Cape Town’s mosque pro­vides rare haven

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Fri­day prayers at the Peo­ple’s Mosque in Cape Town looks like any other around the Is­lamic world, ex­cept in this South African city the imam is openly gay and the teach­ing pro­motes ho­mo­sex­ual rights. It is a stance that pro­vokes out­rage from many Mus­lims, but Muhsin Hen­dricks has built up a small, loyal con­gre­ga­tion by help­ing wor­ship­pers try to rec­on­cile their sex­u­al­ity and their re­li­gion. “There is this love-hate re­la­tion­ship from the Mus­lim com­mu­nity,” Hen­dricks said.

“Some­times they feel that I should be thrown from the high­est moun­tain, and some­times they ap­pre­ci­ate that there is one imam who is willing to work with peo­ple who they are un­will­ing to work with.” Cape Town has an ac­tive gay scene, and is of­ten de­scribed as the “gay cap­i­tal” of Africa, with a district of gay-friendly restau­rants, bars, guest­houses and clubs near the city cen­tre. In 1996 Hen­dricks founded “The In­ner Cir­cle”, a sup­port group for Mus­lims liv­ing in Cape Town who felt re­jected due to their sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, which led to him set­ting up the mosque five years ago.

In con­trast to the emo­tions that sur­round the ex­plo­sive topic of Is­lam and ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, the mosque of­fers a calm and open place for gay Mus­lims to wor­ship to­gether. “I got divorced at the age of 29 af­ter be­ing mar­ried (to a wo­man) for six years,” Hen­rdicks, 48, said. “That was the point where I just felt-no more dou­ble life. I needed to be au­then­tic with my­self, and part of that process was to come out. “This is who I am and if that means I am go­ing to be killed be­cause of my au­then­tic­ity, then that is how I choose to meet God.”

To­day the mosque, lo­cated at the In­ner Cir­cle of­fices, has about 25 reg­u­lar wor­ship­pers, and even of­fers a mar­riage bless­ing to gay cou­ples. South Africa’s 1996 con­sti­tu­tion was the first in the world to pro­tect ho­mo­sex­u­als’ rights, and the coun­try is the only one in Africa that al­lows same sex mar­riages. But many South Africans of all re­li­gious groups are less tol­er­ant, and LGBT (les­bian, gay, bi­sex­ual, and trans­gen­der) peo­ple are of­ten sub­ject to dis­crim­i­na­tion and vi­o­lence.

There are about 300,000 Mus­lims in Cape Town and most mosque lead­ers in the city take a clear stand against ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, even en­cour­ag­ing home im­pris­on­ment and “cor­rec­tive treat­ment”. “Ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity is un­ac­cept­able and the pun­ish­ment will be the fire,” Imam Pandy, leader of a mosque in Mow­bray, a busy cen­tral district of Cape Town said. “How can you be ho­mo­sex­ual? It is for­bid­den. And it is your duty as an imam or as a Mus­lim to go and speak to them and say ‘no, it can­not be’.” The In­ner Cir­cle group has worked for 20 years to sup­port gay Mus­lims, of­ten strug­gling to sur­vive against over­whelm­ing op­po­si­tion from or­tho­dox Is­lamic lead­ers. “The mes­sag­ing that the Mus­lim com­mu­nity gets about queer is­sues comes from a clergy that is com­pletely ho­mo­pho­bic,” said Ab­dul Kar­riem Matthews, pro­gram man­ager at the In­ner Cir­cle.

‘Pioneers of change’

For wor­ship­pers like Zaid Phi­lan­der, a lo­cal art teacher, the mosque pro­vides a wel­come refuge, as well as ac­cess to coun­sel­ing af­ter he en­dured a har­row­ing “cor­rec­tive” rit­ual con­ducted by a quack “doc­tor” in Cape Town. “There are a lot of lives be­ing de­stroyed based on sex­u­al­ity and re­li­gion, and that needs to change,” he said. “Here they are the pioneers of this change, and this is a good place to start. “I choose to be in a place where I can have a healthy re­la­tion­ship with God, and the In­ner Cir­cle gives me the free­dom to be the per­son I am.”

At one re­cent Fri­day prayers at­tended by AFP a fe­male vis­i­tor from the Mid­dle East gave a ser­mon to about 30 peo­ple cit­ing pas­sages from the Ko­ran to pro­mote an ac­cept­ing ver­sion of Is­lam. She asked not to be iden­ti­fied or quoted for fear of hos­tile reprisals in her na­tive coun­try, where open wor­ship by gay Mus­lims would be unimag­in­able. Hen­dricks, whose father was also an imam, trav­els world­wide to spread his mes­sage to other gay Mus­lims that the an­swer is to stay pos­i­tive. “I want to... ar­rive at a point where we can in­clude queer peo­ple,” he said. “I don’t see the Mus­lim com­mu­nity as the en­emy.”— AFP

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