A prayer room described as Europe’s first gay-friendly mosque is opening on the outskirts of Paris.
The new centre is run by Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed, a gay Islamic scholar, married to a gay man, and the founder of Homosexual Muslims of France.
Mr Zahed regularly attends the Grand Mosque in Paris, but says he wants to create a more “inclusive” place for gay, lesbian and transgender Muslims.
He says many of them felt uncomfortable praying in established mosques.
“Many gay men don’t go to the mosque because they don’t want to be recognised,” says Mr Zahed.
“Islam has nothing to do with homosexuality” Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed
“They don’t want to be ostracised because they wear earrings or because they’re effeminate or they’re transgender, something that’s pretty obviously rejected in many mosques in France,” he says.
Mr Zahed’s South African gay husband has encountered similar problems. “The first time he came to the mosque he was wearing earrings. After the prayers somebody came up to him and tried to take them off and told him, ‘This isn’t right, you shouldn’t do that here’. It was a kind of soft but very obvious aggression,” says Mr Zahed.
He cites another recent case of what he describes as discrimination. “A transgender from a Muslim background died last summer. It was hard to find an imam to pray for her. Nobody wanted to. In the end, we had to do it. We had to pray for her,” says Mr Zahed.
For the moment the place of worship is a room in a Buddhist prayer hall. The room holds more than 20 people and is decorated with calligraphy in Chinese characters.
London Imam Ajmal Masroor says that Mr Zahed’s meeting room does not constitute a mosque as it does not fully adhere to Islamic preaching and practice.
Mr Zahed says many gay people feel uncomfortable in ordinary mosques
Mr Zahed says his “mosque” is not trying to be specifically gay-friendly, but “inclusive”. He is also trying to integrate the sexes in Islam. He wants men and women to be able to pray together, not just “gay and straight”.
Men and women pray together in Mecca, he says, so why can’t they in ordinary mosques?
So far the reaction from the rest of the Muslim community in France has been mixed. France has the largest Muslim community in Europe outside Russia.
The Paris Grand Mosque has issued an unequivocal statement. “The fact that he’s opening a mosque or a prayer room is something that’s outside the Islamic community. The Koran condemns homosexuality. It is banned,” said a Grand Mosque spokesman.
Other Muslims have been intrigued enough to ask Mr Zahed how he justifies his stance. “People are trying to understand who we are, where we come from, what our interpretation of this or that verse of the Koran is, and that’s diversity and dialogue and I’m happy with it,” says Mr Zahed.
He also says he has received messages of support from ordinary Muslims in France.
He is, however, concerned enough about the safety of his new congregation to be reticent about revealing exactly where it will be meeting.
At the moment Mr Zahed is not getting any special protection from the French police and the French authorities have told him they are not aware of any specific threats from within the Muslim community.
“If you join Islam, you must conform to Islamic teachings” Ajmal Masroor, London imam
But he is still concerned about violence “or a simple demonstration”. Not least because if there are “demonstrations [outside] or threats when you are trying to get in, it’s not going to be a peaceful context to be connected to each other and to pray”.
Traditionally, Muslim religious authorities have opposed gay sex. They argue that the Koranic authority for this is the story of God’s destruction of the city of Sodom because of its citizens’ sins.
“Homosexuality is a choice, it’s a desire, it’s not something that you are born with,” says the London imam Ajmal Masroor. Homosexuality is not acceptable for either Sunni or Shia Muslims, he says, because God intends for sex to occur between men and women only, within marriage, and “any sexual relationship outside marriage is a sin”.
However, that does not mean that Muslims should discriminate against homosexuals, says Mr Masroor. Mosques are open to everyone.
Rather than trying to separate themselves homosexuals should be attending mosque like other Muslims, argues Mr Masroor. But they should not be trying to change the religion. “If you join Islam, you must conform to Islamic teachings.”
Mr Zahed says that “Islam has nothing to do with homosexuality”.
“Islam is not a totalitarian fascist identity. You should not use Islam to justify your prejudices and try to control the sexuality and gender of individuals,” he says.