Gays and Islam: Even after Orlando shooting, many news media skirt the hard questions

After the 9-11 terrorist attacks, I suggested a story on the verses in the Quran that dealt with killing unbelievers, including how local imams interpret them. My editor hesitated and said, "I'd rather do stories about diversity in the community."

That looks like the attitude among most mainstream media, 15 years later. We know that Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people at an Orlando gay club, was Muslim and anti-gay. But what exactly does Islam say about homosexuality?

Many media seem to have been avoiding answering that, even when asking it themselves. They’ve chattered about how he checked Facebook and traded texts with his wife. They say he tried to buy body armor. And of course, they talk about gun control and homophobia.

But few have ventured into the minefield where Muslim communities border homosexuality. And of those that do, most concentrate on LGBT Muslims themselves.

In Florida itself, I could find only one newspaper -- my alma mater, the Sun Sentinel -- reporting on a "confused, broken community that lies at the intersection of the tragedy," as it calls them. One of its three subjects is college student Hytham Rashid:

There are not a lot of terms to describe gender identity or sexual orientation in Arabic, Rashid said. The word "transgender," for example, translates to "You are like a woman" or "You are like a man," which can be considered offensive, he says.  
As a gay Muslim, Rashid says he faces both Islamophobia and homophobia every day. He said in the wake of the Orlando tragedy, he doesn’t feel safe going to memorials and events.
"We can put up our stickers and wave around our rainbow flags in Wilton Manors, but the core issue is, there isn’t a safe space for us," he said.

The Sun Sentinel also imports a statement by the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity that there is "no religious justification or precedent in Islam for mass shootings targeting any population, regardless of identity." But it doesn't look at the Quran or the Hadith (the record of Muhammad's words and deeds). Nor does it ask any leaders of the 15-20 mosques in its circulation area.

But it's still better than the Dallas Morning News' Q&A of North Texas imam Omar Suleiman. The paper asks, "What does the Quran say about homosexuality?" Then it lets him dance around the answer.

First, Suleiman says that the story of Lot is "the only story that shows up in the Quran which becomes about homosexuality." Then he says that American Muslims are united not by beliefs but by the principle that "everyone has a right to their own set of moral values and their own practice and to be treated in a civil manner and to be treated as friends and allies."

Incredibly, that dodge satisfies DMN. The next questions ask what it's like to be a gay Muslim and whether Muslims feel wearied by "decades of anti-Islamic rhetoric."

There's a slightly stronger treatment in the Los Angeles Times. It collects pro-gay statements from the likes of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity. Then it says LGBT issues are harder to bring up in mosques than in churches and synagogues:

A majority of Islamic scholars view homosexuality as sinful. Fearing criticism, some imams who are privately friendly to LGBT causes keep publicly silent.
Parts of the Koran condemn homosexual acts, but their interpretation is debated. Most opposition is based on the Koran's story of Lot, which is similar to the Old Testament's story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Conservative Muslims say God destroyed the cities because men were having sex with men. Progressive Muslims, like their liberal Christian counterparts, often instead see the story as condemning rape.

Stronger still is a remarkable indepth story on Islamist views of gays in the Christian Science Monitor. It cites an ISIS film that quotes the Quran: "And we turned (the cities) upside down and rained upon them brimstone hard as clay."  The story also quotes Islamist leaders in Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood -- revealing that they don’t agree on whether homosexuality should be criminalized or just left for Allah to punish.

Then the Monitor steps among the landmines:

It's not just IS which targets LGBT individuals. Mainstream Islamist groups have also long demonized the LGBT community in a bid to earn their credentials as "devout" and grounded in "family values." And Middle Eastern governments, grounded in conservative social or tribal values, have often taken the lead in persecuting LGBT communities.
Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Yemen and the UAE all have various laws calling for the death penalty in certain instances of "homosexuality." Mateen’s father’s homeland of Afghanistan also outlaws homosexuality, with the crime carrying a penalty of five to 15 years in prison.
Even in Egypt, President Abdul Fattah Sisi, who ousted Islamist president Mohammed Morsi in 2013 and brought back a more secular Egyptian regime, has persecuted the LGBT community, jailing dozens in so-called "morality raids," even televising a nighttime raid on a bathhouse suspected as a frequent haunt for the gay community.

The Associated Press attempts a balance -- it surveys the hope for change in the emerging gay Muslim network, while minimizing viewpoints that gay Muslims want to change:

Like the Los Angeles Times, AP quotes CAIR's Nihad on the Orlando killings as a "violation of Islam":

"For many years, members of the (LGBT) community have stood shoulder to shoulder with the Muslim community against any acts of hate crimes, Islamophobia, marginalization and discrimination. Today, we stand with them, shoulder to shoulder," Awad said at a Washington news conference. "We cannot fight injustice against some group and not against others."
Omid Safi, director of the Duke University Islamic Studies Center, called the comments, and similar statements from other major Muslim groups, a "shocking development" from leaders who until last Sunday's tragedy "would probably have never been seen uttering the words gay and lesbian publicly."

AP acknowledges the "overwhelming Islamic consensus that same-gender sex is to be condemned." It also notes that many American Muslims come from "countries and cultures where gays are often violently persecuted, and harbor a deep antipathy toward LGBT people." But although the article quotes six pro-gay sources, it doesn't grapple with specific teachings about homosexuality.

It does report that Safi's center at Duke is working a year-long study on Islam and sexuality, including same-sex relationships. The results may yield some hard data for future religion articles.

But news media will have matured in their coverage of Muslim beliefs and practices only when they can be scrutinized as closely as those of Jewish and Christian communities are.

Thumbnail photo: Vigil in London on June 13 for the victims of the Orlando shooting. Photographer: Alisdare Hickson, via Flickr Creative Commons. Some rights reserved (CC-By-2.0).

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