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For Whose Eyes? My American Gay Sensibilities Collide with Those of a Muslim Friend

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My childhood friend Yosra and I are in conflict, though I should clarify that "conflict" may conjure a different expectation for readers than what Yosra and I generally face.

Yosra and I build on more than three decades of friendship and were raised by the standards of "Minnesota nice" in an environment, on and around a very ideologically diverse liberal arts college campus, where cultures running into each other was more norm than exception. As a result, we've both got reasonable listening skills and are at least somewhat practiced in non-reaction. We've grown additionally skilled at picking our battles in light of the antipathy we've encountered as a gay man and an American expatriate Muslim woman. Thus, when Yosra and I have conflict, it's largely on a specific issue and doesn't get nasty or personal.

We've chosen to write about it jointly and occasionally blog/counter-blog on the differences in our worlds.

And now we have this issue: I posted a cartoon on my Facebook page featuring a white-bearded old man in a chef uniform, presumably God, and the cartoon offended Yosra from a religious standpoint. She objected to the visual representation of God, regardless of the light in which it was being presented, and asked that I shield such things from her view by selectively blocking any similar content from appearing on her computer screen. I fired back that if she didn't like what I have to say on my own page, she should focus her gaze elsewhere. My posts appear in her feed because she subscribes to them, not because I'm somehow foisting them upon her.

My response to Yosra was curt, mostly because the issue seems nonsensical to me -- and by "issue," I don't refer to a reverent Muslim's choice to honor tradition by distancing from depictions of God or Muhammad, but the notion of it being incumbent on others to shield one's view from such things.

This in itself (the swift and absolute nature of my own response) presents me with a challenge. I reject, by and large, the notion of fundamentalism, because I view unerring adherence to any one fixed code or set of beliefs as antithetical to the Golden Rule (the foundation of Islam, Judaism, Christianity and arguably compassionate atheism) and a clear impediment to our collective growth as a race. I find this the case both in abstract and in how it plays out in politics and world religion -- within each of the major traditions there exists both those who are aware of the necessity of flexibility, and groups of followers who are less willing to accommodate others or see their position as beliefs vs. singular truth.

The fundamentalist embrace of dogma and rules is the antithesis of free speech and fluid exchange of ideas, concepts and (in America) laws that I embrace. By giving Yosra what amounted to a "no way!" to what seemed, in the moment, an unreasonable request of me, I was showing rigidity -- another way of describing fundamentalism -- of my own.

I want to again be clear that I am raising questions about my own fundamentalist tendencies as an LGBT rights activist and political creature, not assailing Islamic fundamentalism or insinuating anything about Yosra. While Yosra may embrace traditions other than those in which we were raised, and which I still largely follow, there appears to be no attempt on her part to shame or marginalize me for our differences, no suggestion that I am less valid as a person because I have not chosen the same code she has.

There are certainly aspects of my Ben-ness that have been challenging for Yosra. She's more qualified to speak on that than I am, but I recognize that my being gay is not easy for her, and my choice over the past few years to have a tattoo sleeve designed and applied to my arm is also outside her comfort zone. I find less challenge in how Yosra leads her life or how she worships, perhaps in part because my approach to both life and religion are, on balance, more laissez-faire than Yosra's.

The ridigity of my response aside, there remains the question: how far is it appropriate for me to go, as someone who loves and respects Yosra, to protect her from exposure to something that offends her sensibilities?

Her request strikes me as odd, inasmuch as we're talking about a posting on my own Facebook page, in specific a cartoon that not only doesn't malign Muhammad or God but in fact doesn't even reference Islam or Prophet Muhammad. It was an older cartoon to which a near-total majority of people, of a variety of faiths, had publicly raised zero objection in the past. Neither the intent nor the current presentation on my page were controversial or intended to goad anyone.

It also seems unworkable for me to honor Yosra's request that each time I post -- and as an LGBT and human rights advocate, I put up material many times a day -- I go down a list of 4,000 friends and 7,500 group page followers to selectively block the content from appearing for individuals who might not be thrilled by this post or that post. (Actually, Yosra merely requested I disinclude her, but I'll assume she'd want the same courtesy extended to others.) In order to do this, I would need to keep track of the various and sometimes contradictory religious and cultural sensitivities of thousands of people, ranging from family members to outright strangers.

Hindu master Ramana Maharishi wrote about the folly of trying to cover the world in leather to avoid the pain of walking on thorns and stones when it is more useful to simply wear shoes.

At some point it becomes each of our individual responsibility to take what information from the world we deem useful and allow the rest to simply exist, floating downstream without our interference or, ideally, excessive comment. This becomes not just a utopian notion but almost imperative, when we choose to function around others who do not necessarily mirror our sensibilities.

My positions on both speech and the rights/protection of Muslims (as with all people of faith and conviction) are clear and established. I regularly post items spotlighting the difficulties faced by Muslim Americans in their current struggle for cultural and religious respect. I'm a member of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and I support their efforts, as I likewise support advocacy organizations like the NAACP and often reference the work of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate speech and groups within the United States.

So what of Yosra's and my friendship? Do I want to lose a friend over a cartoon? Of course not! Furthermore, I don't wish to be a hypocrite, nor do I wish to be religiously insensitive. This would undercut some of what I hold most dear in life: being intolerant to the needs and sensibilities of groups other than my own challenges the very notion of compassion. But what is being requested of me feels more regressive and draconian, not a reasonable appeal for sensitivity. So at the risk of being rigid, I will suggest to all the same as I will to Yosra:

You are welcome to read what I put on my page. At times, it may delight you. At other times, it may offend you. Take what you will and leave the rest. If, on balance, you are more displeased than pleased with what I say, it's your prerogative to move along and not look at my posts. I don't expect everyone to agree with me, and I won't be offended.

Namaste, go in peace, God bless you, Alhumdelilah, שאלוהים יברך אותך ... in no particular order.