LGBT Tourism: African Muslims Find Inspiration In Cape Town For ‘Compassion-Centered Islam’

LGBT Tourism: African Muslims Find Inspiration In Cape Town For ‘Compassion-Centered Islam’

The only country in Africa to allow same-sex marriage, South Africa is considered a haven for LGBT rights — especially Cape Town. It’s known as the continent’s playground for LGBT expression despite occasional homophobic attacks in the city’s townships, Religion News Service reported.

More than 120 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Muslim activists and allies gathered last week for a week-long annual international retreat in the Western Cape.

They focused on “building a movement towards an all-inclusive and compassion-centered Islam,” a huge task for people who live in countries where homosexuality and transgender expression are often taboo and criminalized.

Cape Town Imam Muhsin Hendricks founded The Inner Circle 20 years ago in his garage as a safe place for gay Muslims. These days, the annual gathering is a refuge for people ostracized by LGBT communities because of their Muslim faith and shunned by Muslim communities because of their sexual orientations or gender identities, RNS reported.

South Africa’s Dutch Reformed voted to recognize same-sex marriage in 2015, but the majority of Christian congregations oppose recognition for LGBT church members. The same goes for mosques.

Around 800,000 Muslims make up 1.5 percent of South Africa’s population, according to recent census estimates.

A lot of theologians attend the retreat, Hendricks said. That’s because “the current theology of Islam is very patriarchal,” he said. “We need to create an alternative voice that is strong enough to oppose the messages of condemnation.”

Abdullah, who used this name to protect his safety, runs an organization for LGBT Muslim youth in Tanzania, where same-sex sexual acts can lead to life imprisonment.

Amazigh runs an organization in Algeria called Collective Mahabba, which means spiritual love in Arabic.

Ani Zonneveld, founder and president of the Los Angeles-based Muslims for Progressive Values, spoke at the retreat. She identifies as Muslim and an ally of LGBT.

“When you speak truth and come from a place of love and care, that is how our movement grows,” she said. She told fellow participants that she exposes Islamophobia, homophobia and transphobia — prejudice against transgender or transsexual people — wherever she sees it.

“Media often paints all Muslims as homophobic, meaning queer Muslims rarely fit the media’s narrative,” she said. “As an ally, I’ve been able to call out Islamophobic LGBT community members in the United States.”

LGBT tourism in South Africa

LGBT tourism in South Africa is a form of niche tourism marketed to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people who visit South Africa.

Cape Town is the most popular destination for LGBT tourists in South Africa and is regarded as the gay capital of Africa, according to Harry Preston, a Dallas, Texas, author and screenwriter in 2004 when he wrote about returning to South Africa for a visit.

“I never dreamed the most beautiful city in the world had become the gay capital of Africa,” he wrote in Transitions Abroad.

Cape Town has hosted several annual festivals including the Cape Town Pride festival in February/March, the Mother City Queer Project in December, and the Out in Africa Film Festival in September/October. Other regional events include the Pink Loerie Mardi Gras in Knysna, Western Cape.

The South African constitution since 1994 has reflected a post-apartheid culture of tolerance, protecting the rights of people regardless of race, sex, religion or sexual preference.

SouthAfrica.net promotes Cape Town as “a tourist’s delight and caters for everyone, including the gay traveler.”

It promotes “a concentration of pink venues along the Atlantic seaboard. De Waterkant, on the outskirts of the city center, has been turned into a gay village.

“With its rocking nightlife, beautiful beaches and five-star accommodation, Cape Town is one of the top gay travel destinations in the world.

“The friendly city is filled with gay people who have chosen Cape Town as their home, not only because of its spectacular sights, but also because the people of Cape Town are generally liberal and welcoming.”

LGBT accounts for at least 6 percent of the global tourism market, but there’s a need for improved access and understanding of this consumer group around the world, according to Out Now Business Class, a website specializing in the LGBT travel market.

Awareness and interest in the market has increased, but the resource base has not kept pace with the increased need for businesses to understand how to better connect with their LGBT customers, according to Out Now.

In 2013, Out Now Business Class named Cape Town one of the top 20 gay travel destinations.

Cape Town’s famous Clifton Beach has four beaches separated by huge, ancient boulders. Each beach has its distinctive personality, and third beach is gay, according to SouthAfrica.info.

South Africa markets Cape Town as the perfect wedding destination with an entire industry dedicated to organizing weddings on wine farms, at hotels, on yachts and on Table Mountain.

The Mother City Queer Project in December is the biggest themed costume party in Africa.

Cape Town is listed among the Top 10 Gay and Lesbian Vacations in Africa and the Middle East, according to Chicago-based iexplore, an adventure and experiential travel website.

Other favorite African destinations for gay and lesbian vacations include the following:

  • Johannesburg, South Africa, where a thriving gay scene centers around the Heartland, a revitalized district with loads of gay friendly hotels, bars, clubs, and cafes.
  • Seychelles Islands. “These posh resort islands don’t care who you are to enjoy them, just as long as you can afford the airfare and luxury resorts,” iexplore reported.
  • Cairo, Egypt: “When not visiting the Pyramids, gay tour groups are exploring the markets and nightlife of Cairo, which has a small gay scene dominated by a steady flow of tourists. Homosexuality here is a criminal offence, however.”
  • Serengeti National Park, Tanzania: “Two world heritage sites and a biosphere reserve are found within this system of parks that hold the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Maswa Game Reserve, and the Loliondo, Grumeti and Ikorongo Controlled Areas. One of the oldest ecosystems on Earth and where more than a million wildebeests and 200,000 zebras migrate each year, also a major stop for gay tours in Africa.”
  • Masai Mara Wildlife Reserve, Kenya: “One of the most popular big game reserves is visited by … numerous gay tour groups. The Masai Mara is Kenya’s largest game reserve and best known for its lions, black rhinos, cheetahs, and hippos.”

Originally from Zimbabwe, Shehnilla Mohamed works in Johannesburg with the human rights and advocacy organization OutRight Action International.

A Muslim ally at the The Inner Circle retreat, she identifies as a nonconforming Muslim woman.

“Being here is about reclaiming my Muslim identity and being able to construct it in a way that resonates in my soul,” she told Religion News Service.

Here’s what Mohamed said she’s learned from her experiences in Southern Africa:

Too many leaders in Africa use LGBT and intersex people as “punching bags and scapegoats” to distract the public from government “failures in being able to provide people with basic rights.” She accuses some religious leaders of doing the same.

“Religious fundamentalists use the LGBTI issue not only to gain favor with politicians, but also to push their own hate agenda,” she said. “While we’ve made huge progress in advancing LGBTI rights, we still have a way to go, especially with regards to religion and the role it plays.”

Cape Town is full of gay people who have chosen the city as their home, not only for its beauty but also because the people of Cape Town are generally liberal and welcoming, SouthAfrica.info says by way of promoting tourism.

Hendricks operates Masjidul Umam in Cape Town. Gay men and women can speak freely from the minbar or pulpit — unusual in most mosques.

“I don’t really identify as gay. I’m just a man who happens to be in love with another man,” Hendricks told RNS. “I’m a multiplicity of complexities and a vast ocean of possibilities. God created me, but he ain’t finished with me yet.”

After 20 years of spiritual activism and 14 annual retreats, The Inner Circle still has work to do building a movement toward an all-inclusive and compassion-centered Islam, he said.