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In the documentary A Jihad for Love, a South African Muslim named Muhsin Hendricks is shown being profiled on a radio show, coming clean to listeners about his unorthodox views and radical lifestyle. Listeners respond by phoning in vitriol: “We should definitely bring back the death sentence for this guy,” says one. “It’s unacceptable. He’s bringing down the name of Islam.” Hendricks’ crime? He’s gay.
Before he came out, Hendricks was a Cape Town imam raised in a strict Islamic home. When he was a teenager, he knew that the Koran seemed to forbid homosexuality; the book’s teachings about Sodom and Gomorrah called for such people to be stoned to death. So Hendricks prayed for his temptations to be taken away. He married and had kids. But when a separation from a close male friend left him grieving, Hendricks revealed his true feelings to his wife and set out to change the thinking that one cannot be both gay and a devout Muslim.
Writer-director Parvez Sharma’s debut feature documentary is a needed introduction to an issue that’s quietly disrupted the Muslim community while more internationally relevant problems of suicide bombers and profiling have been bullhorned. Besides Hendricks, several gay and lesbians are profiled, capturing Muslims from Cairo to Paris to Turkey. Most have reached the point where they’re self-accepting; others, such as a Moroccan Arab woman named Maryam, still believe that their sexuality is a sin. Nearly all talk of begging Allah to make them “normal.” Maha, Maryam’s girlfriend, recalls praying to either “get rid of this or die.”
Though some of Sharma’s subjects live in countries that do not punish homosexual acts, many still refuse to be fully identified onscreen for fear of retribution from their families or exile from their mosque. That caution is understandable, but it doesn’t exactly make for compelling viewing: Sharma mainly blurs faces, though he’ll also film people from behind or let us see one eye. Mazen, an Egyptian man who was arrested at a gay club and imprisoned in 2001, tells the bulk of his story while we look at the back of his head. Three years later he’s in Paris, watching footage of the man responsible for the raid. “Today I’m ready to reveal my face,” Mazen says and slowly turns for Sharma to capture his profile. It should be a dramatic moment, but it just feels unnecessarily staged.
The documentary’s bigger failing is its repetitiveness. The Koran addresses homosexuality only in a passage about Sodom and Gomorrah, and that’s the teaching every person portrayed here—and there are approximately a dozen of them—is butting his or her head against. Hendricks brings the most insight to the subject, and it’s heartening when another scholar agrees to meet with him to discuss the issue. But while Hendricks lays out a solid argument that the punishment called for in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah was in response to rape and brutality, not same-sex attraction, the scholar has a quick answer: “You are just playing with words,” he says. “No person can make an interpretation to suit his desires, or her desires, when you have clear-cut verses.”
With each familiar story, you wish Sharma dug a little deeper into the issue. Still, his message gets over. You ache for the outcasts and semi-closeted and cheer for couples such as Ferda and Kiymet, who openly show affection even while in front of a mosque. Especially touching is one man’s trip to Canada, where he seeks asylum. “Today is my new birthday,” he says upon his arrival. Ultimately, too, this documentary’s message is one that is all too universal, relating to many people whose religion pronounces their lifestyle a sin. Hendricks may parse the Koran’s specifics, but a lesbian named Sana argues the case for acceptance best: “My loving a woman caused no harm.”