My Jihad, in America and Beyond

Homosexuality has not only been tolerated but sometimes even openly celebrated in Islamic societies for more than 1,400 years.
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"Ah! Daneshju Park! The smells that waft from across the street! And the forbidden delights that await inside!"

Talking about a life left behind in Iran, my friend had tears in his eyes. But also a steely resolve that one day he would be back. He also reminded me that a Basij -- a member of the volunteer force of religious vigilantes or guardians of morality, thoughtfully supplied by the powers that are -- had openly expressed a desire to be with him and they had gone home together, not too far from Vali Asr Avenue, and spent a night of passion, the likes of which he has never had since, in each other's arms.

Given the national obsession with Hafez and his poetry, whose homoeroticism many have claimed and studied, I have always felt that the young gentleman who found passion in the park speaks to me in beautiful Farsi, almost in haiku. His language gives him the facility to always sound like he is speaking in poetry. I also assume that President Ahmadi Nejad has probably not wandered into those dark corners of Daneshju Park, a park not that different from the Rambles in the heart of New York, or Nehru Park in Delhi, where I grew up. All of these hidden spaces have been the dark and often depressing settings for so many of us seeking to meet others like us: "homosexuals," in any of the contexts we have existed in.

Many that speak about Ahmadi Nejad and his histrionics have unfortunately not studied Iran's complex, post-1979 history. Vali Asr, a religiously appropriate name chosen for the longest avenue in all of Iran, used to be called Pahlavi Avenue. It was renamed as quickly as the despotic Pahlavi family, Iran's ill-fated ruling dynasty of the time, was consigned to the dustbin of history. This expeditious renaming continued for a generation as the Islamic Republic we know today came to be. On that fateful day of February 1st, 1979, the Ayatollah with the penetrating eyes, the marja al-taqlid (source of imitation) arrived on a plane. He, like the British, the Russians and indeed many before them, laid claim to the soul of an ancient civilization that had been coveted by so many, for so long. This latest invader, however, came from within.

I remember corresponding with Salam Pax, the "gay' blogger" in Baghdad who enjoyed a certain fame a few years ago as bombs fell around him. Pax was one of about 50 bloggers in Iraq. As the proximate and ancient capital of Baghdad was burning, the Iranians, who were clearly used to revolutions, were declaring battle against oppression in enormous numbers on the frontlines of the internet. For a few years now, I have held the Iranian blogosphere in high esteem. Through rough Web-based translation software and benefiting from Farsi's similarities with Urdu, my mother's language, I pored over every word Mr. Hossein Derakshan would write. I watched with wonder and pride as his initial posts laid the foundations for a culture where there were some 70,000 blogs in Iran operating in 2004. In that year, while I was still filming A Jihad for Love, Farsi was the fourth most popular language in the blogosphere, a world that was just being discovered. Mr. Derakshan is my hero.

At that time I also started immersing myself in the work of Abu Nuwas, for many the greatest Arab poet of all time, and whose homoerotic poetry would undoubtedly make Presidents Bush, Ahmadi Nejad and Mubarak blush. All three of these presidents have been equally vocal about their opinions and policies regarding us "homosexuals," whose very existence is apparently now in question. Nuwas was born in the eighth century in Ahvaz, Persia, and lived most of his life in Baghdad, where he died. His grave has no doubt been reduced to rubble by eager teen Marines, whose figures and youthful beauty are probably similar to the young men Nuwas admired in his risqué verse. This kind of "NC-17" poetry would not be easily made available for public consumption in the America we live in today. Abu Nuwas, who sadly does not have a weblog, is also my hero.

I wonder if the rabid critics of Iran and its democratically, if questionably, elected president have experienced the richness, the texture, the intellect, and indeed the audacity of what I consider the greatest cinema in the world: the Iranian cinema, poetic within its censorship. The lenses of Kiarostami, Tabrizi and Panahi shaped my early knowledge of the cinematic form, while I was still a student in Calcutta.

In Qom, the religious elite clearly distinguishes between the khawass (the elite) and the awaam (the masses). The awaam in Iran today comprise a demographic that would be startling to Mr. O'Reilly and other media demagogues like him; 70 percent of the population is under the age of 30 and more than 90 percent of them are literate and certainly computer-savvy. Millions of them are undertaking digital and electronic jihads in one of the world's richest Web communities. The language of dissent is alive and well in Iran.

Ijtihad, or independent reasoning, as old as Islam itself, has taken on a new form in the digital age. We must not forget that In Shia Islam, ijtihad has thrived for long and, in fact, it was the very same ijtihad that allowed the Ayatollah of all Ayatollahs to justify velayat-e-faqih (rule by the clerics) in 1979 and after.

Clearly, in these times of the slickly packaged and devastatingly ignorant "War on Terror," the desire for nuance, for understanding, has been lost. Knowledge and intellectual curiosity are clearly undervalued; to vilify and demonize Mr. Ahmadi Nejad in the absence of any real understanding of the context from which he comes is all too easy. The kind of "Evil Satan" rhetoric that has been drummed up for a quarter of a century in Iran finds its perfect mirror in America today. The religious extremism found in parts of Iran is no different than the kind that has crept into the American psyche.

I must, however, thank the Iranian president profusely. He has unintentionally, and probably through some hurried, bungled translation, given me the perfect platform to get audiences to engage with A Jihad for Love. I have always known that this documentary would be presenting Islam's unlikeliest storytellers: gay and lesbian Muslims. I also now have in him an unlikely spokesperson/ publicist to kick-start many new discussions about homosexuality within our communities. In the last 48 hours, after I published a feature for The Huffington Post, I have been deluged by emails from both Iranian and non-Iranian friends and strangers alike. We have hotly debated the semantics of what the President actually said. The consensus at this point seems to lie on his denial of the existence of openly gay people in Iran.

As I have filmed A Jihad for Love, I have struggled to explain the difficulties of language to many, including the mostly American production team I have worked with in New York. Iranian culture resembles India's, where I grew up, in many ways; Persian was in fact the language of the Mughal courts only a few hundred years ago. As I have taken my camera to many parts of the many different worlds of Islam, I have only been able to confirm what I always knew. The terminologies of "liberation theology" or even identity constructs, social or political, like "gay," "lesbian," "bisexual," "transgender," "intersex," "queer," etc., that seem to inform so much of the endless debates in the air-conditioned corridors of Western academia or the endless conferences organized by diasporic Muslims and their friends, are of little if any consequence on the streets of Delhi, Lahore, Dhaka, Cairo, Shiraz, or Jeddah. Homosexuality has not only been tolerated but sometimes even openly celebrated in Islamic societies for more than 1,400 years. This is not the kind of homosexual persona that we adopt in the West. A language of affirmation is woefully absent. Marriage -- and let's be clear: marriage of the heterosexual kind -- is not a choice, but a societal and familial obligation. Marching down Main Street holding banners of identity politics and affirmation is certainly not a desirable outcome of any so-called "liberation." Invisibility is the identity often preferred by the majority and I have examined that very "jihad" by taking my camera into that world of "invisibility." This film took six years to make for a reason. The fact that the lives of diasporic Muslims are absent from my film was a clear but difficult choice. And indeed that would be a different, equally worthy project.

What is critical, however, is that we as Muslims not allow the mediators in the Western media and, indeed, our Islamic extremist brothers -- certainly a minority in my opinion -- to define our Islams for us. I usually shun the simplifications of terms like "terrorist" and "fundamentalist." For me, the violent minority that claims to speak for my religion does not adhere to the fundamentals of my faith. The ridicule that the elected president of a nation of more than 70 million, branded a "cruel and petty dictator," has been subjected to by the smallest minority of arrogant opinion makers is appalling. Clearly the war drums are beating again and in the sadly black-and-white American mindscape of today, this nation's overextended troops continue the ill-informed crusades of their leaders. These are troubling times, yet for artists, as in all times of dissent and repression, the atmosphere is rich and full of possibility. My struggle, my jihad as I define it for myself, keeping all Qur'anic tenets in mind, grows stronger. That jihad is to continue to avoid the easy trap of being an apologist for my faith, and to also rightfully criticize what I know is deeply wrong within it. We Muslims are members of the world's fastest growing religion, indeed the second largest. Many of us have been misunderstood and unheard for too long, and many of us will need to wage critical jihads within ourselves and our own communities to decide who will speak for all of our different Islams.

As always, I wonder if we in America, given the censorship that is steadily defining our lives as well, will be encouraged to seek the knowledge that is being denied us and will begin to even try and comprehend the complexities of these distant Islamic lands that are packaged for us everyday on the front pages of our newspapers and in all our television headlines. I also wonder if the leaders of this nation, which is great but so young, can learn humility. They claim to teach ancient civilizations that precede theirs by centuries and even millennia the rules of civility, the values of tolerance, of democracy, of free speech. These hard-won freedoms were present centuries ago in many of the nations I have visited and certainly in the one I was born in, today the world's largest democracy.

Still having not lost hope in the promise of America, I choose to live here. The Department of Homeland Security kindly granted me the status of an "Alien of Extraordinary Abilities" three years ago. As I now work towards getting that magic card -- not actually green, by the way -- I hope that I will be allowed to keep on celebrating the values of free speech of the America I came to in 2000. This is certainly not the America I find myself in today.

Meanwhile, I continue to celebrate and hold on to my precious freedom

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