Australia’s only openly gay imam says that religious leaders with progressive views on sexuality need to speak up to save young lives.
“The frustration is when we keep silent about it as religious leaders,” Nur Warsame said.
Mr Warsame personally knows of four young Muslims that identified as LGBTI who have self-harmed.
Mr Warsame, who will be a speaker at the Queenscliff Uniting Church’s Sacred Edge festival in March, runs the Marhaba support group for Islamic LGBT people.
The group meets regularly at venues around Melbourne and invites people to contact them through a Twitter account and by email.
“It’s thankfully growing, the numbers are growing almost on a weekly basis,” Mr Warsame said.
“We even have people who have visited me from New Zealand and Fiji and from around the South Pacific.”
Mr Warsame was born into a Sunni Muslim family in Somalia and lived in Egypt and Canada before settling in Melbourne.
For many years he struggled with his sexuality, believing it was a sin.
He even married and had a daughter. At one despairing stage he attempted suicide.
“I was never one who rejected the faith, which a lot of youth suffer from,” he said.
“The faith was very important to me, the Quran and its commentaries were always something that in many ways provided a lot of healing in a very stormy lifetime.”
Mr Warsame has memorised the Quran in Arabic and is also trained in providing commentary and interpretation.
He said this background helped him realise that what he had been told, even from childhood, was wrong.
“After my divorce 2006 I reread the Quran and certain commentaries that dated further back in history than the contemporary ones that we read in universities,” Mr Warsame said.
“I reached a point where I realised most of the books of commentary I had been reading were conveying an incorrect interpretation of the Quran.
“I separated the interpretations by certain individuals from what the actual scriptures’ core messages were. At a very difficult time, when it came to family and community and so forth, it made me find a way of reconciling my faith with my sexuality.”
Since coming out Mr Warsame said he has received some threats but also a lot of private support.
“I have had the reputation even prior to coming out of being a respected imam. I still am a respected imam, so the people I meet who have known me in my previous role are quite respectful but sometimes they wouldn’t publicise their support,” he said.
“They say ‘we support what you are doing’ but just leave it at that.
“Other imams who are not happy with the position I have decided to stand on, they say ‘how can he call himself an imam?’ But my existence and my presence and my track record mollifies their doubts.”
Unlike some Christian denominations, Islam does not have a central authority to remove clerical titles or excommunicate.
“Once you are an imam or a person who has memorised the Quran, these are titles that no one can take from you,” Mr Warsame said.
He argues that the hard line stance against homosexuality only recently gained ascendancy over the Islamic world, primarily due to the spread of the doctrines of Wahhabism, which has been mainly exported from Saudi Arabia underpinned by oil money.
“But the history of Islam is that Islam always related to the time in which it existed,” Mr Warsame said.
“Only now the last few hundred years is where we have this one rigid interpretation of the Quran and it’s coming from one particular region but it has dominated unfortunately the majority of the Muslim world.”
The young Muslims Mr Warsame meets in the support group tend to have two responses to having their sexuality condemned.
“We have people who have been so traumatised by other religious leaders and community leaders and family members that they want nothing to do with religion,” he said.
“And then there are some who have had to give into the pressures of leading a double life.”
Mr Warsame cites the case of one young man he recently talked to who has a wife and two children.
“How I advise individuals like that, and there are several of them within our group both male and female, is that is not an authentic life,” Mr Warsame said.
“It is not a life of a true Muslim to sentence four people to a life of imprisonment because of other people dictating how you should lead your life.
“I would say to them that we don’t have a middle man between us and God, we have a direct line, so why would you allow your imams, your parents, your community, your cultural beliefs to come between you and tell you this is something that God is not unhappy with or is an abomination?”
Mr Warsame said different faiths could assist each other in building a more tolerant attitude to sexuality.
“One of the ways of building bridges is to help people who are still lagging behind,” he said.
“One of the best ways of learning from each other is facilitating platforms where other imams and other religious leaders can come out and support the youth because the youth are suffering.”
Mr Warsame has for the most part funded Marhaba out of his own “limited income”.
If he can raise more money Mr Warsame aims to provide safe houses and drop-in centres to welcome and protect young LGBTI Muslims.
The annual Sacred Edge festival explores issues of faith, diversity, sustainability, well-being and social justice.
Featured speakers and artists will also include media personality Julie McCrossin, refugee and hip-hop poet Abe Nouk as well as Indigenous film-maker and activist Richard Frankland.
The Sacred Edge – Spirituality in Diversity festival will be held at Queenscliff Uniting Church from 5-7 May. Go to
www.unitingqueenscliff.org.au and click on the Sacred Edge link.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Anglican church had provided funding to Marhaba.