Western Muslims, LGBT Rights, and Free Speech

Mustafa Akyol

In recent years, Muslim communities in the West have been pushed to two opposite trends: On the one hand, there are Muslim politicians or activists who ally themselves with the progressive left, because the latter’s “inclusion” agenda promises a better future for Muslims. If “transphobia” is defeated, the logic goes, “Islamophobia” will be defeated, too.

On the other hand, there are ultra‐​conservative Muslims, who condemn any new interpretation of Islam as an illegitimate concession by treacherous sell‐​outs. They glorify the most rigid interpretations of Islam, including that of the Taliban, while denouncing the evils of Western liberalism. (Yet they keep living in London or Texas, for some curious reason, instead of flocking to Kabul or Kandahar.)

The tension between these two philosophies has recently come to a head following an unprecedented development in Scotland.

On March 29 of this year, the seat of the First Ministerthe very leadership of the countrywas taken by a member of an ethnic minority. Humza Yousaf (37), a Muslim politician born to Pakistani immigrants, took the oath of office, pledged his allegiance to the King, and vowed to work for “the best interests of our nation.”

This was a historic moment not just for Scotland, but also for Western Muslims. The Muslim Council of Britain stressed this point, hoping the “first leader of a British nation from a Muslim background” may be “a source of great unity across communities.” The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, also a Muslim, similarly hailed the “significance of this moment.”

However, not all British Muslims agreed. Two days after Yousaf’s inauguration, Muhammad Hijab, a popular hardliner in the British Muslim community with more than 737,000 followers on YouTube, issued a declaration of ex‐​communication. “The First Minister of Scotland is not a Muslim,” he claimed, “but a clear‐​cut infidel.”

Appealing to Yousaf himself, Hijab contemptuously added, “You are nothing, because you have left the religion of Islam. And the only way back is for repentance and clarification.”

Some other prominent Muslim conservatives on social media supported Hijab’s condemnation. Others said maybe formal excommunication is too much, but conceded Yousaf had crossed boundaries that no real Muslim would overstep.

These boundaries are mostly about Yousaf’s championship of the LGBT movement, which has been a pillar of his political career. He vocally supports same‐​sex marriage, and vows to make legal gender transition easier. In his latest campaign, he promised that he would continue “promoting and protecting the rights of LGBTQ+ people” even by “embedding LGBTQ+ rights in an independent Scotland’s constitution.”

Further, in a Sky TV interview that went viral, Yousaf was asked whether “gay sex is a sin.”

“No,” he said boldly, seeming to give not just a political statement but also a religious opinion.

For most conservative Muslims, such statements are unacceptable, because traditional Islamic sources do condemn homosexual sex as sin. The Qur’an, echoing the Bible, tells the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, where “the people of Lot” are condemned for “lustfully approaching men instead of women.” Hadiths, or words attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, also condemn “sodomy,” in line with “adultery,” and even decree for them the death penalty.

So, perhaps it wasn’t very wise for Yousaf to flatly assert, as a self‐​declared believing Muslim, that homosexual sex is “not a sin.” Religions, after all, have the right to define whatever they consider as sin, and caution their believers against them. According to Islam, eating pork, getting intoxicated, or gambling are also sins—and Muslims do not have to decide otherwise to be better citizens of Western liberal democracies. They just have to accept that individuals have the freedom to commit those sins—and leave the judgment to God.

In other words, Muslims can live peacefully with peoples of “un‐​Islamic” worldviews and lifestyles—from LGBTQ+ activists to atheists, from Christians to pagans. They can also respect and even defend their rights as fellow human beings, while preserving their own theological and ethical convictions. They can enjoy their freedom of religion, in other words, while respecting other people’s freedom from religion.

Yet this live‐​and‐​let‐​live solution seems not to be fully articulated in Islam today. Hence Muslim elected leaders in liberal democracies—including Ilhan Omar of the U.S. House of Representatives—often have a hard time explaining their enthusiastic progressivism to a largely conservative community. Some may also go really too far, as seen with Yousaf’s illiberal plans to ban conversion therapy and to criminalize any speech that “stirs up hatred.” In return, conservatives trench themselves in a medieval jurisprudence.

But regardless of how these two trends within Western Muslims choose to air their conflicts, there is an aspect of Western liberalism that all these Muslims of diverse opinions keep enjoying: freedom of speech. If, for example, Yousaf received a “fatwa” on his “infidelity” in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or Pakistan, then he would have to fear for this life. (Because “infidelity” of a Muslim means “apostasy,” which, according to most conservatives, can be punished with the death penalty.)

Conversely, the hardline Western Muslims who revile Western liberalism would probably end up in jail, if not torture cells, if they were living in those countries and were condemning their political systems.

In other words, thanks to Western free speech, Western Muslims are able to freely discuss important issues of Islam that are simply impossible to question in much of the Muslim world. That is why, despite all the brouhaha, the Western Muslim experience is an important one.

Hopefully, in the long run, it can help more and more Muslims embrace the key value of liberalism: living by your own values, while respecting others—from “heretics” and “infidels,” to sexual minorities—to live by theirs.

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