New York: I.B. Tauris, 2018, 236 pp.
Reviewed by Benjamin Ale-Ebrahim
Queer Muslims in Europe ethnographically details the experiences of lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals of Muslim background living in Belgium and their complex relationships with religion, family, sexuality, identity, and transnational migration. Among a growing number of studies that focus on the experiences of queer Muslims, this book provides much needed attention to the everyday practices and moral reasoning involved in living life as a queer Muslim in Europe. This is Peumans’ second book and is based on the fieldwork he conducted in the early 2010s in Belgium.
Peumans’ major contributions are threefold: centering gender and sexuality in the study of transnationalism, taking up Luibheid’s (2004) call to challenge “the persistent heteronormative underpinnings of migration scholarship” (5); questioning “mainstream understandings of ‘queer identity,’ ‘the closet,’ ‘silence,’ and ‘coming out’” (7) by focusing on the non-linear ways in which queer Muslims “play with locking and unlocking the closet” (8); and focusing on “the importance of ambivalence in conceptualizing moral selves” (12) to understand how queer Muslims come to inhabit what are commonly understood to be contradictory identities, drawing primarily here on Zigon’s theory of morality and moral breakdown (2007; 2008; 2010). Peumans illustrates these points with the stories of 31 individuals who claim an LGB identity and were raised in Muslim families, 14 of whom were born and raised in Belgium as the second or third generation of “economic migrants” from Muslim-majority countries, mostly Morocco and Turkey, and 17 of whom are “sexual migrants” to Belgium who immigrated with the hope of more freely expressing their queer sexualities. As Peumans notes, this study is relatively unique in incorporating the stories of a significant number of queer Muslim women (14 in total) rather than focusing solely on the more commonly studied experiences of queer Muslim men. Peumans does not interview any trans or gender non-conforming people in this study and therefore discusses only the experiences of lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals of Muslim background.
The reader encounters diverse aspects of queer Muslim life in Belgium throughout this ethnography, such as the decision to come out (or not) to one’s family (chapter 2), performing queer sexuality during visits to one’s ancestral country of origin (chapter 3), claiming asylum on the basis of sexuality (chapter 4), navigating intimate relationships during the process of migration (chapter 5), participating in Pride festivities (or not) as a queer migrant (chapter 6), and coming to terms with one’s ambivalent identity as both queer and Muslim (or ex-Muslim) (chapters 7 and 8); in all, Queer Muslims in Europe presents a nuanced picture of life as a queer Muslim living in Belgium in the early 21st century. Analytically distinguishing between those raised in Belgium and those who migrated on the basis of sexuality, Peumans teases out many of the complexities that exist within queer Muslim communities, making it clear that not all queer Muslims come to the same conclusions when faced with similar challenges of coming out, navigating family relationships, and reconciling their sexualities with religious tradition.
For example, in chapter 3, we meet Soufiane, a young Belgian man of Moroccan descent who explains that, when visiting Morocco, he tones down his normally extroverted and flamboyant personality, preferring instead to be the “introvert, brooding type” in order to avoid suspicion of being gay in a country where homosexuality is criminalized (93); Belgium is where he can express his sexuality more freely and comfortably. In contrast, later in the same chapter, we hear Altan’s story, a young man of Turkish descent living in rural Belgium who explains that he prefers dating when he travels to Istanbul because he does not need to explain his cultural background nor familial expectations to the extent that he would if he were dating a white Belgian man back at home (97). Altan more comfortably expresses his queer sexuality not in Belgium but rather in Turkey. This is just one example of the kind of detailed ethnographic information that Peumans provides in illustrating the complexities of queer Muslim life in Belgium.
This book is a valuable contribution to studies of migration and transnationalism, Muslim minorities in Europe, and queer sexualities, providing a fascinating window into the lives of queer Muslims of migrant background in Belgium. By attending to the everyday moral reasonings that queer Muslims perform in living out their multiple and complex identities, Peumans challenges hegemonic understandings of what it means to be lesbian, gay, or bisexual as well as what it means to be Muslim in contemporary Europe. Written in an accessible and richly engaging style, this book would be most useful for researchers as well as activists and policy makers in the fields of LGBTQ rights, anti-Islamophobia, and immigration and asylum policy.
Luibheid, Eithne. 2004. “Heteronormativity and Immigration Scholarship: A Call for Change.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 10(2): 227-35.
Zigon, Jarrett. 2007. “Moral Breakdown and the Ethical Demand: A Theoretical Framework for an Anthropology of Moralities.” Anthropological Theory 7(2): 131-50.
—. 2008. Morality: An Anthropological Perspective. Oxford: Berg.
—. 2010. “Making the New Post-Soviet Person.” Moral Experience in Contemporary Moscow. Volume 5. Leiden/Boston: Brill.
Benjamin Ale-Ebrahim is a Ph.D. student in sociocultural anthropology at Indiana University, Bloomington. He previously earned a BA in anthropology and an MA in religious studies at the University of Kansas. His research focuses on the intersections of Islam, gender/sexuality, and new media technologies and he plans to write his dissertation on the role of the internet and social media in changing the way Moroccans think about gender and sexuality. You can stay in touch with Ben by following him on Twitter @benalebrahim.