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date: 29 March 2023

Muslims and Sexual Diversity in North Americafree

Muslims and Sexual Diversity in North Americafree

  • David RaysideDavid RaysideDepartment of Political Science, University of Toronto


In many respects, the sizeable Muslim populations in the United States and Canada have integrated well into the social and political mainstream. Most of them are first-generation immigrants, and face Islamophobic prejudice based on race as well as religious affiliation. Still, they are a comparatively well-educated population, and identify strongly with the countries they now call home.

Exploring the response of these communities to sexual diversity, and to growing claims for recognition by queer Muslims themselves, goes to the heart of questions about the place of this growing community in North American settings. This inevitably raises questions about gender relations within those communities, in part because discrimination against Muslims is often justified with reference to their adherence to what are thought to be unchanging patriarchal values. Doubts about social and cultural integration are easily intensified by the racialized “otherness” of Muslim populations in the West generally, and these two North American countries in particular.

The Pew Research Center in the United States and the Environics Institute in Canada have conducted surveys of the Muslim populations in their countries, permitting a comparison of attitudes in those communities with those in the general population, and in some cases also providing a view of cross-country differences. What this polling reveals is that Muslims are on balance more politically progressive than non-Muslim populations, and are strongly averse to supporting conservative parties. However, it also reveals relatively negative views of homosexuality, and this is echoed in the public statements, or silence, of the largest Muslim advocacy groups. The strength of such views owes much to the fact that the majority of North American Muslims have emigrated from regions of the world where such opinions are deeply embedded in social and cultural life. Traditionalist views of gender and sexuality are also reinforced by high levels of religiosity, which in other faith currents is also associated with what might be called traditionalist views of family. In the case of Muslims, their religious leadership in Muslim communities remains almost unanimous in its condemnation of homosexuality as an example of “Western” permissiveness. Mosque life, too, retains important elements of gender inequity.

There are, however, important indications of change, induced in part by the urban environments where the great majority of Muslims live, and the increasing willingness of queer Muslims to assert their presence within their ethno-religious communities as well as in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) networks. Younger Muslims are more inclined than their elders to hold inclusive attitudes, particularly if they have been educated in North America. In the United States, too, the latest of the Pew surveys has shown an important overall shift toward more LGBTQ-positive attitudes. This is in part a result of Muslims’ recognition that exclusionary attitudes on issues related to sexuality are often held by those who are also harbor Islamophobic views, and that policies designed to protect one community are also necessary to protect them.


  • Islamic Studies

An exploration of how Muslims in the United States and Canada have responded to sexual diversity, and to growing claims for recognition by queer Muslims themselves, goes to the heart of questions about the place of this growing community in North American social and political life. Such an analysis requires understanding the role of faith in communities made up primarily of first-generation immigrants, largely coming from regions of the world in which religious authorities almost universally dismiss the very idea of “queer Muslim.” North American Muslims are now in settings where there is much more social and political recognition of sexual diversity, if still contested. In both countries under consideration here, there are also politicians and media voices declaring that Muslims are incapable of full integration because they are ensnared in unchangingly patriarchal religious beliefs.

By the end of the 21st century’s second decade, Muslims have come to represent significant and well-established minorities in North America. They have roots extending back to the 19th century, and large-scale immigration since the early 1990s has vastly increased their numbers to 3.5 million in the United States (just over 1 percent of the population) and close to 1.5 million in Canada (4 percent of the total). This alone makes them a visible presence in both countries, especially since they are so often scrutinized as a suspect “other”—a product of age-old Christian prejudice against Islam and continuing portrayals of Muslims as holding values antithetical to Western norms.1 What complicates the present analysis is that there are also prominent voices within Muslim communities asserting that Islam is in fact distinctive in its treatment of both gender and sexuality.

Even in the face of discrimination, Muslims in both countries have integrated comparatively well. Whether native born or immigrant, they have relatively high education levels, and most have acquired citizenship or are moving swiftly toward that status. They are politically engaged, and successfully run for political office. In their attitudes, they identify strongly with the countries they now live in, with opinions that fit well within the political mainstream.2

Within communities much beleaguered and scrutinized, there is an understandable reluctance to publicly discuss issues which reveal internal discord. And if taking up such issues reveals a current of social conservatism in Muslim communities, such findings can feed stereotypes of Islam as homogeneously archaic. The mandate of this analysis, however, is precisely to explore questions related to both sexuality and gender in a way that wards off prejudicial treatments of Islam as a monolith and of Muslims as unchanging in their approach to such issues. It will show that patriarchal norms are frequently contested in North American Muslim families, even if mosque life continues to marginalize women. On questions of sexual diversity, and specifically homosexuality, conservative responses are widespread, here too backed by almost unbroken wall of condemnation from religious leaders. However, there are signs of change, particularly in the United States, and among younger Muslims in both countries.

Social and Political Contexts

Canada and the United States have social and political similarities that are important for this analysis. Each has a history of appropriating Indigenous territory, either by force or through treaties disadvantageous to the original inhabitants. After early colonial settlement, each country accepted large waves of immigration from the 19th century on, contributing to what Americans refer to as a “melting pot” and Canadians as a “mosaic,” with distinctive ethnic attachments long prominent in each. In Canada, population growth was fueled overwhelmingly by immigration from Europe until the last quarter of the 20th century. From that point on, however, immigration policy prioritized education and skills associated with economic growth, at the same time as it eliminated the most explicitly discriminatory policies, dramatically increasing the number of newcomers from outside Europe. This also happened in the United States, significantly increasing the ethno-racial and religious diversity of immigrants. In both countries, these changes have led to major increases in the Muslim populations of both countries, with roots in a wide range of countries—mostly South Asian or Arab-dominated. About one-quarter of American Muslims are African American; in Canada just under 10 percent of Muslims are black.

There are contextual factors that amplify opportunities for the politicization of immigration and the extent to which Muslims are welcomed. The United States has a long history of immigration from Latin America, including Mexico, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. This has not only shifted the ethno-racial mix in the United States, but has added to popular (and populist) anxieties about “unregulated” immigration. Canadian borders are more isolated than the American from potential sources of undocumented migrants, leaving less room for the politicization of immigration.3 Another contrast between these two countries is that the superpower status of the United States has translated into decades of military and political entanglement with the Middle East. Canada also has a long record of engagement in that region, but of much less moment than the American, and with fewer repercussions for domestic politics. This difference increases the political mobilization of sentiments linking Islamic extremism abroad with Muslim American communities. Examples of such linkage can be found in Canada, but not as commonly, and less often within the political mainstream.

Canada now has annual rates of immigration significantly higher than the United States. According to United Nations (UN) data, international migrants constituted 22 percent of the Canadian population in 2017, up from 18 percent in 2000, compared to the United States with 15 percent in 2017 and 12 percent in 2000.4 From the 1980s on, no Canadian federal government has pursued policies aimed at reducing that number or shifting the global sources of immigration. Support for regularized and controlled immigration remains relatively high in the United States as well, but with a much stronger political animus directed at undocumented migrants, and with more fuel available for anti-Muslim immigration policy.

The two political systems have major institutional differences that have impacts on Muslim political organizing and on community responses to sexual diversity. The Canadian is a parliamentary system with much political power concentrated in the offices of the federal prime minister and the premiers of the thirteen provinces and territories. This helps advocacy groups when parties sympathetic to their cause are in power, but shuts them out almost entirely when that is not the case, reducing the incentives and capacity for interest group development.5 Although the US federation is more centralized than the Canadian, the separation of powers means that policymaking within the national and state capitals is more fragmented than north of the border, creating more incentives for advocacy networks (e.g., in the Muslim community) to develop stable and skillful interest groups, and to adopt norms about building policy coalitions among other equity-seeking groups.

Beyond the structural frameworks, what is especially important for the purpose of this article is that the American two-party system became more polarized from the early 1980s, and even more so in the first two decades of the 21st century, evident not only in the policy differences in federal and state legislatures, but in the views of each party’s electorate.6 There are some elements of polarization in the Canadian party system at the federal level and some provinces, but a far cry from what has happened in the United States.7 Polarization is amplified by the prominence of religious faith in the United States, and in particular by the strength of religious conservatism. Americans in general attach much more significance to religion that is typical in the industrialized world, and certainly more than Canadians.8 Conservative religious communities have constituted an important part of the electoral coalition of the Republican Party in the United States since the 1970s, and this has helped reinforce policy polarization on a range of issues.

Queer and Feminist Muslim Visibility

For decades, Muslim women in the West have highlighted gender inequities arising from discrimination within and beyond their own communities, and in so doing have challenged the view that Islam itself is unchangingly unmodern.9 Since the early 2000s, there have also been reports and commentaries on the disadvantageous position of women within mosques and Islamic centers. In 2005, Amina Wadud, a highly respected professor of Islamic Studies in the United States, delivered the khutbah and led the prayer for Friday services.10 Thirteen years later, in 2019, a women’s mosque was inaugurated in Toronto, largely as a reaction to unchanging gender inequity in established mosques.11 Even if actions such as these have had only modest impact on everyday practice, some critiques on gender inequity have found at least rhetorical support within mainstream Muslim political groups.12 Support going beyond the tokenist can also be found within explicitly inclusive groups such as the Los Angeles-based Muslims for Progressive Values and the Canadian Council of Muslim Women.

By the same token, the visibility of Muslims identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) complicates the view, as Momin Rahman puts it, that there is a “fundamental cultural opposition” between Islam and “modernity” in general, and the acceptance of sexual diversity in particular.13 Even more than in the case of women’s advocacy, such queer voices challenge assertions that Muslims are ill-disposed toward “Western values,” and the complexity of their social, cultural, and religious identities potentially challenges the view that American and European LGBTQ perspectives have universal application. At the same time, queer Muslim visibility confronts claims by Muslim community leaders that the sexual diversity represented by such voices is exclusive to the West or is entirely a product of Western influences.

LGBT Muslims interviewed by Rahman and his colleagues recognize that their own ethnocultural communities hold negative views of sexual diversity, a view echoed in published work in other Western countries.14 More often than not, however, they are reluctant to separate themselves from kinship networks, and overwhelmingly they retain a strong identification as Muslim—as one respondent put it “an inescapable reality.”15 Although many abandon even a pretense of practicing their faith, others struggle with reshaping the tenets of their faith, aided in this by online resources or groups like the Toronto-based Salaam. This creates openings for expressions of sexuality outside of the heterosexual norm that might otherwise be viewed as external and foreign to Muslim communities.

Queer Muslim voices have been emboldened in North America by the important legal and political gains secured by radical and mainstream LGBTQ advocacy.16 This is less evident on some policy fronts, for example trans issues, and the change in some sectors like schooling varies considerably from one location to another. Formal political rights, and their support by increasingly large margins of the population, also may have less reach into socially and economically marginalized populations than among the comparatively advantaged. Still, the importance of the change that has occurred cannot be denied. Policy shifts arrived more quickly in Canada, particularly in the 1990s, but increased formal recognition and public acceptance during that and subsequent decades have been remarkable in both countries. The major difference between the two countries is that the formal recognition of LGBT rights is now considered largely “settled” in Canada, while remaining politically contested by a large swath of the US Republican Party, aggressively encouraged by a major current of White Evangelical Protestantism. Even in the face of such resistance, LGBTQ advocacy has had an immense impact on American politics, and the work of queer Muslim advocates has to be understood in that context.

Muslim Attitudes to Gender and Sexual Diversity

Within social and political environments in which advocacy on behalf of women and sexual minorities is in some respects normalized, what evidence is there of attitudes on gender and sexuality held by North American Muslims themselves? In taking up this question, it is key to draw from important surveys of Muslim populations undertaken by the Pew Research Center in the United States (2007, 2011, 2017) and the Environics Institute in Canada (2007, 2016).17 The findings from these polls are augmented by evidence from a few general population surveys with large enough sample sizes to allow the analysis of Muslim-specific attitudes, most notably by the Washington-based Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI).18

What can be learnt from these is that Muslims in both countries are, broadly speaking, more progressive than the general population, but more conservative on questions related to sexual diversity. In other words, there is a sizeable portion of Muslim progressives who retain traditionalist views on questions such as these, while in the rest of the population such “disconnection” is a rarity.

Pew’s 2017 survey of US Muslims showed that there is a much lower proportion of American Muslims describing themselves as politically conservative than other Americans (21 v. 36 percent), and roughly the same saying they were “liberal” (30 v. 28). When faced with a choice between wanting a “bigger government with more services” and a smaller one with fewer services, two-thirds of Muslim Americans chose the former, compared with 48 percent in the general public. North of the border, Christopher Cochrane cites evidence that Canadian Muslims are the least inclined of any significant religious group to support the statement that “government is doing too many things that should be left to businesses and individuals.”19 In both countries, strong majorities shun right-wing parties, in Canada only 2 percent supporting the federal Conservative Party and in the United States only 13 percent supporting the Republicans.20

There is only a little survey evidence on Muslims attitudes to gender-related issues. When in 2016 Environics asked Canadian Muslims if taking care of home and children was as much man’s work as woman’s work, 76 percent totally agreed, though at the same time 40 percent agreed that “the father in the family must be master in his own house,” compared with 21 percent agreement in the general population. On abortion, a 2018 survey by the PRRI found that American Muslims did not differ noticeably from the general public, with 38 percent and 40 percent supporting the view that the procedure should be illegal in all or most cases.21 On this question, therefore, Muslim Americans were dramatically less pro-choice than White Evangelicals, among whom 65 percent supported that position. Canadian survey evidence from 2006 indicates that Muslims are more likely (33 percent) to believe that abortion should be illegal in most or all cases than other religious groups (24 percent of Protestants, 18 percent of Catholics, 3 percent of Jews), though, as in the United States, they were much less commonly of that view than Evangelicals.22

With regard to sexual diversity, however, there are much more significant gaps between Muslims and the general population, illustrated by responses to questions posed in the Pew and Environics surveys.23 As the data in Table 1 show, only 36 percent of Canadian Muslims agreed that “homosexuality should be accepted by society,” compared to 80 percent in the general population. In reacting to another survey item, 57 percent of Muslims said “no” to the question “do you think it should be possible to be both an observant Muslim and to live openly in a lesbian or gay same-sex relationship.”

Table 1. Muslim and General Population Attitudes to Homosexuality in North America “Homosexuality Should Be Accepted by Society”

Canadians % Agree:




Gen. Pop.




Age: 18–34



Higher education



Low faith **



Americans % Agree:





Gen. Pop.


Gen. Pop.


Gen. Pop.








Age: 18–36







Higher education







Religion less important ***




Note: * This question was not posed in the general population survey taken at the time of the Muslim survey. ** For the Canadian survey of Muslims, “low faith” means that the respondent prays “rarely” or “never.” In the general population survey, it designates respondents saying they never prayed, or did so less than once a week. *** For the US survey, “low faith” means responses other than “religion is very important” in a respondent’s life.

Source: Canadian Muslim data are from the 2016 Environics survey; Canadian general public data are from Pew, “The Global Divide on Homosexuality,” June 4, 2013. US data are from the 2007, 2011, and 2017 reports on surveys of American Muslims.

The 2006 Canadian survey did not ask about the acceptability of homosexuality, so there is no precise way of tracking change in attitudes over that decade. But that earlier survey did ask if “society should regard people of the same sex who live together as being the same as a married couple.” Fifty-eight percent of the Muslim respondents disagreed strongly, more than twice the 25 percent of the general population who responded as categorically. Public opinion data analyzed by Cochrane (from 2006 to 2011) showed that of all religious groups in Canada Muslims were, by far, most likely to reject the concept of formally recognizing same-sex relationships through marriage or civil unions.24

In the United States, the Pew surveys show that Muslims are more sexually traditional than the general population, using the same question on the acceptability of homosexuality as Environics used in Canada. Note, too, that the social conservatism evident here is in comparison to an overall US population response that is noticeably more conservative than the Canadian. Pew’s 2019 Religious Landscape Study shows similar results on same-sex marriage, with Muslim support (42 percent) significantly lower than Catholic and mainline Protestant (both at 57 percent), though higher than support among Black Protestants (40 percent) and Evangelical Protestants (28 percent).25

Survey evidence of this sort comes as no surprise to Muslims themselves. It has already been noted that queer Muslims who have written on their experience, and others interviewed by various scholars including Rahman and his colleagues, see their own ethno-religious communities as conservative on this front. One American Muslim who has closely analyzed his own community has admitted that his support for same-sex marriage puts him in a fringe of 5 to 10 percent of the community.26

Are there any indications of an attitude shift on this most taboo of subjects? In both countries, Table 1 shows that younger Muslims are more LGBT-positive than their elders, flagging a potential for an overall shift in attitudes resulting from generational replacement—a topic which will be addressed in the section “The Question of Generational Change.” Just as striking are strong indications of attitude change evident in the 2017 Pew survey of American Muslims. This substantially reduces the gap between the percentage agreement on the acceptability of homosexuality between Muslims and the general American population from 24 percent in 2007 to 11 percent in 2017. This too is addressed in the “Specifically American Change?” section of this article.

Socially Conservative Countries of Muslim Community Origin

In searching for an explanation of sexual conservatism among North American Muslims, the first factor worthy of detailed consideration is that a majority of those communities have migrated from countries where the general public is overwhelmingly antithetical to the public recognition of sexual diversity. The Pew Research Center’s 2013 Global Attitudes Survey of thirty-nine countries included a few of the most important of such countries of origin, including Pakistan, Indonesia, and Egypt, and show that affirming responses to their question on the acceptance of homosexuality come from only 2–3 percent of the population.27 Those who might argue that this is an excessively narrow measure would be hard-pressed to uncover any evidence to the contrary.28

In Canada, almost 70 percent of the Muslim community was born outside the country. About 35 percent (of all Muslims) have roots in South Asia; 25 percent in the Arab world; 13 percent in West Asia (including Iran); and 9 percent are from either the Caribbean or sub-Saharan Africa.29 In the United States, almost 60 percent are first-generation immigrants, and of the total Muslim population, the countries of origin are largely areas just as sexually traditional as in Canada. Twenty percent have roots in South Asia; 14 percent in North Africa or the Middle East; 6 percent in Iran; 7 percent are from other parts of Asia; and 5 percent from sub-Saharan Africa.30

Distinctive to the United States is a sizeable population of African American Muslims, constituting a quarter of the total. There is no survey evidence fine-grained enough to explore their views on sexuality, but the comparatively high levels of moral disapproval of homosexuality among African Americans in general suggest that Muslims among them have views similar to those of other Muslims.31 The virulent homophobia propagated by the Nation of Islam, the most prominent of early African American Muslim groups, reinforces that conclusion.

The sexual conservatism of the countries where most North American Muslims were born goes some distance to explaining the antipathy to open expressions of sexual diversity, and to the susceptibility of Muslims to the characterization of homosexuality as a form of Western permissiveness. The histories of Muslim-majority countries are replete with poetic and lyrical depictions of same-sex desire, but there is little if any acknowledgment of that in the contemporary social and political life of those settings. Likewise, the extent of male homosexual activity in even the most puritanical of Muslim-majority countries is kept thoroughly distanced from public view except for the punishments meted out to transgressors.

One imperfect measure of the influence of roots in sexually conservative regions of the globe lies in the differences in attitudes between immigrant Muslims and those born in North America. In Canada, the 2016 Environics survey does in fact show an important shift, with 54 percent of the native-born agreeing that homosexuality should be accepted, compared to 30 percent of those born abroad. The US surveys indicate less contrast, though the 2017 results show that native-born respondents are 8 percent more likely than the foreign-born to be accepting of homosexuality.

The importance of being born in one of these two countries is reinforced by higher levels of education achieved. The surveys used here show that education makes little difference overall in attitudes to sexual diversity, but Christopher Cochrane argues that what matters in the Canadian case is obtaining higher education in Canada—an argument that almost certainly applies with equal force in the United States.32 Highly educated Muslims born in North America, almost all of them presumably educated on this continent, are much more accepting of homosexuality than those who have their roots abroad, many of whom received their education prior to leaving.

Conservative Religiosity

Across faith traditions, high levels of religious devotion are strongly associated with moral condemnations of homosexuality and support for traditional gender roles in both Canada and the United States.33 Central to understanding the strength of sexual conservatism among Muslims, then, is a recognition of the importance of religion for those communities. In the United States, 65 percent of Muslims say that religion is very important in their lives, and 43 percent attend religious services at least once a week. In the distinctively religious context of American society, these figures are only fractionally different from the US average, but they still help explain the conservatism found, and in particular if there are indications that the scriptural lessons they receive are undisrupted by reformist currents.

The American data do show that secularization creates a certain opening for more inclusive attitudes to homosexuality, with a gap in agreement on the acceptability of homosexuality between those for whom religion was very important and others being as high as 28 percent in 2007. That gap declined to 15 percent in the 2017 survey, a point which is taken up in the section “Specifically American Change?” Among Canadian Muslims, 48 percent report attending religious services at least weekly, a level much higher than the Canadian norm of about 15 percent. Interestingly, attendance rates are higher among Muslims born in Canada, suggesting an increased attachment to Islam. Regular attendance at religious services is associated with significantly more support for the statement that homosexuality should not be accepted (51 percent), compared to the 38 percent agreement among those who attend more rarely or never.

But as Cochrane points out, what is unusual in this community is that relatively secular Muslims are more strongly rejecting of homosexuality than their secular cousins in other religious traditions.34 In sorting through this, it is important to note how strongly community members identify as Muslim even if they do not invest much in the practice of their faith. In the United States, the 2017 Pew survey showed that, 80 percent feel a strong tie to the Muslim community, and three-quarters feel tied to the Muslim ummah (global community). Among Canadian Muslims, 84 percent responded to the 2016 survey by saying that being Muslim was a very important part of their identity. This creates the potential for religiously infused beliefs to have a “reach” beyond those who attach importance to faith itself.

In both countries, the recentness of immigration contributes to the maintenance of high rates of Muslim attendance at religious services, and perhaps even to a certain defensiveness of faith traditions in the face of Islamophobic prejudice. For Muslims as well as for many other migrant communities, faith-related institutions are also among the most visible institutions offering social and employment connections, as well as offering a mechanism for preserving cultural traditions and transmitting them to children.35

The beliefs of the Muslim communities’ religious leadership are of obvious significance in maintaining sexual traditionalism. Mosque life in North America is still marked by gender inequity, even in the face of concerted critique. The slowness of change comes partly from the persistent pattern of recruiting imams from Muslim-majority countries. This is an important theme in a Canadian study published by Karim Karim in 2009, which noted that Muslims regularly found their mosque leaders to be drawn from entirely different social and cultural milieux, and frequently shaped by rigid interpretations of Islam especially unsuited to the new environment.36 In a 2004 article, Amir Hussain drew from his Canadian and American contacts in discussing disillusionment at the insensitivity of imams trained in Mecca or Cairo to issues relevant to North American Muslims.37

Another factor reinforcing sexual traditionalism is that it can easily become a marker of faith among those willing to compromise on other scriptural tenets. This has, after all, been a powerful enough tendency among conservative Christians who roundly condemn homosexuality but who sidestep other proscriptions in the scriptures to which they pay homage.38 For Islamic religious leaders in North America, unequivocal condemnation of homosexuality can be used to mark out Islam’s supposed distinctiveness, and its rejection of Western or North American sexual permissiveness.39 There is also a temptation to use traditional gender norms in the same way, though tempered by a recognition of the risk of dividing Muslim communities and of reinforcing anti-Islamic prejudice. At a time when resisting public policy recognition of sexual diversity, particularly in relation to trans rights, is still commonplace, especially in the United States, condemning homosexuality is tempting. Religious defensiveness may be increased when Western governments criticize the repression of sexual minorities in the Global South (including Muslim-majority countries).

Another source of resistance to change comes from the global influence of a particularly conservative strand of Islam prominent in the Arab world that still secure currency in North America because of the authenticity associated with the training of spiritual leaders in the Arabic language. Under that broad Arabic umbrella, puritanical traditionalism is nurtured in part by Saudi Arabian influence, propelled in part by the resources available to that regime in spreading the very conservative Wahhabi view of Islam. El-Farouk Khaki, a queer Muslim activist in Toronto, has publicly argued that “oil has contaminated our religion and our spirituality.”40

A few small colleges have begun offering seminary options in North America, the most prominent being Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California. These institutions may well offer some opening to more equitable views on gender, but it is not clear that they offer much in the way of inclusive views of sexual diversity, since their concerns about legitimacy within their own communities may restrain them from moving too far ahead of what their leaders perceive to be the community norm. In 2011, Hamza Yusuf, Zaytuna’s president, asserted that Islamic law recognized the possibility of homosexual attraction, but absolutely condemned acting on it, equating action in response to that “impulse” as equivalent to stealing.41 As late as 2016, he argued that Islamic tradition was such that “the vast majority of Muslims would never accept the lawfulness of an active homosexual lifestyle.”42 A similar view was expressed by British-Swiss Muslim academic Tariq Ramadan, often seen as a reformer. In 2009, he pointed out that a rejection of homosexuality was characteristic of all major religious traditions, but implicitly claimed that Islam was distinctive in that it would never change its position, arguing that calls for revising its understandings represented an imposition of colonialist opinions of outsiders.43

The Silence of Mainstream Religious and Political Groups

The American-based Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) is often referred to as the largest Islamic group on the continent, and while its focus is primarily spiritual, its size and reach often provide it with a political voice. That voice is broadly conservative in respect to gender, despite the fact they elected a woman as president in 2006.44 There is certainly no significant movement on LGBT issues, and as late as 2017, organizers at its North American convention ejected a booth sponsored by Muslims for Progressive Values and the Human Rights Campaign, focused on LGBT issues.45

Among groups with an explicitly political mandate, the most prominent by far is the Council on American–Islamic Relations (CAIR). CAIR was established in 1994 and now is represented by a substantial office in Washington as well as chapters in about twenty states, with a total full-time staff complement of more than 100. It is a cautious organization, avoiding issue positions that might divide its constituencies. It has been willing to sign on to reports on gender inequity in American mosques, but it still regards sexual diversity as riskily controversial. CAIR has shown some willingness to support LGBT-inclusive legislative proposals in Washington, DC, in large part because the American capital is a political arena in which alliance building is essential. For example, in 2009, when the US Congress was debating the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity in hate crimes law, CAIR lent its support, not least because of a recognition that the LGBT community has been, in the words of one close observer, “one of the great supporters of the rights of the Muslim community.”46 CAIR’s willingness to support that legislation, however, produced a significant internal backlash, which seems to have firmly entered the group’s institutional memory. As late as 2014, its headquarters staff in Washington acknowledged the feelings of “at least” discomfort with homosexuality in the vast majority of Islamic religious institutions across the country, and in almost all of its local branches.47

Another of the most prominent groups is the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), first based in Los Angeles before becoming an effective national institution. Its total full-time staff is around ten, with part-time staff taking the total close to twenty. Its focus is on domestic public policy, and in changing the public perception of American Muslims, leaving to groups like CAIR the tracking of individual hate crimes or using the courts to challenge discrimination. Widely perceived as more progressive than CAIR and ISNA, it took up women’s rights from early on. Its progressiveness, however, is less explicit on sexual diversity, with a caution born of wariness about moving “too far ahead” of a community in which they recognize that homosexuality is still a largely “taboo” subject.48

A similar pattern is evident in Canada. The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) is the highest-profile political advocacy group with a cross-country mandate—born in 2000 as a Canadian version of CAIR. Canada’s smaller population and its political decentralization make it harder to maintain significant group presence in Ottawa, and as a result NCCM has only about three full-time staff members. The limitations on its resources means that it has only modest visibility beyond those already engaged in local or regional advocacy, and especially so in French-speaking Quebec. Still, a 2012 analysis of Canadian Muslim group visibility showed that the group had been cited thousands of times across the Canadian media, and a 2012 search of Google’s metric archive showed over one hundred thousand “hits”—the highest number of any Muslim group in Canada.49 It also has an extensive record of intervening in federal policy debates and high-profile provincial ones.

As found in Washington, the NCCM remains largely silent on sexual diversity issues. Its human rights frame, and frequent references to the Canadian Charter of Rights, means that it avoids criticizing LGBT-inclusive policies that are backed by Charter interpretation, and yet like its US counterparts it seems to want to avoid being too far “ahead” of the constituencies it claims to represent.50 When in 2015 the Ontario government reintroduced an LGBT-inclusive sex education curriculum that had earlier been withdrawn after conservative protests, there were many Muslim opponents who wanted the NCCM to intervene, but instead it remained on the sidelines.51

The Question of Generational Change

Among Muslim adults there are conflicting views on the religious leanings of their young people. When Canadian respondents were asked by Environics if Muslim youth were more or less religious than their parents, 15 percent said “more religious,” while 38 percent said “less” and 23 percent said “about the same.” Young respondents themselves were somewhat more attached to religious identity than their elders, though neither more nor less likely than others to attend religious centers for prayer. Peter Beyer has pointed to a “sharpening Muslim and Islamic self-consciousness” as a strong current in Canadian second-generation youth, but that this does not necessarily translate into adherence to the religious practices of earlier generations.52 His work, as well as that of Paul Eid in Montreal, suggests that young people are more likely to have a selective interpretation of Islam, a trend observed in Europe by Jocelyne Cesari, who sees Muslim youth developing forms of “religious” belief that combine individualism, “increasingly choosing which tenets and rules . . . they will recognize and which they will ignore.”53

This often does not prefigure an inclusive approach to sexual diversity. Canadian scholar Haideh Moghissi and colleagues see among many young people an idealized Islam that is more “unforgiving” and “intolerant” than the faith of their elders.54 This dovetails with the empirically based observations of Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart of Muslim-majority countries, where they find younger generations as traditional on values related to gender equity and sexual liberalization as their elders.55 One study of young Canadian Muslims who were most involved in their faith emphasized restricted sexual behavior as a core element of Islam, and as a vehicle for setting them apart from “the secular and permissive society around them.”56 When asked about the possibility of being both an observant Muslim and living openly in a lesbian or gay relationship, only 32 percent of the Canadian sample’s youngest cohort said that this was possible, while 50 percent that this was not. (Such assessments may, of course, reflect a realistic assessment of the community’s religious leadership rather than the respondents’ own sentiments.) Many young queer Muslims dissent from this view, but at the same time recognize that their views clash either with crucial tenets of Islam or the views that prevail in mosque leadership. Wim Peumans interviewed queer Muslims in Belgium and found that almost all saw homosexuality as categorically forbidden by Islam.57

Still, surveys conducted by Environics and Pew provide at least some indications of important generational change. Respondents under the age of thirty-five were significantly more likely than older people to say that homosexuality should be accepted by society. In the United States, 60 percent of the youngest cohort agreed that homosexuality should be accepted, a major jump from the 45 percent agreement in the next cohort, and of course more than the oldest (42 percent). Among Canadians, agreement was 47 percent in the youngest age group, here too a good deal higher than the next age group (34 percent) and the oldest (31 percent). A similar pattern can be found in Britain, where support for same-sex marriage among respondents eighteen to twenty-four years of age was significantly higher than among Muslims as a whole (25 versus 15 percent), even if much lower than young Britons overall (79 percent).58 Generational change has been an important driver of the dramatic overall shift in population attitudes to sexual diversity, and Muslim communities are not much different.

Shifts in Political Advocacy

The most important stimulus to a shift in attitudes among Muslims, and in the political positions taken by groups claiming to represent them, is the increasing visibility of queer Muslims themselves, and the formation of explicitly queer Muslim groups. Al-Fatiha was one such group in the United States, and since then there have been various local groups and networks linking queer Muslims. The Toronto-based group Salaam is now the most established of these, first established in 1991 but then more firmly in 2000. It has advocated recognition of the queer presence within Canada’s Muslim communities, and the Muslim presence within the broader LGBTQ community. It is closely linked to the Unity Mosques that have arisen in a few Canadian cities, and its weekly broadcast of Friday prayers extends its reach further. It also hosts an annual Peace Iftaar during Ramadan that attracts between 150 and 300 people.

The longer-term capacity of queer activists in North America to nudge their ethno-religious communities toward more inclusive attitudes is strengthened by the extent to which American and especially Canadian law recognizes sexual diversity. There are important exceptions and there are sexual minority communities only marginally affected by formal rights. Nevertheless, legal and constitutional frameworks that do include sexuality, and to some extent gender diversity, can provide a useful source of rhetorical leverage by queer Muslims.59

Beyond explicitly queer advocacy networks, Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV) is now the most prominent American group assertively supportive of LGBT rights as well as gender equity. Founded in 2006 with a Los Angeles base, MPV operates on a shoestring budget, and is sometimes dismissed by mainstream Muslim leaders as “marginal” or “little more than a footnote.”60 But it has had a sizeable presence in mainstream media, and does not hesitate to criticize mainstream Muslim institutions for being exclusionary.

There is nothing quite equivalent to MPV in Canada, though there have been attempts to establish one. In Quebec, the Association des Musulmans et des Arabes pour la Laïcité au Québec (AMAL-Quebec) has been willing to support inclusive LGBT policies, but it is a small group that has compromised its support within the Muslim community by supporting limits on the wearing of religious symbols enacted by the Quebec government that have in effect targeted Muslim women.

Another important source of political support for LGBT rights has been from Muslim politicians. Electoral office in the United States has a distinctive potential to create high profile, since the separation of powers in state and national government provides more opportunities for independent legislative action than are available in parliamentary systems such as the Canadian. Keith Ellison is an African American convert to Islam, elected to the US Congress in 2006, and throughout his congressional terms (lasting until 2018) he was an outspoken and prominent supporter of LGBT rights.61 The 2018 election brought more Muslim legislators to Washington, including Ilhan Omar, a Somali immigrant who has taken over the Minnesota seat occupied by Ellison, and Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian American Detroiter. They are in the company of Democratic Party progressives, for whom support for LGBTQ rights is now taken as a given.

Muslim legislators in Canada have also represented political parties with progressive positions on sexual diversity (centrist Liberals and the New Democratic Party (NDP)). After the federal election of 2018 there were thirteen Muslims members of parliament, seven of them Liberal, three NDP, and in those parties, it would be essentially unthinkable to articulate policy positions antithetical to LGBT equality. In Ontario provincial politics, Yasir Naqvi has had a relatively high profile as a one-time Liberal cabinet minister, and in that position he actively supported LGBT rights. The most prominent of Canada’s Muslim politicians is Naheed Nenshi, who in 2010 became the first Muslim in North America elected to the mayoralty of a large city (in his case Calgary, Alberta). He has never hesitated to support LGBTQ rights, this in a province that was for many years the slowest to extend rights protections to sexual minorities. In 2018, Muslim actor Zaib Shaikh was appointed as the Canadian Consul General in Los Angeles by the Trudeau government. He played the imam in Little Mosque on the Prairie, as well as a sexually conflicted character in Metropia.

What about mainstream Muslim political groups? As already noted, there has been pressure on American groups to build alliances among equity-seeking groups, more urgent than ever after the 2016 election of President Donald Trump. Earlier that same year, the killing of LGBT patrons at an Orlando bar by an American Muslim may have been something of a pivot, even for CAIR, the more cautious of the two major Muslim political groups. From one of its California branches came this statement:

Following 9/11 attacks, the LGBTQ community has provided consistent and continuous support of the Muslim American community against the challenges of discrimination and Islamophobia. Now, we stand with the LGBTQ community in this great horror and injustice. We believe Muslims such as recently passed Muhammad Ali exemplify true Islamic principles of equality, while people like Omar Mateen represent the enemy of the faith and humanity.62

In its Los Angeles home base, the somewhat more progressive MPAC has gone further. It has supported a series of Let’s Be Honest forums designed to open up discussion among Muslims of what they might see as challenging issues. Homosexuality comes up in virtually all of these, and while the topic elicits much tension, younger people in the audiences are generally more willing to discuss it straightforwardly.63 On the group’s website, one of the group’s policy fellows penned an op-ed column in 2017 cautioning Muslims about siding with Jack Phillips, the Christian owner of a bakery who refused to serve a same-sex couple in the name of religious freedom, in a court case heard by the US Supreme Court (Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, 2018):

American Muslims understand that religious liberty should be interpreted in ways that are equality-enhancing, not equality-denying, and that in order for America’s values of freedom and equality to prevail, our religious freedoms cannot come at the cost of another’s civil liberty.64

In Canada there have been a few subtle indications of opening to new approaches. In 2012, Amira Elghawaby, a full-time staffer at the NCCM and speaking as its human rights officer, wrote a newspaper opinion piece on a controversy over LGBT-focused anti-bullying legislation in Ontario, and also addressed protests over a new sexual health education curriculum in Ontario schools (already discussed). The piece seemed to struggle over a middle course. On the one hand, she argued that legislation had been introduced without sufficient parental consultation. On the other hand, she decried misinformation about the bullying measure, wondering that “any believer would criticize legislation aimed at preventing the kind of isolation and fear that could lead a young person to feelings of inadequacy, rejection, even suicide.”65

After the 2016 Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando, the NCCM issued a very strong statement of condemnation in which Executive Director Ishaan Gardee was quoted as saying:

Hate hurts us all. . . .The NCCM has stood shoulder to shoulder with Canadians from various diverse communities, including with the LGBTQ community, to condemn hate and violence which targets anyone.66

Gardee then joined LGBTQ activists for a commemorative Iftaar dinner on June 24, presided over by El-Farouk Khaki, longtime queer Muslim advocate and leading member of Salaam.67 One imam commented that “we’re asking ourselves whether we’ve helped create or foster an atmosphere where these issues aren’t openly discussed.” Gardee seemed to second this view in observing that the Orlando shootings had generated a serious conversation, “and brought two vulnerable and often targeted communities together.”

One community observer in Canada stepped back from the detail and had this to say:

Thirty years ago when the gay Christian movement started, it was handfuls of people in a handful of churches that would give them basement space—and even that was controversial. Today you have MCC Toronto [Metropolitan Community Church] hosting its Christmas service at Roy Thomson Hall [home of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra]. Queer Muslims deal with a plethora of issues including integration, assimilation, racism, juggling cultural divergence and family issues, and so on. . . . I think it’s a long process.68

Specifically American Change?

The most powerful indication of change comes from Pew’s 2017 US survey. The data in Table 1 show that the proportion of Muslims saying that they agreed that homosexuality should be accepted had risen dramatically from 27 to 52, substantially narrowing the gap with the general population. Surveys conducted by the PRRI echo this pattern by showing a decline in opposition to same-sex marriage from 51 percent in 2014 to 34 percent three years later (see Table 2). By 2017, the proportion of Muslims opposed to such marriage was lower than among African American Protestants and Hispanic Catholics, much lower than among White Evangelicals, and only slightly lower than the American average. When asked if they would allow small business owners to refuse service to gay or lesbian people if doing so violated their religious beliefs, Muslims responded in ways that were no different than the American average.

Table 2. American Attitudes to Same-Sex Marriage, by Selected Religious Affiliation







General population




















White Evangelical





Hispanic Catholic





It is possible that the scale of this shift will soon be apparent among Canadian Muslims, as part of the process of overall social and political integration. However, there are also some specifically American dynamics which may have contributed to the acceleration of attitude shifts. One factor is that there is a somewhat higher proportion of the American community that was born in North America (40 percent compared to 30 percent in Canada), and it follows from that more have been educated in North American institutions.

There may also be clues to an answer in patterns of religiosity in the two countries. Rates of Muslim attendance at religious services are slightly lower in the United States than in Canada, but they also stand out less from the rest of the American population than attendance rates north of the border. In the more secularized Canadian society, pockets of high religiosity (as in the case of Muslims) may reinforce the view that their particular faith needs defensive resistance to outside influence.69

In the United States, there is also stronger rhetorical expectation of fitting into the American “melting pot,” and more so in periods when attacks on Islam or Muslims increase, or when the scrutiny of Muslims entering the United States or already there increases, such as in the aftermath of 9/11 and the 2016 presidential election. Partisan polarization intensifies these pressures. Surveys over many years have shown that Republican and Democrat supporters are further apart than ever on a range of issue fronts.70 Recent polling, for example, has shown that Democratic voters are twice as likely as Republicans to agree that immigrants strengthen the country (84 percent v. 42 percent). And relevant to this analysis of Muslim attitudes, there is a clear partisan divide on whether homosexuality should be accepted—83 percent of Democrats agreeing and only 54 percent of Republicans. Since Muslims in the United States now lean strongly Democratic, there has been a growing dissonance among those holding anti-LGBT attitudes, especially as Republican politicians arouse anti-Muslim sentiment alongside anti-gay sentiment. The impact of this partisan “sorting” of attitudes is effectively increasing pressure on Muslim Democrats to adjust their sentiments, particularly in respect to the need for equal rights protections.


Even in the face of Islamophobic prejudice and discrimination, North American Muslims are as attached to being Canadian or American as they are to their Muslim identity, and typically gain formal citizenship quickly. On a range of issues, their beliefs fit well within the political mainstream, if anything more on the left of the political spectrum than the right, and more supportive of Democrats in the United States and Liberals or New Democrats in Canada.

There is little sustained evidence that gender inequities are more pronounced among Muslims than they are in the rest of the population. In Canada, women’s participation in the paid workforce is lower than men among first-generation immigrants, a pattern shaped by gendered expectations associated with countries of origin. Such differences, however, decline significantly among first-generation immigrants who have been in North America ten years, and disappear among their children.71 As seen, survey evidence provides mixed evidence on the persistence of patriarchal beliefs, but relatively high levels of education among North American Muslim women as well as men seems to have some influence in advancing the idea of gender equity.

The one area in which there is systematic evidence of social conservatism is on issues related to sexual diversity. Despite claims from within and beyond the Muslim community that this reflects an essential Islamic distinctiveness, such attitudes are not unique across different faiths. They are still to be found in conservative strands of Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism. Within North America, what is distinctive is that Islamic religious authorities remain overwhelmingly condemnatory of sexual activity outside the heterosexual norm, and in particular of homosexuality. Especially in a religious minority community still experiencing prejudice, religious leadership matters, and this buttresses traditionalist sentiments. The fact that a majority of the Muslim community in each country was born outside of their adopted countries reinforces the power of religious strictures in retaining the social and cultural norms associated with their countries of origin. In such populations, it is not hard to engender fears of Muslim youth being seduced by Western sexual decadence.

There are important signs of change in this. To this point, the draw to hybridized versions of Islam among young people has often excluded sexuality, but there are important intergenerational cracks in this pattern. Attitude shifts are especially noteworthy in the United States, unfortunately a product of a political polarization that is not serving American Muslims well. But it is awakening them to the risks of siding with social and political currents that wish Muslims harm, and that treats them as outsiders unwilling to integrate.

What may be the most important impetus to change is the growing assertiveness of queer Muslim voices in Canada, the United States, Europe, and within Muslim-majority countries. They may use identity categories and frameworks drawn from LGBTQ communities in the West, or language that draws from language and experience in the cultures and societies in which they are rooted. That does not matter so much as their growing interest in asserting their right to a voice that challenges exclusionary patterns within their own socio-religious communities and LGBTQ communities.

Discussion of the Literature

There is only a very limited literature focused on queer Muslims in the West, or specifically in North America. Among the important contributions are the writings of Andrew Yip (primarily on Britain); a few contributors to Samar Habib’s Islam and Homosexuality, vol. 1; a book-length treatment of the Belgian case by Wim Peumans; and especially the work of Momin Rahman.72 They offer widespread evidence on the marginal place of sexual minorities within their ethnocultural communities, but also on the challenges they face within Western LGBTQ spaces, and in the broader society marked by major currents of anti-Muslim and racially based prejudice. Some of this material, particularly Rahman’s, addresses the highly complex questions of identity faced by queer Muslims reconciling their sexuality with their links to religiously defined communities.

In general, the scholarly analysis of Muslims in North America fully acknowledges that these communities face scrutiny and disadvantage. In the post-9/11 world, American writers invariably point to the overall patterns of marginalization that have either persisted or intensified with the “war on terror.” By and large, Canadian writers avoid the temptation to see their own country as immune from such tendencies, and point to the many ways in which rhetorical commitments to multiculturalism across much of the political spectrum fall short of the lived reality of ethno-racial and immigrant minorities.

There is scholarly writing on Muslim women in the United States, including that by Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, Amina Wadud, Julianne Hammer, and Jamillah Karim.73 On the Canadian side there is some attention to gender issues in writing on Muslim communities in general, for example in the work of Haideh Moghissi and her colleagues as well as Abdolmohammad Kazemipur.74 This literature invariably highlights gender inequity within Muslim religious and community life, and none of it suggests that there are significant differences in this pattern between Canada and the United States. Little if any attention is paid to sexual diversity in this published material.

There is strikingly little scholarly treatment of Muslim political organizing in either Canada or the United States, and what little there is remains strikingly silent on the issues dealt with in this article. On the United States, Muqtedar Khan and Karen Leonard have written overviews on political groups, though now somewhat dated, and without much attention to their engagement with issues of inequity within the communities they represent.75 There are no equivalent scholarly writers in Canada, though there are fragments of information that can be gleaned from more general writings on Muslims in that country. Gaps such as these require interviews with knowledgeable observers of and participants in Muslim political circles.

There is a sizeable literature on the politics of sexual diversity in Canada and the United States, though only a handful of writers have taken up the comparison of these two explicitly. One of those is the author of the present article, and another is Miriam Smith.76 Such writing points to faster movement in Canada than the United States in formally recognizing lesbian and gay rights especially, though Rayside points to early moves and sustained if gradual shifts in public policy at various levels in the United States despite fierce opposition. Both writers see changes in law, policy, and public opinion as significant, even if such shifts often have only modest impact on those communities marginalized along social class, urban–rural, gender, and ethno-racial lines.


This article was born of a collaboration with Momin Rahman (Sociology, Trent University), and reflects themes explored by him in various publications, including Homosexualities, Muslims Cultures and Modernity,77Contemporary Same-Sex Muslim Sexualities: Identities and Issues”;78 and by me in “Muslim American Communities’ Response to Queer Visibility.”79 My contributions to this project benefited from the cooperation and assistance of Keith Newman (Environics Institute, Toronto), Robert P. Jones and Rob Griffin (PRRI, Washington, DC), Greg Smith (Pew Research Center), Dylan White (formerly of the University of Toronto), Jason VandenBeukel (University of Toronto), and Chris Cochrane (University of Toronto). My part of the larger project included interviews conducted between 2014 and 2016 with Muslim advocates and scholars, as well as non-Muslims with a scholarly record of writing on North American Muslims, in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC. More detailed treatment of this material will appear in the forthcoming Queer/Muslim/Canadian, edited by Momin Rahman. The larger project from which this article is drawn was supported by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Primary Sources

The first important primary source for this article is a set of surveys of Muslim populations conducted in 2006 and 2016 by the Environics Institute in Canada, and in 2007, 2011, and 2017 by the Pew Research Center in the United States. Momin Rahman and the author of this article supported the Environics 2016 survey, and were able to shape questions in it that related to sexual diversity with the help of Environics’ lead researcher on this project Keith Neuman. All were aware of the importance of providing some comparability with the Pew surveys, and therefore used the same wording where that was possible.

The second major primary source is a set of confidential interviews with individuals who work within or closely observe mainstream Muslim organizations and LGBTQ Muslim groups in the United States and Canada. These interviews were conducted by the author between 2014 and 2016 in Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC.

Further Reading

  • Beyer, Peter, and Rubina Ramji, eds. Growing up Canadian: Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013.
  • Cochrane, Christopher. “The Effect of Islam, Religiosity, and Socialization on Muslim-Canadian Opinions about Same-Sex Marriage.” Comparative Migration Studies 1, no. 1 (2013): 147–178.
  • Environics Institute. Survey of Muslims in Canada 2016. Final Report, April 2016.
  • Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck. Muslim Women in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Hammer, Juliane. American Muslim Women, Religious Authority, and Activism. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012.
  • Kazemipur, Abdolmohammad. The Muslim Question in Canada. Vancouver, Canada: UBC Press, 2014.
  • Leonard, Karen. “Organizing Communities: Institutions, Networks, Groups.” In The Cambridge Companion to American Islam. Edited by Juliane Hammer and Omid Safi, 170–189. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
  • Minwalla, Omar, Simon Rosser, Jamie Feldman, and Christina Varga. “Identity Experience among Progressive Gay Muslims in North America: A Qualitative Study within Al-Fatiha.” Culture, Health & Sexuality 7, no. 2 (2005): 113–128.
  • Moghissi, Haideh, Saeed Rahnema, and Mark J. Goodman. Diaspora by Design: Muslim Immigrants in Canada and Beyond. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009.
  • Pew Research Center. Muslim Americans: Faith, Freedom, and the Future. Report, August 30, 2011.
  • Pew Research Center. The Global Divide on Homosexuality. Report, June 4, 2013.
  • Poushter, Jack, and Nicholas Kent. “The Global Divide on Homosexuality Persists.” Pew Research Center, June 25, 2020.
  • Rahman, Momin. “Contemporary Same-Sex Muslim Sexualities: Identities and Issues.” In Handbook of Contemporary Islam and Muslim Lives. Edited by Mark Woodward and Ronald Lukens-Bull, 1–21. New York: Springer International, 2018.
  • Rahman, Momin. Homosexualities, Muslim Cultures and Modernity. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
  • Rahman, Momin, and Amir Hussain. “Muslims and Sexual Diversity in Canada and the United States.” In Faith, Politics, and Sexual Diversity in Canada and the United States. Edited by David Rayside and Clyde Wilcox, 255–274. Vancouver, Canada: UBC Press, 2011.
  • Rayside, David. “Muslim American Communities’ Response to Queer Visibility.” Contemporary Islam 5, no. 2 (2011): 109–134.
  • Rayside, David, Jerald Sabin, and Paul Thomas. Religion and Canadian Party Politics. Vancouver, Canada: UBC Press, 2017.
  • Rosentiel, Tim. “Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream.” Pew Research Center, May 22, 2007.
  • Safi, Omid, ed. Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender and Pluralism. Oxford: Oneworld, 2003.
  • Yip, Andrew K. Introduction to the Special Issue on Islam and Sexuality. Contemporary Islam 3, no. 1 (2009): 1–5.


  • 1. This is a theme explored in detail by Momin Rahman, for example in Homosexualities, Muslim Cultures and Modernity (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) and “Contemporary Same-Sex Muslim Sexualities: Identities and Issues,” in Handbook of Contemporary Islam and Muslim Lives, ed. Mark Woodward and Ronald Lukens-Bull (New York: Springer International, 2018), 1–21.

  • 2. This is amply demonstrated in surveys conducted of Muslim populations by the Pew Research Center in the United States and the Environics Institute in Canada. See Pew Research Center, Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream, May 22, 2007; “Muslim Americans: Faith, Freedom, and the Future,” August 2011; U.S. Muslims Concerned about their Place in Society, but Continue to Believe in the American Dream, July 26, 2017; Environics Institute, “Muslims and Multiculturalism in Canada,” Focus Canada: The Pulse of Canadian Public Opinion, Report 2006–4, 2007; “Survey of Muslims in Canada 2016,” Final Report, April 2016.

  • 3. For an incisive comparative treatment of the difference that such contextual factors play, see Randall Hansen, “Work, Welfare, and Wanderlust: Immigration and Integration in Europe and North America,” in Grown Apart? America and Europe in the Twenty-First Century, ed. Jeffrey Kopstein and Sven Steinmo (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 170–191.

  • 4. United Nations, International Migration Report, 2017 (New York: United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2017).

  • 5. Miriam Smith attaches considerable significance to such institutional factors in explaining differences in trajectory on LGBT rights gains in the two countries. See Political Institutions and Lesbian and Gay Rights in the United States and Canada (New York: Routledge, 2008).

  • 6. Pew Research Center, “The Shift in the American Public’s Political Values: Political Polarization 1994–2017,” October 20, 2017.

  • 7. Christopher Cochrane, Left and Right: The Small World of Political Ideas (Montreal and Kingston, Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015).

  • 8. Jonathan Malloy, “Between America and Europe: Religion, Politics and Evangelicals in Canada,” Politics, Religion and Ideology 12, no. 3 (2011): 317–333; Pew Research Center, “A Changing World: Global Views on Diversity, Gender Equality, Family Life and the Importance of Religion,” April 22, 2019; Clyde Wilcox and Rentaro Iida, “Evangelicals, the Christian Right, and Gay and Lesbian Rights in the United States: Simple and Complex Stories,” in Faith, Politics, and Sexual Diversity in Canada and the United States, ed. David Rayside and Clyde Wilcox (Vancouver, Canada: UBC Press, 2011), 101–120.

  • 9. Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and Jane Smith, “Islamic Values among American Muslims,” in Family and Gender among American Muslims, ed. Barbara C. Aswad and Barbara Bilgé (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1996), 19–40; Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and John. L. Esposito, eds., Daughters of Abraham: Feminist Thought in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (Gainsville: University Press of Florida, 2001); Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, Muslim Women in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Amina Wadud, Quran and Women, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Amina Wadud, Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam (Oxford: Oneworld, 2006); S. Abdul-Ghafur, ed., Living Islam Out Loud: American Muslim Women Speak Out (Boston: Beacon Press, 2005); Monica Mazigh, “Reexamining Relations between Men and Women,” in The Relevance of Islamic Identity in Canada, ed. Nurjehan Aziz (Toronto: Mawenzi House, 2013), 28–43; and Alia Imtoual and Shakira Hussein, “Challenging the Myth of the Happy Celibate: Muslim Women Negotiating Contemporary Relationships,” Contemporary Islam 3, no. 1 (2009): 25–39.

  • 10. Juliane Hammer, American Muslim Women, Religious Authority, and Activism (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012), 124–146.

  • 11. Amira Elghawaby, “Backlash over the Woman’s Mosque of Canada is Predictable—and Misplaced,” Globe and Mail, May 20, 2019.

  • 12. See Ishan Bagby, Paul M. Perl, and Bryan Froehle, The Mosque in America: A National Portrait (Washington, DC: Council of American-Islamic Relations, 2001), Council of American-Islamic Relations Resource Document. See also Muqtedar Khan, “Bravo CAIR? Better Late than Never: CAIR Revises American Muslim Policy on Women in Mosques,” American Muslim, 2005.

  • 13. Momin Rahman and Ayesha Valliani, “Challenging the Opposition of LGBT Identities and Muslim Cultures,” Theology and Sexuality 22, nos. 1–2 (2016): 74.

  • 14. There is a modest but growing literature on queer Muslims. Among those focused on Muslim-majority countries, Tom Boellstorff’s The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005) stands out for its nuanced treatment of sexual minorities in a Muslim-majority country, in this case Indonesia. For studies of LGBT Muslims in the West or personal narratives, see Ibrahim Abraham, “‘Out to Get Us’: Queer Muslims and the Clash of Sexual Civilization in Australia,” Contemporary Islam 3, no. 1 (2009): 79–97; A. Al-Sayyad, “You’re What? Engaging Narratives from Diasporic Muslim Women on Identity and Gay Liberation,” in Islam and Homosexuality, vol. 2, ed. Samar Habib (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010), 373–394; Kamal Al-Solaylee, Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2012), Rusi Jaspal, “Coping with Religious and Cultural Homophobia: Emotion and Narratives Identity Threat among British Muslim Gay Men,” in Religion, Gender and Sexuality in Everyday Life, ed. Peter Nynas and Andrew Yip (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2012), 71–90; Omar Minwalla, Simon Rosser, Jamie Feldman, and Christina Varga, “Identity Experience among Progressive Gay Muslims in North America: A Qualitative Study within Al-Fatiha,” Culture, Health & Sexuality 7, no. 2 (2005): 113–128; Khalida Saed, “On the Edge of Belonging,” in Living Islam Out Loud, ed. Abdul-Ghafur, 86–94; Andrew K. Yip, “The Quest for Intimate/Sexual Citizenship: Lived Experiences of Lesbian and Bisexual Muslim Women,” Contemporary Islam 2, no. 2 (2008): 99–117; and Andrew K. Yip, Introduction to the Special Issue on Islam and Sexuality, Contemporary Islam 3, no. 1 (2009): 1–5.

  • 15. Rahman and Valliani, “Challenging the Opposition,” 79. See also Rahman, “Contemporary Same-Sex Muslim Sexualities.”

  • 16. I have written extensively on this in Queer Inclusions, Continental Divisions: Public Recognition of Sexual Diversity in Canada and the United States (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008).

  • 17. Pew Muslim surveys of 2007, 2011, and 2017; Environics Muslim surveys of 2007 and 2016.

  • 18. PRRI, “The American Values Atlas,” 2014, 2017.

  • 19. This analysis comes from personal correspondence, September 3, 2008. The data are from Ipsos-Reid, “Canadian Federal Election Exit Survey, January 23, 2006.” The numbers here are small, and must be approached with caution, but only 18 percent of Muslims supported that statement, compared to 20 percent of Hindus, 27 percent of Sikhs, 36 percent of Jews, 38 percent of Catholics, and 46 percent of Protestants

  • 20. Based on the 2016 Environics survey and the 2017 Pew survey.

  • 21. PRRI, “The State of Abortion and Contraception Attitudes in All 50 States,” August 13, 2019.

  • 22. Christopher Cochrane, “The Effect of Islam, Religiosity, and Socialization on Muslim-Canadian Opinions about Same-Sex Marriage,” Comparative Migration Studies 1, no. 1 (2013): 147–178. Cochrane does not explore Evangelical attitudes in particular, but other commentaries suggest that Canadian Evangelicals do not different significantly from their American co-religionists on abortion rights. See, for example, Sam Reimer, Evangelicals and the Continental Divide: The Conservative Protestant Subculture in Canada and the United States (Montreal and Kingston, Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003).

  • 23. Momin Rahman and David Rayside supported the Environics survey of 2016, and were able to help craft questions that supported their research. They owe much to Keith Newman of Environics for his initiative in this project and his determination to complete the project.

  • 24. Cochrane, “The Effect of Islam,” 155.

  • 25. On this, see also Tabrine M. Bratton, Robert Lyttle, and Tusty ten Bensel, “Attitudes of Muslim Americans toward Homosexuality and Marriage Equality,” Sociological Inquiry 20, no. 10 (2019): 1–29.

  • 26. Confidential interview, February 2016.

  • 27. Pew Research Center, The Global Divide on Homosexuality, June 4, 2013. Pew conducted another global survey in 2020 that included its item on accepting homosexuality, but this round did not include these countries (Jacob Poushter and Nicholas Kent, “The Global Divide on Homosexuality Persists,” Pew Research Center, June 25, 2020). See also Michael J. Bosia and Meredith L. Weiss, “Political Homophobia in Comparative Perspective,” in Global Homophobia: States, Movements, and the Politics of Oppression, ed. Meredith L. Weiss and Michael J. Bosia (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013), 1–29.

  • 28. There are academic writers who argue that survey evidence exaggerates the rejection of homosexuality or other forms of sexual diversity by applying “Western” categories, but such criticism is never accompanied by systematic evidence. For an oddly essentialized characterization of Arab sexualities that blames a mythically exaggerated “gay international” for fomenting homophobia, aided by domestic activists who apparently share responsibility for their own oppression by deploying Western labels, see Joseph Massad, Desiring Arabs (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

  • 29. Statistics Canada, “Religious Affiliation of Canadian Residents 2011, by Immigration Status”; Daood Hamdani, “Canadian Muslims: A Statistical Review,” Canadian Dawn Foundation, March 29, 2015; Abdolmohammad Kazemipur, The Muslim Question in Canada (Vancouver, Canada: UBC Press, 2014), 82.

  • 30. These data come from the 2017 Pew survey of American Muslims.

  • 31. The Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study shows that 45 percent of Muslims and 51 percent of Black Protestants agree that homosexuality should be accepted by society.

  • 32. Cochrane, “The Effect of Islam.”

  • 33. See, for example, Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Pew Research Center, “A Changing World.”

  • 34. Cochrane, “The Effect of Islam.”

  • 35. Haideh Moghissi, Saeed Rahnema, and Mark J. Goodman, Diaspora by Design: Muslim Immigrants in Canada and Beyond (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009); David Korzinski, “Faith and Immigration: New Canadians Rely on Religious Communities for Material, Spiritual Support,” Angus Reid Institute, July 8, 2018; Kathryn Carrière, “Growing Up in Toronto: Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists,” in Growing Up Canadian: Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, ed. Peter Beyer and Rubina Ramji (Montreal and Kingston, Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013), 262–289.

  • 36. Karim Karim, Changing Perceptions of Islamic Authority among Muslims in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom (Montreal: Institute for Research on Public Policy, 2009).

  • 37. Amir Hussain, “Muslims in Canada: Opportunities and Challenges,” Studies in Religion 33, nos. 3–4 (2004): 359–379.

  • 38. There is an important current of young Evangelical Christians who assert that the focus on condemning homosexuality at the expense of other issues is inappropriate. See David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity—and Why It Matters (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007).

  • 39. Haddad and Smith, “Islamic Values,” 21–22.

  • 40. El-Farouk Khaki, “Sex and Islam: From LGBTQ Rights to Muslim Feminists,” An Islam and Global Affairs Initiative, Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, September 26, 2017. See also Karen Leonard, “Organizing Communities: Institutions, Networks, Groups,” in The Cambridge Companion to American Islam, ed. Juliane Hammer and Omid Safi (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 175; and Hammer, American Muslim Women, 126.

  • 41. This was in response to an audience question, posted as a YouTube clip on July 29, 2011.

  • 42. This was published on the Islamic guidance site SeekersHub blog in 2016, but is no longer available online.

  • 43. Tariq Ramadan, “Islam and Homosexuality,” May 29, 2009.

  • 44. Confidential interview, December 2015; Hammer, American Muslim Women, 124–146.

  • 45. Muslims for Progressive Values, “Muslims for Progressive Values Calls its Removal from Islamic Society of North America’s Convention ‘Hypocrisy,’” Press Release, July 5, 2017.

  • 46. Confidential interview, Washington, August 2014.

  • 47. Confidential interview, Washington, August 2014.

  • 48. Confidential interview, Washington, August 2014.

  • 49. This was an analysis conducted for this research project by Dylan White.

  • 50. Confidential interview with Muslim advocate, Ottawa, 2015.

  • 51. In the Thorncliffe Park suburb of Toronto, a heavily Muslim area, abstention ranged from 50 to 90 percent on student “strike” days. The protest movement also included large numbers of White and Chinese Evangelical Protestants, traditionalist Catholics, South Asian Hindus, and Sikhs. For more detail, see David Rayside, Jerald Sabin, and Paul Thomas, Religion and Canadian Party Politics (Vancouver, Canada: UBC Press, 2017), ch. 5; and Nicholas Hune-Brown, “The Sex Ed Revolution: A Portrait of the Powerful Bloc That’s Waging War on Queen’s Park,” Toronto Life, September 3, 2015.

  • 52. Peter Beyer, “Growing Up in Canada, the United States, and Western Europe,” in Growing Up Canadian, ed. Beyer and Ramji, 294–295.

  • 53. Jocelyne Cesari, “Muslim Minorities in Europe: The Silent Revolution,” in Modernizing Islam: Religion in the Public Sphere in Europe and the Middle East, ed. John L. Esposito and François Burgat (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003), 260; and Paul Eid, Being Arab: Ethnic and Religious Identity Building among Second Generation Youth in Montreal (Montreal and Kingston, Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007).

  • 54. Haideh Moghissi, “Changing Spousal Relations in Diaspora: Muslims in Canada,” in Muslim Diaspora in the West, ed. Haideh Moghissi and Halleh Ghorashi (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2009), 15–16. See also Marcia Hermansen, “How to Put the Genie Back in the Bottle? ‘Identity’ Islam and Muslim Youth Cultures in America,” in Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender and Pluralism, ed. Omid Safi (Oxford: Oneworld, 2003), 306–310; and Thijl Sunier, “Styles of Religious Practice: Muslim Youth Cultures in Europe,” in Muslim Diaspora in the West, ed. Moghissi and Ghorashi, 127.

  • 55. Norris and Inglehart, Sacred and Secular, 149.

  • 56. Beyer, “Growing Up in Canada,” 297; emphasis added. See also Peter Beyer, “From Atheism to Open Religiosity: Muslim Men,” in Growing Up Canadian, ed. Beyer and Ramji, 101.

  • 57. Wim Peumans, Queer Muslims in Europe: Sexuality, Religion and Migration in Belgium (London: I.B. Tauris, 2018), 157–178.

  • 58. Juniper Survey of Muslims 2015,” ICM for Channel 4, 2015.

  • 59. The question of whether legal or policy change contributes to shifts in public opinion is hard to answer definitively, since changes in law and opinion are so regularly intertwined. In cases like South Africa and India, legal or constitutional change occurred far in advance of perceptible attitude change, partly in response to international legal developments. Without clear indications of favorable impact on public attitudes in such cases, it is still possible to say that legal or constitutional change emboldens activists in those countries.

  • 60. Jaweed Kaleem, “Progressive Muslims Launch Gay-Friendly, Women-Led Mosques in Attempt to Reform American Islam,” HuffPost US, March 29, 2012, updated January 30, 2013.

  • 61. Amaney Jamal and Liali Albana, “Demographics, Political Participation, and Representation,” in The Cambridge Companion to American Islam, ed. Hammer and Safi, 98–118.

  • 62. CAIR-California, “Bay Area Muslims Urged to Participate in Solidarity Events and Efforts Following Orlando Attacks,” 2016.

  • 63. Confidential interview with Muslim scholar, Los Angeles, February 2016.

  • 64. Ilhan Cagri, “A Muslim Perspective on the Masterpiece Cakeshop Case,” MPAC website, December 6, 2017.

  • 65. Amira Elghawaby, “Family Values, Competing Rights,” Globe and Mail, September 27, 2012.

  • 66. National Council of Canadian Muslims, “NCCM Condemns ‘Horrific’ Mass Shooting in Florida,” Press Release, June 12, 2016; original emphasis.

  • 67. Stephen Zhou, “Muslim Leaders Break Bread with Toronto Queers,” Now Magazine, June 29, 2016.

  • 68. Confidential interview, December 2016.

  • 69. Mucahit Bilici, Finding Mecca in America: How Islam is becoming an American Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 199–200.

  • 70. Pew Research Center, “The Shift.”

  • 71. Jeffrey Reitz, “The Status of Muslim Minorities Following the Paris Attacks,” in After the Paris Attacks: Responses in Canada, Europe and Around the Globe, ed. Edward M. Iacobucci and Stephen J. Toope (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015), 22–24.

  • 72. See Yip, “The Quest for Intimate/Sexual Citizenship”; Yip, Introduction to the Special Issue; Al-Sayyad, “You’re What?”; and Peumans, Queer Muslims in Europe; Rahman, Homosexualities and “Contemporary Same-Sex Muslim Sexualities.”

  • 73. E.g., Haddad, Muslim Women in America; Wadud, Inside the Gender Jihad; Hammer, American Muslim Women; and Jamillah Karim, American Muslim Women (New York: NYU Press, 2009).

  • 74. Moghissi, Rahnema, and Goodman, Diaspora by Design, 57–83; Kazemipur, The Muslim Question in Canada, 119–143; and Mazigh, “Reexamining Relations.”

  • 75. Muqtedar Khan, “Constructing the American Muslim Community,” in Religion and Immigration, ed. Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, Jane I. Smith, and John L. Esposito (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira, 2003), 175–198; Khan, “Bravo CAIR?”; Leonard, “Organizing Communities,” 170–189; and Karen Leonard, “American Muslim Politics,” Ethnicities 3, no. 2 (2003): 147–181.

  • 76. Rayside, Queer Inclusions; Rayside and Wilcox, eds., Faith, Politics, and Sexual Diversity; and Smith, Political Institutions.

  • 77. Rahman, Homosexualities.

  • 78. Rahman, “Contemporary Same-Sex Muslim Sexualities.”

  • 79. David Rayside, “Muslim American Communities’ Response to Queer Visibility,” Contemporary Islam 5, no. 2 (2011): 109–134.