One day in the late 1950s on a golf course with actor-comedian Jack Benny, song-and-dance man Sammy Davis Jr. was asked what was his handicap. “Talk about handicap,” said Davis, according to various sources. “I’m a one-eyed Negro Jew.”
Right. Beat that for a handicap.
Davis was an African-American convert to Judaism who lost an eye in an auto accident. But Davis’ refusal to let any obstacle block his way to stardom became an inspiration for the world.
Times change. Davis’ story came back to mind after the Sunday early-morning massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Suddenly Muslim Imam (minister) Daayiee Abdullah became one of the most sought-after clergy in America.
Abdullah, 62, is this country’s first openly gay imam. Born Sidney Thompson to a black Baptist family in Detroit, the former public interest lawyer directs the Mecca Institute, an online learning and research center in Washington, D.C., for those seeking “more expansive and inclusive interpretations” of Islamic texts.
How many gay imams are there in the world? “I’ve met 12,” he said. “Eight of them are out.” Meaning, eight are openly gay in a religion known more often to be openly hostile to same-sex marriage and to homosexual conduct.
That’s more than I thought, yet so few that Abdullah understandably joked with his South African counterpart, Imam Muhsin Hendricks, that, “You take care of the eastern hemisphere, I’ll handle the west.”
Recent surveys by Pew Research and Public Religion Research Institute, find American Muslims to be more opposed to homosexual conduct than almost all other religious groups, except evangelical Christians, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Yet, because the Koran does not explicitly condemn homosexuality, progressive scholars like Abdullah point to various passages to argue that the Koran acknowledges and accepts same-sex relationships.
Such issues took on new and tragic relevance for the rest of us after gunman Omar Mateen, an Afghan-American born in New York City, killed 49 and wounded more than 50 others at the nightclub and claimed to be doing it on behalf of the Islamic State.
Various reports raised questions about the killer’s sexuality. Twice married to women, he reportedly had frequented the club and sought out gay men on social networks in the weeks before the massacre.
Without speculating about Mateen’s state of mind, Abdullah acknowledged that the unfolding details sounded familiar. “Some young Muslim men are gender-confused,” as well as confused about their sexuality, in today’s cultural atmosphere, he said.
“I’ve known some who get married despite their confusion and they stick with it,” he said. Others are so unhappy that they later get divorced and that new honesty with themselves “changes their lives for the better.”
It is easy for non-Muslims to criticize responsible Muslim voices for failing to denounce Islamic terrorism. Yet, it is difficult to find those voices quoted in mainstream media when they do speak out.
This time, amid the cultural cross-currents of gay politics and Islamic terrorism, Abdullah feels encouraged by a new sense of anti-terrorist solidarity between the Muslim and LGBT communities.
For example, Abdullah noted, he was invited for the first time by a major Islamic organization, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), to represent gay Muslims at an interfaith memorial event.
CAIR’s Florida chapter urged local Muslims to donate blood for the wounded. The Muslim American Women’s Policy Forum (MAWPF) hosted a vigil in Washington, D.C., on Monday to mourn those killed and wounded in Orlando.
A dozen Islamic groups have raised more than $70,000 on the LaunchGood crowdfunding website for victims’ families.
Yet change must also come within the Muslim community, Abdullah points out. Condemnations of Islamophobia, he said, must be accompanied by condemnations of gender inequality and homophobia within Muslim communities, too. He’s right. Members of the LGBT community have enough handicaps.
In return, all communities need to encourage the cooperation that helps to expose possible radical activities to law enforcement agencies. “It has been Muslims who have turned in radical Muslims,” Abdullah pointed out. That’s what happens when you build bridges to ethnic communities, not walls.
(E-mail Clarence Page at email@example.com.)
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