Islam and gays
Sir Iqbal Sacranie, Britain's most senior Muslim leader, has protested that his views on the immorality of homosexual behaviour did not mean he was homophobic.Sir Iqbal spoke to me on the issue after his comments that same-sex relationships risked damaging the foundations of society provoked outrage and condemnation from gay rights campaigners such as Peter Tatchell. Early signs of possible divisions in Britain's Muslim community came when, speaking to me yesterday, the country's other top Muslim, Sheikh Dr Zaki Badawi, urged Muslims to take advantage of the new Civil Partnership Act to enjoy the financial and property benefits it brings. Sir Iqbal declined to comment on Dr Badawi's approach.
Here is a transcript of Sir Iqbal's original comments on BBC Radio 4's PM programme. This was a small part of a wide-ranging interview. This was supplied to us by Peter Tatchell's organisation Outrage!
When you look at same-sex civil partnerships, for instance, what are your thoughts?
Sacranie: "Our view is very clear on that. I'm carried by the teaching of my faith. It is something which is not acceptable in Islam the same way it is not acceptable under Christianity or Judaism or other divine religions. Our religion, our faith is very, very clear. This is harmful. It does not augur well in building the very foundations of society - stability, family relationships. And it is something we would certainly not, in any form, encourage the community to be involved in."
Is homosexuality itself harmful to society?
Sacranie: "Certainly it is a practice that – in terms of health, in terms of the moral issues that comes along in society – it is not acceptable. And what is not acceptable, there is a good reason for it."
"Each of our faiths tells us that it is harmful and I think, if you look into the scientific evidence that has been available in terms of the forms of various other illnesses and diseases that are there, surely it points out that where homosexuality is practised there is a greater concern in that area."
Eddie: And how does one society square and comfortably hold your view with the views of same-sex couples who have been getting married in recent weeks? Does that "tolerance" always get borne out?
Sacranie: "Well tolerance comes from both ways. We have an opportunity to express our views. This is what we have, this is the privilege we have living in an open democratic society. This is something which we felt deeply concerned about because we felt it does not promote the social or family harmony in society. Now, whilst its there, what do we do? We have to confront in the manner which is acceptable to all of us, but in the same way I have the right to express my view, others have the right to oppose and put their arguments."
Twenty-four hours later, Sir Iqbal said this to me:
"What I said was only to reiterate the well-known Islamic position that the practice of homosexuality is not acceptable. It is a sin. This view is shared in other scriptures, such as those of Christianity and Judaism. So this is not a campaign that have started. We have only stated our position which is indeed that of all Abrahamic faiths. What amazes us is this concerted attempt to silence views we believe we are articulating for quite a large section of society.
"We see the great controversy it has created within the world Anglican communion with the real threat of major division over this question. So our views are quite relevant." (Details of the latest Anglican difficulties with the gay issue, concerning Changing Attitude in Nigeria, can be found here. Thinking Anglicans has lots of useful links on this story and is running a blog with all anyone could need to about it here.)
Sir Iqbal said it was in the nature of a democratic society to permit dissent, even over legislation that had already been passed.
"On the question of whether my comments were homophobic, it is utterly nonsensical to suggest that. We reject any form of discrimination, whether on the basis of race, religion, gender or age. But people cannot be bullied to remain silent on views which they believe are important for society to understand.
"The moral and religious principles are clear. In Islam there is unanimity on this subject. We do not want to be in the same position as the Anglican communion, where the scriptures say one thing but religious leaders are divided.
"We have a clear responsibility, particularly to our young, who are day in day out barraged with so much material which indirectly promotes unnatural sexual behaviour. If we remain silent now, we may regret it in years to come. In Islam the situation is clear. We detest the practice of homosexuality but we cannopt discriminate, we cannot hate such people, we pray for them.”
Dr Badawi, principal of the Muslim College, agreed that no Muslim leader could condone homosexual practice. But he said the college would be issuing guidelines advising Muslims that, as long as there was no sexual activity, it was acceptable to register their partnerships. Such relationships could be friendships, or business partnerships, he said. "I hope Muslims will take advantage of it for the financial benefits. Homosexuality exists of course, there is no way we can deny that. It existed at the time of the prophet. It is well known. But the fact is, it is regarded as unacceptable."
Sir Iqbal is correct to argue that all three Abrahamic faiths condemn homosexuality. According to Terry Sanderson, of the National Secular Society and a columnist for Gay Times, the only serious opposition to the new Civil Partnership Act has been from the leaders of these three faiths. Sometimes they work together against liberal developments in society. The Muslim Council of Britain and the Christian Institute cooperated in fighting gay adoption for example. The Muslim Council is open about its view, spelled out in the health section in its document on slaughter, that homosexuality leads to Aids. For my sins, I even ended up discussing it myself on New Year's Day on BBC Radio 4's Sunday programme, along with leading members of the Muslim and Jewish communities.
Nevertheless, the Muslim views against gays seem to be more hardline. In some Muslim states homosexuality remains a capital offence. For example, in Iran, since 1979 people condemned of homosexual acts can be stoned to death, in accordance with some interpretations of Shariah.
By contrast, Liberal Judaism has been the first religious organisation in the UK to publish an authorised liturgy for those who register their partnerships.
The Pope has indicated to Francis Campbell, the new British ambassador to the Vatican and the first Catholic in the post, the depth of his displeasure about civil partnerships. And in Scotland, Cardinal Keith O'Brien used his New Year message to condemn the act. But bishops in the Anglican Communion are divided over the issue. In their official statement, they have conceded the right of laity and clergy to register their partnerships. But a church spokesman said: "This is not predicated on the intent to engage in a sexual relationship."
The Koran is unequivocally against it, retelling like the Bible the story of Lot and Sodom. But the Koran does promise men who reach heaven: "And there shall wait on them young boys of their own, as fair as virgin pearls."
In the UK there is a support group for gay Muslims, Imaan. But fear of disapproval is so strong that on the website, the photographs of those who took part in last year's Gay Pride march have been blurred to avoid their identification.