MARSEILLE, France—Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed probably doesn’t look like your typical idea of an imam. When I met him on a sunny Friday afternoon the other week, he wore a bright orange tank top, white pants, and flip-flops. He could have been just another tanned tourist in Marseille's bustling old port area.
But Zahed, who studied in a Salafi madrasa in his hometown of Algiers, Algeria, as a teenager, is a trailblazer in the progressive Islam community. In 2012, he started the first unequivocally gay friendly mosque in Europe, in a tiny prayer hall in eastern Paris.
He’s one of a small but growing number of openly gay imams around the world who are fighting to create a more progressive, inclusive Islam. “There are some people who consider it an oxymoron, to be Muslim and gay,” he told me. “We have to work to change that.”
Zahed believes Islam is an inherently inclusive religion that has been warped by local traditions and homophobic leaders in the Middle East. It's an argument that is gaining ground among scholars and some leaders in the faith alike.
He’s helped gay refugees from Algeria get to France, started an activist network to connect and train gay friendly and progressive Muslims, and traveled the world to promote AIDS awareness (he is HIV-positive).
But the work hasn’t been easy. He’s up against Islamophobia in the gay community at the same time he deals with homophobia from some Muslims. When Zahed first started his mosque, other imams in Paris decried him, and major LGBTQ groups ignored him. Threats forced his organization to move regularly. Tensions have only risen after the Orlando shooting last month, when Omar Mateen killed 49 people at a gay nightclub while invoking the Islamic State, and some conservative politicians in the U.S. and Europe have tried to pit the LGBTQ community against Muslims.
I joined Zahed, 38, for an iftar picnic—marking the end of the daily Ramadan fast—on a gorgeous beach down the coast of Marseille. Friends, some Muslim and some not, sprawled on towels arranged around a spread of hummus, tabouleh, fruit, chips, juice, and wine.
As the sun dipped below the horizon and Zahed started eating, we talked about his life story, the connection between Islamophobia and homophobia, and the Orlando shooting.
The following has been edited and condensed.
Tell me a little about what it was like for you growing up.
I grew up between Paris and Algiers. I went to the mosque when I was 12 years old to study Islam, to learn prayers and fasting and all of that spiritual stuff. But I also got a lot of dogmatism and politics for five years. My other friends studying at the madrasa became imams, but I discovered that what I felt for the other boys and men in the madrasa and the mosque was called homosexuality. I was watching satellite TV from France, watching the debate about civil partnerships in France, and I was seeing guys saying ‘we are homosexuals.’ I finally discovered, that’s me.
I’ve met a lot of people who had this reflection at the same time. When they discover their homosexuality or trans identity, they also question their identity in a spiritual way. I asked myself, 'Is it possible to be Arab and French at the same time? Can I be Muslim and homosexual at the same time?' You go through this questioning of identity at every level.
We got back to France, here in Marseille, I was 19. I decided it was too heavy for me to reconcile between Islam and homosexuality. The only Islam I knew was homophobic, misogynistic, Jew-phobic and so on. I was not able at that time to separate between politics and spirituality. I abandoned Islam.
In my 20s, I had a good job and academic background in Paris, but I wasn’t happy. I was desperate—I was trying to cut my spirituality or my sexuality off, like having to choose to cut off part of my body.
I went to Mecca because I wanted to reconnect with my spirituality, and I came back completely different. I started to pray again from Islam and meditate like a Buddhist. I started understanding Islam—I had never understood Islam like this. But I don't regret being in the madrasa at that time because I had the intellectual tools to radically deconstruct at the roots of Islam our tradition, to make it more inclusive, more truly humane. And gay friendly and feminist, to use more modern vocabulary.
How did you start doing that?
First I traveled around the world, to 29 countries for World Tour for AIDS children, in 2008 and 2009. I went to Muslim countries and non-Muslim countries and I saw the same prejudices against homosexuality and HIV positive people. It’s a form of fascism. I saw a lot of misery, a lot of ignorance and pain, but I also saw the beautiful traditions people have in Islam. I started rethinking completely the representation I had of Islam.
In 2010, I organized the first meeting in the basement of a shisha cafe in Le Marais in Paris, a very gay friendly neighborhood but still something very discreet. That first meeting, six people showed up. We started to hold inclusive jumuahs [the Friday prayer gathering]. We had a more spiritual questioning, a thirst for spirituality. Even more and more straight people came to us and said “the Islam you’re talking about is the true Islam, we want to be Muslim again.”
Then we had our first prayer session as a mosque in a Buddhist temple in eastern Paris in 2012—it was the first inclusive, gay friendly mosque in Europe. We had to change from one place to the other, sometimes every three months. The owners would get threats or criticism for hosting a mosque. In France, it’s really hard.
By the time I left Paris, our group had 400 members. Now there’s inclusive mosques everywhere in western Europe, in the U.K. and Denmark, in Germany, and the Netherlands. They have it in the U.S. and Canada too, and South Africa. In Indonesia they have one: It’s a hair salon, but in the back, they have a mosque. It’s very gay, beautiful. I love it.
Can it still be a mosque if it’s in a hair salon?
Politically it’s very different. But for me, it's better because it's more democratic, it’s very grassroots. I think in some ways that’s better than having a big building.
When did you become an imam? And what does becoming an imam actually involve?
That’s a good question. People ask me all the time, because I’m gay, 'Are you really an imam?' And that’s very insulting and homophobic. If you’re straight and you’re dressed up in robes and you say you’re an imam, people never question it.
In Arabic, imam means being in front, in front of people. It means you’re a leader. The one who knows the Qur'an better, knows more verses and more chapters, are pushed forward, and you have to lead the prayer because you’re the most responsible of that heritage.
People started calling me an imam when I started officiating marriages, and leading prayers in our meetings [in Paris]. At first I said, 'What’s happening here?' I was like, that’s too dangerous politically. Everything is political, especially when you talk about gays and Islam. I’m not supposed to be out here being an imam and saying I’m gay.
But it’s important, because it shows Islam is bigger than just one person's conception of it.
Many people believe Islam is homophobic. What does the Qur'an say about gay people?
There’s more than 70 verses in the Qur'an speaking about homosexuality, but it's always about rape. Sodomites were identified as rapists. There’s nowhere in the Qur'an that says you have to kill gay people. Yes, it says that Sodom and Gomorra have been destroyed by God and razed by angels to the ground, but it doesn’t say that you have to kill gays. It’s an interpretation of an interpretation.
Islam has had a tradition of accepting homosexuality. The Prophet, peace be upon him, was welcoming in his home of people we would today call homosexuals. It’s politics, fascism that replaced that. It’s the patriarchy dressed up as Islam.
This is our fault, our responsibility. We have to take our destiny in charge. There’s a lot of ignorance of our own heritage.
Do you also face Islamophobia in the gay community?
In France, there’s so much racism and secularism, LGBT organizations have told us 'We don't want to work with you.' They say, 'Even though you’re gay, because you’re Muslim we don’t trust you.' One of the biggest LGBT coalitions in France excluded us because now politicians want to be very distant from Islam.
There’s also a problem of homo-nationalism, in terms of, people say, 'If you want to be truly European, you have to be gay friendly. And you Muslims are less gay-friendly than others.' That can be used to discriminate against Muslims, even though homophobia can be found everywhere. Women and LGBT individuals are at the forefront of debates about reforming Islam, we have the best tools to do that.
What did you think when you heard about the Orlando shooting?
I couldn’t believe what was happening. Those poor people, I was so sad for them. But my second thought was, we have to work on that, we have to work twice as hard to communicate our message now.
It’s hard to know what’s going through his [Omar Mateen's] mind. Maybe he was gay, maybe he was bisexual. You see how lone wolf attackers are perceived if they’re Muslim or non-Muslim. When a white person shoots people, they say he’s insane. If he's Muslim, they talk about terrorism.
Even the victims were described differently. In France, the first media reports just said that it was a club, it was the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. They didn’t include the word gay. Gay rights organizations had to contact them and tell them to update their stories. It took them 24 hours to recognize the fact that yes, these people were killed because they were gay.
What about the political aspect of this? Donald Trump gave a speech where he basically said that LGBTQ people should support him because banning Muslims from entering the country would keep them safe.
Exactly the same thing happened here with Marine Le Pen, the leader of Front National [the largest far-right party in France]. In the 2012 elections, she was like, 'Vote for me, gays and lesbians, because I’m going to be protecting you against Muslims.' And then a journalist asked her—it was so beautiful—are you in favor of gay marriage. And she said no because 'they don’t want to be married.'
That’s what I call homo-nationalism. They’re using us politically and they want our votes, but they don’t give us rights.
When you hear this kind of rhetoric, as someone who is Muslim and gay, does it feel like your identities are being set against each other?
No, because my identity is much bigger than the sum of different threads. We all have to see ourselves as more than the sum of our ethnicity, our religion, our sexuality, whatever.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.