Gay Muslims are media-sexy these days, especially since Omar Mateen opened fire on a gay nightclub in Orlando in June. With its feature on the annual Inner Circle retreat in South Africa, the Religion News Service avidly joins the journalism pack.
Typical of many social-issues articles these days -- as with The Associated Press on Russia's expulsion of a pro-gay missionary -- the piece is written entirely from the viewpoint of the subjects. Not only about what they think, but how they feel, how they perceive non-gay society, how they interpret their holy texts.
In other words, the story covers one side of a debate and one side only. Example:
Cape Town-based Imam Muhsin Hendricks founded The Inner Circle 20 years ago in his garage as a safe space for queer Muslims. He now sees the annual gathering as a refuge for those who feel ostracized by LGBT communities because of their Muslim faith and shunned by Muslim communities because of their sexual orientations or gender identities.
"Tomorrow will be very emotional," Hendricks said before the closing ceremony at the end of a busy week. "People are already suffering withdrawal symptoms and separation anxiety because now they have to go back to these horrible contexts, and here was such a beautiful space of acceptance and love. They’re going to miss that."
The "beautiful space" Hendricks cultivates each year has much to do with the scenery and camaraderie, but also with the legal and social environment in which the retreat is held.
The Inner Circle gathered 125 LGBT Muslims and their allies from around Africa. They talk out anxieties, analyze issues and share ideas for coping. They sprinkle their quotes with terms like Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, patriarchy and "hate agenda." They prefer the term "queer," although the article never really says why.
Also, they discuss their feelings of separation from Muslim societies in their homelands, trying to shield themselves from discrimination, says RNS:
These separations have proved emotionally and spiritually draining for many participants at the retreat.
"Most of us are wounded healers," Hendricks said. "There was lots of anger at the beginning of this year, people sitting with their pain. We needed to address how we relate to that pain and manage it, how we relinquish control to God and move beyond identity labels and divisions."
The 1,300-word feature isn’t totally bare of facts. "Around 800,000 Muslims make up 1.5 percent of South Africa’s total population," RNS reports. It adds that the nation's Dutch Reformed Church allows same-sex unions, but most Christian congregations in South Africa do not.
Nor, of course, do most Muslim communities. That is a rather important issue in the story, one would think.
Why no same-sex unions for Muslims? No answer.
How do religious leaders in traditional religious groups answer the concerns voiced by the retreat attendees? Same answer, as in no answer -- because it does not appear that this question was asked to an source that could provide an authoritative answer from that perspective.
The bottom line, in terms of journalism: There is no interest in this story for any narratives other than those explored at the retreat.
Unlike many articles, the RNS piece does try to grapple with Islamic texts about homosexuality, once again from the point of view of the progressives -- alone. A "deep engagement with theology," Muhsin Hendricks calls it. You probably won't be surprised that he means reinterpreting them:
One example Hendricks cites is the Quranic story of Lot, known as Lut, a prophet to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, which opponents often use to depict homosexuality as being un-Islamic.
"Progressive Muslim scholars who have studied sexual orientation and gender identity issues within Islam have concluded that this story has nothing to do with sexual orientation but rather a multiplicity of atrocities — xenophobia, prostitution, social injustice," Hendricks said. "All of those atrocities relate to privilege and power. Once people start to see that, it liberates them to think that maybe God is not condemning them."
Which verses does he mean? If it's surah 7:80-81, it's hard to misread:
"We also (sent) Lut: he said to his people: 'Do ye commit lewdness such as no people in creation (ever) committed before you? For ye practice your lusts on men in preference to women: ye are indeed a people transgressing beyond bounds.' "
Mind you, I'm not posing as some authority on the faith. Nor am I calling for condemnation of gays. I am saying that when you cite holy writ in news coverage, you must deal with what it says, not merely write up an interpretation offered by someone on one side of a debate. NBC News made the same mistake in June, as I said then. Readers deserve a chance to read and decide for themselves.
Ani Zonneveld, president of the Los Angeles-based Muslims for Progressive Values, complains: "Media often paints all Muslims as homophobic, meaning queer Muslims rarely fit the media’s narrative."
If there were ever a year for that claim, 2016 isn’t it. Yes, many media have played up gay fears, like a gay Canadian Muslim's guest column in the Huffington Post. On the other hand, The New York Times profiled a gay Muslim who marched with Muslims for Progressive Values in the annual Gay Pride Parade.
What's more, the Los Angeles Times quoted Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, condemning "homophobia, transphobia and Islamophobia" as "interconnected systems of oppression." And USA Today headlined a story "Muslim attitudes about LGBT are complex, far from universally anti-gay." RNS should have remembered that one: The writer was a member of the RNS team.
It's natural to major on thoughts and feelings at a meeting you're covering. But when people make sweeping assertions about societies and religions, hate and discrimination -- and what holy texts say -- you either check with outside voices, or you turn your story into propaganda.
Unfortunately, with sentences like "The Inner Circle is far from finished with building its movement toward an all-inclusive and compassion-centered Islam," it's not hard to guess which route was chosen by the RNS team, on this story.