LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
There are a little over 3 million Muslims in America, just about 1 percent of the total population. And they come from dozens of backgrounds. So there's a lot of variation in practice and culture. But in that minority of Americans, one sliver feels particularly vulnerable. NPR's Leila Fadel has been reporting on Muslims in America this week, and she joins us now to talk about it. Hey Leila,
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Hi.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So today's dispatch is about LGBTQ Muslims. And they say it's difficult to find a welcoming space, right?
FADEL: That's right. I mean, I really thought about this community as a marginalized community within a marginalized community. So not only are they Muslim, but they're also LGBTQ. So within Muslim spaces and prayer spaces, a lot of the times, they don't feel welcome.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And you went to Chicago to report this story. Why there?
FADEL: Well, that's where I could find a prayer space like the one you're about to hear about. So take a listen.
The only sign for Masjid Al-Rabia's prayer space on Friday is a sandwich board at a side entrance of the Second Unitarian Church on the North Side of Chicago.
MAHDIA LYNN: Did you move the banner from the other door?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, no.
LYNN: I'll grab that.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Inside the executive director, Mahdia Lynn, gets ready for the community Friday prayer. She pulls out a couple of boxes of donated books in the church library that's also the mosque office.
LYNN: These are our crumbs. We have Chinese, English, Tamil...
FADEL: Lynn is a 30-year-old transgender woman. She converted to Islam and is one of the founders of Masjid al-Rabia. The mosque's namesake is a female, Sufi, Muslim, mystic and saint. It opened its doors a year and a half ago, and it's a place where all Islamic sects, all sexualities, all gender identities, all are welcomed.
LYNN: You can live true to Islam while remaining inclusive and affirming and be a part of a justice-facing community that is feminist, that is affirming, that is uncompromising in its inclusivity.
FADEL: She takes me to the room they transform into a prayer space every week. The congregation is anywhere from just two people to 20.
LYNN: Kind of open space, and we set up kind of right in the middle...
FADEL: A volunteer sets up a folding table for the books, Quran surrounded by texts mostly by Muslim feminists. They roll out a layer of prayer rugs. And then Lynn asks me to turn off my recorder. Friday prayer, she says, is a safe space. Congregants are a mix of LGBTQ Muslims, straight Muslims, converts and people born into the faith. One mother, a straight woman, tells me she chose this space for herself and for her children because she wants them to be raised in an inclusive religious community. Some of the queer Muslims here, like those of other faiths, worry about being open about their sexuality or gender identity.
E: I am a little, like, concerned because a lot of the people that know me - some of them don't necessarily agree with the affirmation of an LGBT Muslim lifestyle, let alone a mosque.
FADEL: That's one of the congregants I reached later by Skype. She asks me to use only her first initial, E, because she's worried about being ostracized by her family and the community she grew up in. She's bisexual, Muslim in her 20s. And she thought her mom, a feminist, who always taught her that faith is about love and mercy, would be fine with her sexuality. But before she could come out, they were watching a talk show together where LGBTQ people recounted attacks. Her mother said, that's not right. E asked her what she meant.
E: Look. They will come to terms with their sins, and then they, too, will ascend to heaven. But that doesn't mean that, oh, we should take advantage of a loving God and then just do whatever we want.
FADEL: So E thought she had to choose between her religion and her sexuality. Then she met Mahdia Lynn and other Muslims like her in Chicago, who would eventually create Masjid al-Rabia. She read an interpretation of the Quran that challenged traditional Islamic understandings of sex between the same gender as sin.
E: After realizing that there are many interpretations to the faith, realizing that I'm like, I can not, and I will not choose between my two identities.
FADEL: That's why, she says, places like Masjid al-Rabia and the group of pioneers who founded it are so important. E says before this community...
E: I literally knew nobody else that, you know, identified as such - plenty of Christians, even some Jewish individuals, but not Muslim.
FADEL: Other religious communities are having the same internal struggles about inclusion and homophobia. But she worries that by drawing attention to these issues within Muslim communities in America, she'll just give more ammunition to those who are intent on demonizing her religion. Places like Masjid al-Rabia are rare, but there are informal prayer circles in other American cities, a mosque with a similar mission in Toronto, Canada, that has been open since 2009 and an annual LGBTQ Muslim retreat put together by the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity. Blair Imani is an author and social justice activist who's also a bisexual, Muslim woman. She says Masjid al-Rabia is a step forward.
BLAIR IMANI: I've just seen the power overwhelmingly of people, like, coming to this space - calling out the space and just feeling a sense of ownership over a space that really centers and affirms them.
FADEL: Now, she says the opening of this mosque doesn't mean there are waves of acceptance, but it does show that when LGBTQ people of faith find the resources, they'll create those accepting spaces for themselves and for others.
IMANI: It's a shift from the idea that we can't be Muslim because we're LGBT. You know, I'm bisexual, and I'm Muslim at the same time. And that stills blow people's minds. And it really shouldn't because I don't find a controversy within myself. It's mostly from the external.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOORBELL)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We're here for Masjid al-Rabia.
LYNN: All right. Coming now.
FADEL: Back at the mosque, Executive Director Mahdia Lynn buzzes congregants in. She says things are changing slowly. They don't hide their location anymore. They did at first for fear of being targeted. The numbers back that up. A survey by Pew Research Center asked people whether, quote, "homosexuality should be accepted by society." In the case of Muslim millennials in America, 60 percent said yes, versus 44 percent of the older generation.
LYNN: Every Muslim should have a right to pray without fear of violence or excommunication. And I believe that that space needs to exist right here. And that's what Masjid al-Rabia is.
FADEL: But what Lynn ultimately hopes for is to make every mosque a mosque for all Muslims.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And now we're back with Leila Fadel. Leila, as I said at the top, you've been filing stories on Muslims in America all week long. But you used to cover Islam in the Middle East, where you were a foreign correspondent for so many years. And you are also an American Muslim yourself. What is behind this series? What inspired it?
FADEL: Well, I think coming back, I went into it thinking, oh, yeah, I know about Islam. I covered the Muslim-majority world for years. But what I found was there is a uniqueness here that doesn't exist in the countries that I covered. You know, here there are people from more than 75 countries practicing Islam with cultural references that come from those countries but also come from this country. And so it was an incredible diversity that I had never really seen anywhere else.
And on top of all that, there was this ability to practice the way you want to practice. And so I met a surgeon in rural California who told me that America gave him the opportunity to practice being Muslim the way he wanted to, that he had literature on his shelves in his rustic farmhouse that would have got him put in jail in Malaysia. But here, he can read all of those things and be informed that way about the way he wants to practice and be faithful.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what surprised you most out of your reporting?
FADEL: Really, I think these young Muslims who are really unapologetic. They're really coming into themselves as American Muslims and saying, we belong here. We belong in a space here, and we're not going to let anybody tell us that we should go back to somewhere else. This is our country, and we're going to contribute to the tapestry of it, as we have been for years.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And your reporting is not done.
FADEL: It's not. We have another story to tell you about bullying in the Bay Area, and that will be on Weekend All Things Considered.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR's Leila Fadel with her groundbreaking series on American Muslims. Thank you so much.
FADEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.