Gay-friendly mosque stirs controversy among France's Muslims
A new mosque in France is raising controversy. The ‘Mosquée de l’Unicité’ (Inclusive Mosque) is open to people of all genders and sexualities. Gay-friendly, it also has women praying alongside men.
French Imams say that a gay mosque is counter to Islam, as it excludes others.
Not so, says founder Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed. He says this is not a gay mosque, but rather a mosque open to everyone, including homosexuals, who, he says, can feel unwelcome elsewhere.
“I met several brothers and sisters who were looking for a place to worship without being discriminated against,” he explained.
Algerian-born, he grew up in France, and for the last few years has found his place as a gay Muslim activist, founding HM2F, (Homosexuals of France), in 2005.
Sporting a short-cropped beard, he says he blends in when he goes to pray at the main Paris mosque. But that is not the case for everyone.
“I don’t look like a gay guy, but for other people it’s very obvious they don’t fit the model, so for them it’s much harder to pray at the mosque and have a peaceful experience, since they feel - whether rightly or wrongly - they feel rejected.”
Zahed led the new mosque’s first Friday Jum’ah prayer session a week ago, in a dimly-lit room in the home of a Buddhist monk who lives east of Paris.
About 15 people were there, not all of them Muslim, and not all men. A woman sang the Adhan, the call to prayer.
“I always wanted to pray in a mosque. I always wanted to pray together, men and women, like at Mecca,” said Alima Galem, one of the three women there. It was her first time ever praying with men.
“For me it feels natural, because the world is made of men and women. So I don’t see why we would not be praying together, for the same god.”
Zahed says there is nothing in the Koran that says that women cannot be Imams.
“At the time of the Prophet, several women - several wives of the Prophet - did lead the prayer,” he said.
One of the participants, who did not want to be identified by his real name, became very emotional during the prayers.
“I didn’t think we’d ever be able to do this one day,” he said afterwards. “It’s beautiful to participate in prayers like this, with men and women, whatever their sexuality.”
For him, this new mosque is a way for him to be comfortable being both gay and Muslim, which has taken time.
“When you go into a mosque, you don’t go in with a flag saying ‘I’m gay or lesbian’. You’re there to pray. But being in a space like this is different, because you’re with people who share the same problems.”
Zahed is looking to push gender and sexuality boundaries with this inclusive mosque.
“I think that this new project is really touching a very sensitive issue, which is: What should be the Islam of France tomorrow?”
For him, that Islam is inclusive. As a gay man, he spent a while reconciling himself with the religion of his childhood.
“It took me quite a long time to understand that trying to forget Islam, would be like trying to cut off your arm,” he says. For ten years he left the faith and turned to Buddhism.
But he turned back to Islam when he realised that all religions are flawed.
“I found out that some Buddhists are killing Muslims, and others are misogynous or homophobic. So I said OK, even in such a peaceful religion like Buddhism, you find some people that are using it for negative purposes. So I said, perhaps I have to get a second look at Islam, and try to find out what is my Islam.”
His Islam goes counter to mainstream Muslims in France, who have criticised the idea of a gay-friendly mosque. But Zahed says that French Muslims target gays and lesbians because they, themselves, feel persecuted.
“Muslims in France are feeling in danger, and like any other social group that feels threatened, they will look for scapegoats, and tighten their bonds and exclude what they consider as deviant. It's social psychology” says Zahed, who is studying for an PhD in anthropology.
He says he is not interested in transforming all of Islam. But he does hope that by accepting homosexuals and by allowing women to lead prayers, his mosque will make mainstream French Muslims rethink their own faith, too.