Shanon Shah – The making of a good gay Muslim: Navigating (post)colonial politics in contemporary Britain28 February 2022
Has public debate on Islam and sexual diversity finally come of age, in Britain at least? Judging by the evolving media and pop culture landscape over the past decade, it is tempting to be positive. So much has happened since the groundbreaking “gay Muslim storyline” premiered on EastEnders back in 2009. A brief chronology reveals an interesting emergence of different titles in different settings and formats.
For starters, 2009 also saw the premiere Alia Bano’s award-winning play, Shades, at the Royal Court Theatre, with a clear and thoughtful gay Muslim subplot.
In 2015, a couple of years after the EastEnders gay Muslim story arc ended, Channel 4 premiered Muslim Drag Queens, a single-episode documentary endorsed by Sir Ian McKellen, no less. In 2016, the two-part BBC reality series Muslims Like Us prominently featured a debate about queerness and Islam. In 2018, another award-winning play, Iman Qureshi’s The Funeral Director, put the British queer Muslim experience front and centre. This was also the year my book-length monograph, The Making of a Gay Muslim: Religion, Sexuality and Identity in Malaysia and Britain, was published – not exactly a pop culture product per se, but parts of it contextualise the intersections of queerness, pop culture, and contemporary Islam in Malaysia and Britain. The following year, Amrou Al-Kadhi’s Life of a Unicorn: Memoirs of a Muslim Drag Queen was published and then, in 2021, the Channel 4 sitcom, We Are Lady Parts, prominently featured a queer Muslim subplot with a refreshing twist.
This list is by no means exhaustive. And I’ve only listed developments in media and pop culture. There’s also the growth of Muslim lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) networks, such as Imaan, Hidayah, and London Queer Muslims, and other queer-sensitive Muslim spaces, such as the Inclusive Mosque Initiative.
These developments seem to embody the ethos of the Equality Act 2010 and even the government’s contested checklist of “fundamental British values”. This kind of framing brings to mind other contested notions such as “integration” and “assimilation”, especially when applied to Muslims in Britain.
Yet the political landscape is not that straightforward. These liberalising trends have occurred alongside prevailing, heavily racialised and Islamophobic counter-terrorism measures, especially the controversial Prevent policy. There have also been incidents of mass public violence perpetrated by Islamic State and Far Right terrorists.
In relation to racism and xenophobia, the UK has seen the Windrush scandal, a growing refugee crisis (and an increasingly hostile response by the government), and the rise of right-wing populism in the wake of Brexit.
On Islam and sexuality specifically, protests by some Muslim parents against the relationship and sex education (RSE) syllabus at Anderton Park Primary School dominated the headlines in late 2019.
Meanwhile, more recently, there has been a step-change in debates about racial justice in the wake of the Movement for Black Lives.
In relation to the lives of LGBTQ+ Muslims in Britain, these conflicting trends have produced an almost dualistic tension. British society seems to be pulling towards more diversity, equality, inclusion, and multiculturalism on one hand; and more Islamophobia, racism and xenophobia on the other hand. This tension simmers in the background of media debate and portrayals of Islam and sexual marginals, and it bubbles and boils over whenever a controversy or tragedy occurs, such as the Orlando massacre of 2016.
Media and pop culture developments in relation to queer Muslim expression in Britain are therefore not merely signs of the times nor indicators of liberal “progress” or “integration”. Rather, they are products of a social environment in which questions of identity, belonging, and citizenship are being contested and examples of intervention within this landscape.
Since 2003, I have been involved in social justice activism in relation to Islam, gender and sexuality – first, as a human rights activist, journalist, playwright and musician in my native Malaysia, and since 2010 as a scholar, activist and writer in Britain. I will draw upon these experiences and insights to investigate the making of a “good” gay Muslim in contemporary Britain in my upcoming contribution to the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK’s public seminar series – join us.
Dr Shanon Shah is the Senior Deputy Editor of Critical Muslim, a London-based publication of the Muslim Institute, a researcher at INFORM, and Tutor in Interfaith Relations at the University of London’s Divinity programme.