The long road to being gay and Muslim

It took Algerian-born Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed (35) two decades to come to terms with himself, but now that he's at peace he's made it his goal to fight Islamophobia and homophobia.

His call comes at a time when France, home to Europe's largest Muslim community, is warming up to gay marriage.

New Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, who took over after the Socialist victory in June elections ousted their conservative predecessors, promised this month to offer marriage and adoption rights to same-sex couples "in the first quarter of 2013".

Zahed, a PhD student in religious anthropology, married his fellow Muslim partner in South Africa, the continent's only country to recognise same-sex unions. Becoming a spokesperson for the community was a long time in the making, a product of much soul-searching.

"I think homosexuality, whatever one says, is not a choice," he wrote in his memoir Le Coran et la chair, or The Koran and the Flesh, published in March.

"And you'd have to be crazy to choose to be homosexual when you come from my socio-cultural background."

'Strictly prohibited'
Homosexuality is considered a criminal offence in most Arab states and is "strictly prohibited" by Islam, said Abdallah Zekri, a member of the French Council of the Muslim Faith which acts as an official interlocutor with the French state.

"No imam, unless self-proclaimed, can officiate a gay wedding," he said.

But that did not stop Zahed from following up his 2011 South African nuptials with a symbolic religious marriage officiated by an imam in the Paris suburbs this year.

Although associations for the gay faithful – like David et Jonathan for Christians and Beit Haverim for Jews – have been around for decades in France, until recently there was no group for Muslim gays.

In 2010, Zahed founded Homosexual Muslims in France (HM2F), which counts 270 members.

"To be gay and Muslim is possible," the slender, bespectacled Zahed wrote in his book. "However the road is still long."

I told myself, 'you must choose'
Born in Algeria and raised in a poor neighbourhood of the 17th district in Paris, Zahed displayed early effeminate tendencies, prompting regular beatings from a brother who hoped it would "teach me to be a man".

His father, who sensed Zahed was gay, repeatedly told him he'd prefer to "break my back and bury me alive rather than see me become like that", Zahed said.

Finding refuge in religion, Zahed paid regular visits to Salafists, Muslims who advocate a strict interpretation of Islamic law, when on holiday in Algeria.

But as an adult, his homosexuality bubbled up to the surface. With the sexuality strongly frowned upon by his community, Zahed experienced "great suffering".

"I told myself, 'you must choose' and I violently rejected Islam," he said. "A long spiritual void" followed amid years of unhappiness.

When he came out to his family, his father accepted it, but his mother cried every night for two months and he fell out with his brother.

The turning point came when he was 30 years old: "I no longer looked to hate anyone for anything, but simply to change the discriminatory reactions facing me," he wrote in his book.

'A sensitive issue'
In 2011, Zahed, who is also an Aids activist and has written about himself being HIV positive, met his future husband in South Africa, where they tied the knot in a civil wedding that year.

Gay culture has flourished there since the fall of apartheid – which harshly penalised homosexuality – in 1994, after which South Africa enshrined equal rights in its Constitution and later allowed same-sex couples to marry and adopt.

Other African nations sentence homosexuals to prison, as in Morocco, where homosexuality is punishable by six months to three years in prison, though it's tolerated provided practitioners don't flaunt their difference.

When the pair wed again in a religious ceremony in the Paris suburbs in February, it was a symbolic step that won them threats and insults.

"Visibility is a sensitive issue," Zahed said. – Sapa-AFP

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