Intolerance has been linked heavily to the Muslim community frequently in the United States media, but recently at Columbia University Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad went over the top with ludicrous remarks on homosexuality by declaring that "In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon." Such a ridiculous claim (and the fact that homosexual intercourse can invoke the death penalty in Iran) demonstrates clearly that a large segment of Muslim society remains in the dark ages when it comes to enlightenment on sexuality issues.
Documenting the gray area that gay Muslims living in Egypt, Iran, India, and South Africa navigate to keep their sexual orientation discreet in the midst of an intolerant society, first time feature director Parvez Sharma treads familiar ground that was explored in more depth in producer Sandi Dubowski's Trembling Before G-d that chronicled Jewish gays and lesbians. The resulting film intrigues with a title suggesting a supreme spiritual struggle—A Jihad for Love—but falls short of landing the same impact of Dubowski's previous film. It sacrifices intimacy and intensity for broader strokes, taking us on a whirlwind 81 minute tour of Muslim regions.
I most appreciate documentaries that unearth new ground and show me worlds that I've not experienced, so I was disappointed with Sharma's work, despite fine production work and the colorful travelogue (highlighted by a Sufi whirling dervish ritual). Having recently visited both Egypt and India, I was exposed readily to the extreme homophobia that apparently is widespread there and in many Muslim societies. I heard comments similar to the death threats voiced in the film and heard how homosexuality was outlawed in both countries, so it came as no surprise that many of the gay Muslims here remained closeted and dared not expose their faces to the camera. Thus, many faces remain blurred to prevent recognition and possible reprisals to them and/or family.
Standard counsel to gay Muslims is repress their "unnatural love" and pray for Allah's grace to lead them to the proper path; failure could result in ostracism, punishment, or death. Yet some were willing to be filmed openly, including a South African imam/radio talk show host, a gay Egyptian man arrested and tortured before escaping to Paris, and a couple of gay Iranians who flee to Turkey in order to seek asylum in Canada. A lesbian couple also feel s safe enough in more tolerant and secular Turkey to publicly display affection. Regrettably, Sharma's film skims the surface of these stories to paint a broad spectrum of threats and intimidation common in more extreme Muslim communities.
A scene where a gay northern Indian man seeks religious counseling feels staged. Designed to parallel a sequence in Trembling Before G-d that explores the profound conflict religious homosexuals struggle with daily attempting to reconcile scriptural law with their human needs, the meeting provides neither heartfelt exchange nor tears. The young man receives the standard counsel without comment and immediately prepares for a party with fellow gay friends. We are left to wonder just how devout the man is. Where is the struggle?
Had Sharma dug deeper, the documentary would be more compelling and would reflect the title of the film much closer. Instead the film plays like a highlight reel of nearly 15 people that we barely get to know. Given the perilous nature of the situation, where the subjects naturally must fear for their personal safety, Sharma may have made a deliberate choice to remain relatively distant as a necessary initial exploration of the territory. A Jihad for Love provides an overview only without probing for insight—either into the personal religious jihads each gay person struggles with or into the widespread homophobia that seems to permeate Islamic society. But the travelogue does promote immediate relief for gay Muslims: Turkey may be your best bet for living in a more tolerant Muslim community, and check out Sufi mysticism for better odds of finding compassionate souls