Faith and sexuality exposed

“We need to reassess Islamic ethics entirely,” Imam Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed has warned.

The Cape Town-based activist strongly believes that Muslims can no longer ignore homophobic violence and the dehumanisation of gay people by religious extremists.

He was among those who recently spoke at the Pietermaritzburg Gay and Lesbian Network Roundtable Dialogues, unpacking issues that arise when scriptures and sexuality collide. This multifaith debate tackled religion, gender equality and sexual rights.

As an imam, he is in a unique position to comment critically on taboo topics. He began the first gender-inclusive mosque in Paris, studied the Qur’an in Algeria, has a master’s degree in cognitive psychology and is now doing a PhD in the anthropology of religion.

His book Queer Muslim Marriage and a documentary he co-produced, Meet Each Other, explore this further. He implores all Muslims to find the balance between humanistic values and tradition.

Professor Gerald West, of the school of religion, philosophy and classics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, spoke about the choices people make in deciding what to believe and what to ignore when reading the Bible, how they develop individual interpretations but then want to insist that theirs is the only correct interpretation.

West works at the Ujamma Centre, a community development and research centre at the University of KwaZulu-Natal that works with local communities who use the Bible as a resource for social transformation.

He asserts that it is not self-evident what the Bible’s position is on sexuality. “Is the dominant message of our church good news for our marginalised groups?” he asked. “Do we follow the inclusive and affirming ministry of Jesus, where the issue of sexual orientation is a nonissue?”

In the Old Testament, sex is in fact about power, control and patriarchy. Elite free males have the power to dominate, sexually or otherwise, anyone below them in social position, male or female.

Leviticus, often cited in anti-gay propaganda, simply does not fit contemporary understandings of sexuality, according to West. Sodom and Gomorrah has also been re-examined as being a commentary on hospitality, not homosexuality. West urged Christians to read Genesis 18 to put Genesis 19 into context.

Despite Paul in Galations 3:28 yearning “for no male and female”, West laments that it is often the theological opinions of churches that are the dominant voices spoon-feeding Christians their viewpoints.

Biblical interpretation silences some voices and promotes others. If we don’t ask who the intended reader is when a particular meaning is asserted, that meaning is devoid of context and value, especially when “the Holy Spirit is used as an excuse for sloppy theology”.

Exploring Hinduism, Pravesh Singh, a social activist for 30 years who heads a Hindu leadership academy, outlined the broad concepts of Hindu philosophy.

The word Hinduism is itself a misnomer (it has colonial roots), so he dwelt on the original Sanskrit term Sanatana Dharma. Dharma is about duty, and Singh argues that protecting human rights is a duty, and any interpretation of religion that encroaches on human rights should be rejected. Karma is about people taking responsibility for the choices they make and reaping the rewards, or suffering the consequences, in this life or future reincarnations.

Despite Vedic texts with elaborate expositions on sex and love, and the androgynous gods and goddesses in Hindu mythology, suggesting a common acceptance of fluid sexuality, India itself remains colonially shackled and recently reintroduced homophobic laws.

Xolani Sakuba reflected on African theology, attempting to make sense of the current hostilities in traditional opinions. The University of KwaZulu-Natal lecturer asked: “Why are African theologies so hellbent on arguing that homosexuality is unAfrican?” He confessed that “I am embarrassed that this is my tradition” but asked, “Whose African culture are we referring to?” As an academic, he felt “the onus is on us as scholars from within to develop a constructive criticism”.

Jayesh Bhana has a history of involvement in education, youth development, nongovernmental organisations and business. He countered the religious viewpoints with a manifesto for a humanist ideology that rejects any supernatural source of guidance and looks towards an ethical, values-based framework in which human rights and democratic values underpin society. He claimed to be “trying to inject a drop of reason into a pool of confusion”.

The audience response was clear: more dialogues like this are urgently needed at grassroots and academic level as we face rising global discrimination against sexual and gender diversity.

Suntosh R Pillay is a clinical psychologist in public service in Durban

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