The Defense Of Marriage Act and a Muslim Response
Should, we, Muslims take a stand on the debate about the rights of gays and lesbian couples?
No, argue a good number of Muslim religious and social opinion-makers. They say that individuals are entitled to have their independent opinions on the issue, but as a community or as a faith we should avoid taking positions because if we take a pro-gay and lesbian approach, we would alienate our own community and lose support among those religious groups that view marriage as defined traditionally and if we oppose gay and lesbian rights, we would lose support among liberals who have stood for our civil rights in the most difficult times of our public life in the country. They even bring in their understanding of the life of the Prophet arguing that he encouraged Muslims to take this neutral path when confronted with difficult choices, especially at a time when the community was its initial stages of its formation: a position that is highly contestable given the nature of the Prophetic message and mission.
The underlying assumption is that people would view our non-decisive attitude positively and would not consider us hostile to them. Naive as it may sound; this approach has several inherent flaws that expose our weaknesses. It gives the impression that as a faith we are not ready to deal with real issues of life. It also creates the feeling that we give priority to political expediency than to a principled stand. It also causes confusion among Muslim youth who find themselves in the midst of debates on these issues daily, it suggests that even though we are part of this society, yet we are not concerned with its issues, it exposes our intellectual insecurities in stating our perspective clearly and above all it pushes us to be dormant when the situation demands that we must be very vocal and active.
We need to understand that the Supreme Court debate is not about the rights of God and humans. It is not about religious morality. It is not about the moral virtues of heterosexuality practiced within the confines of a marriage. Nor it is about the extent of permissibility in matters pertaining to sexuality. Rather, it is about the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), passed in 1996, that defines marriage for federal purposes as between a man and a woman and offers some 1100 benefits to thus defined married couples. This federal law impacts the life of 3.5 percent gays and Lesbian and bi-sexual Americans who have about 700,000 same-sex couple households.
There are 38 states in the USA that have banned same-sex marriage, either through legislation or constitutional amendments, while some six states (Colorado, Delaware, Hawai, New Jersey, and Rhode Island) allow civil unions, nine states (Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, Washington, and District of Columbia) have legalized same-sex marriage. Obviously, DOMA impacts the life of a substantial number of citizens.
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution is part of the Bill of Rights and it prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion. The DOMA, seemingly, violates this provision by accepting the position on marriage offered by most religions. The federal government should not impose religious beliefs of one over another and it should not give preferential treatment to one at the exclusion of the other. This, in essence, is the debate.
The Muslim position based on the principle of justice and fairness is clear. The constitution that people have given their allegiance to should be the criterion to legally define a position, and if it says that people cannot be discriminated in terms of getting benefits on the basis of their definition of the union then they should not be. The current Supreme Court debate is about the legality of DOMA. Neither the Congress nor the Supreme Court is authorized to pass its judgment on matters pertaining to religious perspectives. It is the responsibility of religious communities and institutions to defend their belief system. The resources of a pluralistic state cannot be used to defend the position of a religious or many religious groups. If this role is assigned to the federal government then there is no limit to its power as it can do whatever it can on the basis of the rule of majority or in the name of national security.
When it comes to religious understanding of homosexuality, Islam takes a very unwavering position. Sex is within the confines of marriage and marriage is between a man and a woman. If others want to redefine sexuality and marriage within their historical context, they are entitled to it, but they should not accept Islam or Muslims in general to align with their viewpoint.
Discrimination on the basis of one's sexuality and preference over the choice of spouse, however unacceptable to anyone from their religious perspective, cannot be allowed because it violates the religious principle of no compulsion in matters of religion. Islam argues that human beings have been given the faculty of intellect and reason and not forced to adopt a particular set course Hence human beings have been given the discretion to select any one of the courses open to him. However, they should be aware that while their faculties can select a path, they cannot ensure that the selected course is also the right one. The criterion to determine right from wrong is Wahi (revelation) or the divine guidance. Islam believes that God has guided human beings to the right path through His Wahi and then left human beings free to either adopt the right course or deny it (73:3). That is why human beings are held responsible and accountable for their deeds.
Islam does not approve pre-marital or extra-marital sex and sex between the same sexes. It also does not permit sex without marriage. It does not mean that Muslims strictly follow this divine call in their lifestyle. The increasing numbers of prostitutes in the Muslim world, the high number of abortions among unwed girls, the prevalence of homosexuality in Muslim religious, educational institutions are things that no one really wants to talk about it. Despite their prevalence, Islam's position on these moral objectives has been unchanged and would remain unchanged.
But commitment to a particular lifestyle does not give Muslims the right to coerce people believe in what they believe in. It does not give them the license to persecute people because of their sexual orientation. The same rule applies to gays and lesbian and bisexual advocates who must not intimidate Muslims by accusing them of being irrational or anti-progress or conservative.
Muslims should not act on the basis of political expediency. They should always take a principled state. They are not a political group. They are a people that uphold values they claim have divine origin. They are expected to be consistent in their perspectives. They cannot pick and choose on the basis of the opinions of a few individuals or groups, because they are expected to decide things on the basis of their understanding of the divine message and the life experiences of the Prophet.
They are expected to explain their perspectives when it is needed most. Perhaps, we Muslims should have also submitted our disposition to the Supreme Court on this issue explaining our viewpoint on this case. The country does not consist of bigots. The country would understand our perspective provided we speak with sincerity and not on the basis of cost analysis of loss and benefit to any group. After all, the purpose and relevance of Islam is to speak when no one is speaking and to share an Islamic perspective with the full acknowledgement that it can be rejected by people.