What do we do when conservative Muslims and the white far-right team up against health and human rights education?
Many of us saw the viral clip of a Muslim mother in hijab directing her children to stomp on a Pride flag while being cheered on by far-right, anti-2SLGBTQ+ activists. That incident, and others, brought wider awareness to an anti-2SLGBTQ+ campaign that conservative Muslims have been waging this summer.
In May, the Canadian Council of Imams and over two dozen Muslim scholars and educators signed a public statement condemning acceptance of the 2SLGBTQ+ community, lending theological credibility to homophobia and transphobia. Prominent Muslim leaders wrote multiple opinion pieces published in large Canadian outlets, two of which compared Muslim children learning about 2SLGBTQ+ people to the genocide of Indigenous peoples in residential schools.
While schools have generally done a good job over the past two decades in resisting far-right Christian pressure to remove health and human rights education, they seem to be more susceptible to Muslims making similar arguments. For example, conservative Muslims successfully pressured the Ottawa Carleton District School Board to remove a resource for queer and gender diverse Muslim youth. Schools may be having a harder time defending the human rights of all students while facing the accusation that teaching Muslim students about the 2SLGBTQ+ community is Islamophobia and colonization.
Muslims who oppose gender inclusive education are attending and coordinating street protests and rallies across Canada, often alongside white far-right activists. Here, the Canadian Anti-Hate Network’s Hazel Woodrow offers a queer Muslim antifascist educator’s perspective on the harm being done, and what it will take to repair that harm.
Assalamu alaikum. Peace be upon you.
Rabb-ishrah li sadri, wa yassir li ‘amri, Wah-lul ‘uq-datam-min-li-saani, Yaf-qahuu qawlii.
Muslim readers are likely familiar with the above surah (verse) from the Holy Quran. It is a dua (prayer) of the Prophet Musa (Moses) (a.s), which is commonly recited before public speaking. I am offering this supplication because the issue I want to talk about is one that has caused so much distress for so many people, and God-willing, I want my words to ease, not contribute to that. And so I ask God:
O my Nourisher! Open for me my chest (grant me self-confidence, contentment, and boldness); ease my task for me; and remove the impediment from my speech, so they may understand what I say.
I was raised in a deeply conservative and very devout traditionalist Catholic environment. When I was sixteen, I stopped receiving Communion and it broke my parents’ hearts. At seventeen, I came out as queer and my family all but disappeared from my life for several months that felt like an eternity. At twenty, I took several religious studies courses at university that exposed me to Islam for the first time. More specifically, Islamic feminism and the rich scholarship and tradition of diverse expressions of gender and sexuality in Islam. I felt called to the faith, but I could not shake the feeling that being queer and being Muslim would be “too many things.” Too divergent from the path that had been laid for me as a child. I was afraid that if I rocked the boat any more, it would sink and I would drown.
It was another five years before I converted, thanks to the encouragement of two dear friends. One who had been raised Muslim and another who was raised Irish Catholic like me and had briefly converted as a teenager but was no longer observant. They knew I was queer. They knew I wanted to be Muslim. They told me it wasn’t too many things to be both.
I joined the Unity Mosque, a radically queer, deeply traditional, egalitarian masjid hidden in plain sight in downtown Toronto, and fell in love with the religion. As a “recovering Catholic” in the truest sense of the phrase, I intentionally stayed away from non-affirming Muslim spaces, texts, and scholars. I knew they were there; I had heard stories from other queer and trans Muslims about their own repressive upbringings, and I believed them entirely when they told me about a version of the faith that had caused them incredible harm. So I knew there were Muslims who disagreed with, even hated my identity, or who would negate it altogether. I also knew this of so many Catholics.
And yet, the last few months have devastated me. As someone whose job is to be aware of preventing and confronting the threats posed by hate movements, I was bracing myself for a particularly brutal Pride Month. But I did not expect to see hundreds of Muslims demonstrate against the rights, inclusion, and liberation of another marginalized group. I did not expect to see hijabis encouraging their little children to stomp on Pride flags.I did not expect this organized, angry, vicious hate coming from the faith I chose. I thought I had left that behind. At the same time, I have wrestled with what it means that I am so shocked.
I don’t have all the answers. I don’t have most of the answers. But I have four solid things that are true for me and inshallah (God willing) you will see the truth in them as well.
Islam Is Not And Never Has Been A Monolith
Not only has there been ideological, spiritual, legal, sexual, racial, and ethical diversity within Islam since its conception, but this diversity has also existed in mutual respect in many different places and spaces within the ummah (community) over the last 1400 years.
According to a 2014 Religious Landscape survey by Pew Research, 45% of American Muslims surveyed believed that homosexuality should be accepted, and 47% believed it should not be accepted. For some broader perspective, 70% of Catholics and only 36% of Evangelical Protestants believed homosexuality should be accepted.
As Dr. Junaid B. Jahangir and Dr. Kristopher Wells wrote in The Conversation in July, “Islamic teachings on sexual and gender diversity are far more diverse than what many conservative groups would like us to believe.”
Despite this significant difference in beliefs about homosexuality (as well as many other social, legal, and spiritual ideas) some Muslim religious leaders and scholars have attempted to argue that the Islamic understanding of gender and sexuality excludes any diversity in sexual orientation or gender identity, and that any dissent on these beliefs disqualifies someone’s Muslim-ness. One such attempt was a public statement titled Navigating Differences: Clarifying Sexual and Gender Ethics in Islam, issued in May 2023.
As writer Wajahat Ali put it in his New York Times column, “In the name of helping families, the statement reiterates what is considered by many scholars to be traditional Islamic views on homosexuality but trades compassion, political foresight and pastoral care in favor of fear, panic and legalistic double talk.”
Navigating Differences has been signed by over two dozen individual Canadian imams, sheikhs, and ustadhs (teachers), as well as the Canadian Council of Imams as a whole (representing 80 imams).
The statement invoked a number of responses from Muslim leaders from different political and religious positions. Some, like hardliner Daniel Haqiqatjou, felt the document was not homophobic enough and that it is in fact not an authentic interpretation of Islam, as he views it.
Other Muslim leaders pushed back against the declaration from a social justice lens. For example, Muslims for Progressive Values called it “a patriarchal interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence.” HEART to Grow and the Queer Muslim Solidarity Network described it as “blatant queerphobia.” The Muslim Youth Leadership Council said in a statement that it is "beyond arrogant" for the authors to claim to speak universally for all Muslims.
Vigilant Love shared a graphic explaining how the statement “which perpetuates homophobic and transphobic violence, sets off a deeper cycle of violence.”
Source: Instagram, Vigilant Love
Efforts Opposing 2SLGBTQ+ Inclusion Are Hateful
The aim of excluding education about 2SLGBTQ+ identities is inextricable from excluding 2SLGBTQ+ people themselves from fulsome participation in our society, and that exclusion is undeniably hateful. The conspiracy theories found in this movement —accusing all queer and trans people and drag performers of “grooming” children, calls to “Save Our Children!,” and suggesting that 2SLGBTQ+ people have an outsized, extreme influence over the rest of society—are identified as hateful in the Hallmarks of Hate, a clear framework endorsed by the Supreme Court as a guide on what is and what isn’t criminal hate propaganda.
Historically and contemporarily, the vast majority of religious mobilization against 2SLGBTQ+ liberation in this country has been driven by extremely well-resourced far-right and conservative Christians.
It is vital that social justice activists, allies, and accomplices of the 2SLGBTQ+ community not take their eye off the machinations of conservative and far-right Christians. That is where the heart of power lies and it is not going anywhere.
Simultaneously, we must reckon with and be prepared to confront the evolving shape of anti-2SLGBTQ+ organizing, which is increasingly taking on the language of social justice. We must be able to identify both hateful intent and impact even when it sounds like us—decrying “ideological colonialism” and “cultural imperialism.”
In fact, some of the invocations of social justice and liberation issues by people opposed to full 2SLGBTQ+ inclusion in schools are themselves egregiously hateful.
For example, multiple Canadian Muslim leaders have compared Muslim youth being taught about 2SLGBTQ+ identities and experiences in schools to residential schools. This is an incredibly offensive comparison that erases the violent patriarchal cisheterosexism perpetrated by the Christian churches that ran the residential schools system and negates the distinct suffering of and increased abuse against Two-Spirit people in residential schools.
According to project coordinator of Stories of Two-Spirit Indian Residential and Day School Survivors, Jennifer LaFontaine, Two-Spirit children “were forced into gender roles that didn’t fit their worldview or existence and were taken from their culture, communities, families, and Elders who could have guided them as they grew into their Two-Spirit identity.”
This comparison also diminishes and distorts the widely recognized genocidal nature of residential schools, at the same time as it rationalizes the exclusion and silencing of Two-Spirit and LGBTQ+ students, teachers, and staff in public schools today.
We have observed calls from within the Muslim community to use more palatable strategies than high visibility protests—like petitioning and privately meeting with school boards to roll back gender diverse education policies. This is concerning because the civility of a coordinated school board delegation campaign may be a far more promising strategy than joining or organizing rowdy protests which are increasingly attended by neo-Nazis.
There Are Multiple Reasons Why Some Muslims Are Protesting Against 2SLGBTQ+ Inclusion
For most in Canada, especially non-Muslims, I know it seems like the vocal, organized opposition of some Muslims to 2SLGBTQ+ inclusion in schools came out of nowhere.
Shocked at this development, some supporters of 2SLGBTQ+ rights have concluded that the Christian religious right must be playing some kind of mindgames, using anxious Muslim parents as pawns. Some—including the prime minister—have taken it a step further and located the root of this issue specifically in the American Christian religious right. While the emotional logic of this assessment is not unreasonable, the conclusion itself is full of holes. It removes the agency of the Muslims involved in anti-2SLGBTQ organizing by assuming first that there is no tradition of queer antagonism within Islam (there certainly is), and second that Muslims lack the capacity and the drive to self-organize.
It also assumes that the Christian religious right’s enthusiasm for the values of conservative Islam is insincere. Rasha al Aqeedi and Lydia Wilson found in their year long investigation for Newlines Magazine that Tommy Robinson and Andrew Tate (who converted to Islam) are examples of far-right personalities “carving out a new form of conservativism characterized by this new, admiring attitude toward Islam.”
“But there are many more who have been vocal in their admiration and support for specific forms of conservative, patriarchal Islam, even if they’ve stopped short of adopting the faith," the authors continued.
At the same time, it is important to pay attention to the voices from within the Muslim community who are sounding the alarm about dirty political tricks they have seen leveraged against their kin, such as Calgarian Saima Jamal. Jamal told Toronto Star journalist Omar Mosleh “UCP (supporters) used this topic immensely to provoke Muslim religious sentiments to vote conservative, saying if you vote UCP, your children are going to be saved from the LGBTQ2+ agenda. If you vote NDP, they are going to become gay and trans and their religious freedom will be lost.”
Mosleh also reported that “Sam Nammoura, a popular Calgary podcaster, says he was disappointed in the last provincial election to hear statements accusing people of being fake Muslims if they voted NDP.”
Antifascism Gives Us the Tools to Understand and Address this Tension
As we see a sharp uptick in some Muslims organizing against 2SLGBTQ+ liberation, it is incumbent upon all antifascists to develop a stronger understanding of the unconventional alliances that form in the overlap of reactionary and traditionalist elements of groups that have a history of conflict and/or oppression.
Antifascism gives us the theoretical framework to understand how these alliances happen, and why. As discussed earlier, these alliances emerge out of shared opposition to the very real social movements of liberalism, secularism, and feminism, as well as to the social forces alleged by conspiracy theories like “cultural marxism,” “wokeism,” and “globalist elites.”
Antifascism also demands that we confront these forces in our society wherever they arise. No community is immune to fascist entryism—to name just a few, not Christians, not Muslims, not pagans, not environmentalists, not communists, not anarchists, not pacifists, not even racialized and Indigenous people. We must always be vigilant against fascist entryism (which may initially appear as far-right or conspiratorial entryism).
Antifascists should continue fighting Islamophobia alongside all other forms of hate. We should make our spaces accessible and welcoming to Muslims and other people of faith who are committed to justice and liberation for all, and to fighting hateful, supremacist, and anti-democratic movements wherever they arise. And we should remain vigilant against attempts to rationalize religiously-motivated bigotry as anti-colonial.
Muslim civil society organizations and leaders should, for the sake of the ummah, condemn anti-2SLGBTQ+ organizing as Islamophobic. It contributes to the same flattening monolithic view of Islam that is at the root of so much of the violence perpetrated against us from the outside, as well as the violence that we have for millenia perpetrated against each other. These organizations and leaders should ask themselves “Who benefits from our silence and who loses? Who benefits from our courage to speak up and who loses?”
Institutions like school boards and universities should refuse to use their power to assess or erase the validity and faithfulness of queer and trans people of faith, and have the courage to stand up for the needs of the most vulnerable—in this case, queer people (especially children) who are also of a minority faith. To begin this work, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board should republish “I Am Muslim and I Might Not Be Straight” on their 2SLGBTQ+ resources page, and add resources for queer and trans students of other faiths. Institutions should offer brave and safer spaces for 2SLGBTQ+ Muslims to gather, worship, and celebrate the fullness of our faith.
School boards should also reflect on the tools they have used to address these issues when they have historically been brought forth by anti-2SLGBTQ+ Christians.
These calls to action come from two places—first, they are my response to the Holy Quran’s commands to bear witness to the truth (Surah 5:8) and to uphold equity (Surah 4:135).
Second, they come from a hope that has been resurrected in me over the last few years of watching my family of origin slowly open their minds and hearts to a wider range of expressions of love, identity, faith, and family, than I ever thought I would live to see. There is still a lot of tension and a lot of unspoken grief and brokenheartedness. But there is hope. Because there is evidence—same-sex partners invited to holidays, photos taken at Pride events shared in the family group chat.
Likewise, there is evidence that the groups I have called upon will rise to this moment in full embrace of their values—years of queer antifascists standing with and defending Muslims through numerous violent attacks on our ummah, 2SLGBTQ+ interfaith events held by schools, statements of solidarity from Muslim leaders in the wake of attacks on our queer community. In light of that evidence, I humbly urge all allies and accomplices in this fight to be steadfast in upholding equity and to never let hatred of anyone lead you to deviate from justice.