In her controversial book The Trouble With Islam Today (St. Martin's Press), she forcefully argues for critical thinking in the Islamic faith. Via e-mail from Yemen, where she is filming a documentary about Islam and the West, the 37-year-old Yale University scholar offered her thoughts on Islam's treatment of gays and lesbians.
The trouble with Islam today is literalism, an uncritical approach to the faith. Of course, every religion has its share of literalists. Here's the difference: In contemporary Islam, literalism is mainstream--worldwide. Even moderate Muslims in the open societies of the West believe that Islam's holy book, the Koran, is the final, untouched, and therefore perfect word of God.
You can't say that about moderate Christians. A few years ago I hosted Toronto's Queer Television, a commercial TV show that explores the lives of gay and lesbian people. Whenever I would air antigay comments from Bible-quoting Christians, other Christians promptly phoned in with tolerant interpretations of their holy book. That never happened when I aired antigay remarks from Muslims. Not once did moderate Muslims follow up with more compassionate interpretations of the Koran. Apparently, there was no question that homophobic Muslims spoke for Islam--all of it.
I'm not saying that every last Muslim objects to homosexuality. But the point is this: Although a growing number of Muslims don't share the prejudices of mainstream literal Islam, not enough of those Muslims are creating conversations with the mainstream.
That's because literalism is so widespread that most Muslims don't ask hard questions about what happens when faith becomes dogma. Instead, we clam up and conform. In so doing, we allow the worst representatives of Islam to get away with crimes--whether they are European mullahs preaching the murder of gay men, or are the religious police in Iran, who have tracked down suspected lesbians, draped them in pristine white sheets, lowered them into dirt pits, and stoned them alive. Why aren't my fellow Muslim moderates pouring into the streets to protest such defamations of our religion? Christ, even Catholics have a large band of vocal dissenters with the Vatican! Clearly, we Muslims have a lot of catching up to do in the dissent department.
We also have the Koran to back up human dignity. It contains many pro-diversity passages that allow us to reconcile Islam with women's rights, religious pluralism, and--gasp!--homosexuality. For example, the Koran tells us that "God creates whom He will." (Even the use of "He" is to be questioned, since God is gender-neutral in Islam.) Think about that passage for a moment: If the all-knowing, all-powerful Creator didn't wish to make me a lesbian, wouldn't God have made someone else?
Another verse expressly states, "If God had pleased, He would have made you all one people, but He has done otherwise so that He may try you in what He has given you. …