Interview by Julijan Rahaleh
Copy editor Eliza M.
Maher Al-Haj is a prominent figure in today’s push for equality and human rights. Julijan Rahaleh, My.Kali’s in-house writer, had the privilege of speaking with this writer and advocate for tolerance and humanity, who answered our graciously answered our many questions on his background, writings, and overall perspectives.
While we all come from different backgrounds and have different experiences, most who grew up in the Middle East can relate to your story in some way. Can you briefly summarize it for those who have not before heard of your work?
It is my pleasure to do so. I was born and raised in Amman, Jordan. I was different from other boys around me from the very beginning, but being gay became a serious problem when I hit puberty. I had no understanding of the situation. My “abnormal” sexual attraction was against everything I grew up with. It was against my religion, tradition, my understanding of morality, and it was disgusting to most people around me. Neither could I understand what being gay meant, nor could I change myself to be like others. There were absolutely no constructive available resources around me that could help me understand my sexuality. My journey to get to where I am today was bristling with obstacles. I finally arrived to the only truth about my sexuality that matters: that homosexuality is a beautiful creation from Allah that needs to be respected, protected, and celebrated. Now, I find it a moral responsibility on me to share such truth with others. It is my responsibility to educate and advocate on the permissibility of homosexuality within the Sharia Law of Islam in our Muslim and Arabic surroundings, and this is why I am doing this work now.
You said you grew up in a religious atmosphere. Was there peer pressure from your parents or your atmosphere that made you engage deeply with religion, or was it a personal interest?
It was mainly a personal interest. While some of my family members are indeed religious, I would have to say that the majority are living according to what is perceived as moral and correct according to our cultural and traditional values. In a way, the atmosphere of my upbringing was more culturally-conservative than religiously so. However, I felt an affinity to the religion Islam since a very young age. And as soon as I became aware of my sexual differences, I sought refuge, peace, and comfort in it.
Those who read your story are often overwhelmed with compassion, as seen in the comments on your blog. Do you receive the same amount of compassion from in your actual life?
It truly depends. I sometimes get compassion, sometimes rejection, sometimes belittlement and threats. I also have to mention that I do not approve all the comments I receive that are disrespectful or have hate speech for viewing; there is no place for them on the site. I tell people they are welcome to disagree with what I am doing as long as they are respectful. The majority of what you see from people’s comments on the site are compassionate because the other kinds of comments I receive are unfortunately hurtful and disrespectful. The sad reality is that a lot of people are unable to “respectfully disagree.”
Has identifying yourself as homosexual affected your relationship with those around you?
It sure has. For example, I came out in the newspaper at my college when I was the Editor-in-Chief in 2005 and as a consequence I lost almost all my Muslim/Arab friends. Some of my family members were even harassed and lost some of their friends over it. My relationship with my own family has also not been the same since they found out about my sexuality. That is not to say that they stopped loving me, but they simply could not accept it. At the same time, I had other friends were aware of it all along and said that they were awaiting for me to make peace with it. For me, if people can’t love me for who I am as a gay individual and for what I stand for, our relationship is meaningless to me, and not the other way around.
Are you out to your family yet? If so, did it affect your relationship with them?
As I said briefly above, my relationship with my family is not the same because of my homosexuality. I know they love me, but they find it extremely difficult to believe my unique claim that homosexuality should be halal within the Sharia Law when everyone else within our traditional Islam says otherwise. I don’t blame them, but such a struggle is theirs and no longer a struggle of mine. I understand where they are coming from, but I cannot endorse it.
We all know how thorny the relationship between religion and sexuality can be. What encouraged you to start investigating this relationship?
Religion plays a major role in people’s lives and affects their psyche in ways that are sometimes unimaginable. To grow up as a gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, etc… in Muslim surroundings and hear Allah will send you to Hell over it is a devastating reality. Many LGBTQ Muslims commit suicide over it, others are killed or persecuted, and many more live in lifelong agonies without any peaceful resolution. I struggled a lot to find the truth.
But the rhetoric associated with Allah and his Prophet on homosexuality in Islam is simply misguided. Homosexuality is an intention from Allah that should be acknowledged and celebrated. I know the crucial role that Islam plays in the lives of Muslims, and having the ability and knowledge to expose the truth about homosexuality in Islam. It as my moral responsibility to do so and I unapologetically undertake this quest.
To follow up, have you experienced any immediate or actual responses from the people around you regarding your views on religion and sexuality?
The responses I get from people vary considerably. To most my, claims are absolutely shocking, “how dare I propose that homosexuality should be halal in Islam?” But to many others, they are awe-inspiring. It hurt my relationship with a lot of people, but brought me closer to others. I am in no position, nor do I desire, to compromise my human dignity because of another. I firmly believe that what I am doing is the right thing to do. If people who have a problem with it, it is their problem, and their problem alone.
Were the majority of these responses were positive or negative? And, did they vary between people residing in the Mid-East and those who are residing in the West?
The responses vary on a spectrum with two opposing extremes. People who live in the West generally respond more positively than those who live in the Middle East and other Muslim societies. Most Muslims, including an overwhelming number withinof the LGBTQ Muslim community, do not believe that homosexuality and Islam can be reconciled, and they react to my work accordingly. This is due in part to how deeply our ignorance on the topic is rooted in our surroundings, to the point that it makes us hate ourselves and feel we are unworthy of love and acceptance.
You traveling to the US seemed like a huge turning point in your life. Do you think that your perspective on this subject would still be the same if you had not traveled there?
Coming to the US was indeed a turning point for me in the right direction. I say that not because the West “changed” me, but because it provided me with the resources I was longing for. I was not going to accept the claims that my sexuality was simply a choice, as was evident from early on in my journey in Jordan. I believe I would have come to the same conclusions if I had stayed in Jordan, especially after the rise of the internet and how it expanded our access to information, but my journey in the Middle East would have taken much longer and been much more complicated.
Do you think that the doctrine you propose will become more widely accepted?
There is no doubt in my mind that homosexuality will ultimately be considered halal in Islam. The truth always prevail, but the road to get there is undoubtedly long, lonely and not easy. The fatwas that homosexuality is halal in Islam will be issued, sooner or later, because that is the right natural thing to do, and because it is part of Allah’s plan and intentions.
Do you expect any backlashes of any sort and from any source? And how are you planning to deal with them?
The backlash is inevitable, it is already happening. I will be attacked, threatened, and some people might even try to kill me. However, life is about taking chances and following what you believe is right. I wholeheartedly believe in my cause because it has a potential to improve the lives of millions of LGBTQ Muslims. I am taking a leap of faith to accomplish my goals. I am taking all precautions needed and no one can harm me unless harm is meant for me.
Who was the first person to support your quest? And who is the person who affected your quest the most?
To be honest with you, there are a few people who support my quest now, but I had to do a great deal of convincing before they got to that point. They deserve to be commended, though, because they believed in me enough to listen to my claims, regardless of how ridiculous such claims may have sounded to them. The person that affected my quest the most and from whom I get a lot of my inspirations is myself as a child/young teenager who struggled so much to make it happen. This is not arrogance, but pride, a sign of growth, and a celebration of the human spirit. I look at myself in the past, and compare my pains and struggles to others who are going through the same thing now, and realize that I am on the right track.
Do you think your interpretation of homosexuality as being halal in Islam can also affect other Abrahamic religions’ view on the subject, i.e. Christianity and Judaism’s?
I think other Abrahamic religions have already found many ways to reconcile faiths and homosexuality. Historically speaking, their struggles with the issue have been much longer and there are currently many denominations within those religions that made peace with homosexuality. The process of transformation they have gone through on the issue is inspiring and hopeful, and we should learn from them. It is on Muslims now to make the right decisions.
How are your using the word “Halal” in your argument? Is it more of a statement or an adjective describing the issue?
I use the word Halal literally and figuratively, with all what the word means. I use it in terms of the religious-permissibility within the Sharia Law of Islam that we need to establish, but also as an Arabic cultural reference for an acceptable way of living and doing things.
The name of ‘Homosexuality is Halal’ is pretty direct. Can you elaborate on why chose such a direct and controversial title?
I have been asked by some of my friends to use a more subtle name that is less controversial, in part because our fellow Muslims might not be at that point of understanding yet. “Homosexuality Is Not a Sin,” for instance, was one of the suggested alternatives. I did not agree with them, not only because I did not want to sugarcoat anything, but I wanted to be as direct as possible. Any other name would not have been appropriate. The work I am doing aims to reach the fatwa in the future that would make homosexuality halal in Islam, and the name I chose is descriptive of that and appropriate. Any other name would have been apologetic and would have compromised the integrity of the work. I am not trying to make the case that homosexuality is not a sin, because even if it were not a sin, it might still be viewed as unnatural and a disease, which in turn does not necessarily make it halal and permissible. ‘Homosexuality Is Halal’ is exactly what my work aims to prove. We have to seek our rightful place within the Sharia Law, without compromises and without apologies.
How do you assess the situation in the Arab World for LGBT people, in particular?
It certainly is not near where it needs to be, but is surely improving. As an LGBTQ community in the Arab world, we are mainly invisible, and invisible people cannot have rights and protections. We need to change that, but we can’t change that if we get killed in the process. Our struggles are two: (1) a struggle to exist and be visible, which involves shifting the cultural paradigm on homosexuality (come out of the shadows more and more as we work on educating, advocating and organizing around our cause), and (2) a struggle for basic human rights (to fight for our rights and protection so we are not killed when we come out). It is a tricky and slow fight, and both struggles must work together in order for us to inhabit a safe place within our communities and surroundings.
Do you think the Arab Spring should (or would) change some of the fundamentals that rule the typical Mid-Eastern mentality towards sexuality? How?
Nothing will change if we keep repeating our mistakes, and put in power those who abuse it and are not worthy of it. The Arab Spring is only promising if it fosters real change. That, unfortunately, is not what seems to be happening, but an Arab Spring nevertheless is a promising sign. One huge component that is lacking in almost every struggle we face as Arabs and Muslims is critical-thinking, which has grave consequences. We need to change this, which includes fixing our broken education systems, and preventing the persecution and killing of those whose opinion may be considered radical, or simply do not align with a political or religious regime.
What do you expect in the future from the LGBT crowd in the Mid-East?
I hope all of us feel angry as a result of the injustice that is happening to us and around us, and that we try to work together to do something about it while avoiding danger in the process. Every voice counts, every story is important, and every human life is valuable. People have to act to change their predicaments; change does not happen on its own. We have been known to triumph above all injustices in the past, and I know we will again in the future. All of us need to work together to make change happen, and I expect that we will. It will be our legacy.
What future do you foresee for the LGBT moves around the Arab World?
A bright future, change will happen…
What do you think we should do in order to break new grounds of acceptance in the Mid-East?
We have to expose our truth, and tell our stories. We have to educate, we have to advocate, we have to organize, we have to provide resources and tools. We have to act on the individual level, in any way a person can do that safely, but also on the community level, building bridges and partnerships within LGBTQ community and with its allies. We truly have to move the conversation from margin to mainstream.
I am curious, as all of our readers are to know: What has Maher planned for the future?
I will continue the publication process of my project-book Homosexuality Is Halal: The Fatwa; Evidence from the Quran, Sunnah and Modern Science over the next few months. I do not believe that that providing educational resources, whether they be religious, linguistic, scientific, etc., as I am doing on homosexulityishalal.com, is sufficient. This is the organizer speaking in me. We have to also work in partnerships, locally and internationally, to build unity in our communities in order for us to be able to effectively advocate on our cause and to organize people around it. I have been working on an organizational plan to that extent and I will kindly announce the details as soon as I can!
Read an email from one of Maher’s sisters sent to him on December, 2012 (translated from Arabic): “A Letter To My Family”