On Saturday 25th February 2016, The Hague Peace Projects, held a discussion on the Challenges of LGBTI Activism in Religious Societies, as part of the Hague Freedom Book Fair in Het Nutshuis in Den Haag. The event was well attended with over 110 participants.
The panel featured five LGBTI activists, Dino Suhonic, the director of the Maruf Foundation in Amsterdam, who is dedicated to helping the position of Muslim LGBTI’s in the Netherlands. Dino is also a teacher, opinion maker and queer activist and writes about queer Muslims, Islam, sexual diversity and gender identity. Michiel Leezenberg is a professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam. He has published numerous books on Islam, the most recent of which is De Minaret van Bagdad. This book describes the changes in how people in the West perceive Muslims and also the changing sexual attitudes and practices in the Islamic world. Marie Nagadya, is an LGBTI activist from Uganda, a social worker and researcher on same sex practices. She has been involved in numerous LGBTI activist organizations in both Africa and Europe. She is co-founder of out and Proud Netherlands and is the Assistant Director of Eddoboozi Human Rights Defenders Network in Uganda. Rasel Ahmed, was the editor of Roopbaan, the only LGBTI magazine in Bangladesh and aclose friend of the now deceased founder of the magazine, Xulhaz Mannon and our final panelist was Mohammed Mofar, a member of the LGBTI refugee group, The Rainbow Group in the Netherlands.
Michael Leezenberg opened his discussion by introducing the notion of Islam and homosexuality. It was said that the idea of homosexuality as a concept, did not exist in Islam and the rise of modern nationalism and the nation-state had important implications in defining gender and sexuality including homosexuality globally, also in the muslim world. Rasel Ahmed spoke of his experience in Bangladesh, as editor of Roopbaan, which was the only LGBTI magazine in the country, founded by the now deceased Xulhaz Manon. The magazine gained popularity and provided a great platform for the LGBTI community in Bangladesh. A turning point for the community was the pride rally organized on Bengali New Year, which was severely criticized by the conservatives and soon the LGBTI community were receiving death threats and arrests. As a result of these threats, Rasel was forced to flee the country out of fear and a few days later heard of the hacking of his close friend and colleague Xulhaz, by Al Qaeda. Due to continuous persecution, the LGBTI movement in Bangladesh has now been forced into hiding, for which Rasel feels responsible and would like to reunite them, but is at loss on how to do so under the present political situation. Dino Suhonic highlighted the challenges of being a bicultural homosexual, whereby the country in which one is residing is friendly towards homosexuality contrasting with one’s home country which is very strict. The demography of LGBTI Muslims is very complex, as they feel defeated by their own communities, countries and societies and much more must be done to help them with these challenges and change mindsets. Maruf Foundation tries to help and assist with these issues.
Mohammed Mofar spoke of his personal difficulties coming out, as homosexuality is considered a sin in his home country of Sierra Leone. After having met a partner and with the help of the Rainbow Group, Mohammed managed to openly admit his homosexuality. Marie Nagadya described homosexuality to be a taboo in Ugandan society as the society is still based upon conservative cultural, traditional and religious values. Marie encountered discrimination at university for researching and showing interest in the topic of homosexuality. She faced obstacles created by both her family and the society, the challenge was even greater as Marie herself was not homosexual. It was interesting to learn that many LGBTI activists in Uganda have become homeless due to the negative comments and hatred from society. It was suggested that the role of the church was fundamental to changing the views on the LGBTI community in Uganda, as it encourages only heterosexual relationship. Scott Livelys visit to Uganda, was emphasized, where a conference with local pastors was arranged, to discuss issues surrounding the taboos of homosexuality. The conference resulted in extreme aggression from the public and a statement from the Archbishop of Uganda stating that he was disappointed with the constitution. The conference led to a proposed homosexuality bill in 2009, which was later passed in 2014. Marie concluded by stating, that homosexuality is considered to be a western notion and therefore is perceived to have no space in Ugandan society.
To conclude the event, the moderator asked each panelist for a suggestion on how to spread more acceptances of LGBTI communities. Marie suggested to love and to not give up. Rasel proposed that the problem lay in intersectional identity, whereby people are not accepted because of their identity. Being Muslim and being gay is a big challenge and therefore the solution should be intersectional. Mohammed suggested unity of the LGBTI community around the world. Michael felt he was not in a position to comment on what people should do. He explained that he felt dialogue was crucial and the fact the audience were present and discussing these issues, was already a great step forward. In Dutch society, you can either be religious or gay, not both therefore it was interesting to note that this panel and audience was a very good example of everyone being both religious and gay, proving that it is possible to be both at the same time. Finally Dino suggested communities should be empowered, that we should create allies through education and engage with people who are opening up spaces for LGBTI communities.