“Not only are we fighting against homophobia, biphobia, transphobia” said Faizan, one of the founders of Imaan. “That we thought that was a big enough thing, but following 9/11 we found ourselves fighting against Islamophobia and that was also coming from within the gay community.”
LGBTQI Muslims face prejudice from many angles, but for twenty years the Tower Hamlets-based Imaan charity has been providing a safe space and campaigning to champion their rights.
In the wake of being honoured earlier this week in the London Faith & Belief Community Awards, Faizan, one of the founders of Imaan, spoke to Eastlondonlines.
The charity was founded in November 1999; Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was hitting the shelves of Waterstones, a pint of milk cost 34p, and following an ad in the Pink Paper, now the site PinkNews, fifteen strangers met for the first time and started Imaan.
Back then, Faizan, who uses the pronouns they/them, said: “We were very much an underground community and very fearful of coming out, so you hardly saw anybody in the papers. No one would show their face, no one would give their name out… there was more racism back then.”
They explained that then “the queer, LGBT, gay culture was very white, very male.”
However, the events of 9/11 led to a heightened hostile environment for British Muslims. Faizan said: “Islamophobia wasn’t really a thing, to be quite honest, it wasn’t really a word that was understood. The phrase racism was more used… Islam itself as an identity wasn’t a thing.”
They noticed over the next few years anti-Muslim rhetoric became, and continues to be, more and more prevalent in the press. Imaan members have even been subject to racial and Islamophobic abuse by stewards and participants at Pride events, “There’s a whole history that you don’t know about,” they said.
Within the Muslim community many are up against arranged marriages, forced marriages, and community pressure. Faizan said very few have come out to their families.
Those who identify as trans and non-binary can feel excluded by the gender segregated prayer spaces. Although many members attend mainstream mosques or more inclusive spaces, for example, The Inclusive Mosque Initiative, Imaan are looking for an Imam to extend their safe-space prayer services.
In July a study by the Albert Kennedy Trust concluded that three in four LGBTQI people are rejected by their families, 45% coming from a faith background.
And five years ago Dr Nazim Mahmood committed suicide after his mother told him to seek a cure for being gay.
Faizan said: “In some ways the community’s view of LGBTQI has become further entrenched against accepting us as the anti LGBTQI protests have demonstrated.”
In Birmingham, and across the country, there has been substantial media attention on demonstrations by Muslim activists opposed to children being taught LGBTQI relationships in schools.
Faizan said: “We feel that anti-LGBTQI protesters have distorted and lied about ‘Relationships and Sex Education’ and inclusive education. Imaan supports education that teaches respect of all sections of society especially LGBTQI people. As LGBTQI Muslims we need to see the wider Muslim community have mature, compassionate dialogue about the challenges faced my LGBTQI people in their own community.”
In many Muslim Middle Eastern countries being LGBTQI can have be a death sentence. In April, Brunei introduced death by stoning.
In the last couple of years has been a huge increase in the number of asylum seekers fleeing these homophobic regimes and joining the organisation. Faizan explained they have been very active in the Pride events.
Nevertheless, in 2019 in some ways things have improved; there’s more visibility of LGBTQI Muslim experience, and Imaan’s profile has risen.
Throughout the year Imaan hold a variety of activities in Positive East, in Whitechapel, where they are based, including, monthly meetings, facilitating Nikāḥs (a Muslim marriage)and holding celebrations for religious festivals, including Ramadan and Eid.
Faizan said: “Like a lot of religious festivals, LGBTQ people feel or are excluded from them so it’s really important we create that community atmosphere where other people who may not feel welcome in their local mosque, somewhere they can go every weekend during the whole of the month of Ramadan.” This year attracted approximately 150 people each Saturday.
They also run events across the country holding conferences scrutinising relevant topics. Hundreds of people attend to talk things over. Additionally, monthly meetings in Birmingham take place.
Reflecting on Imaan’s milestone, Faizan said: “The fact we’ve raised so much money, we’ve raised our profile, people are interested in talking to us is really just…I would not have believed it back in 1999…it’s very heartening to see that there is some positivity and that’s what we want to focus on. We’re like each other’s family.”
In spring 2020 the charity will be holding their own Pride festival called Imaan Fest as the main celebration event for their anniversary.