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Minnesota Muslims starting new conversations about sexuality after Orlando

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Qais Munhazim
Qais Munhazim, 31, is University of Minnesota graduate student who moved to the U.S. seven years ago.
Courtesy Ricardo De Santiago

Qais Munhazim has known he was gay since he was 5. But for the Afghan born and raised Muslim, it just wasn't something you talked about.

"Growing up in the middle of war, I think more than anything survival is most important for us," he said. "Sexuality or sexual identity was nothing that we would actually think about."

The 31-year-old University of Minnesota graduate student moved to the U.S. seven years ago. Two years into living here, he decided he was comfortable enough to come out to his friends, even though he's not out to his family back home. 

Not all of his Muslim friends here were supportive either. They didn't want to be associated with him. He says they considered him a sinner and that by being homosexual he'd "stepped out outside the realm of Islam." 

"Whereas my sexuality has allowed me to come closer to Islam, and understand it in a more contextual and more theoretical and theological way," he said.

Munhazim fulfills all the pillars of Islam. He prays, fasts, and gives to charity. But to most Muslims, that doesn't matter. Homosexuality is considered a sin. Some think being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender automatically disqualifies a person from being Muslim.

But the tragic events in Orlando are starting new conversations around homosexuality that for decades were taboo and uncomfortable. It's still a challenge to reconcile liberal views with strong religious beliefs. But many Muslims aren't only condemning the mass shooting, they're urging others stop casually accepting homophobia.

Samira Choudhury is from Minnesota and working toward a psychology degree in Chicago. After the shooting, she urged others on social media to not just condemn terrorism but to be more inclusive of gay people. 

"We do that cyclically where we have to respond and then we get exhausted from the same cycle of discrimination explaining that we're not terrorists," said Choudhury. "I hope people have it in themselves this time to put that aside for just a minute and really look at people who need more than we do."

Choudhury's thoughts about creating safe spaces for LGBTQ members aren't welcomed by all Muslims, especially religious leaders. Munhazim says mosques in Minnesota don't accept openly gay people and he's been kicked out of mosques in the past. Imams say they take issue with those promoting homosexuality.

"It's not within our paradigm, really, to change the word of God," said Imam Makram El-Amin, leader of Masjid Al-Nur in Minneapolis. 

"Our religion is clear about this matter. It's not a lifestyle that we accept as being part of the natural way of things for human beings. When it comes to that, that's my position, and that's Islam's position. And this incident as tragic and terrible as it is that does not change that," he said.

El-Amin was one of several local religious leaders who came out after the shooting to say they stand in solidarity with LGBTQ members. But that doesn't mean it's an endorsement. 

"We know that there are certain things that come up to the level of human rights that supersede even the differences that we have," he said.

Even some progressive, social justice advocates wonder how much they should be involved when it comes to gay rights. A few religious leaders from across the country have said it's OK to support gay people without feeling like Muslims are abandoning their beliefs. Supporting the LGBTQ community means supporting the freedom to live freely without fear.

Most scholars, however, are only condemning the shooting and avoiding talking about homosexuality.

As an openly gay Muslim, Munhazim is one of very few in Minnesota. He says many more are afraid of showing their true identity, and shoving the conversation aside isn't helping.

"When they can cry about Islamophobia, why not about homophobia?" he said. "I could've been there and I am Muslim. Because I'm homosexual, I'm not Muslim? It's not for them to decide. This is between me and God."

As Muslims continue to observe the holy month of Ramadan, they're starting to have these difficult conversations. And while differences remain, they say just talking about homosexuality is progress.