Director of Film on Muslim Homosexuals Frets over His Subjects’ Safety
New York Times, December 2, 2004
Documentary filmmakers have long wrestled with the need
to obscure the identities of gays and lesbians in their work, to avoid such
unpleasant consequences as job loss or a falling out with family.
Parvez Sharma, a director in New York, has been worried
that much worse could await the Muslim homosexuals profiled in his film In the
Name of Allah if ever they were identified.
For some, imprisonment or torture is a possibility,
Sharma said. Indeed, one of Sharma’s associate producers, a gay Egyptian
man, will not be listed in the credits at his own request because of the
And threats to the director have become routine.
“About every two weeks I get an e-mail that berates me,
condemns me to hell and, if they are nice, asks me to still seek forgiveness
while there is still time,” Sharma said, speaking about his as yet
unfinished film, which he is preparing to take on the festival circuit in
That such pressure is building around a project still a
year from completion is the best measure of a perhaps widening gulf that
separates an increasingly open attitude toward gay and lesbian life in many
Western countries from that of predominantly Muslim ones.
With backing primarily from European television
broadcasters, including Channel 4 in Britain, Arte in France and ZDF in
Germany, Sharma set out nearly two years ago to examine how homosexual Muslims
around the world reconciled their faith with their sexual orientation.
In doing so, the director received advice and moral
support from his producer, Sandi Simcha DuBowski, the filmmaker behind
Trembling Before G-d, a feature-length documentary that two years ago
investigated the lives of Orthodox and Hasidic Jews who are also gay or
“Parvez’s film is extremely important,” DuBowski
said. “It challenges the idea that there are no Muslim gays or lesbians. It
poses much the same question that Trembling Before G-d did: Why would gays
want to be part of a tradition that rejects them?”
Sharma, who was born and raised in India, said the
inspiration for his film came from his own experiences as a gay Muslim. His
curiosity about how Islam and homosexuality intersect grew when he attended
American University in Washington, where he received a master’s degree in
film and video.
Listening to stories told by gay Muslims at the school,
Sharma conceived the idea of a picture that would “give voice to a community
that really needed to be heard and that until now hadn’t been; it was about
going where the silence was strongest.”
Sharma has conducted interviews throughout North America,
Europe, Asia and the Middle East, in such countries as Afghanistan, Pakistan,
India and Egypt. Many of the people he interviewed were found through the
“I received thousands of e-mails shortly after word got
out about the film,” Sharma said. “One 17-year-old Egyptian is remarkably
brave, quite open about his sexual orientation despite that country’s
crackdown on homosexuals.”
As with Christianity and Judaism, there is a broad range
of expert opinion on the exact nature of Islam’s official stance toward
homosexuality. Some scholars interpret the Quran as suggesting that there is
no condemnation of homosexuality, while others read Muslim scripture as
indicating that homosexual acts should be punished with death.
Given the hostility toward homosexuality in some Islamic
factions, Sharma has gone to great lengths to reassure many of his interview
subjects that they will remain anonymous.
But this obscuring of identities has led to what the
director regards as one of his key challenges: filming people in silhouette or
with their faces covered tends to reinforce a sense of shame around
homosexuality, precisely countering one of Sharma’s main objectives.
“One young Afghan woman I’ve interviewed, if her
family found out about her being lesbian they would undoubtedly kill her,”
“So it’s unavoidable. In certain circumstances, I’m
going to have to conceal faces. But I’d rather not.”
Still, nothing in that difficult process—including the
threats to himself—has destroyed Sharma’s faith in the ability of Islam to
“You have to understand,” Sharma said, “that Islam
is a religion of more than a billion people, one more than 13 centuries old,
that has been hijacked by an extremely small and sometimes loud minority.