"We are Islam": The mosque in Marseille catering to the queer community - Squirrel News

“We are Islam”: The mosque in Marseille catering to the queer community

Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed has established a mosque in Marseille explicitly catering to the queer community.

The man with the narrow silver aviator glasses sticks his head out of the window like a curious boy. In the narrow alleyway of the former working-class neighbourhood of Belle de Mai in Marseille, laundry hangs from lines stretched across the street and two teenagers loiter on a scooter. “You’re the journalist!” he calls down cheerfully. There’s nothing in his voice to indicate that the look out of the window is the result of a caution he has grown accustomed to over the years.

Only insiders know the address of this house. There’s a reason for that.

Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed lives as an openly homosexual imam in France. His religion has long been the subject of heated debate here, especially after the Islamist-motivated terrorist attacks on the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo and the concert at the Bataclan in 2015. During his first term in office, President Emmanuel Macron announced his intention to create a “French Islam” and replace the imams sent from Turkey, Algeria and Morocco with imams certified by the French state.

A safe space in the centre of the field of fire

This sparked outrage among Muslims worldwide. “Not feasible”, Chems-Eddine Hafiz, the rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris, waved it away in the newspaper “Le Monde”, “racist”, was the judgement of al-Azhar, the highest religious authority of Sunni Islam, in the Lebanese newspaper “L’Orient-Le Jour”.

Between these red lines, Zahed has built a place in Marseille that is intended to be both a mosque, a place of protection for the queer Muslim community and a training centre for young imams.

Zahed opens the door to the Calem Institute in a dark blue embroidered shirt with a stand-up collar. “Please take off your shoes,” he says. He leads us through a narrow white-tiled corridor to a small terrace covered with artificial turf. This is where the training seminars and celebrations that Zahed organises with his five employees take place.

A door covered with blankets leads from here to the dormitory where they accommodate queer refugees from all over the world. They also use the room as a prayer room. Opposite is a small office. On the bookshelf are standard works of Islamic theology, sociology, anthropology and Zahed’s autobiographical essay “Le coran et la chair”, which translates as “The Koran and gender”.

In love with a fellow believer

In it, he describes his youth in Algiers in the 1990s. How his older brother beats him up to make “a man” out of him, how he finds a new family in the strict religious practices of the Salafists and forms a deep friendship with a fellow believer nine years his senior. But the closer their relationship becomes, the greater the pressure from the Salafist group. They warn the two unmarried men not to spend too much time together. For Zahed and his friend, even the suggestion that their relationship could be sexual is dangerous. Gay and lesbian people in Algeria are repeatedly the victims of attacks by Muslim fundamentalists. Zahed will later call the boyfriend his first love, but the boyfriend gives in. They should no longer see each other, their relationship is a sinful temptation.

A short time later, a lorry full of explosives explodes in the centre of Algiers. It is the eerie silence over the city centre that Zahed remembers in the book. Heartbroken, he is horrified by the idea that there are links between his religious community and the attackers. When his father announces over dinner that the family must flee to Marseille as quickly as possible because of the civil war, 17-year-old Zahed immediately agrees. In France, he renounces Islam.

The calm that Zahed radiates today seems difficult to reconcile with this ride through geographical and spiritual worlds. How did this man, who, according to his own perception, was deprived of his first great love and his family of choice by religion, become an imam?

Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed folds his hands and smiles. “The only idea I had of Islam back then was a political one: anti-Semitic, patriarchal, homophobic, transphobic,” he says. 

He fills the void left by his lost faith with knowledge, studying psychology and later anthropology. He tries to forget God in the intoxication of alcohol and sex. It was “like trying to cut off an arm”, he writes in his book.

It seemed less painful for him to let faith back into his life despite its incompatibility with his sexual identity. So he turns to the most peaceful religion he can think of – Buddhism. He even travelled to Tibet with his sister.

But then he hears the Dalai Lama say at a press conference that love between same-sex partners is acceptable for atheists, but not for Buddhists.

For Zahed, this disappointment is not a moment of bitterness. The conclusions he draws from it are like a redemption.

Muslim faith and homosexuality: do they go together?

He was fascinated by this recurring pattern in religions. If homophobia and misogyny are everywhere, then perhaps they are not necessarily linked to Islam, he thinks. Perhaps his Muslim faith is compatible with his homosexuality after all? For the first time, Zahed sees a way out of his “schizophrenic identity”. This is what he calls the inner contradictions that have torn him apart for decades.

Zahed is writing a doctoral thesis at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris on how to reconcile these contradictions. He reads Arab feminists such as the Moroccan Fatima Mernissi. When no one wanted to lead the traditional rite and prayers for a deceased transgender Muslim woman, he says, he stepped in as an imam for the first time. In 2012, he opened one of the world’s first inclusive mosques in Paris.

When he talks about those years today, he does so with a lightness of touch, as if it all came naturally. Yet the Grande Mosquée in Paris makes the statement: “The opening of a prayer room of this kind is outside the Islamic community.”

Zahed gets a lot of hate messages…

Zahed only tells us about the hate messages he has received since then when we ask. He does not want to deny the homophobic tendencies in Islam. He emphasises this again and again. “The roots lie elsewhere than in the religion itself. As long as we don’t fight them, they will come back in a different form.”   

 Zahed looks at hate messages as if he were a laboratory scientist and they were an exciting research object just waiting to be analysed. Five trips to Mecca, the brainwork of countless published studies in specialist journals and a second doctoral thesis give him the self-confidence he needs to contradict even the most powerful imams.

… but also invitations to appear on television

He also draws strength from the way Islam has changed over the last few years. “When I opened the mosque in Paris, believers told us: you are not real Muslims.” When the TV station Deutsche Welle Arabia requests a discussion round on religious issues between him and other Muslim scholars today, they agree to the interview. They accept him as a religious representative. Zahed believes they have understood that they have to adapt if they don’t want to disappear – at least in Europe.

With regard to the ideas of French politicians to intervene in this conflict, Zahed refers to the secularism that applies in France – the separation of state and religion. It is not Macron who can decide on Islam.

His institute is financed by private donations without state aid, says Zahed, and occasionally they also rent out free dormitory beds. When they publish theological articles, that also brings in money.

Many of the queer refugees, on the other hand, come to him in “survival mode”, he says – far from wanting to spend hours discussing questions of faith.

We are almost on our way out when Zahed tells us about a discussion with a refugee. Shunned by her family and environment, she rejected everything to do with Islam. “She lived on pork and beer,” says Zahed and laughs. “She said to me: How can you fight for Islam, which has terrorised us so much?”

Suddenly he becomes serious. “Of course I understand her,” he says. “But what is Islam? We are Islam! We must not allow our faith to be taken away from us.”

This text was translated and published under the licence CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0-DE. The original article by Clara Hellner can be found here.

Photo: Garitan via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

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