Women's Empowerment and Leadership Development for Democratisation

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International: Act of Faith: A Film on Gays and Islam by Matthew Hays

Documentary filmmakers have long wrestled with the need to obscure the identities of gays and lesbians in their work, to avoid unpleasant consequences like job loss or a falling out with family.
Parvez Sharma, a New York-based director, has been worried that much worse could await the Muslim homosexuals profiled in his upcoming "In the Name of Allah," if ever they were identified.

For some, imprisonment or torture is a possibility, Mr. Sharma said. Indeed, one of Mr. Sharma's associate producers, a gay Egyptian man, will not be listed in the credits at his own request because of the perceived risk.

And threats to the director have become routine. "About every two weeks I get an e-mail that berates me, condemns me to hell and, if they are nice, asks me to still seek forgiveness while there is still time," Mr. Sharma said, speaking here about his as yet unfinished film, which he is preparing to take on the festival circuit in faraway 2006.

That such pressure is building around a project still more than a year from completion is the best measure of a perhaps widening gulf that separates an increasingly open attitude toward gay and lesbian life in many Western countries from that of predominantly Muslim ones.

With backing primarily from European television broadcasters, including Channel 4 in Britain, Arte in France and ZDF in Germany, Mr. Sharma set out nearly two years ago to examine how homosexual Muslims around the world reconciled their faith with their sexual orientation.

In doing so, the director received advice and moral support from his producer, Sandi Simcha DuBowski, the filmmaker behind "Trembling Before G-d," a feature-length documentary that two years ago investigated the lives of Orthodox and Hasidic Jews who are also gay or lesbian.

"Parvez's film is extremely important," Mr. DuBowski said. "It challenges the idea that there are no Muslim gays or lesbians. It poses much the same question that 'Trembling Before G-d' did: why would gays want to be part of a tradition that rejects them?"

Mr. Sharma, who was born and brought up in India, said the inspiration for his film came from his own experiences as a gay Muslim. His curiosity about how Islam and homosexuality intersect grew when he attended American University in Washington, where he received a master's degree in film and video.

Listening to stories told by gay Muslims at the school, Mr. Sharma conceived the idea of a picture that would "give voice to a community that really needed to be heard and that until now hadn't been; it was about going where the silence was strongest."

Mr. Sharma has conducted interviews throughout North America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East, in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Egypt. Many of the people he interviewed were found through the Internet.

"I received thousands of e-mails shortly after word got out about the film,'' Mr. Sharma said. "One 17-year-old Egyptian is remarkably brave, quite open about his sexual orientation despite that country's crackdown on homosexuals."

As with Christianity and Judaism, there is a broad range of expert opinion on the exact nature of Islam's official stance toward homosexuality. Some scholars interpret the Koran as suggesting that there is no condemnation of homosexuality, while others read Muslim scripture as indicating homosexual acts should be punished with death.

Given the hostility toward homosexuality in some Islamic factions, Mr. Sharma has gone to great lengths to reassure many of his interview subjects that they will remain anonymous. But this obscuring of identities has led to what the director regards as one of his key challenges: filming people in silhouette or with their faces covered tends to reinforce a sense of shame around homosexuality, precisely countering one of Mr. Sharma's main objectives.

"One young Afghan woman I've interviewed, if her family found out about her being lesbian they would undoubtedly kill her,'' Mr. Sharma said. "So it's unavoidable. In certain circumstances, I'm going to have to conceal faces. But I'd rather not."

Still, nothing in that difficult process - including the threats to himself - has destroyed Mr. Sharma's faith in the ability of Islam to tolerate diversity.

"You have to understand," Mr. Sharma said, "that Islam is a religion of more than a billion people, one more than 13 centuries old, that has been hijacked by an extremely small and sometimes loud minority."

Originally published in the November 2, 2004 edition of the New York Times