The Root Interview: Openly Gay Imam Muhsin Hendricks

The South African Muslim cleric says that homosexuality and his religion can co-exist peacefully -- although many of his peers disagree.


MH: Whatever you do in life, if you do it out of conviction and sincerity, and knowing that what you are doing is the right thing, you do not have to fear anything! And I am not prepared to let fear rule my life; I [would] rather choose faith.

TR: Have you inspired other imams to come out?

MH: I do work with some of the imams that are gay, but they are still in the closet because it is really not easy to come out in the Muslim community: People might lose their job, their status within the community … I also work with a lot of straight imams that are very sensitive about the issue in my community.

TR: In South Africa, the post-apartheid constitution of 1996 does not criminalize homosexuals. Still, the stigma is strong within some communities. Is it worse in the Muslim community?

MH: You must remember that our constitution is a very young one. So although we have a very brilliant constitution, it has not reached the grass roots yet, and there are a lot of pockets of conservative communities — not just in the Muslim community. So although we are protected by the constitution, we still fear that anti-LGBT groups might do something to harm us. It is a constant challenge.

TR: Do Muslim LGBTs often get married to keep their homosexuality secret?

MH: A lot of them do. That is one of the ways they negotiate the dilemma between their sexuality and their faith. Some of them would stay in marriage, some of them would have clandestine affairs outside of marriage, but we constantly work with them to help them find the truth within themselves and to bring themselves to honesty. But it is a long process.

TR: What kind of help does the Inner Circle bring to Muslim LGBTs?

MH: The Inner Circle was created 13 years ago to give support to Muslims who happen to be queer. The other purpose is to empower the Muslim community that they come from. We have various programs for building the self-esteem of queer Muslims, and a sort of workshop and training that we take outside into the community to educate about queer issues.

TR: Do you see some progress?

MH: It is a slow process, but definitely, there have been milestones. For instance, we came out with a documentary, A Jihad for Love [by Parvez Sharma], and it changed a lot of minds. In 2009 we came out with a book called Hijab: Unveiling Queer Muslim Lives [by Pepe Hendricks and Muhsin Hendricks], where there were real stories. A lot of people have written back to us to say they appreciated this — and this actually improves the understanding of homosexuality. Lately we have been invited by a lot by universities in South Africa to talk about the issue of Islam and sexuality and gender.

Habibou Bangré is a writer based in France.

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