“Do you think gay people should be stoned to death?” Muhsin Hendricks, an openly gay imam, asks his three children during a drive to the beach. “What would you do if they now decide to catch me?” A Jihad for Love grapples with such questions, traversing countries including Egypt, Iran, Turkey, and India, to let scholars, imams, and gays themselves weigh in on Koranic law, discrimination and violence, and, above all, what it means to be a devout Muslim. Hendricks’ daughter, already resigned to conservative Islam’s prescription for gays, responds to her father soberly: “I would say, ‘Just let him die with the first stone.’”
Despite poor production quality and an unnervingly histrionic soundtrack, Parvez Sharma’s directorial debut abounds with such enlightening moments, as well as glimmers of great storytelling. Among the film’s compelling and diverse subjects are Mazen, a young Egyptian who was beaten by police and served a year in prison before fleeing to Paris; Maryam, a Moroccan lesbian who hopes for punishment to abate her guilt and shame; Qasim, a man in northern India whose religious mentor suggests he see a psychologist should his same-sex feelings persist; and four Iranian men living in Turkey who anxiously await the United Nations’ decision on their asylum request. These people, many of them religiously conservative, overwhelmingly appeal to God to justify their jihad — or struggle — against intolerance. “If God has planted this love in my heart, it is legitimate,” says Kiymet, a Turkish lesbian.
Unfortunately, though, Sharma limits our access to his subjects: We see them overwhelmingly in private, in the company of fellow gays, and many opted to have their faces obscured. As a result, the film becomes, at times, too abstract for a documentary, and there’s little sense of how these men and women interact with their neighbors, employers, and communities. We have only their accounts, which are sometimes vague.
But most of the film’s failings stem from an astonishing lack of cultural context. Sharma falls into the trap of conflating gays with drag queens: during celebrations for Eid (the end of Ramadan), Mazen dons makeup and a sequined top to perform an over-the-top belly dance for an unidentified crowd; later, Qasim attends a party populated by a dozen gay men who saunter through the room in colorful saris and near-fluorescent lipstick. If Muslims adopt a more gendered view of sexual orientation (as is the case in several Latin American countries), this merits mentioning. Sharma expects American audiences to fill in the blanks for themselves, and this is too much to ask.
Although it presents an important series of touching portraits, the film tragically skirts deeper questions. How has homophobia evolved in the Muslim world? How common is the abuse alluded to? And if the world’s most popular religions all denounce homosexuality, what sets this brand of anti-gay sentiment apart from others? Documentaries on isolated or marginalized communities should give equal weight to humanizing their subjects and showing what makes them unique. A Jihad for Love succeeds with the former — clearly its primary goal — but ultimately fails to reveal the forces behind its subjects’ suffering.