Solidarity at the Nueces Mosque in Austin in November. Jenan Taha photo via Twitter

Muslims and Queer Folks, Together in Texas

Solidarity works, y’all


Every odd-numbered year the Texas legislature convenes and Muslims from across the state come together early in the session for an advocacy day at the state capitol.

For years the event was no more controversial than lobby days for optometrists or Jaycees. But in 2015 a far-right state representative and disruptive protesters decided to intimidate citizens petitioning their elected officials. Images of an angry white woman yanking the microphone out of a Muslim community leaders’ hands at their press conference and screaming made national news.

In the two years since then things have gotten much worse for Muslims in Texas and around the country. Armed fascist protesters have demonstrated at mosques around the state. Shortly before this year’s advocacy day two mosques — one under construction outside Austin and another in the south Texas city of Victoria — were burned down. Investigator suspect arson in both cases.

All this, of course, took place in the context of Trump’s fulfilled campaign promise to ban Muslims from entering the country — from seven countries at least. There was reason to fear that Texas Muslim Capitol Day would be much worse for the civic-minded faithful that dared to come to speak with their lawmakers.

But Muslim Solidarity ATX wasn’t about to let that happen.

“We were seeing all these things — the graffiti and hate — and I thought here’s a chance to show that solidarity back to the Muslim community,” Matt Korn, one of Muslim Solidarity ATX’s founders told me over coffee about a week after the Jan. 31, 2017 event.

One of his co-founders, Josh Frey, went on. “The other thing besides Trump that’s happening right now is all the resistance.”

And resist Austin did. That morning as many as 2,000 non-Muslims came to the capitol grounds to form an enormous human shield around the group’s press event, peacefully blocking them from the counter protesters. For the second time in a row Muslim Capitol Day made national news — last time for hate, this time for solidarity.

“I love the segment Rachel Maddow did on the human chain we did,” Korn said proudly. “It was an almost 15-minute segment on the backlash against Muslims, but also how there’s another story, all this solidarity that included our action.”

Muslim Solidarity ATX is a new collective, formed immediately after Trump’s election, but its roots began earlier when Korn and Frey— who are boyfriends — connected with Muslim religious and community leaders in the aftermath of the Pulse shooting in Orlando.

This bears a second mention — two gay men founded a Muslim solidarity organization protecting mosques and helping Muslims advocate for better community protections. “I never thought I’d be organizing an interfaith vigil — it’s not my general M.O. — but that’s what it ended up being and it was really powerful,” Korn said.

They wanted Muslim leaders in Orlando to tamp down any possible Islamophobia in the local queer community, and Muslims answered the call. “I was flooded with responses … We got more immediate and enthusiastic support from Muslim organizations and people than any other, it was really striking.”

To say that Korn and Frey are out and proud is an understatement — they are gay from a distance and deeply involved in Austin’s radical queer scene. They were instrumental parts of the city’s anti-capitalist Pride-alternative Queerbomb and Korn has been organizing for at least 15 years.

I’ve known him since I first moved to Austin after I graduated high school. Yet despite this unabashed queerness and Left wing politics they have found close and grateful allies in Austin’s Muslim faithful.

“I’ve heard from Muslim activist friends that us starting this has started a conversation within the Muslim community in Austin about queer issues that wasn’t happening before,” Korn said. “I think every Muslim we’ve worked with personally — and it’s dozens and dozens — have known we’re queer and it’s not a problem.”

Frey on the left and Korn on the right. Muslim Solidarity ATX photo

This should not be a surprise. Despite fear-mongering representations from both “New Atheist” shitlords and the Christian right — not to mention the pronouncements of fringe Islamic extremists — Islam is a notably tolerant religion. Yes, the formal, doctrinal positions on queerness of most of its schools are bad, but like any other religion there is a substantial gap between official positions and how most of its people actually live their lives.

Just like for every Christian preacher calling out premarital sex there are thousands of self-identified believers screwing strangers from Tinder, for every Imam with something shitty to say about “homosexuality” there are hundreds of Muslims who came to the Texas capitol thankful for the gay guys that helped turn out non-Muslims to protect their advocacy day.

Korn and Frey are quick to emphasize the importance of intersectionality, the way that oppressive systems interact with one another, amplifying and entangling one another.

“I think that’s how it should be with groups that might be marginalized,” Frey said. “The importance of intersectionality and coming together is something that has been such an essential tool for a lot of different causes and movements. It’s an important bridge to cross.”

There are many queer Muslims for whom Islamophobia and homophobia intersect and leave them as outsiders everywhere they turn — unaccepted either by conservative co-religionists or reactionary gays fearful of a faith they do not understand. But there’s an intersection in their most potent oppressors — hard-right hatemongers who portray both as threats to an idealized white patriarchy.

This ideology aggressively feeds on fears of the eroding value of whiteness and straight male authority. Being a hetero white guy used to be enough to have a base level of material and political security all predicated on the fact that not being these things meant that you were disposable, blamed for every ill and designated for fucking over.

But as our economic system has ground more and more people down and gotten closer and closer to a terminal crisis straight white guys are starting to get a taste of the desperation and exposure their queer, femme and non-white victims have always known.

Donald Trump is the only politician from either party in two generations to openly speak to this fear, and to promise in barely coded terms to restore whiteness and patriarchy to their former glory. What else can “Make America Great Again” mean?

As Malcolm X famously noted after his pilgrimage to Mecca, Muslims see whiteness as a simple physical attribute — Islam at its heart does not allow for racial distinction or hierarchy. This opposition to white supremacy and its predominantly black and brown believers makes Islam an easy object of hate for Trump and his political movement.

This targeting is also easy because, unlike Klan-style white power sentiments, “progressive” elements have made hatred of Muslims socially acceptable. They pride themselves on an attack on all religions, but Islam takes the brunt.

There are literally more than 10 times as many atheists and agnostics in the United States as there are Muslims, but to hear Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins tell it, we are under imminent threat of “domination.” This is nonsense, and while fringe extremist Muslim political movements wreak all sorts of geopolitical havoc, the people far and away at the greatest risk from these groups are … Muslims.

This literal Islamophobia — irrational, baseless fear of Muslims — has led self-identified progressives and “libertarians” to praise and align themselves with European neo-fascists such as The Netherlands’ Geert Wilders or the strident Falangist cable-news infection Pamela Geller.

The crown prince of this left-leaning bigotry is Bill Maher, who recently offered a precarious platform to the rancid Nazi troll Milo Yiannapoulis — two bigots united in their aversion to trans people and their shared hatred of Muslims.

Anti-queer and anti-Muslim. Good thing they weren’t at the capitol on Jan. 31.

Solidarity in Austin. Muslim Solidarity ATX photo

The very libertarian, liberal-ness of Maher and company’s movement is key to understanding its apparent contradictions. “Liberty” in the United States means white power, ruling class privilege and patriarchy. Things which suggest that white people should step back and make room for oppressed people — that we should redistribute resources to ensure that everyone has access to life and pursuit of happiness, that we should prevent the perpetuation of trauma — are treated as assaults on “liberty.”

The persistent denial of access to power, wealth, education, medicine, land, work and security to colonized people, women and queer folks is not a denial of liberty, however. In fact, adherents consider the documents that secure this oppression the very source of that “liberty.”

This isn’t a new phenomenon but is as old as liberalism itself. The whole movement arose to both justify the rising dominance of the business class and to provide a gracious alibi for colonialism and its crimes. It called white male power “liberty,” and their prejudices and most common perspectives it called “objective reason.” Everyone else it stamped as a savage in need of “freedom” — occupation and exploitation.

Any political movement dominated by white men with access to money and social capital — i.e., university education — will sooner or later slip into all these intersecting oppressions under one guise or another. The New Atheist movement does it one way, the religious right another, but so too does the mainstream gay community.

“Very good gains, political gains, along with greater prosperity for a section of the very broadly termed LGBTQIA,” Korn said before stopping to correct himself, “actually I shouldn’t use that acronym. Big gains for gays and lesbians — big economic gains — have translated into a much more conservative movement.”

“Gay marriage can help trans people,” Korn continued. “But it’s a pretty paltry demand when you can be fired for being who you are. The fact that anybody can declare victory when we still don’t have [the Employment Non-Discrimination Act] is mindblowing. I think it speaks to a definition of homonormativity, basically creating a gay normal — and I use the term ‘gay’ very consciously — that fits right into hetero norms and is satisfied with that.”

This is how you can end up with gay, Islamophobic Trump supporters making vice president a man who endorses the torture of queer children. This is how you end up with Christian chauvinists telling their comrades that voting for an obvious infidel was a duty to God. This is how you end up with a guy who gave Obama $1 million cracking jokes on national T.V. with a proud and notorious fascist.

The solution is, of course, to build solidarity between the oppressed — working class queers and Muslims and women and trans people and Black and Brown and undocumented and disabled and neuroatypical people and everyone else left behind by the “greatness” Trump and his followers crave.

It looks a lot like what Korn and Frey and their friends and allies have built here in Austin. Oh, and when they did stand up the bigots took a hike — only two protesters showed up to Texas Muslim Capitol Day this year.

Solidarity wins, y’all.

“It wasn’t so much a ‘this would be cool’ as much as this is something we have to do for LGBTQIA people if we want to continue to see progress,” Frey said. “One of the things I really like that we’re seeing right now is people coming together that wouldn’t otherwise come together … I’ll never pretend to know what it’s like to grow up Muslim, but we do know what it’s like to go outside and be scared for your safety just being who you are.”

By standing together Korn, Frey, Muslim Solidarity ATX activists, Austin’s Muslim faithful and many many others threatened by the present regime are helping provide a precious bit of security to one another.

There is a need for this work everywhere. Defiance in the face of a sexist, racist, Islamophobic regime looks like feminism, Muslim solidarity and standing up for Black and Brown lives. It looks like intersecting resistance to intersecting oppression.

It looks like standing up to bullies, and the 2,000 plus folks at the capitol this January knew just where to find them — in the seat of power. Organize the powerless and go and do likewise.

Stay defiant.

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