By Khaled Diab
EastEnders is breaking new ground on gay issues by exploring what happens when Muslim boy meets boy – but marries girl.
16 August 2009
When writing about TV's desperate Muslim romantics for Cif last week, I never imagined the discussion thread would turn out as it did, with Sarka and other readers visualising a ground-breaking new detective series starring a “super-sharp, half cynical but still half-religious hijab-wearing female officer with feminist instincts” – a sort of Jane Tennison without the hard drinking, though other, more “Islamic”, forms of addiction are not out of the question.
The series could have our idiosyncratic heroine being taken out of her comfort zone to investigate the murder of a lap dancer, and how this challenges her to change her prejudices about sex workers, and the suspicious death of a Muslim girl and her Christian boyfriend both of whose bigoted families could easily have committed the double murder, either in isolation or as part of a dreadful alliance of convenience.
While Detective Chief Inspector Kamilah Hussein is still some way off, British television has recently veered off the beaten track to a place not visited since My Beautiful Laundrette by exploring what happens when Muslim boy meets boy.
Although EastEnders is not on my viewing list, our TV happened to be tuned in a couple of weeks ago when I switched it on and the unfolding scene caught my eye. It seemed that a touch of Bollywood colour had landed in Albert Square to offset its grey and grim exterior. The novelty of a British Muslim wedding would have worn off in a matter of seconds had an intriguing encounter not occurred in the kitchen between the groom (Syed, as I've since learned) and a big bloke called Christian.
Christian was reprimanding Syed for following his head and not his heart, and Syed was insisting that he was a Muslim and had to go through with this marriage. At first, I thought that perhaps this Syed was in love with a non-Muslim woman but had decided to marry from within the community to please his parents – but then suddenly Chris gently stroked Syed's cheek. I scratched my head, and Syed swiped away the roving hand in anger.
BBC television's first gay Muslim, especially his first kiss, has been causing quite a stir. Although the love affair has not created the expected level of controversy, it has upset some Muslims. “There's a lack of understanding of Muslims already and I think EastEnders really lost an opportunity to present a normal, friendly Muslim character to the British public,” one community leader complained.
Syed may be brooding and troubled, but by all accounts he is “handsome, suave and sophisticated” and a “natural charmer” – so that's the “friendly” bit covered. As for “normal”, well, Syed's story is hardly uncommon among Muslim homosexuals torn between the accepted norms of their faith and their desires.
In Cairo, a gay acquaintance of mine came very close to succumbing to pressure from his family to enter into a similar sham wedding while another publicly leads the life of an ambiguous “bachelor”. This “discretion” mirrors very closely the western situation before the sexual revolution changed everything. Sadly, homophobia remains far more widespread than we'd like to admit. In fact, being both Muslim and gay turns you into just about the ultimate discrimination magnet – drawing flak from mainstream society, fellow Muslims and even the gay community.
“When an Arabic paper picked up the story of Imaan's first conference, an extremist group issued a fatwa against us,” Farzana Fiaz told the Guardian. “After 9/11, we experienced Islamophobia, including from within the gay community.”
A gay Arab living in Germany once told me his hue didn't really fit in the rainbow: “We run, sometimes sprint, towards a more liberal west only to find that the colour of our eyes, the shade of our skin and the tone of our names are the obvious hurdles we must overcome to survive.”
But it's not just the outside world. The internal turmoil felt by gay Muslims can often be far harsher than that experienced by homosexuals from more supportive environments. When Fiaz realised she was a lesbian, she remembers: “I couldn't stop crying for days, I had nightmares, I couldn't sleep alone, I thought I was going to hell for feeling the way I did.”
This tension has caused some to abandon their religion. “I couldn't reconcile my sexuality with their teachings, and so I lost my faith,” admits Javaid, who also spoke to the Guardian. Some choose their faith and either suppress their sexuality through marriage or celibacy. Others are reinterpreting their faith and drawing on Islam's more permissive past and the Qur'an's ambiguity and general silence on the subject to hold on to both their sexuality and faith.
An increasing number of Muslims are coming out of the closet, even to their families. “When my parents found out, my father did not really understand. But he tried hard to learn … He even went to a gay bookshop and bought a book about being the parent of a gay son. It really meant a lot to me,” said Javaid.
The mainstream Muslim view of homosexuality is still generally hostile or silent. Although the tragic executions in places like Iran capture the headlines, many Muslim countries, like Pakistan, have a vibrant underground gay culture, in the age-old attitude of “turn a blind eye to avoid change”.
But change is coming. For instance, despite and because of crackdowns on gay men in Egypt, more open debate on the subject and sympathetic treatment of homosexuality have found their way into mainstream culture and unapologetic gayness has reached the radical fringes, such as Maher Sabry's Toul Omry (All My Life), produced by the enigmatically named Egyptian Underground Film Society.
This is an extended version of a column which appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 13 August 2009. Read the related discussion.