Parvez Sharma's new documentary, A Jihad for Love, is a remarkable exploration, six years in the making, of the lives and struggles of gays and lesbians in the Islamic world today. From a pair of Sufi lesbians in Turkey to a religious instructor in South Africa to young men in Iran and Egypt who have been jailed for their sexual orientation, to India, France, and Canada, the film casts an unblinking eye on the queer underground. Documentary has the power of one person, telling the story of an individual we can get to know, deeply, and to identify with. This is not political posturing or abstract statistics. It is a journey of pain and suffering, and ultimately hope.
Sharma has done something quite brilliant with this project. It is not a story that is outside of Islam, not an attack on Islam. For the most part, the principals in the story are observant, devoted believers. They ask the simple question, does not God, who made me, have a place for me? Far from being anti-Islamic, the film rescues Islam from charges of narrowness by showing the range of beliefs within the faith.
That is the real meaning of this Jihad -- a struggle to know God, a God of love. Parvez Sharma recently related this in an interview on Democracy Now:
"'Jihad' is almost an English-language word now. And this whole idea of the Jihad al-Nafs, which is the struggle with the self, and the greater jihad within Islam is rarely spoken about. I feel there is a major movement right now in Islamic thought for progressive Muslim voices to take back some of the discussions that have been taken away from us. So this whole idea of taking jihad, a much contested word, and putting it right next to love, I think is very powerful."
The West is often pleased to congratulate itself on its open, liberal culture. And authors have been pleased to flatter our narcissism by presenting us as the pinnacle of civilization. Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran and Dai Sijie's Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress suggest that others want only this, to be more like us.
But Sharma's documentary asks us a deeper question -- for the story can be told and retold in many cultures. Just as Sandi DuBowski (a producer of this film) did in his documentary, Trembling before G-d, he is asking us to examine our core religious structures. DuBowski's film is about the journey of Orthodox Jews, lesbians and gay men, who also seek to stay within the faith, to accept themselves and gain acceptance. There are many, many films and books of Christian LGBT people struggling to stay in the church. And a beautiful account of a Hindu Tamil gay youth in Sri Lanka is found in Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai.
Clearly there is a contested notion of God, within all communities of faith. On the one side there is the authoritarian, punishing, intolerant God. This is the belief for people who love to follow rules and, when presented with a new commandment or rule they had not heard about, they gladly incorporate it into their list of "don'ts." They are tied to their religion by a hatred of the "other," and indeed their leaders need to conjure up frightening pictures of the other in order to keep the faithful fervent and to keep the cash flowing in.
On the other side, there is the God of compassion, of the real lives of people at the base. Far from sneering at humanity in all its complexity, this God declares that humans are made in his/her image and so the flame of the spirit dwells within each person. The struggle is not about the enlightened West vs. the backwards Muslims. It is instead a struggle between the authoritarian fundamentalists on one side and the democratic ethicists on the other.
To take a recent case in Christianity as an example, just look at the scandals of molestation of male and female children by Catholic Church authorities in recent years. Does anyone really believe this is something that just happened, an explosion of violations that popped up in the past generation? Of course not. This is in the nature of authoritarian religions -- and goes back thousands of years. When you have an institution that couples authoritarian power with repression of sexuality, you have a ready-made formula for domination, rape, and abuse. Those who preach repression, under the guise of whatever religion, are the ones who are masking these disgusting transgressions.
In the end, Sharma is challenging us to understand God as all knowing and God as love. Such a spiritual commitment, disarming in its simplicity, would bring crashing down religious bullies and murderers all over the world.