A Jihad for Love
Reviewed by Alisa Lebow

Produced by Sandi Dubowski and Parvez Sharma; directed by Parvez Sharma; cinematography by Parvez Sharma and Berke Bas; edited by Juliet Weber; music by Richard Horowitz and Sussan Deyhim. Color, 81 min., 2007. A First Run Features Release.

A Jihad for Love is a film that could only have been made after September 11, 2001. Not because anything had changed particularly for gays and lesbians in Muslim countries, nor because there was the sudden desire to hear these stories, but to put it crudely, because it became an eminently fundable project. Western, especially US and UK, funding mechanisms for film suddenly seemed to take an interest in projects that would portray their version of Islam, and what could be sexier than a film about gay Muslims and the oppression they've faced at the hands of conservative and/or Islamicist states?

The climate was certainly ripe, and there was a very ambitious filmmaker who knew a good opportunity when he saw one. Parvez Sharma was raised Muslim in India and although he does have some feeling for his religion, he is by no means devout. However, as a resident of the US, post 9/11, he says he felt he had to do something in the battle to represent Islam. He declares that his religion was hijacked by extremists who preach violence and hatred, and he is not referring to Fox TV or George Bush. He means the radical clerics who have become the face of Islam in the West. Sharma sought to prove that his religion was a peaceful and loving one, and in effect, that not all Muslims are terrorists. Some are even gay.

It's hard to see how that would be considered reassuring by the bible-thumping hawks in the White House, but it certainly doesn't dispel any rumors about Muslim countries wantonly violating human rights. Never mind that the US itself still has many anti-gay laws on the books and its immigration policies still actively discriminate against sexual minorities and people who are HIV+, not at all unlike some of the countries they are so eager to cast as backward and repressive. The title of the film itself is an indication of its sentiments, playing on the fears of the West and the assumption that all Muslims (even the gay ones) are Jihadis. However, the film goes to some lengths to then soften its stance, and to remind us that in Arabic, jihad means "struggle" not "holy war" and certainly not "terrorist". And indeed, the battles its protagonists fight are in the end, fights for the right to love as they desire.

The film itself is quite compelling. It focuses on characters, both lesbians and gay men, from Egypt, Iran, Turkey, Morocco and South Africa. The South African born Muhsin Hendricks is perhaps the most actively religious, having studied in a madrasa and served as an imam for several years before coming out to his wife, kids, and community. In South Africa, and now internationally, he has been one of the most outspoken advocates for the right to practice Islam as an openly gay or lesbian person and as such he is at the spiritual center of the film. In one scene he is shown leading a discussion about homosexuality in Islam with a gratifyingly open-minded group of Muslim community-members. In another scene he argues with a Koran scholar as to the possible interpretations of the story of Lot in Sodom and Gomorrah, and although he isn't able to change the other's mind, he makes a convincing case that it was not homosexuality but rape that the Koran forbids in that story. Muhsin's two daughters appear quite conflicted about their father's very public identity, joking with him in one of the more macabre moments of the film, that if there were to be a fatwa against him they would hope only that his death would be swift, that he would be "killed with the first rock".

No one else in the film jests about fatwas and stonings, yet others are considerably less certain about their status and rights to practice Islam as open gays and lesbians. Maryam, a Moroccan lesbian living in Paris, seems to believe her religion would not forgive her for her sins, but nonetheless finds herself an Egyptian girlfriend via the internet. In one of the most painful and difficult scenes of the film, Maryam, whose face remains obscured throughout, declares that she in fact wants to be punished for her desires. Thankfully the rest of the characters in the film are considerably less self-hating and indeed, less committedly religious, but all who agree to participate in the film have had to overcome some spiritual conflict—a jihad—within themselves, so that they could eventually embrace the dual Muslim and homosexual aspects of their identities. Sharma has said in interviews that "all of the people in my film are coming out as Muslim", which is meant as an irony, of course. The expectation being that they are coming out as gay/lesbian. One character, named Mazen, who begins the film in shadow and literally "comes out" with his full visual identity somewhere midway through, was one of the 52 gay men imprisoned in Egypt during the summer of 2001. Mazen was raped and humiliated in prison and eventually escapes Egypt and moves to France, where the film finds him. His story is perhaps the most cruel, though the three Iranian men living in central Anatolia awaiting news of their amnesty applications to go to Canada, also have their stories to tell.

It is the two Turkish lesbians, Ferda and Kiymet, a couple who have since broken up, who appear the most "liberated" and at ease in their identities. These two women may not be in the Istanbul "scene" but they seem perfectly at peace with their love for one another and with their love for Allah. It's quite refreshing, in fact, to see women who refuse to be tortured by their passions. In a visit to one of their mother's, they even joke that her celibate parrot might be gay. The scenes shot in Turkey, by filmmaker and cinematographer Berke Bas, are perhaps the most visually arresting of the film.

The premise of such a film is inevitably to integrate two quite anomalous identities. The effort to do so requires some unfortunately reactionary strategies, such as the characters' insistence that they were all "born gay" which always seems to imply that if they could change, they would. Clearly, the much more liberatory strategy has been to assert that sexuality is a choice, albeit a socially (over)determined one, and that in the ideal world at least, every human would have the right and opportunity to love whomever they chose. Not so in a film that seeks to reconcile these opposing ideologies. The film's producer, Sandi Simcha DuBowski, is familiar with such territory. His own film Trembling Before G-d (2001), had a similar theme, with a focus on orthodox and Hassidic Jewish gays and lesbians. One major difference being that Trembling focused on the ultra-religious, neglecting the vast majority of Jewish gays and lesbians who seem more prepared to live with the contradictions rather than attempting to force them into harmony. Due perhaps to the near total absence of representations of gay and lesbian Muslims, A Jihad for Love is more broad-ranging in its choices.

DuBowski brought his by now legendarily prodigious producer's skills to the project and the funders list (the longest I've ever seen) is testament to his indomitable spirit. The international scope of the film no doubt required considerable funding, as did the process of filtering through over 400 hours of footage shot. There were apparently far more stories left on the proverbial cutting room floor than made it into the film, but overall the character's chosen are not only well-wrought in and of themselves, but also represent a breadth of perspectives that at the very least suggest that there is no single, monolithic, "gay Muslim" or "lesbian Muslim" experience.

Though there is certainly an opportunism to the timing of the film and even a conservatism of its aims (to make "peace" with religious dogmas which, like all religious dogma, have worked to control and restrict human behavior and expression) it also has to be said that A Jihad for Love succeeds on its own terms, which are to represent an alternative view of, and approach to, Islam.

There is a ban, signed into law in 1993 under the Clinton administration, banning HIV+ individuals from entering the United States. All foreigners wishing to cross the US border must fill out an immigration form that confirms they are not HIV+.

Alisa Lebow teaches at the Brunel School of Arts. She is a founding member of both Bristol Docs and Doc Istanbul.

Copyright © 2008 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXIII, No. 3