When Faith Leaders Change Their Minds, Who Can Muslim Voters Trust?
When celebrity Texas-based Islamic faith leader Sheikh Omar Suleiman posted a 30-minute mea culpa video in June recanting all his progressive activism relating to the LGBTQ community, he left liberal allies and progressive Muslims floundering in dismay. The video, released during Pride Month, has now racked up over half a million views and raises questions about the role of spiritual leaders in political activism.
This was an extraordinary volte-face from the poster “it” Imam, who is revered as a fearless civil rights champion and had wowed crowds at a Bernie Sanders rally in 2020. He had been invited to offer prayers to the Congressional House of Representatives the year before, and prior to that was courted by then-Senate hopeful Beto O’Rourke. Suleiman quickly became the nation's favorite Imam as a repeat guest on Good Morning America.
The Louisiana-born native burst into Dallas-Fort-Worth mosques in 2012. With his powerful oratorical skills and intellectual prowess, he soon became a ubiquitous and sought-after speaker. Managing to attract both Muslim traditionalists and modernists as a prominent interfaith leader, he took on pressing mainstream issues such as police brutality, refugee rights, and fighting racism.
Suleiman was feted by some liberals and Democrats thanks to his inclusive messaging, including his outreach to the gay community. In 2016, when Omar Mateen massacred 49 people at the Pulse Bar in Orlando, Suleiman helped organize a statement of condemnation signed by Muslim scholars and community leaders. And he went further. He attended a press conference in his home state and later a vigil outside the Resource Center, a Dallas-based gay social services facility, where he addressed more than a thousand people.
Many activists still recall his searing words about human rights and dignity. “We are determined to cry together, to pray together, to stand together – straight, gay, Floridian, and Texan,” he read from a prepared statement. In an off-the-cuff remark, Suleiman also added, “This right here is America. Take a look around you. This is the future of America, and no bigot or terrorist is going to stop that.”
Days later, Suleiman extolled the virtues of “compassionate orthodoxy” and “humanitarian Islam” in an interview with the Dallas Morning News. “I did go and stand in solidarity with the LGBTQ community,” he said. “Because the idea of homophobia, which is a real problem in this country, is that people should be targeted as less than human because they choose to live their lives in a particular way, and I think that’s what’s problematic.”
Suleiman continued, “Gay Muslims exist, and they are a part of our community. It depends on the mosque they are going to, whether the mosques are going to accept them or not. A lot of that has to do with how American those mosques are, how acclimated they are to the country they are in.”
So, in light of Suleiman’s changing views, how should Muslims respond when a spiritual leader has a 180-degree reverse epiphany? Is it theological regression or is he “seeing the light?” Can such leaders still be considered trusted and credible sources of religious guidance? A now penitent Sulieman blames his exuberance on the prevailing anti-Muslim climate, partly stoked by former President Trump, as well as his relative youth, although he was in his 30s.
The man who inspired thousands of Muslims in Texas and elsewhere to protest at airports against the Muslim ban and the inhumane conditions migrants faced at the border now argues “uncomfortable” situations arose while marching with gay clergy and activists. “Things get really tricky with vigils and with the types of practices that have their origins in different thoughts and practices in these places,” he said. “I should have done a better job and when it was brought to my attention. … Allah knows that I sincerely repented and I asked forgiveness for that.”
He insists he was handed a speech he hadn’t read in Orlando and that Muslims’ “panicked” response was reactive.
“I wish, first of all, as a Muslim community, we didn’t accept the premise of that so quickly,” he said. “I think that’s the spirit in which a lot of the posts and the Orlando statements and so many things came out. I also wish personally I would have handled that differently.”
To the question of whether Muslims can form alliances with LGBTQ groups who support our rights as Muslims, Sulieman would now answer, “Of course not.” “It’s important for us collectively as a community to actively oppose [the LGBTQ] agenda,” he said, which must be rejected “religiously, socially, politically.”
Critics say this is a kick in the teeth to LGBTQ advocacy groups who publicly rejected Trump’s “concern trolling” over the Muslim ban and its justification for targeting Muslim-majority countries that discriminated against people’s sexual orientation. They condemned the 2018 SCOTUS ruling upholding its constitutionality for encouraging “violence and discrimination against Muslim Americans.”
In May, Suleiman signed a well-publicized position statement along with more than 200 Imams and Islamic leaders mainly from North America. Entitled “Navigating Differences: Clarifying Sexual and Gender Ethics in Islam,” it broadly aligns with the traditional view of the Old Testament that sees homosexual relationships as immoral, while acknowledging the LGBTQ community’s “constitutional right to live in peace and free from abuse.”
A fellow signatory, Sheikh Yasir Qadhi, like Suleiman, is based in the Dallas-Fort-Worth metroplex, the heart of an Islamic scholarly revival in recent years. Deemed a conservative, this high-profile Yale-educated theologian elaborates on the topic in a June Al Jazeera article. To his credit, Qadhi does urge Muslims not to be misled by the political ideologies of the “Right” and to keep on the “middle path,” avoiding extremism.
A Sunni Muslim, Qadhi also has a history of shifting the sands of scripture, although he moved from a largely neo-con view of Islam to a more liberal one. He publicly repented his intolerant views of Shia Islam in a speech in 2013, rejecting sectarianism. “I said things that still haunt me to this day. I can excuse myself that I was 20, 21 years old, but it doesn't change the fact that I made mistakes and I smeared and I used inflammatory language that I myself now regret and I wish I could take back.”
Around the same time, he renounced his allegiance to the practice of Salafi Islam. He argued this more originalist school of Islamic thought was no longer “sacred” because it had become associated with extremists. Despite death threats by hardliners for this about-face, he stated, “I disagree with some of the methodological practices of the current Salafi movement, not the Salafi theoretical understanding of Islam. ... The harshness, the exclusivity, the way they treat other people: I disagree with it."
This again raises the question: when your faith leaders turn, should congregants follow like sheep? Islam repeatedly tells us that people are prone to error and ego, so reliance on humans to filter our faith means dependency on their foibles or fallibility. Critics argue that because Islam does not support hierarchical structures, adherents should develop a direct relationship with God and an understanding of his divine message. Perhaps then Muslims will recoup some agency from both pundits and their own well-meaning spiritual leaders.
This question is critically important in an election year. If the upshot of the combined statement on LGBTQ-related issues is that Muslims should not support candidates affiliated in any way with that community, then we have two possible consequential outcomes: many Muslims will either refuse to vote or they will vote for conservative candidates.
According to Aftab Siddiqui, one of the founding directors of the Muslim Democratic Caucus of Texas, this is certainly what happened in the past local elections. A young Democrat standing for a city school board, who was a Latino Muslim convert, was rumored to be gay in online Muslim groups. This claim, which he never publicly confirmed, led to a vitriolic backlash against him. This resulted in some Muslims, including Democrats, either voting for other candidates or abstaining.
“I have a lot of respect for our Imams, but they should not get involved in politics,” said Siddiqui, a respected Arlington-based community activist of 20 years. “After 9/11, many Muslims have worked hard to build partnerships and allies. That’s why, when the Muslim ban came, all Americans came out to support us, including the LGBTQ community. They are a minority under attack from the Right and we should support their constitutional rights and not join the Republican agenda.”
Last month, Donald Trump signaled that, if he was re-elected, his Muslim ban would be revamped. There is a real chance that the LGBTQ issue, which many feel is being hyped by right-wing fearmongering, could result in Muslim voter self-suppression. This comes just when Arab Americans are becoming an important electoral force in key seats like Michigan, as are South Asian Muslims within the AAPI demographic. Politico reported on the impact of this expanded and targeted American Muslim vote in the 2020 presidential elections. More than a million Muslim voters made a difference in key battleground states like Georgia, where President Biden won by almost 12,000 votes, and in Pennsylvania, which he won with 125,000 Muslim voters turning out.
If our spiritual leaders really must play a role in a socio-political arena, let it be a humane and constructive one. Having drawn their religious red line, they should encourage American Muslims to embrace principles of human dignity and respect for all, and not sit in judgment of others. They also need to reiterate that one issue should not outweigh all other policy concerns. Gun violence, immigration, and rights for women and refugees, as well as human rights more broadly, should be considered.
Unlike some groups invested in an anti-LGBTQ agenda, as a minoritized community, Muslims understandably become protectionists about their identity and core values. And while there are genuine religious freedom concerns to keep in mind – as attorney Asma Uddin recently chronicled in The Hill regarding Maryland school officials and the treatment of Muslim parents – feeling under siege should not mean losing sight of our humanity or our circumspection.
In Feb. 2020, Uddin was one of the speakers at a conference entitled “LGBTQ+ Balancing Our Faith with Civil Rights” organized by one of Texas’ largest mosques. In defiance of considerable local and some national opposition, and with increased security, it was possibly the first time any major Islamic institution attempted to take on this subject. Although in no way an endorsement of homosexuality, it appeared a courageous and sincere attempt to defuse growing tension and reach out to Muslims struggling with their sexuality.
One of the organizers of this trail-blazing initiative was Yasir Qadhi. And the headline speaker? Omar Suleiman. Qadhi said Suleiman’s speech at the Bernie Sanders rally was a “massive victory for Islam in America” and the “community needs to become more mature and stop demonizing” those who form alliances with other groups. “It is not our job to be judge, jury, and executioner for somebody who’s engaged in any sin,” he added. “The Masjid is open to anybody who wants to come to Allah and His messenger.”
Perhaps the checkered spiritual path of these charismatic leaders should encourage them to show humility on an issue that has become highly politicized. They should focus on spreading a message of tolerance to their millions of followers.
Let’s pray they also stress Muslim civic engagement and the need to consider a totality of issues when it comes to voting in elections.