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Published On: Wed, Nov 30th, 2016

Progressive bigotry and liberal homophobia

Many words have been written about homosexuality, homophobia, and Islam, not least since Orlando. “What does the Quran say? What is the Muslim perspective? Can you be Muslim and gay?” The list of frequently asked questions is long, and the judgmental tone is often thinly veiled.


With this text, I do not mean to add to this genre. Instead, I aim to examine how Muslim commentators and scholars who often come with homophobic and morally conservative statements are still considered progressive and liberal.

This phenomenon, I believe, is rooted in a preconception about Muslims; conservatism is expected. Therefore, liberalism is placed on a relative scale, where things such as accepting homosexuality – or at least not condemning it – no longer matters to qualify as progressive.

To claim that a requirement for the presence of homosexuality to be tolerable is that it is not seen, that it is kept behind closed doors, is not a progressive stance. It is not progressive coming from a Muslim, and it is not progressive coming from a Christian, a Jew, a Hindu, an atheist, or anyone else.

Here, I think specifically of Tariq Ramadan, Professor of Contemporary Islam at the University of Oxford, director of the Research Centre of Islamic Legislation and Ethics (CILE) in Doha, and grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan Al-Banna. Ramadan is often referred to as a progressive reformist, a moderate, and a liberal Muslim thinker. He styles himself as a “Salafi reformist” – a designation he also gives to Sayyid Qutb, a man whose work is widely considered to be the inspiration for militant Islamism in general and Al-Qaeda in particular.

This “progressive reformist,” however, often finds himself in the midst of controversies, not seldom related to homosexuality and LGBTQ rights. In a text on his own personal website, Ramadan builds a strawman in which homosexuality is described as an essential “Western, and European value” and that the integration of Muslims in Europe, therefore, is dependent on their ability to accept homosexuality.

14604737781_eb369b6304_bI do not know who has made this argument, and Ramadan does not clarify this either – apart from a rather vague reference to “several homosexual spokesman and the politicians who support them.” Funny, I did not know my people had a spokesman. I wonder who that is?

Nevertheless, I do not believe in the existence of “Western and European culture and values” and basing arguments on the existence of such values is highly problematic. That anyone’s right to exist in a certain society would be dependent on the acceptance of any values (other than the laws of the land, of course), thus, is not an argument I would make.

Furthermore, even if Ramadan’s strawman is real, that “homosexual spokesmen” use homosexuality to stigmatize and marginalize Muslims – a very insulting accusation in itself – this assertion is based on the assumption that Muslims per definition objects to homosexuality. That it is somehow essential to Islam to reject homosexuality, and that whoever accepts homosexuality defies Islamic doctrine. Islam being incompatible with homosexuality is an opinion Ramadan has expressed before, such as in debate with the gay Imam Ludovic Mohamed Zahed.

Ramadan continues his text with claiming that all world religions condemn homosexuality:

The great majority of rabbis hold the same position, as do the Pope and the Dalaï Lama, who condemns homosexuality. For these traditions, as for Freud (who speaks of “perversion”), homosexuality is considered to be “against nature,” an “expression of disequilibrium” in the growth of a person. The moral condemnation of homosexuality remains the majority opinion of all religions, and Islam is no exception.

I am not saying that Ramadan is wrong in this – I am not a religious scholar, so I believe he knows better about world religions than I do – but I object to the defense of a moral position by claiming that others hold the same position. It appears to me as the argument of a five-year old; “but they are doing the same, why can’t I?” Homophobia is homophobia, no matter how many people support homophobia.

It would be senseless to wish to deny the facts, to contradict the textual sources and to force believers to perform intellectual contortions so that they can prove they are in tune with the times.

Here, Ramadan points at Muslims like Imam Mohamed Zahed, and many other prominent and respected scholars such as Kecia Ali, Khaled El-Rouyaheb, and Scott Siraj Al-Haqq Kugle – who do not see Islam and homosexuality as mutually exclusive – and accuses them of contradicting the Islamic texts and performing intellectual acrobatics in order to “fit in.” This is not only condescending, and arrogant, but also absolutely not progressive. Implicit is that homosexuality is somehow a trend (accepting homosexuality is “in tune with the times”) while his interpretation of Islamic textual sources is both eternal and eternally correct.

I can continue with many examples of Ramadan’s conservative views on homosexuality, but best is simply to read and watch what he has said. The main argument is often the same:

But the question is not whether one agrees with the religious texts, the beliefs and the convictions espoused by individuals. It is to determine what is appropriate behavior in the societies in which we live together. For more than twenty years I have been insisting—and drawing sharp criticism from some Muslim groups—that homosexuality is forbidden in Islam, but that we must avoid condemning or rejecting individuals.

This is something I have heard all my life. I hear that my sexuality is unnatural, perverted, immoral, which is quickly followed: “But I don’t judge! As long as you keep it private. Hate the sin, not the sinner. As long as you don’t act on it!”

These are not uncommon opinions; I believe every gay, lesbian, trans, or queer person growing up in Europe have heard them over and over. Often they come from people far on the right of the political scale, and they are not progressive ideas.

To categorize Ramadan as “progressive” is to say that he somehow “should” be more conservative than he is. Maybe that is true. Ramadan himself claims that the majority opinion amongst Muslims is that homosexuality ought to be condemned.

At the same time, he claims that the incompatibility of homosexuality and Islam is an unchangeable reality. Therefore, he also confirms this majority attitude as the correct attitude. That the majority thinks this then becomes a shield that Ramadan can use, in order to avoid taking responsibility for his own views.

There are many progressive Muslim reformists. The previous mentioned scholars are some of them. There is also the Muslim Reform Movement, and authors, activists and politicians, such as Maajid Nawaz, Irshad Manji and Asra Q. Nomani.

The list can be made long, but Tariq Ramadan, however, is not on the list.

About the Author

- Contributor and co-founder of, and former Director of Studies for Middle Eastern Studies at Stockholm University. Graduate student at the University of Cambridge, researching feminist activism in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Mostly writes about Arab media, gender, politics and popular culture.

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