Navigating Culture Wars

When Ali Medina moved to the United States in 2018, after natural disasters made his native Puerto Rico uninhabitable, he was seeking refuge—not just from environmental disaster, but also from a faith practice that did not accept him. Medina, who identifies as queer, had grown up in a Methodist church that was explicitly homophobic. Still, Medina wanted to remain connected to a spiritual tradition, and upon moving, he joined his university’s Muslim Students Association and was introduced to Islam. His family’s cultural ties to Spain led him to explore the history of Islamic Spain, where he discovered the presence of what we’d call now, in modern terms, “queer Muslims.” 

“Without that coexistence and convivencia in the Islamic Golden Age, I would not have found myself within Islam,” he said. 

Within a year, he took his Shahada at Islamic Foundation North in Illinois with Shaykh Azfar Uddin, in whom Medina confided that he was gay. Uddin told him that it was okay to be queer, so long as he didn’t act on the sin. At the time, Medina didn’t make too much of Uddin’s guidance. For him, it seemed more generous than the condemnations he had heard regularly in church. He internalized his queerness, accepting not making it an outward part of his identity. 

“I was very in love with Islam,” Medina told me. “I didn’t know a lot of red flags—how similar it was to the Christian, ‘Love the sinner, not the sin.’”

ON MAY 23, 2023, Medina awoke to find that a group of Muslim scholars and preachers had released a public statement titled “Navigating Differences: Clarifying Sexual and Gender Ethics in Islam.” The open letter, signed by more than a hundred scholars, including well-known theologians in the American and Canadian Muslim communities, set out to denounce “LGBTQ practices, beliefs, and advocacy” from an Islamic point of view and defend the right to do so. 

“Islamic sexual and gender ethics are at odds with certain recently popular societal views,” the authors wrote, and public disapproval is “increasingly met with charges of intolerance and unwarranted accusations of bigotry.”

To Medina’s dismay, Uddin was one of the signatories. By then, though, after hiding his queerness for about a year, Medina had come to find comfort and confidence in his queerness through the traditions of Shia Islam. He was disappointed by the publication of the letter but committed to his faith and to supporting other queer Muslims.

“I think the reason why I was able to come out as a queer Muslim was because of the Shia view of ‘adl and divine justice; this unique aspect of complete eradication and abolition of tyrannical systems,” he explained. “It does not matter if the entire Ummah is against me. The entire Ummah was against Imam Hussain, and he still stood there against oppression. So even if it’s me against the Ummah, I’m still gonna stand for myself. And for people like me.” 

According to Shaykh Yasir Qadhi, the dean of the Islamic Seminary of America and recently named chair of the Fiqh Council of North America, he and a core group of scholars drafted the initial letter and shared it among other religious leaders, lawyers, and PR experts. Once they had finalized their version, they sent it out to hundreds of religious leaders across the country. 

“We did not get any opposition from any of them,” Qadhi told me. Within a few weeks, the statement had amassed almost 300 signatures.

The authors positioned themselves as representing a diverse range of theological schools. Out of the 293 signatories, however, nine were women, and only two represented Shia organizations. In the letter, the writers acknowledged Islam’s rich tradition of diverse perspectives in jurisprudence, but rather than provide those perspectives, they asserted that opposing LGBTQ practices and beliefs is “explicitly stated in revelation,” a “necessary element of Islam,” “unanimously agreed upon by qualified scholars,” and “deemed immutable,” while categorically rejecting others’ attempts to reinterpret Islamic texts in favor of LGBTQ affirmation. 

They also wrote that “God explicitly condemns sexual relations with the same sex,” referencing, without quoting, Qur’anic verses that support their position. They did, however, quote scripture saying believers have no choice in any decree, asserting that any disagreement with their stance is a violation of Islamic commandments. 

“Many of us clerics were being sent questions by our congregations across the country regarding the stance of Islam, the moral and ethical stance, the theological position that Muslims have towards actions that are same-sex related,” Qadhi said. “Can we rethink through the Qur’anic message or is this something that is fundamental to what we believe? Muslim theologians and clerics felt the need to make a definitive statement about what exactly the position of Islam is.” 

He said that a number of Muslim politicians and nonreligious leaders were confusing American Muslims about the reality of Islam’s stance on queerness, and the statement urged such figures to refrain from making comments supporting LGBTQ communities in the name of Islam.

The authors also addressed Muslims who “struggle with desires that fall outside the boundaries set by God,” drawing a line between feelings, actions, and identity, and also valorizing self-restraint and its spiritual reward. 

IN THE COURSE of reporting, I spoke to a number of academics, scholars, activists, and queer Muslims about their reactions to the statement. What I heard over and over again was disappointment, but also that it wasn’t surprising. 

“Navigating Differences” represents the latest in a culture war where some in the Muslim community have increasingly aligned with far-right ideological groups. This articulation of an Islamic denouncement of gender and sexual minorities is less a doctrinal truth than a political strategy. But it has also defined a schism among contemporary Muslims, many of whom view it as ahistorical and misaligned with Islamic values and ethics. 

“It was unsurprising, but still incredibly difficult to read,” Moid Ali, a New York–based 27-year-old who identifies as queer, told me. “This attitude has existed. I’ve grown up steeped in it,” he said. “But to have this sort of contemporary piece to point to now, with all of these names and credentials listed, it’s fanning the flames that have been there for so long.”

Ali, whose family is Pakistani and immigrated in the nineties, grew up in Wisconsin and attended the Islamic Society of Milwaukee, whose imam, Ameer Hamza, signed the Navigating Differences letter. Ali told me that, growing up, queerness was never directly referenced or preached about in sermons. 

“A lot of the anti-queer sentiment that was passed on was a lot more indirect,” he said. “It was more the cultural attitudes surrounding the masjid.” Other boys at the mosque’s basketball court would call each other “fags” and dig at him. “It immediately closed me off from building community,” he said. 

At home, where his father took a hard line on the sinfulness of being gay, things were even more direct. 

Having gay friends, having gay content found on my devices—that was always met with intense aggression and violence,” Ali said. “As a kid your logical conclusion is, let’s keep these worlds as separate as possible until I have the space and freedom to figure it out myself.”

Through exploring queerness in Islam and tapping into queer Muslim community, Ali has managed to remain attached to his faith. 

Mohammad Mertaban, a physician in California, likewise grew up knowing he was gay. His religious community pushed him to change that. “I got married [to a woman] because I was told by three scholars and three of my best friends that that’s what I was supposed to do, and I was going to change if I got married,” he told me. 

Throughout his adolescent years, he said, he was told not to ask questions, to put them away in a metaphorical backpack, that these questions were the devil sowing doubt. “At one point, I felt like I just put so many things in that backpack, it didn’t fit anymore.”

Mertaban came out nine years ago. He is no longer married, but considers his ex-wife his best friend, and they co-parent their two children together. 

Like Ali, Mertaban wasn’t surprised by what the scholars had to say in the letter. Rather, it was the timing that shocked him. “At a time when a lot of transgendered and queer youth are essentially being attacked across the country, at a time when their lives are at stake, it’s incredibly tone-deaf.” 

To Mertaban, mosques and institutions remain unwelcoming spaces. “To this day, there are still scholars that are doing what they did to me 20 years ago, which is telling people to get married. And so that kind of stuff needs to really stop. That is truly damaging people’s lives.”

As a physician, Mertaban is also concerned for the health of queer youth in his community. “It’s a little overwhelming to even think about the dangers that face queer and trans youth in our country.” Mertaban elaborated on the poorer health outcomes queer and trans youth face: rates of anxiety and depression almost three times higher than their straight and cisgendered counterparts, higher rates of substance abuse, alcoholism, STIs, HIV transmission, as well as higher rates of suicide and hospitalizations. And the lack of gender-affirming care discourages them from accessing treatment. 

“When youth are in gender-affirming environments, all of these risks are mitigated. And that includes support from their families, neighborhoods, teachers, doctors, and other aspects of their life.” 

Kifah, a 29-year-old community organizer based in the Midwest who identifies as queer, said although she’d heard some version of this homophobic rhetoric her entire life, it has worsened in the past five years. (Kifah is a pseudonym, to protect her anonymity.)

"Since 2018, maybe, if you’re going to Jumu’ah every week, you cannot live a month without there being anti-queer rhetoric in a khutbah,” she said. “It’s made life a lot more unlivable as a queer Muslim.”

She’s witnessed that impact in her family as well.

“Growing up, my parents weren’t queer affirming, but they were quite neutral. My best friends had lesbian moms, and like, my parents were totally fine with that,” she told me. “My dad in particular has really radicalized, but only on this question of sexuality. Like he’s very far left, and has become further and further left on other issues, and yet now [the LGBTQ agenda] is like this knee-jerk fear that’s omnipresent in his life.”

Like Kifah, many queer Muslims I spoke with asked either to remain anonymous or not share identifying details out of concern for their safety. 

ACROSS THE UNITED STATES, queer and trans people are facing higher rates of violence. As of 2020, around one out of every five hate crimes committed in the U.S. were motivated by anti-LGBTQ bias, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Anti-queer and trans violence continues to set new records every year. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project documented a more than 300 percent increase in anti-LGBTQ incidents in 2022 compared with the previous year. Last June also saw the highest levels of anti-LGBTQ demonstrations in a single month since ACLED began collecting data for the United States in 2020. 

According to Yotam Ophir, an assistant professor of communications at the University at Buffalo who studies misinformation and extremism and was quoted in a Scientific American article titled “How Anti-LGBTQ+ Rhetoric Fuels Violence,” the far right rhetoric of white nationalist groups, extremist influencers, and conservative politicians is to blame. 

“The LGBTQ+ community is now at the heart of the new iteration of the culture wars that we have been unfortunately going through in recent years,” he told Scientific American, and has become “a staple of right-wing messaging and often propaganda.”

This culture war is not only taking place inside religious institutions. State legislatures and school boards have become new battlegrounds.  

According to the Human Rights Campaign, 22 states in the United States have passed laws or policies banning gender-affirming care for youth. The ACLU is tracking 508 anti-LGBTQ bills across U.S. state legislatures that aim to limit and restrict identification on IDs and documents; weaken nondiscrimination laws for employers, businesses, and health systems; ban books and performances; ban affirming health care; prevent use of public facilities like bathrooms and locker rooms; alter school curriculums; or limit participation in school sports. That number has already exceeded more than twice the 180 such bills that were introduced the previous year, in 2022. 

The plurality of these anti-LGBTQ bills focus on schools and education. One of the best-known examples is Florida’s Parental Rights in Education bill, colloquially the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, that Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law in March 2022, prohibiting classroom discussions about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary schools. In 2023, the bill was expanded to include all grades up to grade 12. The state’s Department of Education has instructed superintendents that the “teaching of foundational content on sexual orientation and gender identity is illegal under state law.” As a result, in August, the College Board released a statement announcing that AP Psychology had effectively been banned in Florida, as the banned content was essential to curricula. Similar bills have been introduced in 24 states since 2021. 

IN RECENT YEARS, fueled by overlapping views on the LGBTQ community, segments of Muslim American civil society and its leaders have increasingly aligned with the American far right. Allies in this culture war, Muslims have become the face of book bans and school opt-out options in the name of “parental rights” and “family values.” 

In “Navigating Differences,” the authors wrote that the need arose from a “troubling … push to promote LGBTQ-centric values among children through legislation and regulations,” undermining Muslim parents’ “constitutional right to freely practice their religion.” That free practice, here, meant the ability to reject having their children learn about the experiences of LGBTQ communities. 

In Maryland’s Montgomery county this past June, a Muslim-led coalition of parents protested the removal of an option to opt-out from having their children attend classes whose curricula related to gender, family life, and relationships. The school district communicated that they were providing books that included LGBTQ characters in order to promote inclusivity and have students see themselves or their families represented. 

In a memo sent to the district in November 2022, released by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), school principals articulated their and other community members’ objections to the books’ content as well as concerns from some parents about “indoctrination” and “hidden agendas.” Examples of concerning content highlighted in the memo included third- and fourth-grade books in which a prince falls in love with a knight or a school-age girl falls in love with another girl. The document also took issue with messaging offered to teachers. IT is dismissive of religious beliefs, they say, to respond to a student who says “Being (gay, lesbian, queer etc.) is wrong in my religion,” by saying not everyone believes the same thing and we can treat each other with respect. Or, they say, it is shaming a student to tell them that a comment like, “That’s weird. He can’t be a boy if he was born a girl,” is hurtful. 

CAIR, historically a civil rights organization, and Muslim parents in the school district found themselves working with organizations like Moms for Liberty, a controversial group that was termed an extremist organization by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Moms for Liberty advocates against school curricula that include subjects like LGBTQ rights and critical race theory. 

During a school board meeting that became a flashpoint for community members on either side of the issue, Montgomery County Council member Kristin Mink responded to opt-out demands. She said that while she didn’t believe the Muslim parents were coming from a perspective of hate, “You cannot say that this is a particular demographic of people who, when they appear in books, we now allow some students and families to say ‘We’re not going to read those books.’ There‘s no way to do that without sending a clear message to the LGBTQIA+ community that you are seen as different, as other, and other people don’t need to learn about or have you included in the curriculum.”

Last year, in Ohio’s Hilliard City schools, the local Muslim community vocally supported the passage of a religious release policy allowing Christian students to leave school to attend religious classes. At the same school board meeting where the policy was passed, advocates asked to have LGBTQ affirming signage hanging in the schools removed. At the state level, a State Board of Education member proposed a resolution that local districts ignore federal guidelines on LGBTQ student protections, even though in doing so they would risk losing federal support for free and reduced lunch programs, threatening food-insecure students as well. 

IN A STRING OF right wing decisions in 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Carson v. Makin that states had to offer tuition assistance vouchers for use at religious private schools. CAIR National publicly welcomed the decision, saying it helped Islamic schools as well. This decision would cause funding otherwise reserved for public schools, or non-sectarian private schools, to be diverted to religious institutions.

“Sure, in the abstract, maybe this allows more Islamic schools to be viable and sustainable,” Mehreen, a Midwest-based attorney, said. (Mehreen is a pseudonym, to protect her anonymity.) “But with any political sense about the way this country works, it is about sapping resources from public education in the name of Christian nationalism. Muslim thought leaders are willing to put on blinders as to broader political context, to shift and morph and re-understand things that are blatantly right wing, blatantly about defunding public education.” 

When I posed the question of this socio-political context to Qadhi, he rejected any notion of political alignment, saying such a reading was being projected onto the statement. “Our concerns are not political. Our concerns are moral. We care about the wellbeing of our people.”

A statement released by Shaykh Hatem al-Haj, another core writer of the letter, revealed a different set of objectives behind its authorship than what Qadhi told me. According to al-Haj, the primary purpose was to serve “Muslim parents interacting with schools and boards of education.” He stated other goals were to equip Muslim youth with the language to express their convictions, to imbue societal discourse with Islamic scholarship, and to deter Muslim public figures from promulgating misleading interpretations of the Qur’an. Providing clarity to Muslims confused or uncertain about this issue “was not the main intent of the document.”

This effort to enshrine specific religious interpretations in schools, governments, and other socio-political spaces has been an ongoing project, and Muslims have taken inspiration from the Christian right-wing. Muslims are making use of laws like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 federal law prohibiting the government from substantially burdening the free exercise of religion unless the government had a compelling interest and did so in the least restrictive way possible, Ani Zonneveld, the founder and president of Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV), told me. 

In December 2022, the Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission (IPHRC) of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) hosted a meeting to discuss the “Right to Family Life: Islamic and Human Rights Perspectives to Counter Challenges to the Institution of Marriage” at their general session in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. A document outlining the discussion’s outcomes listed panelists and attendees, including representatives from organizations like the International Islamic Fiqh Academy and Family Watch International, a fundamentalist Christian lobbyist group opposed to homosexuality, legal abortion, and birth control. 

They reaffirmed “traditional family values”: that “society can only prosper through a stable family achieved through marriage between man and woman as husband and wife,” that alternative living arrangements and sexual permissiveness “threatens the integrity of the family and is harmful to the fabric of society,” and that homosexuality is “detestable and forbidden.” It outlined their role in funding and promoting family values initiatives at every level: through United Nations working groups, national institutions and legislative measures, media strategies, and community-based initiatives that drive debates over school curriculums. They also called on media, educational institutions, and religious institutions to combat the normalization of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) discourse.

“Just as these large Christian right organizations have funded much of the Christian right activism in Europe and in Africa, the Muslims are starting to do the same, with Saudi money,” Zonneveld said. 

In an exploration of this broad alignment between Muslims and the far right, from electoral politics to the personality cults of men like Andrew Tate, Rasha Al Aqeedi and Lydia Wilson wrote in New Lines Magazine about how conflicts over gender roles and LGBTQ rights have come front and center in the new “anti-woke” culture wars. The far right has found in Islam a model for “anti-wokeness” and the subjugation of women and gender and sexual minorities and, Aqeedi and Wilson write, is no longer seeing Muslims through the lens of terrorism but as potential allies in the culture war. 

Perhaps more accurate, though, is that the right can occasionally cast aside fearmongering about Muslims to prioritize a convenient alliance in a shared culture war.

FOLLOWING ISRAEL'S BOMBINGS of Gaza after Hamas’s attack on October 7, Islamophobic rhetoric has once again been drummed up, both abroad and domestically. In the month after the attack, CAIR received more than 1,200 reports of anti-Arab and Islamophobic bias incidents, compared with approximately 400 they would receive over a month in 2022. Palestinians and their supporters around the world have been called terrorists or terrorist sympathizers. On October 13, rumors spread of a “Global Day of Jihad,” inciting fear of Islamic terrorism around planned protests of Israel’s military actions. This rhetoric has resulted in the stabbing deaths of a 6-year-old Palestinian child in Illinois and a Houston-area Muslim woman as well as the shooting of three young Palestinian men in Vermont. 

At the same time, homonationalism has become a large part of the discourse around Israel’s assault on Gaza as well. On November 13, a photo of an IDF soldier holding a pride flag in Gaza following Israel’s ground-incursion began circulating on social media. It was the latest, and in many ways most extreme, example of what many call “pinkwashing”—the promotion of a gay-friendly image of Israel in order to justify its violence against Palestinians. 

Allies in this culture war, Muslims have become the face of book bans and school opt-out options in the name of ‘parental rights’ and ‘family values.’

Queer people in solidarity with Palestine are regularly told by critics that they would have no rights or be brutally murdered in Palestine. But a long history of queer solidarity with Palestine as well as movements of queer Palestinians resist this weaponization of queer identities. Rather, these groups recognize the interconnectedness of their struggles for liberation and assert that any government or society’s record on gay rights does not justify the mass murder of its people. Queer Palestinians regularly face blackmail by Israeli authorities who threaten to out them, and their queerness does not protect them from humiliation at Israeli checkpoints, from bulldozing and forced evictions from their homes, or from Israel’s mass bombing campaign in Gaza. 

Queerness alone, then, is not a marker of progressivism, but a tool regularly employed in political alliances. States like the United States and Israel will use a “gay-friendly” image to absolve themselves of racism and violence while also ignoring the homophobia that remains rampant in their own societies. At the same time, the right-wing groups that some Muslim leaders ally themselves with for their conservative values around gender and sexuality are quick to call Muslims terrorists or backward for many of the same views.  

Medina, whom I spoke with before the assault on Gaza, warned that these alliances never ensure acceptance and safety. “It’ll be a matter of time before they betray us again,” he said. “Before Muslims were called terrorists, there were indigenous, Black, and Latinos, the first terrorists. We’ve been there. We’ve done that. You’ll side with them for a couple of years, and they’ll do it again to you, and you’ll come back to the left.”

But for the Muslims who shun solidarity with other targets of the right wing, there seems to be a political amnesia. Despite Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban and anti-Muslim rhetoric, the power of the culture war around queerness and family values was strong enough that Muslims flocked to the right electorally. More Muslims voted for Trump in 2020 than in 2016. In many ways, though, this rightward shift represents a realignment of sorts.

Prior to 9/11, Muslims voted largely Republican, aligning with conservatives on social values. In 2000, George W. Bush garnered about 80 percent of Muslim votes. It was the targeting of Muslims by the state during the ensuing War on Terror, both domestically and abroad, that brought them into coalitions with other minorities—African American communities, the LGBTQ community, and other marginalized communities. 

MOSQUES HAVE BEEN SITES of further strengthening these alliances with the right, and conservatives have also moved to court Muslim constituents. 


“Right wing PACs have reached out to local imams and community leaders to align with them on the basis of family values,” Mehreen said. “People host presentations inside of the masjid about how to get involved in your kids’ school community.”

That political shift, or realignment, has also coincided with a rolling back of solidarity with other targeted communities. 

“I would get calls from some progressive Christian organizations saying that we defended this mosque in Long Beach when their walls were spray-painted with derogatory terms, and we came out and rallied for them,” Zonneveld told me. “And now the imam is organizing a thank-you to the community and disinvited the head of the organization who happened to be gay.”

In 2015, Hamtramck, an enclave of Detroit and the only Muslim-majority city in the United States, elected its first Muslim-majority city council, which was supported by the city’s liberal constituents. By 2022, Hamtramck had an entirely Muslim city council. 

In 2023, the council passed legislation banning rainbow flags on city property, a move that was painful for many of the groups that had worked alongside the city’s Muslim population and had celebrated their electoral victories.

“We supported you when you were threatened, and now our rights are threatened, and you’re the one doing the threatening,” said Karen Majewski, a former mayor of Hamtramck, in an interview with The Guardian.

Although the ban was spearheaded by and with the support of the local community, right-wing conservatives connected to national Republican groups had joined in pushing for the ban as well. Many similar bans in other cities have been driven by primarily white, politically conservative communities. 

In Michigan, CAIR joined Catholic and Protestant groups in opposing an amendment to add sexual orientation and gender identity and expression as protected categories under the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in employment, housing, and public services, among other areas, based on religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, and marital status.

Even in spaces where Muslims have found themselves in solidarity with the LGBTQ community, Muslim organizations and leaders are stepping back. 

Kifah witnessed Muslim organizations distancing themselves from queer ones during her time on campus as a student. “When I was in school, the Muslim Student Association wouldn’t cosponsor an anti-Trump rally because, out of the thirty other orgs that were on it, two of them were queer orgs.” 

Major religious leaders have also walked back political statements of solidarity they had made in the past. Omar Suleiman, the founder and president of Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research and a signatory of the “Navigating Differences” letter, has publicly expressed regret about some aspects of his activism from years ago, including when he found himself and other Muslims in protests that also included pride flags. He expressed that he was wrong to be in protests that included such flags, even if those protests were focused on Muslim issues. According to New Lines’ reporting on his statement, he explained that Muslims at the time were in “a different place in America,” where they had to defend themselves even if that meant indirect association with groups they categorically stood against. 

Rising Islamophobia clearly indicates otherwise, but it appeared such Muslim leaders no longer felt on the defensive. Instead they chose to ally with the right, in the belief that aligning on social issues could redeem Muslims in the eyes of right-wing Islamophobes. Qadhi told me that “if some amongst these far-right fanatics tone down in their hatred against us, some amongst them manage to recognize they were wrong in their bigotry, surely that is a good thing. Surely that is not something we should be against. It’s as if the left has quite literally canceled the redemption of the right.”

However, Zonneveld believes the calculus of Muslim and right-wing leaders is not always a reflection of the values of their community members. The actions of these leaders and organizations appear strategically driven to cement power and influence rather than to reflect the changing attitudes of their congregants and constituents. 

“The Muslim ban and anti-Muslim narrative, that really riles up the particular Christian Right base in the masses, but in the institutions, they see ‘these Muslims actually share our values,’” Zonneveld told me. “So it’s a very strategic move by the Christian Right to realize that instead of demonizing the Muslim right, they should be working with them.”

And that strategic thinking goes both ways. Despite Muslim communities being targeted by the American government and right-wing groups, Muslim leaders have long worked with state actors. 

“The alignment of the right and the Muslim American clerics is a long history, one that is institutionally supported, financially supported, and goes right back to 9/11. We focus so much on the sort of Islamophobic response to 9/11 and the fact that Muslims became a surveilled, persecuted, minoritized religious community that had to face the brunt of state violence. What often gets missed in that conversation is how elite Muslim leadership participated in that surveillance,” said Ali Olomi, a historian and scholar of medieval and modern Muslim thought. 

In the post-9/11 moment, many of these mosque leaders worked with the State and Homeland Security departments and received surveillance and CVE (Countering Violent Extremism) funding. Olomi said what we’re seeing today is more a reassertion than a rightward shift. “These people have always been aligned with the right, and that is because fundamentally both the statement and the alignment is all about power.”

This specific brand of right-wing politics, though, defined by scapegoating gender and sexual minorities, is an increasingly global phenomenon. In addition to the movement within the U.S. and Canada, in 2021 Hungary passed a law forbidding the advertisement or distribution of materials that display or promote homosexuality, leading to children’s books being banned for containing LGBTQ characters or needing to be wrapped and sealed in bookstores. In Pakistan, where the gender nonconforming Khwaja Sira has long had a role in public life and a third gender was legally recognized, national debates erupted this past year over the revocation of parts of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, originally passed in 2018. 

IN THE WAKE of the “Navigating Differences” letter, I repeatedly heard concerns about the statement coming out at a time when queer people were being targeted.  

“If you're in a place where, left and right, you're seeing anti-queer legislation being put up in your home state, I would assume it hit particularly hard for queer Muslims reading there,” Moid Ali said. 

Queer Muslims are afraid of the physical violence that inevitably follows homophobia in policy, legislation, and curricula. Ghada Sasa, a doctoral candidate in political science in Canada who does not identify as queer but has been a vocal advocate for queer people, received death threats after speaking out at length on social media following the letter’s publication.

“It’s honestly deeply disturbing that the letter was released, and at a time that we’ve seen so much violence against queer people and allies,” she told me. “I believe that all these scholars have blood on their hands. We can’t divorce language from physical violence. When we’re fearmongering, that dehumanizes. I think it’s extremely dangerous.”

The letter’s signatories and the Muslim parents and activists organizing around laws and education insist that their intentions are to have their voices heard, not to instigate hate or sow division. 

“There is no language in the document preaching any hatred or demeaning attitude towards anybody,” Qadhi told me. “We have a problem with people reading in alienation or hatred; that’s on you, not on us. It’s not a part of our statement. It’s not a part of our sermons. We’re very welcoming and loving of everybody.”

Qadhi and other supporters of the letter say they are the ones being targeted and being forced to accept something they view as immoral, and that criticism of their motivations, from politicians, media, or civil rights organizations, as unjustly demonizing and divisive. 

"When it comes to the LGBT issue, we feel, every single one of us signatories, and dare I say, every single mainstream cleric in this country, we feel that our position and stance is being infringed upon. We’re not even allowed to make this claim that certain actions are unethical and immoral,” Qadhi said. “It’s flouted [sic] in your face constantly. We can hardly watch a television show or go out shopping without our children being shown a system that we believe is normalizing that which should not be. It would be akin to selling drugs at every street corner.”

But while some acknowledge the letter signatories’ attempts to distance themselves from calls to violence, many don’t believe it absolves these leaders.

In a response she published after the letter, Zonneveld wrote: “Yes, the statement does claim that the LGBTQ+ community has a right to live free from abuse. But the declaration will likely give its readers exactly the opposite message. One cannot simply say that a way of life is morally wrong and then expect that those who live it will avoid ridicule, shame, hate, and harm. The signatories are simply trying to feel absolved of the violence they will fuel.”

This past September, thousands of Muslims in Canada, joined by other faith-based groups, organized demonstrations across the country in support of their rights as parents over their children’s education. In a particularly jarring instance during one of the protests, some teens stole Pride flags, spit and stomped on them, and attempted to set them on fire. In a recording from a similar event earlier this year in Ottawa, young children stomped on Pride flags; their parents could be heard encouraging them. 

Islam is increasingly representing, for those both within and outside the faith, a religious and political ideology that engenders and empowers hatred and violence directed at queer people, an extension of the male chauvinism that figures like Andrew Tate have popularized and capitalized on. 

To this day, the 2016 Pulse shooting, in which Omar Mateen killed 49 people and injured another 53 at a gay club in Orlando, Florida, still resonates in the American context of tensions between Islam and queerness. 


On July 29, 2023, O’Shae Sibley, a queer Black man, was stabbed at a gas station in Brooklyn, where he was vogueing and dancing before his attacker started yelling homophobic slurs. A witness said the group with Sibley’s killer, 17-year-old Dmitriy Popov, had said they were Muslim and that Sibley should stop dancing. Popov himself was not in fact Muslim, but the incident sparked discourse around whether the rise in anti-LGBTQ sentiment in the Muslim community was enabling violence to the point where an attacker would use Islam as a pretext. 

WITH VIOLENCE AND political targeting enacted in the name of Islam, and homophobic sentiment in their religious spaces driving many queer people away from religion, others have sought instead to reclaim faith on their own terms.

“It’s incredibly hard to know the safety and the comfort and the clarity I feel with Allah when every engagement I try and have communally with my Allah tells me that I’m not allowed to feel that safety; I’m not allowed to feel that ease,” Mehreen said. “There’s so much in the world that is attempting to interfere, to break, to shatter my relationship with the divine.” 

Faith remains important for queer Muslims as well as for many other Muslims who feel that rising conservatism and lack of inclusivity in mainstream Muslim spaces doesn’t represent their understanding of Islam. Finding space within Islam is increasingly a battle over the spirit of the faith, involving not just advocating for the humanity of queer people and other politically progressive causes but also engaging with religious texts and their interpretations. 

“It wasn't just the homophobia that was upsetting,” Kifah said about the “Navigating Differences” letter. “There was no engagement with history at all. There was just no academic rigor in it.” 

The theological question matters to her. Over several years, she’s contended with how and whether queerness and Islam can fit together and didn’t feel comfortable embracing her queer identity or sharing it with others until she resolved that tension. 

“I realized I really needed to engage with the theological question of, ‘Am I allowed to have a relationship with the divine and believe that there is an afterlife that is not the hell that people say,’” she told me. “So much of it for me is about understanding mercy and forgiveness. The idea that human beings cannot dictate in any way—Allah is the only one that can know. And the sense of not creating hell for each other on earth, which I feel like is what we’ve done.”

To feel spiritually right, she didn’t just need a group of people with a shared identity who could validate her;  she needed institutions, experts, and scholars to guide her.

Mehreen echoed this sentiment, saying many queer Muslims are not simply seeking community with an identity-based group; they want to find ways of practicing religion and engaging with theology. “A lot of people don’t do that because you do that in religious institutions, and religious institutions don’t want us there. So we’ve had to end up creating our own religious institutions in my apartment at 4 a.m.,” she said. 

The rejection of queer Muslims in religious spaces has myriad consequences in addition to the implicit harm of rejecting any human on the basis of their race, class, gender, or sexual orientation. In both the services they provide and their influence, institutions like mosques inhabit a powerful place in society from which queer people are excluded.

Mosques are some of the only places where working-class people can go and exist without having to pay money to the institution to justify their presence. They provide hours of childcare, education, free language learning programs, food, clothing, charity, and of course community in an increasingly alienated society. 

Beyond that, they are also sites of ideological production. In community with one another, congregants develop an understanding of themselves and their relationship to society. Such spaces are rare in our privatized and commodified contemporary society. Religious institutions, then, become particularly potent realms of ideological struggle and have a strong impact on the political landscape.

“The Muslim community is 1 percent of the U.S. population, yet the kinds of fights that are occurring—the radicalization in the Muslim community happening along the lines of homophobia and transphobia—is having really outsized political shifts, where Muslims become the face of book bans, for example,” Mehreen said. 

It is because they recognize the power of faith and faith-based institutions that many are trying to engage the spiritual tradition and create spaces that are affirming. Queer Muslims and allies want these spaces to represent an ideology and theology centered on justice and acceptance. 

THE SAME WEEK the “Navigating Differences” statement was released, Medina, who organizes the U.S. branch of the Queer Shia Collective, co-created the Queer Muslim Solidarity Network with leaders from Heart to Grow, Queer Crescent, Vigilant Love, and MASGD (Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity). They view themselves as a sustained organizing effort, not just a response to the statement. 

“We want to focus on how we are actually going to help queer Muslims, because right now the harm is already done,” Medina said. 

The Queer Muslim Solidarity Network is producing queer and Muslim affirming resources and creating a free online platform to access queer and queer affirming books, articles, podcasts, organizations, and mosques. They hope to eventually provide queer and especially trans and nonbinary Muslims with community, mutual aid, legal resources, and monetary assistance. 

Zonneveld has taken a similar approach with Muslims for Progressive Values, producing public educational content online that’s both easy to understand and rooted theologically in the Qur’an, Hadith, and Islamic scholarship.

“If religion is being used to demonize others, then we need to use religion to debunk that ideology,” she argues. “The mosques are not going to change. But the majority of American Muslims have come to our side,” she says, “because we use the language of faith.” 

Zonneveld is optimistic about the position of American Muslims on this issue and other progressive causes. According to a Pew study of American Muslims, between 2007 and 2014, the percentage of Muslim respondents who said homosexuality should be accepted increased from 38 to 45 percent. She sees MPV serving as a community for these Muslims and any who haven’t felt at home in mainstream mosques. 

“A lot of Muslims will say, ‘I don't want to discriminate against homosexuals, but how do I justify that in the name of my religion? That's how a lot of Muslims in the world live their lives, so I have to speak in a language that resonates for them.”

She founded MPV after reassessing her own identity as a Muslim after 9/11. “I was asking, am I a Muslim or not, and if so, what do I stand for,” she told me. “I relearned Islam for myself and discovered that Islam was really much more liberating than the Islam I was raised on.” 

Zonneveld grew up in Malaysia, where she said the Islam that was preached was traditional but not dogmatic like the Islam she’s seen here. “Experiencing Islam in America was very weird. It was an Islam I did not recognize.” 

She no longer felt she could go back to the mosque once she discovered the liberatory and egalitarian values of Islam. That was when she decided to found Muslims for Progressive Values as a space for open-minded people that fosters critical thinking about theology. “They find spiritual inspiration outside of the mosque,” Zonneveld said of believers of conscience. “Who would find spiritual inspiration at the mosque right now? It’s terrible.”

Ghada Sasa went through a similar journey, a crisis of faith in which she questioned how to reconcile her progressive and humanitarian views with a religion purported to be homophobic. She began a Qur’an circle with her friends, reading, analyzing, and drawing on different translations and interpretations. 

“That was really eye-opening and reaffirmed my faith that Islam is about justice and love, and there’s nothing about it that’s homophobic,” she said. But Sasa was soon disappointed when she reached out to local or more prominent reputable Islamic scholars, most of whom were men, about these subjects. She’d either get no response or a refusal to talk about them. 

Sasa said she appreciated seeing “Navigating Differences” critiqued from a political perspective but sought a religious response. Citing the importance of faith to Muslims like her who felt alienated by the statement, she penned a thread on X, previously Twitter, refuting the letter’s claims on religious grounds.   

For Zonneveld and Sasa, it’s become a battle over the soul of the religion. 

“It's important not just to defend a group that is being wrongly treated, but it's also defending Islam as we know it, where it’s very clear—you cannot make things haram that are not,” Sasa said. “Unfortunately, our faith has been tainted to make it this dark scary thing, but its basis is love towards one another and the Creator.”

Sasa, who says she benefits from identifying as a cis, straight woman, felt the need, as part of her faith, to speak out for justice despite the “vile comments” and death threats she received. 

“The humanity of the queer community is not up for debate,” she said. “Our differences should be a joy in our lives and something to celebrate, rather than something to learn to navigate.”

But the scholars who penned the letter are seeking to defend a specific interpretation of the faith as well. As experts, they believe it is their place to do so. 

“Our foremost concern is the preservation of our faith to the next generation,” Qadhi told me. “There seems to be promotion of some people in the revisionist camp trying to reinterpret seminal texts and fundamental and foundational beliefs. We wanted to make a definitive statement that this is the clergy, here are the people who have trained and have an actual knowledge of the classical scripture. What I have a problem with is when anybody wishes to justify in the name of the faith what the faith does not justify.” 

FOR CRITICS OF the statement, however, this perspective veils an arrogance and desire for control over a faith that has never relied on the mediation of religious leaders for practitioners. 

“What these scholars try to do is gatekeep—that you don’t have the knowledge; it’s us who decide,” Sasa said. “The biggest sin in Islam is arrogance, and these people cite a couple of verses and say, ‘It’s clear, there’s no question, no contention,’ when there have been a diversity of opinions.”

Sasa pointed to a contemporary example, the tafsir of Nahida S. Nisa, who studied the use of specific grammar and vocabulary used in the Story of Lut in the Qur’an, comparing it to other uses across the text, to challenge how certain verses have been defined and translated. 

Olomi, a scholar of the Middle East and Islam, also criticized the “sheer arrogance of assuming there’s a singular interpretation and understanding that they alone are privileged to.”

“What we’re seeing is not a sort of ideological threat, but a threat to their hegemony of power, their hegemony of authority,” he said. “This fear is that young Muslims will go out into the world and find alternative sources of authority. It’s not, at the end of the day, fundamentally about interpretation. It’s about who gets to interpret. It’s saying we are the ones that are allowed to interpret, and all these other interpretations are not reasonable or have no bearing on Islam.”

There’s a fundamental disconnect between the authors of the letter and critics as to the existence of diverse opinions on this issue. 

“There’s no diversity of views amongst the trained scholarship,” Qadhi told me. “Pretty much everybody who is representative of a mainstream sect or interpretation of Islam agreed to sign. Any trained cleric, of any persuasion—Shia, Sunni, Sufi, Salafi, Barelvi, Deobandi—everyone is represented. There was no pushback from any of them.”

OLOMI, HOWEVER, characterizes this idea of a consensus opinion as “an imagined Islam that lives in the minds of some contemporary Muslims. It’s a pure Islam, one that has not changed, not evolved, not developed, and existed in its totality right at the time of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him.” That imagined Islam, Olomi says, bears no resemblance to the actual history of Islam, Islamic societies, and Islamic thought.

But he’s also careful not to draw a false dichotomy between historical practices and a purist notion of the tenets of the faith. Rather, Olomi argues, “There isn’t a tension between pure Islam theologically and what Muslims do. When we look at Islamic thought in the premodern world, thinkers recognized that thought does not exist separate from society and recognized historical context.”

The Hadith were written several hundred years after the Prophet passed away; the formation of the legal schools of thought and denominations took centuries; the development of the Sunnah not only recorded the Prophet’s actions but the people of his society in Medina as well. So, other than the Qur’an, Olomi says, the idea of a pure, unchanging Islam is a false one. 

“Muslim thinkers are very keenly aware of the fact that they aren’t separate from the societies they live in,” he said, describing the historical development of Islamic thought. “What we’re looking at are people who are interrogating, investigating, and exploring ethical underpinnings. They allow for accommodation, they allow for exception. They agree. They disagree. In other words, what we’re looking at is intellectual discourse. What it never does is imagine a singular perfect interpretation.”

In the contemporary moment, however, there’s been a stronger emphasis on a “pure” Islam, that separates religion from culture and society. Olomi says contemporary figures rely on that imagined Islam because a historical approach would allow for discourse and debate. 

“It opens the door for questions that they’re not ready to answer,” he said. “It opens the door for a type of diverse Islam that does not imbue them with authority.”

In my conversation with him, Olomi illuminated a premodern Muslim world that was diverse, nuanced, flexible, and tolerant in its approach to gender and sexuality, both socially and theologically, as the social and theological were intrinsically tied. This diversity appears in those societies’ people, art, poetry and cultural production, literary and intellectual works, and Islamic legal scholarship and jurisprudence. 

In the 10th-century Kitab Al Aghani, or Book of Songs, Al Isfahani tells the stories of famous Mukhanathun—effeminate men who might be considered trans, femme presenting, or nonbinary in today’s parlance, or that existed in a third-sex, liminal space.


“We see rich, full lives of these individuals presented,” Olomi says. “What’s missing is any discussion of how these people were condemned.”

Al-Katib’s Jawāmiʿ al-Ladhdhah, or Encyclopedia of Pleasure, includes multiple examples of same-sex desire and eroticism both between men and between women, scientific discussions of lesbianism, and the lesbian story of al Zarqa and Hind bint al Numan. Published in Damascus in the 10th century, it’s now difficult to find in the Muslim world, and chapters on homosexuality have been removed. 

The 13th-century scholar of jurisprudence, al-Nawawi, wrote of men who fell outside traditional gender presentation, acknowledging an innateness of certain qualities: “The scholars said effeminate men are two types. First, one who was created that way and he is not responsible for his behavior resembling women, their appearance, their speech, and their movements. Rather, Allah created upon him his disposition, so this is not blameworthy for him, nor a fault, nor a sin, nor is he punished.”

ACCORDING TO OLOMI, Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti, the 15th-century Egyptian scholar and polymath, wrote favorably, without any serious condemnation, of same sex desire, including anecdotes, for example, about whether or not man should perform ablutions after having sex with a man. “If it was taboo, then why is he giving prescriptions about how to then perform your Muslim duties afterwards?” Olomi said.

Across Islamic societies, individuals and communities have existed outside of the gender binary: the Khwaja Sira, or Hijra, in South Asia, a third-gender community; the Köçek in the Ottoman Empire, performing men who wore women’s clothing; or the Mustarjil of Iraq, born female but presenting as men. Olomi said legal fatwas and texts of jurisprudence accounted for individuals who were of unclear gender identity or were intersex or both, from regulations around inheritance, to prayers and religious obligations, indicating more of a comfort among Muslim scholars with gender ambiguity than many would suspect.

In an essay published after the “Navigating Differences” letter came out and in response to anti-queer protests and book banning efforts by Muslims, Olomi wrote that same-sex desire and gender nonconformity were in fact such normalized parts of Islamic societies that European travelers had written disapprovingly about it. 

In the 19th century, Edward Lane, a British orientalist and translator, wrote about the “unnatural profession” of khawalat, men in Egypt who dressed and danced as women. C.S. Sonnini, an 18th-century French naturalist, wrote of Muslim homoerotic culture: “The inconceivable appetite which dishonored the Greeks and the Persians of antiquity, constitute the delight, or to use a juster term, the infamy of the Egyptians. It is not for women that their ditties are composed: it is not on them that tender caresses are lavished; far different objects inflame them.” James Silk Buckingham, a 19th-century British traveler and journalist, wrote in his Travels in Assyria, Media and Persia of encountering an Afghan dervish in tears after parting from his male lover. Buckingham said the dervish was surprised to learn how rare same-sex love was in Europe. 

He does not contend that these societies were perfectly tolerant either—preachers, thinkers, and writers had condemned such practices, and legal cases and courts had addressed them as well. But, he argues, at no point in premodern Islamic history were gender ambiguous or nonconforming people or those who expressed same sex desire subject to mass executions, imprisonment, punishment, or persecution.


“Especially when you look at it in a comparative fashion to say, Western Europe or Christendom, there’s just no similarity.” Olomi says. “When looked at from a bird’s-eye view, we are looking at Islamic societies from the time of Muhammad up until the 19th century, that are remarkably open, remarkably tolerant of desire, and understand that desire in a very diverse and nuanced way.” 

That began to change in the 19th and 20th centuries, with the arrival of colonial powers and new social mores and legal codes around gender and sexuality. Olomi references early 19th-century Egyptian reformer Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, who lauded the French for “not being inclined toward loving male youth and eulogizing them in poetry, for this is something unmentionable for them and contrary to their nature and morals.”

The criminalization of LGBTQ identities did not only take place in Muslim states, but across the colonized world. Tunisia’s anti-sodomy laws are derived from the 1913 French Penal Code. Article 347 of the penal code in majority-Christian Cameroon is modeled after French colonial law. India’s Section 377, which has been used to prosecute homosexuality, was instituted under British rule. 

HOWEVER, DURING THE colonial period, Islamic Law and Sharia also shifted from a legal system defined by intellectual discourse to a more rigid law code, in many ways similar to that of the nation-state.


“Anxieties around the potency of Islamic empires and societies led to reformist thought, all geared around trying to create an Islamic state similar to the Western state,” Olomi said. “The fusion of capitalism, colonialism, and nationalism inserts this imagined Islam as central to almost all reforms. Even if they’re rejecting secularism, there’s still this imagining of the Western nation-state model, and adapting Islam into that model means rethinking the Sharia, rethinking Islamic thought, and rethinking the place of Islam in regulating interpersonal relationships.”

Olomi characterizes that intrusion into interpersonal matters as unique to nation-states and modern structures of power. “Premodern empires, for their violence and suppression, for all the horrors they’ve done to the world, are all fundamentally ambiguous when it comes to people’s interpersonal relationships,” he says. “All empires sort of deal with the big geopolitical issues. So long as you pay your taxes, it has very little interest in the personal private lives of people.” 

The nation-state, in contrast, with its birth certificates, identification cards, marriage licenses, and death certificates, has the mechanisms to intrude into people’s personal lives. Olomi hypothesizes that the reason LGBTQ issues have become a central target of that intrusion is rooted in anxieties around masculinity and the Victorian era constructions of masculinity and femininity adopted by the nation-state in order to manage power relationships. 

“A lot of statements focus on male same-sex desire and actions, rather than women’s, while still taboo. There’s something in their mind inherently deviating about male sex with men. And you must maintain the borders and constructions of that imagined masculinity violently,” he said. “It’s the act of penetrating another man, and therefore it’s penetrating the sacred, the inviolable, the holy, the pure, and the highest rung on the social hierarchy.”

Olomi points out that concepts like “Luwat” or “Lutee,” terms for people based on the story of Lut, became exclusively understood as homosexuality in modern discourse, whereas premodern discourse focused on acts. “Such terms could have also been associated with men having anal sex with their wives, but that conversation is nonexistent in the contemporary. No Muslim preacher is saying, ‘Hey, let’s talk about anal sex with your wives.’”

Much of mainstream Islamic scholarship has followed a trajectory that has homogenized opinions and sanitized history. Scholars, and some openly gay imams, who attempt to make inroads in reexamining and reinterpreting Qur’anic stories or understandings of gender and sexuality, are often dismissed as fringe or revisionist.

IN THE CURRENT CLIMATE, where the most prominent leaders are increasingly vocal in their anti-LGBTQ sentiment, queer Muslims and Muslims of conscience are posed with the question of where to go from here.

Kifah is hopeful, because she sees this as a politically expedient issue and not a fundamental theological one, that times will change, akin to how the right had honed in on abortion a few decades ago. 

“Christian groups didn’t really care about it, and then it became this effective tactic. And I think that’s what’s happening right now,” she said. “This is a politically useful tactic to fearmonger around. It won’t always be this and hasn’t always been this. If I thought that this was some kind of permanent inherent fracture point, then I would believe there was no liberation possible for queer Muslims.”

For Olomi, there’s both an Islamic sexual ethos and an Islamic ethics around harm reduction that Muslim leaders—chaplains, imams, and shaykhs—need to tap back into as part of caring for and guiding their communities. 

“Premodern Muslim thinkers were thinking of Islam as an ethical worldview. Modern contemporary preachers are thinking of Islam as a set of regulations that grant them authority,” he said. 

'You've got a generation growing up with student debt and not a single preacher is talking about the immorality of debt? There are more Qur'anic verses around interest rates and charging interest than there are about sex. Yet no Muslim preacher is talking about the horrors of capitalism or the horrors of student loans.'

If contemporary Muslim leaders want to preach on sexuality, Olomi says, then they should ground themselves in a more comprehensive Islamic sexual ethos. “Contemporary discourse is about rules and regulations and bodies, but there’s no ethical consideration. There’s no consideration of sex. When was the last time that the same scholars who wrote the Navigating Difference statement talked about the moral right of women to have an orgasm? When was the last time they actually engaged in genuine sexual education?”

The letter, Olomi says, is evidence of Muslim leaders’ lack of pastoral care for their community and a disregard for how young queer kids in their mosques would be impacted. 

“In a Qur’anic hierarchy of ethics and zulm, persecution, oppression, and tyranny are worse than slaughter,” he said. “Even a superficial understanding of ethics would lead us to emphasize humanity and compassion … If a person is trying to live Islamically, trying to live according to their faith and their religion, then it is the duty of their siblings in faith to extend a level of grace to that.” 

I asked Qadhi if he thought about queer Muslims in his congregations and how such a statement would impact them. He drew a distinction between queer Muslims who struggle with their desires and those who act on them. 

“I have absolutely no problem with anybody who has any sin,” he told me. “To identify or have feelings is not a sin, but to act upon them is a type of sin. The main issue that we draw the line at is to justify within the faith.”

He pointed to the group Straight Struggle, an anonymous collective of LGBTQ-identifying Muslims that endorsed the “Navigating Differences” statement. “They identify as same-sex attraction but also recognize that Islam has normative values, and they are struggling to remain firm upon those values even as their inclinations are towards the same sex,” he said, lauding their struggle. 

Olomi, however, believes the active political efforts to limit the rights of queer and trans people belies any notion of care. “The fact that they show more sympathy to the individuals demanding that rights be taken away than the ones that are actually having their rights taken away is itself alarming and speaks to the hypocrisy and lack of spiritual and ethical consideration here,” he said. “These people more than anyone should understand just how dangerous it is to talk about taking other people’s rights away and restricting them after twenty years of the War on Terror.”

Olomi highlights the need for solidarity. Rather than fighting for scraps, we have common oppressions to face. 

“Once we ground ourselves in an ethical worldview, it’s easy to see how we stand in solidarity with Black liberation, women’s liberation, queer liberation, workers’ rights, the liberation of colonized people,” Olomi said.

For Kifah, her mother served as an example of this solidarity mindset in action. Despite being the more religious parent, as well as believing homosexuality is wrong religiously, she has expressed support for the rights of queer and trans people. Kifah attributes this to her political activity. “She has been engaged in politics and therefore has seen intimately the way that Muslims have been attacked and understands that we need solidarity, and we need to not throw other people under the bus lest they do the same thing to us.”

While queer Muslims work to create spaces and resources for themselves and Muslims of conscience recognize the need to center their voices and experiences, there’s also a recognition that straight “allies” need to do more to help create shifts in discourse.

Ghada Sasa told me that after she spoke out about “Navigating Differences,” a progressive, well-known Islamic scholar reached out to her expressing appreciation for her posts. “I called him out saying, ‘I reached out to you and asked to talk to you about my interpretation of the story of the people of Lot, and you turned me towards a gay Islamic scholar. That’s not cool, the work is on you as well.’” 

I reached out to this well-known scholar as well, and he declined to comment. Not wanting to take up space as a straight scholar debating with other straight scholars over sexual and gender minorities in Islam, he also urged me to speak with Scott Kugle, a scholar and expert on gender and sexuality in Islam. Kugle was unavailable for comment. I also reached out to Amina Wadud, a theologian and scholar who has worked extensively on gender and sexuality. She declined to comment as well. 

Mohammad Mertaban reiterated the importance of having scholars, especially straight and mainstream ones, speak up. “Allies have a huge responsibility here. They’re the bridge. When you have someone who’s queer and out, a lot of Muslims deem them illegitimate; they just ignore what they have to say.”

For Mertaban, such scholars need to set aside the fear that they will be delegitimized in their communities. “In order to create change, there are going to be people that are going to be uncomfortable. If you have the privilege, the knowledge, and the following, then you have a responsibility to advocate for everyone in the community.”

Zonneveld believes many scholars who may hold views that differ from those in the mainstream or from the authors of the “Navigating Differences” letter remain silent because they fear the professional backlash of challenging such views. But, she says, straight people like herself must not compromise on the rights of LGBTQ people just to protect their careers. 

Medina, however, empathizes with certain scholars who may remain silent in the current moment if they find other ways to support queer Muslims in their communities. He says, “There are some leaders I know who would support queer Muslims in private and do anything to find them resources, but in public, because of the spaces that they’re involved in, I get it.”  

He said many scholars, especially those who are women, Black, or converts, face additional scrutiny when they stand for progressive causes. “A lot of these communities are seen as Western or making Islam Western.”

The silence, however, from both mainstream and more progressive religious leaders on these issues continues to alienate Muslims who seek to connect with faith through the lens of justice and progressivism.

Olomi believes young Muslims will continue to leave religious spaces as long as religious leaders don’t address the issues that impact them most. “The younger generation are incredibly skeptical of authority and power; rightfully so, because it doesn’t address their social needs,” he told me. “You’ve got a generation growing up with student debt and not a single preacher is talking about the immorality of debt? There’s more Qur’anic verses around interest rates and charging interest than there is about sex. Yet no Muslim preacher is talking about the horrors of capitalism or the horrors of student loans.”

What many queer and progressive Muslims agree upon is the need for spaces and leaders that reflect their values. Disillusioned with their current leaders and rejected by their mosque communities, they don’t want to leave the faith or faith-based spaces; they seek communities  that affirm them and leaders who are trained to address their concerns. 

“We need a class of Muslim American scholars to deal with contemporary issues,” Medina said. “A class of contemporary, queer, or liberation Islamic theology scholars that can start helping produce religious resources for queer Muslims to affirm our faith alongside our queerness.”

For those who wish to see a more inclusive Islam rooted in ethics of justice, Sasa believes that the voices that are traditionally most marginalized will need to be centered and uplifted, just as Islam did in its advent. “Women, people of color, and queer people are going to be leading reclaiming our faith, for what it used to be, what it essentially is.”

ON DECEMBER 15, one hundred New Yorkers gathered for a Jumu’ah prayer for Palestine organized by queer Muslims in front of Stonewall National Monument. At the nation’s first national monument dedicated to LGBTQ rights, commemorating the riots that marked a watershed moment for queer liberation over 50 years ago, queer Muslims were joined by an interfaith group of leaders, politicians, and organizers, in their Friday prayers. 

Lined up on prayer mats, braving the chill winter air, many wore Palestinian keffiyehs wrapped tightly around their heads, as the call to prayer rang out. They stood shoulder to shoulder, gathered in solidarity with Palestinians, and chanted for a ceasefire and a free Palestine.

Following a moment of silence for queer Palestinians, “whose absolute most harmful threat and aggressor always was and always will be Israel and its supporters,” Rand, a Palestinian queer Muslim content creator and organizer, delivered a khutbah touching on the radical liberation that underpins faith traditions. 

She spoke of nasr in Islam, God’s divine victory granted to all who stand for the right thing, “no matter what happens to them on this earth.” She spoke about the Palestinian churches that have canceled Christmas, as “baby Jesus is wrapped in a keffiyeh under rubble,” and anti-Zionist Jews who shut down eight bridges in calls for a ceasefire, representing the eighth candle of Hanukkah.

In the wake of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, many have said that “Palestine is freeing us.” “Palestinians are not liberated from Israel’s terror,” Rand said. “But we are a victorious and liberated people because of our steadfastness for and hope in justice, not just for us, but for the world.” 

Joined together in prayer outside Stonewall, the corollary, a vision for liberation, was clear: queer Muslims remain steadfast in their hope for justice, not just for us, but for the world.