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PJ Thum talks to Irie and Muhammad, two founders of Quasa, a peer support and community network for queer Muslims in Singapore. They talk about Quasa, what it does, why it’s needed, and what they want to achieve. They also discuss the lives of queer Muslims, what they want, their relationship to their faith, the challenges the face, and the banality of their lives and desires in contrast to how others perceive them. They also ponder religious and cultural discrimination, and the extent to which power structures and discrimination within the Muslim community replicate the power structures and discrimination in the Singapore socio-political system as a whole.

To learn more, please visit their Instagram or Twitter pages.

Transcript

PJ Thum (00:00)
Hello and welcome to another episode of Political Agenda, brought to you by New Naratif. With me, your host, PJ Thum. I’m wearing a blue and white Batik shirt sitting in front of a big white curtain, and my pronouns are he/him. Today we have two founding members of the peer support and advocacy group for queer Muslims, Quasa, with us to talk about their organisation. But before we get into that, this podcast is brought to you by New Naratif, a movement for democracy in Southeast Asia. Please do support us by joining a a member at newnarratif.com join or donating at newnaratif.com/donate. Okay, so Quasa is a peer support group for queer Muslims. We have two founding members, Irie and Muhammed, who are here with us today. Irie, would you like to introduce yourself?
 
Irie (00:44)
Hi, I’m Irie and I am a community organiser. My pronouns are they/them and I am wearing a dark green kebaya.
 
Muhammad (00:53)
Hello, my name is Muhammad and I’m the religious adviser for Quasa. I’m wearing a white shirt, but I’m not present in the camera.
 
PJ Thum (01:02)
Yes. So for those of you watching on YouTube, you’ll notice you can only see two of us, Irie and myself. Muhammad is off camera and has asked to remain anonymous. So, Muhammad, would you like to talk about why you’ve chosen to be anonymous today?
 
Muhammad (01:15)
It’s more to protect my family rather than myself. I came from the religious industry and my whole family is in the religious industry. And I hope this also highlights the extent to which the lack of queer rights in Singapore has an effect on real world harm or real world effect on people like us.
 
PJ Thum (01:36)
Like, can I just ask, what kind of backlash would they get if the community learned that one of their family members was queer? Would it be like they would be shunned or worse?
 
Muhammad (01:50)
Yeah, it could be worse. It has gone to the point of physical threats and violent threats online. So that’s one of the main reasons why I’m choosing to remain anonymous. But if it’s not a physical threat, then it’s a threat to one’s livelihood. Because as I’ve mentioned, my family is in the religious industry, so their bread and butter from the religious industry.
 
PJ Thum (02:12)
Okay, thank you and thank you for both of you for your courage for coming on this, knowing that the consequences can be very severe. But I really appreciate you coming on Political Agenda. So let’s get straight into what is Quasa. Irie, would you like to tell us what is Quasa and what do you do?
 
Irie (02:32)
So Quasa, as mentioned, is peer support and advocacy collective. And what we really want to do is create a safe space where queer Muslims feel comfortable exploring both spirituality and sexuality. Because what we realised was that there are just no queer spaces in which people feel comfortable exploring. Okay, I might be a bit more spiritual or religious. I want to pursue a different lifestyle that isn’t just clubs and that’s not really available. There’s no information there. But if queer people do decide this is the path that they want to take, they can’t exactly turn up at your nearest masjid. It’s not a very queer, friendly space. In many places, it’s violent. And so we wanted to be that kind of middle ground where we see you as you are. You don’t have to be a perfect Muslim. I’m definitely not. But we welcome you and all your struggles, and we understand where you’ve been, and we want to build that safety for you, build that community.
 
Muhammad (03:33)
To add to Irie’s answer, it’s also in the name Quasa. We changed K to Q for Quasa, which in Malay means power. And we realised that majority of the especially minority Muslim support groups catered around healing or catered around trauma based support groups. Whereas for us, we wanted to also focus on post reconciliation within your sexual identity and your religious identity and also create not just a safe space, but an empowering space for people to express their religious identity as well. And we realise there isn’t a space for that because it’s always been focused about your sexual identity or your gender identity. We want to provide a platform where you can discuss about how to identify yourself as a queer and Muslim or as a Muslim who just happens to be queer, which also is also a holistic approach. So we have a mental health branch of the organisation as well.
 
PJ Thum (04:34)
So how big is your organisation right now?
 
Irie (04:40)
The founding members of Quasa, there are about six of us. And then what we actually planned to do right before the pandemic cut in was to start different chapters. So I think specifically when we look at young queer people who have no idea how to navigate any of this, whether it’s their queerness or their relationship with religion, we wanted to be able to kind of guide them through that. And we wanted to start chapters where you would get an introduction and orientation within the community, people you could feel safe with, and then also give them kind of the one on one on mental health, on spiritual health, on just so many different things that come with being queer that one guides you on and you often have to find out by yourself. And it’s often a very painful process when you do it alone.
 
Muhammad (05:32)
So whenever we organise an event, it ranges in the tens. We don’t have a registration of members because our main focus is peer support. So our day to day operations is really responding to DMs on Instagram to queries and just a peer chat because it’s nice to have someone who can relate to you. It’s not easy to find friends who happen to be queer within the Muslim community rather than one that is open to talk about it. So we wanted to provide like a friend, like a queer Muslim friend that you can talk to who just happens to know a little bit more about reconciling between the religion and one sexuality and can provide you with resources, whether it’s religious resources, academic resources, or even mental health resources or even support in other forms. So that’s why we partner with – not really partner, but we are in constant communication with Oogachaga or Pink Dot. When we are unable to provide resources or support, then we would channel them to the right people or partners rather that are working on the ground
 
Irie (06:44)
Because of the pandemic, essentially our plan to host these chapters, that couldn’t happen. And so we’ve been focusing on the last three years on creating these resources as we talked about, mainly because to begin with, that visibility isn’t present. People aren’t aware that you can do both these things at once. And beyond creating that awareness, I think it’s also creating that trust within the community because there’s just so much violence on both sides that you never really know who you can turn to. And so that peer support function is very important. But again, we recognise that we are not qualified or trained therapists and so we have to be mindful that as much as we want to support you, there are limits to what we can do for you.
 
PJ Thum (07:30)
Yeah, that was going to be my next question about trust, because Mohammad, you’re not even willing on, for very good reason, of course, to be seen. So how do you create trust in these environments where you have random people reaching out to you, to your DM, saying, oh, I need advice or help? How do you then ensure the safety of the people who are already on the inside and filter and ensure that it’s not someone just trying to investigate or find out who you are or break that trust?
 
Muhammad (08:00)
That’s always a constant challenge. Whenever we try to organise an event, we always feel they need to filter because we do face trolls on a daily basis and people wanting to sabotage our causes, no matter how noble they are. So what we try to do is have a filter of who would be able to attend any of our events, whether online or offline. And then with regards to establishing trust amongst our own community, we don’t just subscribe to one agenda or one narrative. We provide several narratives that you can choose. There’s no one Islam, in our opinion. You can choose to express your religious identity to however you wish. We can help you provide resources for you to base their identity or base the expression upon. So we don’t want to be the editor for this identity because the point is to provide a platform, not just one narrative.
 
Irie (09:02)
So recently, we actually hosted a supper. The moment the restrictions lifted, we were like, okay, we have to do something. And so for the very first time, we had a supper with ten people and we had vetted every single one of these people. That meant actually meeting with them up in person before just to see what the vibes are and to make sure that they don’t mean any harm. And so we invited ten of these queer Muslims over to my place. And again, because it’s a place of – it’s very unsafe if we don’t vet.
 
PJ Thum (09:35)
Yeah. It’s your own home.
 
Irie (09:40)
And what we are very big on is also that idea of facilitation. You don’t just throw people together and expect them to form that bond. That trust has to be slowly created. So group work, and one of our founding members is a social worker, so we relied on them to use group work processes to really build that bond of trust, that idea of communication. And because that was only our first one, you want to eventually go deeper and talk about other stuff. But yeah, that was good.
 
Muhammad (10:09)
We’ve gotten also better at filtering trolls, especially for our online events. So we would include Telegram link, for example, and then we will do a sort of interview of who will be joining. So for our recent Quran class, we did a filtering process. So we’ve gotten quite a good SOP in terms of our online organising, so we can better manage who will be attending our events. And also those participating also want to feel that they can feel safe being in our online events so they won’t feel like someone is spying on them. So we do have to put up an SOP of filtering trolls and people who just are bad actors.
 
PJ Thum (10:55)
And Muhammad, can I pick up on one thing you said, which I think is a question a lot of people listening, especially non Muslims listening, will have, which is the compatibility of Islam and being queer. I guess the obvious question is, can you be queer and Muslim? And you’re saying that there are multiple ways to understand, or multiple identities?
 
Muhammad (11:21)
No, the answer to that is they are. Yeah. It’s not about can you. They are. Okay. Whenever people say, “Could you be?”, the question is moot. There are. So now move on to the next question, because that’s what we’re trying to focus on. How are you going to be a queer and Muslim at the same time? If you look back in history, Muslims in the past, well, arguably, they don’t really have the same conception of homosexuality as we do. They’ve already managed to do so. Same sex is not a new thing in humanity. Right?What is new is just the modern period with laws and et cetera. But now we haven’t had a space to ask or to question the how, which is where Quasa is trying to come in, because every time you come into that picture, then it’s all going back to the Quran and the Hadith and the religion already is possible or not. But that question is really moot because they already are queer Muslims on the ground and you’re not providing a platform for them to better express themselves holistically.
 
PJ Thum (12:31)
The question of how, then, and when people ask, what do you – can you summarise a response?
 
Muhammad (12:41)
So, as usual, you have the moderate Muslims, conservative Muslims, and you also have progressive Muslims. Right. That’s sort of pretty much the, I want to say, spectrum. But you could say spectrum. So you could argue that it is a test. You could argue that it is a scene. You could argue anyways, right. At the end of the day, what does the conscience tell you? And that’s why we want to help you facilitate that expression of your sexuality and your religious identity. Right. So if you say that it is a test, so let’s have a harmonious view of it then. So it doesn’t lead you to self hatred and other mental health issues. Right. You see that this is something that is possible in Islam. And you could also argue that no matter how the conservative Muslims would argue that homoeroticism was really a part of Islamic poetry and literature for centuries. Right. You could also argue that. And we are here to tell you, okay, so how are you going to conceptualise that in this modern period? Right. And then you’re going to have to talk about family, you have to talk about relationships, you have to talk about love, you have to talk about their own children. But the point is we haven’t gone past the reconciliation part because we’re still there. But the thing is, people are still continuing. Living life continues, meaning you’re still being made right now. So where’s the help and support for that? Where’s the platform or safe space to discuss that?
 
Irie (14:13)
And I think to that point, what we see a lot of is that there’s so much hypocrisy in the Islamic community. There’s so much that’s unaddressed within, let’s say the Muslim community in Singapore. There’s a lot of sexual assault, there is a lot of religious abuse. There’s just so much that’s going on. Even when you think about poverty and homelessness and all of that, our religious institutions are not actually really focusing on those issues. And yet they want to talk about queerness. They want to talk about all of these things that just don’t tally. It doesn’t make sense. Like, why is this the issue when you know very well that your own children are also being a bad Muslim on other terms, they’re just not queer? So why is that the struggle? And for a lot of founding members, we are not perfect Muslims either. We have that struggle. We have that questioning. But we felt that it was very important that you get to come as you are and that you get to reconcile on your own terms whether or not you choose to say that you are Muslim. Because it’s the journey. It is that journey of finding out. And there’s just no grace and gentleness that we see elsewhere.
 
Muhammad (15:40)
To add to that, people have this conception that queer Muslim groups or rather queer groups is always talking about sex. It is always about sex. I find it very interesting because I’ve attended quite a few – quite a number of queer Muslim groups all over the world. And it’s always about meaning. It’s always about religion. It’s always about finding love, or it’s always about one’s relationship with God. Do you get what I mean? No one really talks about sex in these meetings. So that was when we realised that we needed to create a platform to talk about that part, to talk about empowerment, to talk about the post reconciliation. Because we already are. And the thing to add to Irie’s argument is because we are a scarecrow argument, right? We are like, oh, look, this is the measure of one’s nation’s faith. For example, in Egypt, when Muslim Brotherhood came to power, the first group of minorities that they targeted were the LGBTQ Muslims. To showcase that they are the authority or the religious authority that they are sort of saviour of the religion. So it’s happening everywhere. Minorities are always the target of – political targets for political expedience. So that’s what’s happening when you say about backlash, right? It’s always a showcase of okay, this is why we are targeting them, because it showcased that we are protecting the religion.
 
Irie (17:17)
And we’re superior.
 
Muhammad (17:17)
Yeah, superior. But then there are also other issues within the mainstream community that is also a threat to the religion as a theology. But it’s not being as adressed or not as visible. You get what I mean? Yeah, it’s just an easy target. LGBTQ minorities are just an easy target.
 
PJ Thum (17:38)
Why do you think that is? I mean, I have my suspicions but I’m interested in what you’d have to say. Why is it LGBTQ Muslims are the target when it’s so hard to – you look at someone, you can’t tell whether they’re LGBTQ, there’s no way to know. And it’s such an inconsequential thing. What difference does it make whether you’re LGBT or not, right? Why isn’t the dividing line for trying to prove you’re a good Muslim, being more something like, how much have you donated to charity? How much have you fed the poor? How much have you helped those who can’t help themselves? Why is it – is it just because it’s easy to target such a small, invisible minority?
 
Muhammad (18:29)
And less noisy minority, less smaller number. I’m here not wanting to go on camera trying to talk about queer rights in Islam. Who in their right mind would want to go all out being a public advocate for queer Muslims and not being afraid? (laughs) So sorry Irie. But you get what I mean. Also, not a lot of us are privileged, do not come from privileged background. And privilege comes in many factors come from different factors. So there’s so many different reasons why we are an easy target and why we are always the strawman for anything.
 
PJ Thum (19:12)
The history of queer Muslims, I mean, it’s a very rich history. It’s not like you’ve just suddenly appeared out of nowhere, right?
 
Muhammad (19:22)
Yeah. There’s a lot to unpack there. Whether, first of all, the Muslims in the past really actually do identify themselves as queer Muslims, as queer. What does queer even mean, considering that it was a different epistemology of gender ontology? Could we even argue that they actually were queer? Right? Or were they simply viewing everything as their right to love whoever, whomever? Right. But the point is that there’s something there. There’s a reference there, there’s a heritage there, however you would like to view it, whatever lens that you would like to view it from, and that heritage is not being tapped on by current queer identifying Muslims as they formulate or as they conceptualise their identities right now because it’s just not being shared. And there’s no participation from the mainstream Muslims scholars to help or aid in that identification process or that reconciliation process. I’m sure you know, there’s a lot of censorship happening in general, right? Especially in the Islamic religious industry when it comes to manuscripts and when it comes to our religious heritage, you have what’s supposed to be normative Islam versus possible Islam or different narratives of Islam in the past. And a lot of it right now, when you say mainstream Muslim is what mainstream Muslims would like Islam to be or how it should be, right? And then they would bring the argument about ISIS and terrorists. But there’s a difference, though. ISIS wants to destroy people, whereas queer Muslims wants to love, just want the freedom to love whoever they want. You can’t use that argument that we need to preserve the religion, to prevent it from being corrupted.
 
PJ Thum (21:27)
But even in the mainstream, there are different debates, right? Because isn’t it? They aren’t even religious debates. They’re cultural debates. Like, if I remember correctly, Jokowi was asserting that there was a Nusantara Islam, whereas Malaysian leaders were saying, no, all Islam is the same around the world, and we should all conform to the same Islam. So even there’s a debate, can Islam be culturally – adapt itself to different cultural contexts?
 
Muhammad (22:02)
But when you’re a queer Muslim, you’re not even invited to the group debate table. You don’t want to identify yourself at the table that you are. So what we’re trying to do at Quasa is to provide a platform where you can discuss about it, how you want to formulate it, and then we can help you with resources so you can feel more assured because no one has actually reached certitude when it comes to religious conception, have they? Can the mainstream Muslim community actually say, this is absolutely right? I’m definitely going to heaven because of what I’m doing right now. Can you absolutely say that? No one can, right. Ultimately, you rest within the mainstream community or the majority, or because majority of people are doing it? I’m assured that I am on the right path. That’s what we want to provide to the queer Muslims, to give them some level of assurance that you don’t have to feel a certain way because of how you’re born, with how you’re born. And these are the resources for you to feel a little bit more assured. And ultimately we are all in this together. We’re just trying our best to be Muslim. I think in the Quran it says be pious or be righteous to God, to the best of your capabilities. And that’s literally what queer Muslims want to do. People like to talk about queerness or homosexuality as being a choice, right? The nature versus nurture debate. But then people forgot that being Muslim is a choice and we chose to remain Muslims no matter what. And that should be louder. We feel like, Quasa, that should be celebrated. And I think in Islam that is celebrated despite whatever you’re still remaining faithful to the religion. And that’s something that we feel disappointed at times by the mainstream Muslim community because they’re not recognising that when they see us, they only see us as sexual subjects or sexual objects. You oversexualise us. You oversexualise us. And all your focus is always about sex, when we are trying to tell you that what we want to talk to you about or we want to discuss with you about is meaning and living.
 
Irie (24:09)
I think queer people do this very well. We always kind of challenge the norm. We want to rewrite our own stories. We want to make that meaning the way that – the way queer people interpret and understand families of choice, marriages, and relationships, and belonging. That’s just how we kind of evolve our relationship to society and want to make it better, not just for ourselves, but for other people. And in the same way we want to do that with Islam. We choose to believe in an Islam that is much more accepting and graceful than the majority would have you believe. And to really kind of guide people again into that heritage that you’re not alone. You have your queer elders. We’re not career elders, but there are queer elders. There are communities that people who have made this possible. And you don’t have to go through the same kind of like hardship where you’re trying to make this meaning alone. And when cut off from the wall, no resources like nothing to back us. We want to make that path just easier. Yeah.
 
PJ Thum (25:20)
What you described just sounds so in some ways mundane, right? Everyone wants meaning. Everyone’s searching for meaning, for community. And what you want is no different. You want to have lives of dignity and respect, and that is no different from anyone else. And this whole obsession with sex. I have to wonder whether it’s also about policing bodies, policing lives. And part of the problem then is we live in a country where the government asserts the right to police our private lives. So I’m curious about the interaction between how queer Muslims are treated and then the broader social, cultural, political context in Singapore, do you see that very much reinforcing each other and how the government treats your community both as this acceptance that there is something distinctive about your community but also trying to then impose a certain uniformity on it. All this policing, it feels like this has become almost – over the years, it’s become very acceptable in Singapore for authority to police people, to police how you live, how you act, how you think in pursuit of certain narratives. Right? For the government, it’s nation building. It’s economic progress. But then internally within the communities that’s become, then, acceptable to create social cohesion, to clarify our identity, to create a distinctive community, to have a community that supports each other. And then it becomes a debate about what really is development. Is it all of us being exactly the same and imposing something on a community so we have unity and we’re all moving the same direction? Or is it respecting every individual person within the community and having them earn like self determination and agency. Right. And then you end up with the same debate that, well, what happens if another person or another group self determination conflicts with my definition of self determination and how do we resolve that? And historically in Singapore the answer through the PAP has been, to impose something on everyone. And it sounds like the same thing that’s happening here. I don’t think I have a question there. It’s just an observation where we keep running into these issues in Singapore because we’re not able to talk about issues because everything’s imposed, every issue about identity ends up running into the same problem where stuff’s being imposed on you by elites in pursuit of a broader goal.
 
PJ Thum (28:46)
So I guess a question from this is are there queer Muslim groups across the border because we live next to the biggest Muslim country in the world, right? How is it dealt with over there?
 
Muhammad (29:02)
I think to respond to your observation is that people don’t realise that we are part of the uniformity, right? Queer people are contributing to the economy, are business owners, major stakeholders, in this part of the nation building. The problem arises when visibility is involved, when you become too visible. And then the problem arises when equality is being brought to the table, when you demand for equality. I wouldn’t say more equality because it’s definitely unequal right now. So that’s the problem. But otherwise, if you count out to the day to day quotidian affairs of economic contributions, by all means go do you. But then when you want to ask for more, then that’s a problem. I always wonder why are we always asking the mainstream Muslim community about what is fair for the minority within the mainstream Western community? You don’t ask a majority about what should be fair for the minority. There’s just bonkers there. I don’t understand how it is that. Why do we have to look to them to ask for what should be done to the minority. You should be talking to the minority to ask them how they should be fairly treated. What are they looking for? So the problem is always about visibility. If you’re in the underground, if you keep to yourself, don’t come out, don’t be visibly queer. Everyone is fine with that. Like you said, no one – it’s inconsequential when one is – LGBT Muslims, because no one actually knows unless you’re visibly queer. But then when your visibility is involved, then everything will go to haywire and then people will be panicking. Right.
 
Muhammad (30:59)
Regards to our border, our neighbours. It’s always funny how, for example, in Malaysia, queer identifying individuals are part of the main part of the entertainment industry and you can see how visibly queer they are. But then when they start to come out or become rather express that they are queer, then that becomes a problem, then religion is involved, et cetera. I think there was recently a trans-influencer. Everyone knows that she’s trans identifying, right? She has gone through surgeries, et cetera. Everyone loves her. She has a huge following on Instagram, she’s viral, et cetera. But then it become an issue and then the mainstream Muslim community and then it become politicised. When she went for pilgrimage and performed pilgrimage as a woman, then that becomes an issue and then everyone start to talk about it and this is problematic, et cetera. But you were okay with her doing her thing, but when she decides to become religious because that is part of her identity, then it becomes an issue and politicised and/or something must be done about it.
 
Irie (32:21)
Yeah. Like this gatekeeping of Islam is at its core just so paradoxical because people are trying to go towards their religion and what – all you’re doing is really just pushing people away. And we see that happen within so many families where you want people to be more religious, more practicing. But you enact so many different forms of abuse and control and expect people to be interested or to fill that closeness or alignment. And to your point about what we do with our neighbours, we haven’t planned anything yet, but we do actually get quite a few DMs from people from Malaysia and Indonesia because they are also similarly so shocked that something could exist. And I do think that it is more common, perhaps in different regions, because we had someone from London, I think, attend our Quasa supper, and they were saying that like here you just can’t find queer Muslim communities. But back home it’s so common and it’s so easy to come as you are and feel at home and understand that we are all going to look very different to one another and yet we can still respect the different ways to practice religion. Some people are in hijab, some people aren’t, some people are tattooed, some people aren’t, just very different expressions of identity. Ultimately, that doesn’t matter because we understand that you respect the person and whether or not you choose to bring Islam into it is a reflection of you and not the other person.
 
Muhammad (33:59)
Also, Indonesia and Malaysia are bigger in number. Their religious expressions are more variegated, more diverse. Islam in Indonesia is very rich, right. It will spread across geographies, basically. So there’s more opportunities there for you to form safer communities in certain locales. Malaysia is a slightly different picture because the religious authority there is more centralised rather than Indonesia. Indonesia’s religious authority, even when you have the Nahdlatul Ulama, it’s not really that centralised because it’s such a huge geography. So you have pockets or communities operating within their own religious landscape to say, whereas Malaysia is very centralised, there’s a whole legal operation when it comes to religion. It’s a bit harder for queer identifying Muslims in Malaysia. And we get that sometimes with DMs as well. People reaching out to us from across the border saying that, thank you so much for this, because like I said, like we said, that Quasa really focuses more on the post reconciliation rather than just about healing and trauma, et cetera. So they were very happy to see that we are providing narratives or counternarratives correcting misconceptions, providing religious lessons, providing community, which may be difficult in their locales. Yeah.
 
Irie (35:31)
I think having that kind of collaboration would be really wonderful. But just because safety is such a big issue in both Malaysia and Indonesia, maybe in Indonesia it’s a bit more flexible. But I struggle to think about how we can build that collaboration and build that partnership when here we are already so limited.
 
PJ Thum (35:59)
If I can pick up on something you said, Muhammad, about how Malaysia is very centralised and Indonesia, more decentralised, the countries are also governed that way. And to come back to this point, how much of the oppression that you feel is because you’re also yourselves part of a minority. So you’re a minority within the minority, and the minority is desperately trying to hold on to… You already feel you’re so oppressed. And part of it, do you get a sense that you’re feeling that other people in your community, the people who are oppressing you in your community, feel that you’re the ones letting the group down by not conforming and building internal strength and unity? Which is part of the big problem of how we deal with minority-majority relationships in Singapore, that it’s a very sort of top down, oppressive, fit into neat boxes sort of approach, like just freeze society and there’s no evolution, but there’s also no recognition of the individual within that, but also a problem where everyone thinks of themselves as a minority. Right. And historically in Singapore, you have a very interesting dynamic where under British colonialism, the Chinese were heavily oppressed their language, their education system, their culture. And then the PAP continued that shutting down Nantah, ending Chinese education. So I brought this up in a previous podcast with Mysara about how enough to deal with a problem of race when both sides see themselves as the oppressed minority. And how enough do you build solidarity or overcome things when because of all these centuries, well, decades of oppression, both sides conclude that we’re the ones who’ve been oppressed, why should we give way? So coming back to you, do you get a feeling in your community that hey, we’re already so oppressed, stop making things worse for us. We’re already struggling so much. Why do you need to be different? Why can’t you just conform and be a good team player until, I don’t know, some unspecified future? Right? But do you get that sense as well, that the feeling towards you is not like we don’t like you, but you’re letting us down.
 
Irie (38:38)
I let you answer…
 
Muhammad (38:39)
So you asked how, it’s easy one word, empathy. I think the mainstream Muslim community forget because they tend to make us into cardboard pieces or just sex, that they deviod us of humanity and common problems and commonalities. We face Islamophobia, we face racism, sexism, and all the same things that other minorities like Muslims also face. But they forget that people think that, oh, they have Pink Dot, they have a community. That’s not true. That’s rampant racism within the queer community in Singapore. There’s Singapore beauty standards to adhere to, which minorities do not match. And you talk about behaving oneself. It’s not that we do not want to behave ourselves, but how do we behave ourselves and still be able to live with ourselves? Right? Sure, it is easy to just get married to an opposite sex, for example, and live your life. But what does that say about you as a religious person? How is that fair to the opposite – to your spouse, for example? If you’re really all about gender equality right now, right? How is that fair to the opposite gender? For example? Let’s say like a gay man, Muslim man, marry a straight Muslim woman. Sure, sex is not everything, but how is that fair to that woman? How is that ethical? How is that Islamic when there’s lack of honesty there? How can that be part of the religion when there’s no integrity there, that’s no longer religion, then there’s nothing about that is faith anymore. So that’s what we’re trying to do. How do we live ethically and behave ourselves, but to the best of our capabilities, within our moral codes, within Islamic moral codes as well. But we are not getting support because there’s no conversation happening. Whenever there’s a conversation happening with the mainstream Muslim community, and there has been with some of the religious authorities here, the conversation is all about like, okay, this is our stand and then that’s it. And then you stop there. Do you get what I mean? And then you tell us what are your problems? What’s the next step then? Do you get what I mean?
 
PJ Thum (41:10)
Yeah.
 
Muhammad (41:11)
And then it will be followed by a media release about, oh, we’ve done this. We’ve reached out. We have a focus group discussion. But a focus group discussion, you don’t come up with a solution. There isn’t really a next step. You get what I mean? And you already come to the table, not with really open arms, more of like, this is our stand and you just have to accept it because this is the majority anyway. And behave yourself. We DO want to behave ourselves. Trust us. It would just be easier if we could behave ourselves, but then we wouldn’t be able to live with ourselves. And that’s the problem that we want to talk about. That’s why we have a mental health branch as well. You get what I mean? Say if you choose a certain lifestyle, I think for queer Muslims, the lifestyle is still a choice because we have to make that choice. Because it’s a momentous choice. You get what I mean?
 
PJ Thum (42:02)
Yeah.
 
Irie (42:03)
I think with behaving as a team player, that’s a very interesting question because sometimes it feels almost generational, like there are certain generations of Muslims that will enforce that a bit more stricter than others. And with some generations, it’s not even that you have to be a team player, but there’s just no value to being queer. They just don’t see the point. Like why deviate? And the question doesn’t come – why can’t you just do what everyone else is doing? But it then just is something that is very – it’s a sort of privilege. It’s like the comfort of knowing, okay, this is what I can control and this is what community looks like. And if you deviate, then I have to question what identity is. I have to question what faith is. I have to recognise that actually my exploration of faith isn’t very deep because it’s not very understanding and that’s just what I’ve personally experienced. It’s really not about being a team player. It’s just, it would be uncomfortable for me to do that radical self inquiry.
 
PJ Thum (43:16)
When we say deviate and mainstream, we always have to remember it’s elites, people in power setting up this idea of what is mainstream. If you look at culture in Singapore and how it’s changed so drastically over the decades and what is mainstream, what is normal has changed so much. Right. The things that we do or think or say today would be very alien to our grandparents 50 years ago. And I can say this because I’ve really studied the 50s and 60, and the kind of ideas, the thoughts, the assumptions people had back then, not just in Singapore but globally are in many ways drastically different from what we have today. Sometimes for the better, but sometimes for the worse. Another observation I actually want to make is this idea that, oh, we’ve consulted, we’ve had the focus group discussion and that’s all. And that’s actually also a very PAP thing, which I pointed out that for PAP, democracy is having the act of consultation without necessarily having any action on the consultation. Right. So they will invite people for talks and reach out and then they will go away and make the decision. And most of the time that’s the decision they were going to make anyway. But they’ll say, oh, well, we consulted you, therefore, this is a consultative process. Your democratic rights have been respected, that this decision making process is democratic. You don’t actually get to sit in the meeting where the decision is made or have any impact on the implementation of anything. You just get consulted. And so again, it feels like, to come back to a theme that I feel is emerging. It’s not just queer Muslims, but it’s like the way Singapore is governed as a whole is so hierarchical and top down. And the way the PAP has set up certain assumptions has also filtered downwards into how individual communities try to self govern.
 
Muhammad (45:34)
And talking about self governing. We’ve been quite abstract in this, but there are real world harm happening as we speak. There isn’t a week that goes by that we do not receive DMs saying about I’m being abused domestically, right? Or I’m thinking of self harm, et cetera. And these all require help from the mainstream community, right, because a lot of it has been religiously fuelled. Some of these domestic abuse are religiously fuelled. Parents, siblings, or relatives find it justified to do so, to abuse, physically abuse a queer Muslim because for some strange reason, they believe that the religion allows them to do so. And when there’s a lack of support or lack of counter narrative from religious authorities or the mainstream Muslim community, the problem just persists. So it’s a nice thing that you could check it off your list that you’ve done an FGD, but the problem is still there and it’s been there and no one’s doing anything about it. And frankly speaking like queer Muslims groups in Singapore or even in this region are very tired of it. So that’s why we have to resort to forming our safe spaces and come up with housing solutions, etc. To the point where we have to create a community where, you can stay at mine, just to escape your abuse for the night or two. And this shouldn’t be upon us as a minority. We have our own lives to live. This is a real world problem that requires real world solutions.
 
Irie (47:11)
The violence is very structural, very systemic. And because there’s just so much that’s tied up with, like finances, there is just-
 
Muhammad (47:20)
And privilege –
 
Irie (47:21)

– there’s no independence, there’s no safety if you don’t have your own money, ultimately. And that’s why we keep seeing this pattern of people just absolutely being pushed to the margins until they break. And the only way that many of those people get out is if they are able to stay employed and able to find their own place to live.
 
Muhammad (47:42)
It’s really about privilege and we’re just talking about this, but we haven’t been talking about sexual health. Right? A lot of deaths and over representation of HIV patients, for example, and people with STDs among the Muslim queer folks because there is a lack of sexual health and sexual information. Who is going to educate them? Your conservative Muslim parents are not going to educate you on sexual health. But let’s be real. People are sexually active. So you’re not being practical. You’re still on the idealistic reality notion that you just behave. This is the ideal, meet it. We are not perfect human beings and you’ll never meet that ideal. So what are you going to do about it? Emptiness. There’s no conversation that leads up to that, right? So like I said, there’s real world issues that require real world solutions, but there isn’t a space for it. So that’s why we try to facilitate this conversation. Try to provide resources, try to educate, not just empower, but also educate queer Muslims by just being their friend. So that’s why – we are not professionals. Maybe we have a social worker, but we’re not professionals – But the least that we could do is we are an informed friend. We might have a little bit more privilege for us to do this, because this takes privilege. It takes a lot of our time and our mental bandwidth and sleep and personal time from family, etc. To respond to requests. And you can’t respond to a query through DM while you are in a low emotional state, you have to be stable yourself, where you are still going through it yourself. As a queer Muslim we also have our own issues to deal with. We have family to deal with, right? So they should have been, there should have been a systemic support. But no, because why? People still want to talk about the – whether it’s possible to be gay and Muslim at the same time
 
Irie (49:43)
And forget the queer people for just 1 second, right? If you look at the issues within the Muslim community, like I mentioned earlier, there’s so much – sex ed is not robust at all. There’s so much to do with abuse and violence and there’s so much to talk about and address. But there are just no resources or no interest on really fulfilling the needs of the community as they are. So the only thing that we can do now is to decide, okay, as much as those issues are also important, we have to look within ourselves and we have to see that the queer Muslims need the most protection and we will do everything in our power to provide that.
 
Muhammad (50:25)
Actually, we do receive requests from heterosexual identifying Muslims, asking us about sexual questions and stuff relating to religion and interfaith marriages. But we have to push back and we have to say this is beyond our scope because our focus is just for queer Muslims, to be a peer support for queer Muslims. But we find that that is an indication.
 
Irie (50:50)
There’s still a demand.
 
Muhammad (50:50)
Yeah, there’s a demand for it. And because like Irie was saying, not addressing the Muslim community as they are rather than as they should be or how they should behave. That’s the problem. Then a lot of issues goes under the rug and then nothing gets addressed or you don’t want to address them because everything is still taboo. Which is very interesting because when we were looking at our resources, we’ve seen how sex positive Islam was. We basically discussed about every single thing, you get What I mean, like homoeroticism was the vogue of the medieval period. Right back then, the Europeans were the ones judging the Muslims, saying these are the Libertines, these are the ones who are not behaving themselves. God cursed them. Now it’s the other way around. It’s so funny how we are not able to discuss topics which were discussed back then so freely and openly in the malls and in open spaces. Things have changed, but we can’t wait. So that’s why we form Quasa, to bring back that culture of openness, empowerment, and education.
 
PJ Thum (52:06)
Ultimately the space you’re creating is fantastic. But what I’m hearing is there’s so much of it that’s just structural and beyond just queer Muslims. It’s about how Singapore is misogynistic. It’s economically exploitative. Neoliberal capitalism is destroying us. Authoritarianism is destroying us. And really what we need is to change the whole system. If everyone has rights, if we have a redistributive economy that treats people with dignity and respect, it feels like 90% of your problems would be dealt with.
 
Irie (52:40)
Pretty much. And that’s the thing. I think we also create Quasa because we recognise that the first step is the hardest, but we have to do it. And we hope that by creating Quasa, other queer, other Muslims, other whoever feel, okay, if they can do that, then we can also create our own communities and safe spaces because it’s the only form of resistance we have right now.
 
Muhammad (53:06)
People always caveat their questions. Thank you so much for existing because it means a lot to them that we are existing, right? That we are here acting for a better word, a catalyst for change, basically. And we are starting change and we are hoping that it will cause like a snowball effect. We might be limited to what we can do right now, but at least we are starting it and that’s what we aim for. Now that restrictions are lifted, we are hoping for more events, more community based offline events where we can meet each other and have actual discussions of religion and et cetera. We’re also trying to create more safe spaces for queer identifying Muslims to practice their religion. Right. So like I said, there’s also the issues of some queer identifying or queer, visibly queer Muslims not being able to practice freely in the mosque, et cetera, or ask certain questions in the mosque, etc. So that’s why we’re trying to provide – filling in the gaps, right.
 
PJ Thum (54:10)
Okay, so what are your future plans? You’ve mentioned more events. You have an Instagram page. Any other channels? Are you developing any other channels?
 
Muhammad (54:20)
We have Twitter.
 
Irie (54:21)
We are trying. But I think for us, Instagram is really where our resource library will be for now. We might look at a site, but we are really just building those resources first. Whether those are academic text or just like guides, manuals, instructions on how to perform a certain religious rite, those are the things that we are looking at. But as mentioned, I think we are doing these things called chapters where we want to basically welcome as many queer Muslims as we can, we vet all of them. And then we have a sort of orientation into what being clear in Singapore means. What tools do you need? And then guiding them through the mental health, the spiritual, the community aspect. And basically what we’re planning to do is groups of maybe eight people, I think, and this one group will follow the different chapter as it progresses so that they have and these are basically in person workshops that we’re conducting and opportunities together with community safely.
 
Muhammad (55:26)
The goal is to have them empower and inform about being queer and Muslims at the end of it. So that can happen, in fact, around their social circles because we can’t reach out to that many. Right.
 
Irie (55:39)
Equipping them with those tools and also with their own communities because we don’t want to be at the centre of it. We want you to see that. Okay. There are at least seven other people in my group, but across the community there are maybe five other groups. And so I know I don’t have to always go to Quasa directly like an authority. You form your own communities and then you go branch out and you do your own projects. Yeah.
 
Muhammad (56:03)
I mean, we started as friends. I started as friends because we realised there’s no friends. So we are hoping that and it’s easy to feel lonely and alone as a queer Muslim, especially in Singapore. So at least we are helping people to make friends with each other. Yeah.
 
PJ Thum (56:20)
Okay. This might be a stupid question, but is it possible to do LGBTQ friendly religious services? Because in the Christian community there’s at least one Church which is openly, very pro LGBTQ, started by the former Methodist Bishop. Is the same thing possible?
 
Muhammad (56:40)
It’s already been done across the globe in Australia, in London, in the States, in Singapore, it would be very difficult because of the religious authority here.
 
PJ Thum (56:53)
So you need licensing and things like that.
 
Muhammad (56:55)
Exactly. Yeah. You will need the Asatizah recognition scheme, certification for you to perform any religious services. However, we do have a number of queer friendly religious clerics, clergyman in Singapore. Recently, we had a Quran class which was facilitated by one of them. So that happens. But we do have to reach out to them personally. And there’s always a caveat or I don’t want to be published. Yes, of course. I don’t want my name anywhere.
 
Irie (57:29)
And it’s strange because it’s not like there aren’t queer Asatizahs or Ustads. Like, you know, there are queer Ustads and Asatizahs. They’re just not able to do that freely.
 
Muhammad (57:39)
But yeah, I think the need for it is being seen among the religious community. It’s a very slow progress and it will take time. And I think the point of this is as much as however long it will take, at least the needle is moving. At least something is mobile. I mean, not static. And we will wait. But as a historian  yourself, you could see that conservatism comes and goes. Humanity tends to venture towards a certain direction. Towards more justice, more equality, more fairness. You get what I mean. Lack of equality is just a temporary phase until something momentous occurs.
 
PJ Thum (58:26)
The arc of the universe is long but it tends towards justice.
 
Muhammad (58:30)
Exactly. So we are hoping for that.
 
PJ Thum (58:32)
Okay, so we’re out of time. The last question for people listening. If they want to reach out to you, if they want to get involved, how should they find you?
 
Irie (58:41)
So you can find us on Instagram and Twitter, QuasaSG and we’ve already started putting out queer spirituality surveys. We are looking at collecting more data to build our resources in our library. But we also will begin those chapters very soon. So stay tuned and then we will contact you through the forms and form responses if you’re interested.
 
PJ Thum (59:03)
Okay, fantastic. So thank you very much, Irie and Muhammad, for coming on Political Agenda today. Really appreciate it. I wish you all the best. We’ll have all those links for your stuff in the show notes. So if people want to reach out, they can reach out. And of course, thank you to you, our listener, for tuning in today. And as always, if you’ve enjoyed this, if you find this useful, please do join New Naratif as a member at newnaratif.com/join or donate at newnaratif.com/donate, we need you to keep our movement for democracy in Southeast Asia going. Thank you very much and see you next time. Bye!
 
Irie (59:37)
Thank you.
 
Muhammad (59:37)
Thank you.
 

Thum Ping Tjin

Thum Ping Tjin (“PJ”) is Managing Director of New Naratif and a historian at the University of Oxford. A Rhodes Scholar, Commonwealth Scholar, Olympic athlete, and the only Singaporean to swim the English Channel, his work centres on Southeast Asian governance and politics. His most recent work is Living with Myths in Singapore (Ethos: 2017, co-edited with Loh Kah Seng and Jack Chia). Reach him at pingtjin.thum@newnaratif.com.

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