Smiling Assassins part 2
My search took me to St Kilda, ironically the suburb to which I’d fled after leaving the Church in the 1980s to test out my own homosexuality. He was even living in the same area I had, near the end of Acland Street with its shop windows overflowing with cakes belching cream and the gay nightclubs of those years, pre AIDS, crammed with men, dancing all night under lurid disco lights. (Sometimes I wonder if there are ley lines that attract gay men to that suburb.)
Ahmad, whose name means ‘worthy of praise’, lives with his partner in an apartment that offers generous views across the Bay at which I stare while he brews coffee for us in a sleek, shiny coffee machine. Ahmad is wiry and athletic and confesses he’s still recovering from a shoulder injury sustained in the competitive sailing he loves so much. He’s a 42 year old engineer, born in Cairo of an Egyptian mother and a Malaysian father who moved to Singapore when he was a baby. His father was a Mufti, an Islamic theologian, and his mother an academic in Arabic languages. With this strong scholastic and religious background and excellent opportunities for education, he was able to graduate at an English university in chemical engineering. About the age of nineteen, living away from home, he underwent a sexual awakening and says ‘it made me fear for my life.’ The internal conflict caused by his religious beliefs created almost intolerable pressures.
However, over the years, he says, he has been able to reconcile his religion and his lifestyle. ‘I’ve accepted that there will be things in life that will be in conflict and I’ve never rejected Islam, only some peoples’ point of view of it.’ This to me sounds like an argument similar to that proposed by gay people who stay in the Catholic Church and remain silent. It’s a line of reasoning that has never much impressed me. Isn’t it just a cop-out? But then to be fair, maybe I copped out too by leaving the Church altogether. Just a different form of cop-out I suppose.
‘How can you believe in an organisation that tells you that you are a bad person?’ I ask perhaps too harshly. Ahmad thinks for a while. ‘I think religion is a private and internal value for each individual; it’s a bit like grief. My feelings on the death of my mother were extremely intense. People can never understand how you feel at such a time, nor can they understand my religious emotions; a storm of feelings which are so internal that one cannot describe. Religion is like that for me.’ I’m not sure I understand. Perhaps I never believed enough in the first place. What I’d thought was my pious idealism was probably just youthful enthusiasm and the desire to travel. Perhaps this quest is about replacing my childhood beliefs with a spirituality that doesn’t denigrate my sexuality.
Although Ahmad doesn’t often attend the mosque (‘those Arabs can be a real pain’ he says), his prayer times are scheduled into his i-phone; he’s an authentic generation X-er. Before I leave he tells me of his other passion, the martial arts discipline of Ken Do or ‘the way of the sword’. For Ahmad this is less about aggression and more about strength of mind and exploring a spiritual way. As I leave Ahmad’s flat he engages in friendly banter with several of his neighbours and I have the final impression of a man very much at ease in his own skin and relaxed with those around him. He doesn’t fit the stereotype I was expecting. I’m not even sure now what that was.
I’m inspired now to seek out more gay Muslims and interrogate them too but after reconnecting with the yahoo groups Moderator, I’m told that the members are ‘all talked out’. It appears they are fed up with being interviewed, continually put under the microscope by people like me and who can blame them?
If I can’t track down other gay Muslims, perhaps I can get the official line from an Imam but what do I, a former Catholic, know about Imams?I do recall the statement of an Imam speaking to a young gay Muslim in the film ‘A Jihad for Love’ who has gone to him for advice. ‘The only question’ says that Imam ‘would be the method of your execution for such a crime.’ These words are still hanging around me like a bad smell when I knock on the door of an ordinary suburban house in Hoppers Crossing outside Melbourne. It’s the home of Sheik Mohamadu Nawas Saleem, the secretary of the Australian National Imams Council (ANIC), which is the peak umbrella organisation of the Imams in Australia. Established in 2006, its mission is to ‘provide religious leadership, rulings and services to the Muslim community’ and describes itself as moderate.
Sheik Mohamadu, a short, bearded, smiling man of Sri Lankan origin welcomes me into his house and we sit in oversize blue lounge chairs facing each other. I begin by asking him how Islam accommodates itself to secular Australia. It seems like a safe subject to start our discussion. Sheik Mohamadu has degrees in both religious and civil law from a Malaysian university but is unable to practice in Australia. Generally he says Islamic teachings fit well into the Australian context but admits there is some concern about popular culture seeping into the hearts and minds of young people. The three major challenges he identifies immediately for me are homosexuality, same-sex marriage and abortion.
While I’m trying to decide whether or not to ‘out’ myself to this man, he reminds me that homosexuality is considered a ‘sexual crime’, forbidden in Islam as a ‘perversion’ and I’m silenced. What’s the point of disturbing the polite hospitable atmosphere just to make my point?
‘When someone opposes the laws of Islam, say through such sexual perversion’ he explains ‘they are cast out as a punishment.’ But Australian law doesn’t allow the sort of punishments seen in some Islamic countries. I can’t quite reconcile his smiling politeness with the violence of his words. The Sheik points out the similarities between Catholic and Islamic teaching on sexual morality and after talking for almost an hour we part company still smiling at each other like friendly assassins. As I drive back down the Geelong freeway I discover that the hit from the self-righteous anger I’m feeling is like a mid morning shot of café latté. I actually enjoy it.
But it’s a different sort of anger I feel when I take another look at the church of which I was a minister. I’ve been incorrect it seems in accusing the Catholic Church of labelling homosexual acts as ‘acts of grave depravity’ the lecturer in Moral Theology at the Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne, Cormac Nagle reminds me in an email; the Church uses the term ‘intrinsically disordered’ instead. Somehow it doesn’t make me feel any better; I still feel like I’m being labelled as a serial killer or a sexual criminal by these pious men.
What really concerns me I come to realise is that despite living in a tolerant society like Australia without religious punishments, young gays can still be in life-threatening situations. Recent Australian research by Wesley Mission found that gay-identified young men (aged 18-24) were 3.7 times more likely to attempt suicide. Most of these attempts occurred after the person had self-identified as gay. While it might be an exaggeration to draw a direct link between religious contempt for gays and suicide, the Wesley Mission believes that ‘what is evident from a survey of the literature, is that feelings of isolation, alienation, helplessness and hopelessness can be identified as possible ’causes’.’ It’s no exaggeration to imagine how religious intolerance could exacerbate such feelings in young people.
I ask Professor Nagle to comment on the Church’s responsibility for young gay people and he admits: ‘It is true that this approach does not help young people with a homosexual orientation’ and suggests that to understand the church’s teaching it is important to read the official documents. This bland, cavalier response infuriates me further. Where is the Church’s compassion, its duty of care? I push him for a further response and explain that as a gay man I might not appreciate the Church’s official line. He responds that ‘a purely individualist ethic is impossible in practice; your personal views are only valid for you.’ I feel my prejudices against his stonewalling growing and yet somehow I find comfort in these prejudices. It’s like another caffeine hit.
This inability to deal with the real world is one of the issues that made me reject organised religion in the first place. I think I prefer my religion less organised and comments on a recent SBS ‘Dateline’ program by Muslim convert Michael Muhammad Knight, the inspiration behind the formation of ‘The Kominas’, an Islamic punk band ring true for me. ‘I’m not a big fan of organised religion’ he says ‘but I like disorganising religion and I wanted to disorganise Islam.’
The problem with all these ‘official’ responses is that they keep individuals like me at arm’s-length, examining us from ivory towers, under microscopes like exotic diseases to be studied and treated. There’s little attempt to grapple with flesh-and-blood individuals with desires, hopes and dreams. The failure of this ‘theoretical’ approach is akin to receiving endless text messages from some omniscient, distant, divine CEO that you can’t respond to. More seriously, there’s a wider question of morality here too. Morals based on andeluvian interpretations of ancient texts written for specific cultures and times must be challenged as representing divine laws, especially when they impinge on people’s health and sanity. So in the end I’m stuck in this quandary and perhaps my irritation at this injustice can never be healed.
Meanwhile Ahmed too has been thinking further about our discussions, which he says has raised ‘some ugly truths in my mind and some unresolved thoughts.’
‘To me religion does not judge,’ he says, ‘we are however continually judged by others based on what they see and what we all do. Asian, Middle Eastern and to some degree European cultures place enormous importance on such practices as prayer; to me it’s no indicator of the humanity of the person. I have accepted that I may never be able to reconcile religion with my lifestyle, especially if it’s based on the interpretation of others.’ I failed to reconcile my own childhood religion with my sexuality too but what I feel now, if I’m honest, is a sense of betrayal by the church I served and perhaps this inability to reconcile the two is what I find most difficult to accept.
Ahmed’s acknowledgment of this limitation inspires me though and is possibly as much as we can both hope for, the ability to find some comfortable space between what religion demands and the inclinations of our own natures. It’s not much but maybe it’s enough to live a valuable and authentic life while I continue my search for a compatible spirituality.