In early July, Jahed Choudhury married his partner at a registry office in the West Midlands. It was christened the “first gay Muslim wedding” by the British tabloid press.
Dressed in golden South Asian attire, the men embraced in front of smiling guests and eager photographers. Jahed’s family was noticeably missing in images and videos circulated online. Within days, the couple’s post-nuptial celebration was abruptly cut short as they received acid attack threats.
Across the world and nearly simultaneously, there was another wedding involving a Muslim family and their gay son. In a reception hall in Vancouver, a Muslim mother, Siddika, stood by her son, Ali Reza, smiling widely as he wed his beloved a man named Paul. In contrast to Jahed, who said his family found his wedding “too embarrassing” to attend, Ali Reza stood shoulder-to-shoulder with his parents.
Over the next week, photos from the happy day swept around the world to condemnation from within the close-knit community of Khoja Muslims, an ethnic group within the minority Shi‘a sect of Islam. They fiercely objected to the family’s apparent unrepentant joy.
One leader in the Khoja community wrote, “...it is the duty of every committed Muslim to condemn this despicable deed” in a viral message on WhatsApp. Within days, the 53-year-old mother, whose last name we are withholding for safety reasons, sent community members a two-page letter, saying she was “forced to resign” as secretary general of the North American Shia Ithna-Asheri Muslim Communities Organization, an Ontario-based organization that represents American and Canadian Muslims of Khoja heritage.
In the poignant letter expressing support for her son, the mother wrote, “My stance today is not just as a devoted mother, but as a human being who has painfully observed how the community has usurped the rights of God’s creation in the name of Islam and passed judgement.”
The controversy over this marriage showcases how Muslim communities are grappling with social issues as they assimilate in the West.
A Geography of Taboo
Homosexuality remains taboo in most Muslim communities, with a 2013 Pew global survey on Muslim views chronicling overwhelming disapproval of homosexuality in all Muslim-majority countries and territories surveyed. However, Siddika’s story also reveals the dichotomy between the rigid views of many Muslim leaders and the complex, diverse and nuanced perspectives of ordinary Muslims, especially those living in the West.
The family’s ordeal highlights the unique challenges, but complex circumstances, many Muslims face when they come out as gay or are perceived as gay. Ten countries currently have death penalty provisions for homosexual activity all of them are Muslim-majority. Still, a 2014 Pew survey found that a higher percentage of American Muslims support same-sex marriage, than did respondents who identified as evangelical Christian, Mormon or Jehovah's Witness.
Zahra Khakoo, a 24-year-old Khoja in Australia, said the incident shines an uncomfortable light on an intergenerational and geographic clash of values that goes beyond views on homosexuality.
“The idea that most people in the community have is that you cannot be a person of your own,” she said. One’s “shameful” actions reflect first on the parents, then the jamaat, or community, and eventually the entire worldwide Khoja community, she said. “I think [Siddika] did the right thing. I think what she did is most defiantly Islamic. She did her job as a mother to support her son.”
Ani Zonneveld is the founder and president of Muslims for Progressive Values, an LGBTQ-affirming, faith-based human rights organization. She believes the Vancouver story shows the need for organizations like PFLAG, formerly known as Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, to support Muslim families who suffer from heteronormative religious interpretations that she called “un-Islamic” in spirit.
Usama Hasan, a London-based imam and theological scholar who argues that homosexuality is not explicitly condemned in Islamic tradition, said, “Whatever one's views and interpretations, we should applaud the brave and compassionate voice of the mother who correctly reminded us that mercy is the essential teaching of the Qur'an.”
The journey of Siddika’s family from arriving in Canada to celebrating the wedding of her eldest son is emblematic of the challenges and triumphs of integration and assimilation. In the 1980s, Siddika and her husband, both born in East Africa of Khoja stock, arrived in Canada from England. Soon after, Siddika gave birth to her first-born child, her son, Ali Reza. Khojas are an ethnoreligious group of Muslims with ancestral roots in India, totaling several hundred thousand worldwide today, who settled in East Africa in the 19th century. In recent decades, many have immigrated to Europe, North America, and Australia.
In her resignation letter obtained by INTO, Siddika wrote she was “shocked, devastated, and heartbroken” when Ali Reza came out ten years ago, at the age of 20, as gay. “He said he had known about it since the age of 16 and that he had spent countless hours praying to God to change this feeling in him because this was not a life he wanted for himself,” she wrote. “I went through everything from ‘why me’ to countless hours of prayers, going to all the ziyarats [pilgrimages], consultation with alims [theologians] to see the light and get guidance from Him.”
Siddika said the family grew to support Ali Reza.
“For us, this is about standing up for Ali's God-given right to live a life that would not be filled with the burden of religious guilt and compounded by communal scorn and societal shame,” Siddika’s statement continued. “In moments of darkness, I realized that the only way for Ali to live an authentic life and not have to hide and fear rejection was to give him space to reach his human potential as God’s creation.”
With this embrace of her son, Siddika stood beside Ali Reza, 30, on July 2, as he married his partner Paul, 27, in a civil ceremony at a local university hall in Vancouver. Siddika and her family declined to be interviewed.
In Instagram photos, the newly-wed couple beam as they pose happily with their family and friends, sharing their first dance and cutting a two-tier cake.
The Happiness and Backlash
A week later, an anonymous WhatsApp user spread news of the wedding in the Khoja community, with the mother’s title in leadership. A backlash ensued. Many writers cited stories and verses from the Qur’an to condemn homosexuality. Other WhatsApp messages excoriated the family and called for the mother to be immediately removed from leadership. Some demanded that Siddika and her family even be declared non-Muslims, or apostates.
Khoja organizations and mosques around the world heaped further humiliation on the family, issuing condemnations against the family. Khoja organizations and leaders based in Africa and South Asia issued the strongest condemnations while ones based in the West used softer or more neutral language. This division parallels the Anglican church’s struggle in reconciling the ongoing opposition to homosexuality sustained by many member churches in developing nations.
The Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheri Jamaat of Dar es Salaam, a mosque based in Tanzania, wrote that it “vehemently condemns this disgusting act to its fullest,” noting that the family members should be “willingly or forcefully” removed from leadership.
Ten days after the wedding, an anonymous user posted an online campaign on ipetitions.com, calling for the resignation of the Khoja North American community organization’s leadership. It garnered hundreds of signatures. The next day, Siddika sent her resignation letter to the president of the Khoja community organization.
In the statement’s concluding paragraph, Siddika asks, “If Ali Reza was your son, what would you do?”
Three days later, the World Federation of Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheri Muslim Communities, a U.N.-recognized non-profit organization, issued a statement that called regional groups to “select and elect leaders who believe and practice in the values” of Islam. The Khoja organizations did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
While many have criticized and even cursed the Muslim mother who stood by her gay son in his happiest moments, others, particularly young Khojas in the West, continue to support the family in private. Their support reflects currents of social change in the community who have settled across four continents over the last two centuries.
Andy Ngo is a graduate student in political science at Portland State University, studying Islamism and its intersection with women’s issues. Follow him on Twitter here.