By Katherine Hughes 9/29/08

Given the surge of interest in Islam in the post 9/11-period, Parvez Sharma’s decision to focus his movie, A Jihad for Love, on Islam was very timely. His decision was an opportunity for some redress of western anti-Muslim propaganda that has been incessant since 9/11 – the most recent manifestation being a dvd called “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against The West,” mailed out to 28 million people in local newspapers in the U.S.A.

The film was six and a half years in the making and Sharma has said that at the beginning of the project he felt a lot of anger, toward conservative Muslims who openly say they want to kill their homosexual brothers and sisters and toward the conflation of Islam and terrorism in most mainstream Western media outlets. The movie succeeds in addressing his first point of anger but, tragically, makes no attempt to address his second point.

The 81-minute film follows several devout Muslims as they struggle to reconcile their deep commitment to their faith with the fact of their homosexuality. Each of the characters makes their own Jihad in environments that are, in varying degrees, hostile to their quest: the film gives voice to the struggle that each endures.

A context of the hostility between conservative religious thought and homosexuality is set early in the film. The movie opens in South Africa with the night prayers of a gay imam, Muhsin Hendricks, and we learn that he has lost his position in the community, and his ability to earn a living, because of his “coming out.” We hear callers on a radio show telling him in no uncertain terms what they think should be done with the likes of him, and we see Hendricks in conversation with an Islamic scholar who tells him, the only dispute among scholars is how homosexuals should be killed.

Other characters in the film include two lesbian couples, one couple living openly in Istanbul and one long-distance relationship between Cairo and Paris. The men in the movie are from South Africa, Iran, Egypt and India. Four Iranians are filmed in Istanbul while they await permits to the west, a young Egyptian is filmed in his new home in Paris, and the Indians are filmed at home. Showing private prayer and communal ritual, Sharma conveys the extent of the devotion of each of these people, and through conversation–mostly long-distance phone calls–Sharma reveals the depth of the pain that each feels in the loss of place.

Unfortunately Sharma does not provide any place in the film for these people to help viewers understand what it is about their Islamic faith that is so important they are willing to engage in such a struggle to make a place for both their sexuality and religion in life. And although several of the characters express regret at leaving and deep love for their home country, we are not helped to understand why this is such a tremendous loss. As a result the tight focus of the film many of the characters come off as almost completely two-dimensional, trapped in their sexual and religious identities.

The film does give slightly more context to the lives of three of the characters: we see Muhsin Hendricks early in the film with his children, and again late in the film there is a degree of reconciliation when he meets with people from the Muslim community where he had formerly been imam; we also see the Turkish lesbian couple on their way to visit the elderly mother of one of them for the first time.

In the film’s segment on India, a historical context is given when screen text lets us know that most of the laws against homosexuality are a hangover from the colonial era, and these laws are not enforced. But this addition makes one question why a similar context was not given in the film for the South Africa segment, where the post-Apartheid South African Constitution of 1996 opposes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and endorses legal recognition of same-sex marriage.

As the film draws to a close, we see two of the Iranian men en route to Canada where they have been granted asylum. Earlier in the film we saw photographs of the back of one of the men after he had received 100 lashes for attending a gay party. (A punishment not just reserved for gay men, but for anyone who has attended a party the government thinks they shouldn’t have.) As the plane touches down the young man breaks down and sobs. This moment is particularly poignant because, although not addressed in the film, the reality of post-9/11 Canada is a two-tiered legal system where Muslim and/or Arab refugees, and permanent residents, have been held without charge for many years, while others have been rendered to foreign countries for torture.

The sensitive portraits of the individual characters are undoubtedly the film’s great strength. However, given Sharma’s oft repeated assertion that the movie is primarily about Islam, the fact that he does not address the realities of Muslims living in the west in the post 9/11-period, and fails to include Muslims in Indonesia–the most populous Muslim country where there is relative tolerance for homosexuality–are glaring omissions that ultimately undermine the integrity of the film.

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