Comment: Canada is embracing gay Muslims

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Journalist Barry Dennison explores how a group of gay Muslims practice their faith during Ramadan in Canada.

After seeing numerous internet pictures of gay men being hung by the neck in Iran, it raised questions: How is Islam practiced in western society? Does the Canadian Government truly give everyone equal opportunity to believe as they choose?

Yet it appears the first breach of human rights law doesn’t come from government, instead Mosques refuse to accept homosexuals, as well as deny women the right to pray beside men.

This is an “accepted” discrimination (transferred from other countries) that won’t change for the majority of believers of Islam in Canada, Britain, Australia and the US.

So, I was heartened to learn of a Canadian gay Muslim who organised a group called, “Salaam” that hosts a “Jum’ah” (noon prayers) and an Itfar (a community gathering in the evening) during Ramadan, and who welcomed others in to observe their services.

As a journalist, I wanted to go see for myself why this religion was so important to those who have faced such discrimination.

My first question upon meeting immigration lawyer, El Farouk Khaki, was to ask: “Why does this religion mean so much to you after being viciously shunned by Mosques?”

Mr Khaki’s viewpoint saw passed this ill-treatment from others and explained the single most important thing is to have “… a relationship with Allah, one that will be defined by me and Allah. Not by other men.”

Ramadan involves fasting for 30 days, as instructed in the Quran, the Muslim holy book. The purpose of fasting is reportedly “to learn what poor people experience” and believers are encouraged to help disadvantaged people in their own communities.

As I discover, an Iftar can be a small intimate gathering of around 2-4 in a home, a park or larger community gatherings as this one in a Toronto community centre, “The 519” (gay Toronto’s ‘command central’ to various gay/lesbian social groups).

The estimated 250 attendees was comprised of other non-Muslim people as politicians and journalists, Arab and South Asian youth groups, NGO staff who help refugees settle, to lobbyists who travel to refugee camps helping gays immigrate to safety. Others were Canadian and American women groups, even a gay Iman from Washington DC.

The gathering was timed for just before the sun sets, prayers started for a short time, then attendees are served with “dates” as this fruit is the first item a Muslim eats when ending a fast.

Calling their prayer meeting to order with a large voiced guttural sound that one might expect from an Aboriginal tribal ritual or as in this Arab custom, an “Adhan” … I knew this was going to be something different from my Christian background.

This Muslim service is uniquely Arabic and old world in its own right, as the ceremony involved the group bowing in unison from a stand up, then from a kneeling position, whilst a member of a group says prayers aloud, reportedly quotes from the Quran in Arabic.

Watching this group of people, I felt honoured to witness gay men and women kneeling to pray together. I sensed their dignity as well as a tremendous respect for the rituals they learned in earlier years from family and home countries.

As the evening’s Itfar progressed, a representative from Canada’s first peoples, Aboriginal/Native Indian and a member from the Sikh religion were invited to speak. Also among this group of Muslims was a man wearing a “yarmulke”, the small cloth skull-caps Jewish men wear.

“We are reaching out to others.” explained El-Farouk Khaki, who added: “We all believe in the same one God.”

Wow, Jews and Muslims praying together! Surprise!

Soon each of the 30 tables were invited one by one to line up for a meal catered by a women of East African decent.

Waiting for my table’s turn to go get some food, I chatted with a refugee from Iran – a country where families offer up their own children (seen to be gay/effeminate) to the government for death by hanging. Alternatively, gay men in Iran are forced to have gender confirmation treatment, as young as 16-years-old.

“Iran is a great place for strong men, not for small frail people like me. I have been in Canada for 6 weeks, arriving only with a citizenship from a refugee camp in Turkey.”, said the refugee, proudly showing me his new Canadian passport.

Speaking of his experience in a Turkish refugee camp, he said: “Many other refugees went to Finland and Norway. But I was happy the United Nations Refugee Agency chose Canada for me because there is so much tension in Europe between Muslims and westerners.”

This man’s commentary over the course of the evening was priceless to my limited experience at Iftars.

As tables of anxious hungry people were called to line up for this delicious food we could smell wafting in the air, hearing this new fellow Canadian’s experience made me happy to learn the Canadian Government is willing to help “accused homosexuals” in countries as Uganda, Iraq, Iran where killing homosexuals is a cruel sport.

Learning that Canada will reportedly help gay Muslims reach freedom from oppressive regimes is awesome, especially complete with citizenship, short-term accommodation, $2,500 for living expenses, with time to learn English and get a job.

This makes me proud of Canada. Yes dammit’, this liberal is gratefully conceding that Prime Minister Steven Harper and his Immigration Minister, John Baird, has shown compassion for fellow human beings, including homosexuals.

Not something anyone expected from a Conservative Government, but certainly welcomed.

With more prayers after dinner, the service was led by a female, Dr Amina Wadud of California, concluded: “My work has always been on gender issues. It was only a couple of years ago did I pray to find it in myself to love and accept those with a different sexual orientation and gender identity.”

“Now I do so with an open heart.”

Soon lemon marangue desserts and coffee arrived which was as tasty as your Grandma used to make at our own church’s turkey suppers! Local entertainers, dancers and singers presented their talent and supported with cheers from the crowd.

All in all, I came away from this Muslim event thinking well of my fellow (wo)man and my country, calm in the knowledge that there are Muslims here who do exercise their “right to assembly” to carry on with the religious ceremonies they value, and to share the lessons of their religion with like-minded people.

Clearly, these Muslim folks just want to live peacefully, with the simple message for us all to have an open mind and heart – to stop treating each other as “the other”.

Now, that is one one bottom line we all can agree on as humans no matter where we call ‘home’!

Barry Dennison is a 25-year veteran journalist who specialises in legal affairs and human rights law.