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A Space for Individuality

By Shazmin Hirji

It takes a special kind of person to stand against marginalization by a majority community. One such person is Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed, the founder of a new mosque in Paris open to the gay community. Zahed, who I had the pleasure of speaking with in a phone interview, wants the new gay-friendly mosque to be a place that will “allow people as they are.”

Zahed was born in Algeria where he affiliated with a brotherhood of Salafi Muslims. When Zahed discovered he was gay at the age of 17, the only Islam he had been familiar with was a “very radical, homophobic sect of Islam” and he found it was “too hard” to continue keeping up with Islamic traditions. “For 10 years, I wasn’t even able to pray,” said Zahed.  He moved to France during his formative years and studied psychology at the Ecole Normale Supérieure. Stress from work led him to meditation and a rediscovery of spirituality with Buddhism. Before long, he saw the presence of misogyny and homophobia in the Buddhist community and concluded, “Everywhere is the same.” Zahed wanted to come back to Islam, the tradition of his upbringing, to see whether it was necessarily homophobic or just some Muslims.

Before opening the mosque, Zahed never experienced any trouble in the mosques in France. “I look like a man,” he said. However, Zahed received many complaints from sisters in the community who did not want to veil and transgendered individuals in the community who did not feel accepted. Zahed recalled one instance where no one would agree to pray for a transgender sister after she passed. During a Friday afternoon prayer session, Zahed’s South African husband was told to take off his earrings by an elderly Egyptian man who claimed the earrings were “not Muslim.”

Zahed chose to open the mosque so Muslims could have a place to be free from the traditional community’s qualms with expressions of gender identity. The new gay-friendly mosque creates a space for men and women to pray together as equals. While the mosque is only in its beginning stages, Zahed plans to create a mosque where Imams are democratically elected to lead prayers. Zahed does not have plans to duplicate the gay-friendly mosque in other regions of the world, but rather wishes to “influence other organizations to have their own dynamic.” Since the creation of the mosque in Paris and being out, Zahed has been ostracized by many Imams who claim he is “not a good Muslim” or “not a Muslim” at all. For security reasons, the location of the new mosque, which is housed in a former Buddhist prayer hall, must be kept secret, but the problematic decision to keep the location secret poses an obvious obstacle to creating a greater space for tolerance.

When I visited the Grand Mosque of Paris this January, I was so excited when a conversation with a front desk worker in Arabic got me a free visit inside the mosque. As I went to sit down in the women’s only section of the mosque, a woman immediately approached me and said that it was necessary I cover my hair. I looked down at the scarf on my neck, took note of the extra scarf in my bag, and then got up and left. I understand how wonderful it feels to be accepted as part of a community, but I reject the idea that feeling that way requires compromising my own personal beliefs or sense of identity.

The creation of the new gay-friendly mosque in Paris gets to the underlying root of the major problem in Islamic communities and the prevailing radical Islam. The problem is not simply that majority voices in the Islamic community disapprove of homosexual practices; the problem is that the community completely looks down upon any form of heterogeneity. The fact that any modern religious community thinks that it can sustain itself under the façade of a shared common identity is unfathomable.

Communities understandably need time to grow and develop, but this is increasingly difficult in today’s environment fixated on the idea of national sovereignty and a distinct national identity. In both totalitarian regimes and Western environments where ethno-religious groups are the subjects of xenophobia and discourse on radicalism, Muslims feel compelled to cling to narrow understandings of religion and identity.

Zahed believes there will come a time (he estimates in the next 20 to 30 years) when progressive Islam will be the mainstream. He believes that people will come to realize that the radical Islam of today and its resulting “fascism and totalitarianism” is “not helping” anyone. “There is no Islam, there (are) only Muslims,” says Zahed. “It’s only people”. The advancement and true cohesion of a people requires space for individuality.

Shazmin Hirji ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is a government concentrator in Currier House.

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