Raquel Evita Saraswati is an American Muslim activist who focuses primarily on issues related to the status of women and girls in Muslim-majority societies and communities. She is also a member of the steering committee of the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity (MASGD). She gave me this interview a few days after Omar Mateen killed 49 people and wounded 53 others inside the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida, on June 12. This massacre was considered the deadliest incident of violence against LGTBQ people in U.S. history, and the deadliest terrorist attack in America since 9/11. (Read more…)
What was your initial reaction when you heard about the dreadful massacre in Orlando?
I initially heard reports of a shooting in a nightclub and was saddened but not shocked – we continue to have a problem with gun violence in the United States, and nightclubs are certainly not immune. When I heard that there were twenty victims, I knew something was different.
Then the news came that there were nearly fifty victims, and that the act was potentially carried out by someone who claimed my faith. At first, all I could do was cry. Out of sadness for the victims, the horror of their last hours, and the pain of their community.
I received a phone call from a friend – someone who is like a brother to me – checking to see if I was ok and calling to coordinate a response. I spent most of that terrible day in tears. At the same time, I was aware that this would initiate a national conversation, expose tensions between communities, and add petrol to an already noxious political climate. I was devastated and frightened.
How do you assess the events – terrorism/religious fanaticism, self-hating, addiction to violence (he allegedly abused his ex-wife, idolised the NYPD, worked for a security company…), easy access to guns…?
As someone who has looked closely at these issues for over a decade, the narrative surrounding Omar Mateen comes as no surprise. I have for years been drawing the connection between misogyny and extremist ideology, noting that those who commit acts of violence in the name of religion often also have a history of violence against and abuse of women.
Even now, the only reason we are talking about Omar Mateen’s history of domestic violence is because he ultimately killed [almost] fifty people – and the discussion of his misogyny has been but a brief footnote. Further, it is also true that many of those who endorse radical extremism, as well as those who carry out the acts, often have a history of indulging in the very acts their radical ideology condemns.
Radicals recruit these individuals with the promise of salvation in exchange for their full membership in what is ultimately a cult. It is my view that if there were more conversations about this, we could understand and counter radical ideology well before blood is spilled.
However, it is simply true that the lives of girls, women, and LGBTQ people are valued less in our society than the lives of those who would seek to oppress us. Thus, these conversations are not had, signs are missed, lives are lost – and the media and politicians pull out the same cue cards they use after every massacre – “we are shocked” – “what were the signs?” – etc., and the same five self-appointed experts are invited to comment, offering nothing useful to say.
The attack revived a perception of “Islamic homophobia”, not only in countries like Saudi Arabia or Iran, where gays have been subject to imprisonment, corporal punishing or even death penalty, but also in the American Muslim community. How do you explain this perception, and what shall we do about it?
I do not believe that my faith is homophobic, but unfortunately there is rampant homophobia within my community.
Following the Orlando attacks, self-appointed “representatives” of the Muslim community rushed to condemn it, and some even feigned support for the LGBTQ community. These individuals are leaders of the very organisations who host “scholars” and preachers who believe LGBTQ people are sick, criminal, and worthy of death.
As tragic and disgusting as this past week has been, it has caused many to see through the charade. It also now provides us with an opportunity to hold these individuals and organisations accountable once the cameras and microphones are off, and to demand that they live up to the words they uttered for the press.
In addition to holding these organisations accountable, we must fight with urgency the rise of far-right fascism and the ignorance that tells us that identities like LGBTQ and Muslim are mutually exclusive. They are not. There are many of us living at the complicated and at times deeply painful intersection of these identities.
Further, it is worth noting that some of the conservative voices who have used this opportunity to condemn Muslims and Islam for homophobia themselves support measures to restrict the rights of LGBT people.
Some of these individuals and groups in the United States even support murderous policies – such as the notorious “Kill the Gays Bill” in places like Uganda. We must also demand accountability from these individuals and groups, and let them know that we are not fooled.
Scholar Mehammed Amadeus Mack writes in Newsweek: “The word homosexual does not appear anywhere in the Koran, and indeed it couldn’t, because the word is an invention of the late 19th century, when medical societies in Europe tried to place groups of people who took part in similar sex acts under a common category, which they then labeled ‘homosexuality.’ Later on, the community of people pathologised by this term rallied together under the term of their persecution and began to demand recognition, equality and, finally, rights.” What is your opinion?
It is true that the word “homosexual” does not appear in the Quran. Indeed, it has been interpreted that the Quranic story most often used to condemn LGBTQ people – the story of Lot – is not about same-sex attraction, but about a people cursed for their violence – including sexual violence – and other forms of cruelty and abuse.
The fact is that interpretations of the Quran based in what we believe to be the nature of God – merciful and compassionate – DO exist.
It is also true that these interpretations are theologically sound. They are not fringe or un-Islamic. They have, however, been pushed to the margins and made difficult to access. This has been done by those within our community who have malignant and political intentions; and by governments who continue to ally and exchange favours with the very regimes who murder people like me – women and LGBTQ people especially.
Saudi Arabia condemned the attack in Orlando – why? Because gays were shot rather than beheaded? Because it was in a private establishment rather than in a town square? And then Barack Obama rushed to meet with Saudi leadership. This would be a joke if it weren’t so dangerous.
How would you define the Muslim American community, and the LGBT Muslim American community? How has the shooting in Orlando affected them?
Both communities are diverse; and while they hold political and social power to some degree, are also marginalised. The attacks in Orlando provide an opportunity for each community to reposition itself as a stakeholder in the conversation about today’s political and social climates.
How this is done, and with what level of integrity and consistency, is what we will come to see. It is absolutely true that both communities have been and will continue to be pushed into the national spotlight. I continue to hope for and advocate for accountability from those in positions of power, though that hope is currently hard to come by.
You belong to the steering committee of an association for gender equality. Tell us about it, and about your work as a human rights activist.
The Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity (MASGD) was founded in 2013 following the dissolution of al-Fatiha, an organization many of us were involved with. The mission statement of MASGD is as follows:
“The Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity (MASGD) works to support, empower and connect LGBTQ Muslims. We seek to challenge root causes of oppression, including misogyny and xenophobia. We aim to increase the acceptance of gender and sexual diversity within Muslim communities, and to promote a progressive understanding of Islam that is centered on inclusion, justice, and equality.” We host a retreat for LGBTQ Muslims each May.
My own personal work outside of MASGD is focused primarily on the rights of women, girls and minorities in Muslim-majority societies and communities.
I work to combat various forms of gender-based violence, and while I absolutely do this work outside of my faith community, my primary focus is my community. I work to combat honour-based violence, forced and child marriage, and female genital mutilation (FGM), as well as other violations of human rights and decency.
What does it mean for you to be a Muslim woman in today’s America? At what extent were you personally affected by what has happened in Orlando?
In the past week, I’ve been harassed on the street – first called a “stupid terrorist [expletive]” by a non-Muslim man who pushed me in the street; and by a Muslim man who screamed at me, accusing me of apostasy.
While these examples are extreme, they are true – and they encapsulate perfectly what it’s like to be a Muslim woman who wears the hijab and advocates for universal human rights. Because I exist at the intersection of Muslim womanhood and the LGBTQ experience, the past week and a half has been especially raw and painful.
It must be said, however, that many people have been incredibly loving, and that there is great power, beauty, and strength in my communities. I would not sacrifice who I am for any price or promise of ease. I choose instead to live in love, working for our full liberation.
Parts of this interview, edited for clarification, were included in an article published in the Portuguese news weekly EXPRESSO, on June 25, 2016