Smiling Assassins

By John Bartlett
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This article is a part of our October focus on Institutions – you can access more content from this issue here.

By John Bartett

“If you are with a group of people and a woman happens to fall over, let somebody else pick her up; it’s much safer.”

This was the bizarre advice given to us by our Moral Theology professor when I studied in a Catholic seminary in the 1960s. The Church’s paranoia over the female threat to its celibate clergy, or just plain old misogyny, was evidence of a deeper, more disturbing misunderstanding of psychology. Sexual expression outside marriage was seen as a danger, rather than a value to be embraced and celebrated.

Society has undergone some radical changes since the 1960s but somehow Catholic theology remains derailed in a medieval fear of and disgust for the body and its needs, and an inability to reconcile carnal desires with spiritual longing. As a result even heterosexual expressions of sexuality have traditionally been burdened with expectations of procreation and homosexual officially labelled as ‘acts of grave depravity’.

I worked as a Catholic priest for more than ten years, mostly in the southern Philippines during dangerous but exhilarating years of the Marcos Martial Law regime. It was a heady, dramatic time for a young idealistic priest, trying to make Liberation Theology a practical reality for the tenant farmers with whom I lived. Sexual expression was conveniently pushed to the back burner by the excitement of those years and celibacy was just part of the deal. Eventually I rejected institutional Christianity for a variety of reasons, only one of which was that if I identified as gay I would be considered a moral pariah in the Church I had served.

Now thirty years later, I’m not so sure that I’ve gotten over the leaving or the loss of my belief. I’m more and more puzzled and irritated that some religions remain bastions against homosexuality.

Islam, too, can represent the extreme limits of tolerance of sexual diversity and, because I don’t have a personal investment in the religion, recently I decided to put it under the microscope. I wondered if the Middle–Eastern/African condemnation of homosexuality has more to do with resisting Western (and especially American) lifestyles – short skirts, plunging necklines, drug culture and homosexuality. Being gay and having a gay identity is a Western phenomenon. Perhaps homosexuality is just a convenient whipping boy for hard-line Islam, anti-western in general rather than anti-gay in particular. Maybe it’s not the homosexual acts that Islam can’t stomach, but the identity and the lifestyle that goes with it. Evidently Western right-wing Christianity has passed the decency test.

This internal conflict, caused by his religious beliefs, created almost intolerable pressures.

I knew no gay Muslims personally so it was time to seek someone out. This proved more difficult than I had expected but by posting a message on yahoo groups I finally contacted a man in Melbourne who was happy to be interviewed.

My search took me to St Kilda, ironically the very suburb to which I’d fled after leaving the Church in the 1980s to test out my own homosexuality. He was even living in the same area I had, near the end of Acland Street with its shop windows overflowing with cakes belching cream and the gay nightclubs of those years, pre AIDS, crammed with men, dancing all night under lurid disco lights.

Ahmad, (meaning ‘worthy of praise’), lives with his partner in an apartment that offers generous views across the bay, at which I stare while he brews coffee for us in a sleek, shiny coffee machine. Ahmad is wiry and athletic and confesses he’s still recovering from a shoulder injury sustained in the competitive sailing he loves so much. He’s a 42 year old engineer, born in Cairo of an Egyptian mother and a Malaysian father who moved to Singapore when he was a baby. His father was a Mufti, an Islamic theologian, and his mother an academic in Arabic languages. With this strong scholastic and religious background, he was able to graduate at an English university in chemical engineering. At the age of nineteen, living away from home, he underwent a sexual awakening and says, “it made me fear for my life.”

This internal conflict, caused by his religious beliefs, created almost intolerable pressures. However, over the years, he says, he has been able to reconcile his religion and his lifestyle. “I’ve accepted that there will be things in life that will be in conflict and I’ve never rejected Islam, only some peoples’ point of view of it.” This to me sounds like an argument similar to that proposed by gay people who prefer to remain in the Catholic Church and stay silent. It’s a line of reasoning that has never much impressed me. Isn’t it just a cop-out? But then to be fair, maybe I copped out too by leaving the Church altogether. Just a different form of cop-out I suppose.

“How can you believe in an organisation that tells you that you are a bad person?” I ask perhaps too harshly. Ahmad thinks for a while. “I think religion is a private and internal value for each individual; it’s a bit like grief. My feelings on the death of my mother were extremely intense. People can never understand how you feel at such a time, nor can they understand my religious emotions; a storm of feelings so internal that they defy description. Religion is like that for me.” I’m not sure I understand. Perhaps I never believed enough in the first place. What I’d thought was my pious idealism was probably just youthful enthusiasm and the desire to travel.

Although Ahmad doesn’t often attend the mosque (“those Arabs can be a real pain” he says), his prayer times are scheduled into his iPhone; he’s an authentic Generation X-er. Before I leave he tells me of his other passion, the martial arts discipline of Ken Do or “the way of the sword”. For Ahmad this is less about aggression and more about strength of mind and exploring a spiritual way. As I leave Ahmad’s flat I realise he doesn’t fit the stereotype I was expecting. I’m not even sure now what that was.

While I’m trying to decide whether or not to ‘out’ myself to this man, he reminds me that homosexuality is considered a “sexual crime” …

I’m inspired now to seek out more gay Muslims and interrogate them too but after reconnecting with the Yahoo group’s moderator, I’m told that the members are “all talked out”. It appears they are fed up with being interviewed, continually put under the microscope by people like me and who can blame them?

If I can’t track down other gay Muslims, perhaps I can get the official line from an Imam but what do I, a former Catholic, know about Imams? I recall the statement of an Imam speaking to a young gay Muslim in the film A Jihad for Love who has gone to him for advice. “The only question” says that Imam, “would be the method of your execution for such a crime.” These words are still hanging around me like a bad smell when I knock on the door of an ordinary suburban house in Hoppers Crossing outside Melbourne. It’s the home of Sheik Mohamadu Nawas Saleem, the secretary of the Australian National Imams’ Council (ANIC), which is the peak umbrella organisation of the Imams in Australia. Established in 2006, its mission is to “provide religious leadership, rulings and services to the Muslim community” and describes itself as moderate.

Sheik Mohamadu, a short, bearded, smiling man of Sri Lankan origin welcomes me into his house and we sit in oversize blue lounge chairs facing each other. I begin by asking him how Islam accommodates itself to secular Australia. It seems like a safe subject to start with. Sheik Mohamadu has degrees in both religious and civil law from a Malaysian university but is unable to practice in Australia. Generally, he says, Islamic teachings fit well into the Australian context but he admits there is some concern about popular culture seeping into the hearts and minds of young people. The three major challenges he identifies immediately for me are homosexuality, same-sex marriage and abortion.

While I’m trying to decide whether or not to ‘out’ myself to this man, he reminds me that homosexuality is considered a “sexual crime”, forbidden in Islam as a “perversion” and I’m silenced. What’s the point of disturbing the polite hospitable atmosphere just to make my point?

“When someone opposes the laws of Islam, say through such sexual perversion,” he explains, “they are cast out as a punishment.” But Australian law doesn’t allow the sort of punishments seen in some Islamic countries. I can’t quite reconcile his smiling politeness with the violence of his words. The Sheik points out the similarities between Catholic and Islamic teaching on sexual morality and after talking for almost an hour we part company still smiling at each other like smiling assassins. As I drive back down the Geelong freeway I discover that the hit from the self-righteous anger I’m feeling is like a mid-morning shot of café latté. I actually enjoy it.

What really concerns me, I come to realise, is that despite living in a tolerant society like Australia without religious punishments, young gays can still be in life-threatening situations.

But it’s a different sort of anger I feel when I take another look at the church of which I was a minister. I’ve been incorrect it seems in accusing the Catholic Church of labelling homosexual acts as “acts of grave depravity”; the lecturer in Moral Theology at the Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne, Cormac Nagle reminds me in an email that the Church uses the term “intrinsically disordered” instead. Somehow it doesn’t make me feel any better; I still feel like I’m being labelled as a serial killer or a sexual criminal by these pious men.

What really concerns me, I come to realise, is that despite living in a tolerant society like Australia without religious punishments, young gays can still be in life-threatening situations. Recent Australian research by Wesley Mission found that gay-identified young men (aged 18-24) were 3.7 times more likely to attempt suicide. Most of these attempts occurred after the person had self-identified as gay. While it might be an exaggeration to draw a direct link between religious contempt for gays and suicide, the Wesley Mission believes that “what is evident from a survey of the literature is that feelings of isolation, alienation, helplessness and hopelessness can be identified as possible ’causes’.” It’s no exaggeration to imagine how religious intolerance could exacerbate such feelings in young people.

I ask Professor Nagle to comment on the Church’s responsibility for young gay people and he admits: “It is true that this approach does not help young people with a homosexual orientation” and suggests that to understand the Church’s teaching it is important to read the official documents. This bland, cavalier response infuriates me further. Where is the Church’s compassion, its duty of care? I push him for a further response and explain that as a gay man I might not appreciate the Church’s official line. He responds that “a purely individualist ethic is impossible in practice; your personal views are only valid for you.” I feel my prejudices against his stonewalling growing and yet somehow I find comfort in these prejudices. It’s like another caffeine hit.

The problem with all these ‘official’ responses is that they keep individuals like me at arm’s-length, examining us from ivory towers, under microscopes like exotic diseases to be studied and treated. There’s little attempt to grapple with flesh-and-blood individuals with desires, hopes and dreams. The failure of this ‘theoretical’ approach is akin to receiving endless text messages from some omniscient, distant, divine CEO that you can’t respond to. More seriously, there’s a wider question of morality here too. Morals based on antediluvian interpretations of ancient texts written for specific cultures and times representing some divine omnipotence, must be challenged especially when they impinge on health and sanity. Perhaps my irritation at this injustice can never be healed.

Meanwhile Ahmed too has been thinking further about our discussions, which he says has raised “some ugly truths in my mind and some unresolved thoughts.”

“To me religion does not judge,” he says, “we are, however, continually judged by others based on what they see and what we all do. Asian, Middle Eastern and to some degree European cultures place enormous importance on such practices as prayer; to me it’s no indicator of the humanity of the person. I have accepted that I may never be able to reconcile religion with my lifestyle, especially if it’s based on the interpretation of others.” I too have failed to reconcile my own childhood religion with my sexuality but what I feel now, if I’m honest, is a sense of betrayal by the church I served and perhaps this inability to reconcile the two is what I find most difficult to accept.

Ahmed’s acknowledgment of this limitation inspires me though and is possibly as much as we can both hope for, the ability to find some comfortable space between what religion demands and the inclinations of our own natures. It’s not much but maybe it’s enough to live a valuable and authentic life while I continue my search for a compatible spirituality.

JOHN BARTLETT lectures in professional and creative writing atDeakin University and has had over 50 feature articles and short stories published in various magazines and newspapers. His third book Estuary was released in September 2013.

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  • Ian Fraser

    John’s account of his investigation is quite poignant because he candidly tells of his ‘sense of betrayal by the church [he] served and perhaps this inability to reconcile the two is … most difficult to accept’. Happily, he is inspired by Ahmed’s words, quoted in the second last paragraph, words which I believe demonstrate an inherent problem in institutional religion. That is, while relationship with the Divine and the attempt to live a moral life are necessarily individual personal attitudes and commitments, the communal nature of institutional religion means we will be judged by our co-religionists against the requirements of religious orthodoxy.

    While imams, priests and rabbis probably feel more constrained to represent the official doctrines and moral standards, we lay people can celebrate our greater freedom and more personal responsibility to live what we see as good, moral lives consistent with our sexuality. And I think an essential part of that good, moral life is not to be judgemental of co-religionists who choose a different level of attachment to orthodoxy.

    • I enjoyed John’s article but i have a problem with your call Ian to “not be judgmental of coreligionists who choose a different level of attachment to orthodoxy ”
      We would never say – “this religion supports slavery but it’s OK they’re just being orthodox” and yet we are supposed to engage in faux tolerance of fundamentalist religions that actively legitimize homophobic behaviour. The current child abuse epidemic within the catholic church is an outcome of that type of thinking where we privilege fundamentalist beliefs over the interests of an inclusive and just society

  • Michaell

    John, thank you for your well informed article with your own invaluable personal experiences as a background making it a significant contribution to an important set of issues that our society is yet to come to terms with. More power to your writers arm!