"A Jihad for Love," a courageous new documentary about homosexuality in the Islamic world, was funded in part by Michael Huffington, the ex-congressman who, as a Log Cabin Republican, knows a thing or two about courage. But Huffington's difficulties pale in comparison to his documentary subjects, many of whom risked their lives to appear in the controversial film. We meet a South African imam who received death threats and was asked to leave the two madrassas where he taught after revealing his sexuality. We meet an Egyptian who spent years in jail for the crime of "debauchery." We meet an Iranian who received 100 lashes and fled the country, along with three of his gay friends (contradicting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's recent boast there are no homosexuals in Iran). And on a hopeful note, we meet several Indian homosexuals who enjoy that country's relative freedom to express their identities.
Director Parvez Sharma, a gay Muslim himself, takes pains to show the wide range of Islam's attitudes toward homosexuality. Filmed in nine languages and 12 countries - including Iran, where a literalist interpretation of the Koran decrees that gays be stoned to death, and Turkey and India, where we see gay couples walking together in public - the film explodes the idea of Islam as a monolithic entity with a single interpretation of homosexuality. Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India, for example, inherited their anti-homosexuality laws from the British, but these laws have rarely been enforced since decolonization in the 1940s.
"A Jihad for Love" claims to be the first feature documentary to address the subject of homosexuality in Islam, and it makes an invaluable contribution by recording the names, faces, and stories of gay men and women struggling to reconcile their religion with their sexuality. But the documentary's greatest strength - its intimate portraits of individual lives - is also its greatest weakness, since it provides the viewer with meager context for those lives. Our only information about the treatment of homosexuals in Islamic countries comes from the film's subjects and occasional subtitles. This isn't meant to question the film's veracity, but merely its methods. A more informative documentary would have gone beyond personal vignettes to explain the history, theology, and sociology behind Islamic attitudes to homosexuality.
We should, of course, sympathize with victims of intolerance, but sympathy by itself will not change anything. We need unflinching accounts of the origins, development, and current condition of anti-homosexual attitudes. "A Jihad for Love" fails to provide that account.