were immediately printed up and disseminated with unprecedented efficiency using the then new technology of Gutenberg’s printing press. Wahhabists, after a much slower start, have made efficient use of the internet.

A case could be made that The Islamic world is very much in need of a Renaissance – a flowering of intellectual and artistic freedom and exploration, or an Enlightenment – an affirmation of science and individual human dignity. In truth we’ve had those, too. The Abassid dynasty and the Andalusian caliphate represent periods of intellectual brilliance, little known to Eurocentric historians, except as stepping stones from the Classical Era to the Renaissance. Muslim intellectualism during Europe’s Dark Ages brought great philosophical and scientific advancements. Alas, every society has its downswings as well as its progress. Even in France the Enlightenment was followed by the Terror and Napoleon’s military empire, and while Germany was a center of learning and philosophy in the 19th century it went to a horrible nadir in the 20th. And now, Muslim countries are way behind, but after a couple of centuries of colonialism, intellectual and material resources being sucked out of Muslim nations to support Western development. Let’s look at the history, the economical and political issues at least as much as the religious culture!

So, please, no more “Reformations.” The Islamic world has enough problems already now. Cross-fertilization of ideas has generally helped progress on both sides, and as a Western Muslim with a foot in both worlds, I think both sides have a lot yet to learn from each other. But Western colonialism and continuing neo-colonialism have been a crippling problem in Muslim countries for the last couple of centuries, so if well-meaning Westerners really wants to offer historical lessons to the East I would urge them to look more closely at the history of the West and its colonialism before preaching to the colonized.