Manufacturing Dissent

The title of these presentations is ”Beyond the Liberal
Moment” and, with all of your permissions, that is exactly
where I hope to offer my comments. My presentation,
with due apologies to Mr. Chomsky, is titled “Manufacturing
Dissent”—cryptic but hopefully meaningful by the time I finish
talking. Written in hurried fashion at an interesting location in
Chelsea yesterday, I present to you initial thoughts on a
hesitant, evolving (for two years now) and probably
problematic (to at least some of you) thesis. Let’s begin with
who I am and why I can even pretend to share this platform
with some extremely evolved individuals engaged in doing
tremendous work to engender transformation in our
communities. I find some dissonance in being transplanted
from the small town called Saharanpur in northern India,
where I grew up, to the The Graduate Center, CUNY in New York.
And, as is the nature of many transplants into the American
Dream, I find myself “dissonated” enough, often enough to
question my own contradictions and often, even my own hypocrisy.
Yesterday afternoon, a week after accepting Lisa Henderson’s kind invitation to speak to all of you—an
audience that was described to me as including “academics, non-academics, artists, interested citizens,
lots of students and a range of vernaculars”—I found myself nervous about putting to paper thoughts
that have engaged me a great deal in the four years and twelve days since I landed on the shores of the
“free world” in my rickety boat.
As for the description of you, the audience, and, hopefully, participants goes, do speak up now if you
feel that you don’t belong to any of these categories. And, by the way, I hope we can talk about
categories this afternoon as well.
So I found myself at the Big Cup in Chelsea- somewhat of a Mecca for the youthful and the not-soyouthful
male homosexuals within our community. I must make a confession: the Big Cup is a favorite
“adda” or hangout for me. I love being a gay man and here I find cheap coffee, free wireless access and
cute gay boys in all shapes and sizes—and one predominant colour. I have, in the past, called the
predominance of this colour, in what is sometimes simplistically referred to as “Western gay male subculture,”
“The Unbearable Whiteness of Being.” It’s interesting as well, because I love my magical,
mystical White Boys. And, damnit, I have not one, but two white boyfriends! It could probably be
referenced as just my being interested in whites. Or, as some more academically inclined friends have
hypothesized, it could be the attraction of the colonized soul to the colonizer: getting sweet revenge
through some action-filled buggery. Of course, as I wrote this, the reality of being in America was all too
obvious; even my ever-vigilant spell-check advised me that colour was spelt as c-o-l-o-r and not c-o-l-ou-
r. So, putting on my headphones with some sweet, Hindi, Bollywood music and trying not to be
distracted by the luscious and tempting landscape of eager young eyes staring at HX, Next, Manhunt—
and me—I sat down to write.
After I started to re-imagine my life on the INS—now re-christened USCIS—calendar, I realized that
today, the 10th of September, 2004, is just 31 days before I become illegal in the “land of the free.”
There is some irony to this as I begin the next phase of production of an ambitious documentary called
“In the Name of Allah” with some really big names—and I use that phrase in considered fashion—and as
I stand before all of you, with my fate in this country in the hands of a probably underpaid and bored
clerk at the Immigration Offices in Vermont. The visa category I apply for is called “Alien with
Extraordinary Ability” and a friend asked what that meant, to which I flippantly replied that I gave the
best blowjobs on the East Coast. And, while that may well be true—and believe me there is only one
way to find out—the category is a problematic one, as are the others I have found myself boxed in,
often willingly and sometimes with tacit approval. These include “brown,” “Muslim,” “progressive
Muslim,” “filmmaker,” “queer activist,” etc. All of these, of course, help us delve straight into the topic
at hand, which I believe is “Queers, Media, Representation: Beyond Commerce Vs. Politics.”
It’s truly encouraging that the word “beyond” is used to frame our discussions today. I really believe,
and hope you agree, that this critical time requires us to move beyond the status quo. I have also been
described to my colleagues on the panel as someone (and I apologize, Lisa, for quoting directly from
your email) whose work “addresses a critical force field which, in the wake of Sept. 11th (and as we
approach the third commemoration) seemed hard to imagine for many U.S. commentators: Muslim
sexual diversity, community, voice and rights. The film also raises a number of thorny questions about
political representation and commercial support.” This is a flattering description, and one that would be
easy to agree with. I do find, however, that I am one of many well-intentioned individuals trying his best
to work within this critical force field. However, now, two years into making a film addressing complex
issues, I find myself questioning my own contradictions as a filmmaker, as someone who is trying to
flourish in the most capitalist society in the world, and as a Muslim.
As a filmmaker, I grapple with the politics of the camera—an extremely intrusive and hardly invisible instrument—as it goes into the lives of
queer Muslims, lives that have, for the
most part, gone unsung. As coming from
what many here in the West very
problematically and inaccurately call the
“third world,” I also find myself dealing
with issues of using money kindly
provided by the big names I referred to
before, more specifically, the UK’s Channel
4, Germany’s ZDF and Franco-German
ARTE, to intrude into the lives of these
communities that have been surrounded
by walls of silence for way too long. And,
as a Muslim, my credentials have been
questioned more than once by fellow
Muslim queers, coming as I do from a
mixed—easily labeled “secular” in India—
family. Making this film now, I am still
learning what it means to be a Muslim,
specifically a gay/queer Muslim, and am
engaged in a rather difficult, often
unproductive dialogue with an
unforgiving Allah.
The journey of realizing “In the Name
of Allah” continues to be a long one. In
fact, it has been a work in progress for so
long that friends often call me just that—a
work-in-progress—these days. What
started as my little graduate thesis, filmed
on borrowed cameras and no money, has
morphed into a huge animal that is
supposed to generate good ratings for my
European broadcasters, sizeable
percentages for my many partners, and
fame, fortune and fatwas for me. The
most interesting show of interest in the
film I have received recently is from the
much-maligned-by-Mullahs MTV.
If Islam is indeed the fastest growing
religion in the world, and if 22% of the
world’s population is indeed Muslim, it
will take only a little math—with the help
of Mr. Kinsey—to determine the
fabulously diverse numbers of faggots,
dykes and all those in between that we
are dealing with in the Muslim world. And
that of course underlines another issue
that this film grapples with: Islam is not
the problematic monolith that the West
now finds itself grappling with, but a
collection of very diverse opinions,
thoughts and processes that speak in as
many voices as there are groups and
faiths within Islam. Making this film in this
deeply divided country where the fault
lines of prejudice run deeper than ever
and from within Islam, where similar fault
lines erode the basic tolerance of the
faith, is an interesting exercise. At the risk
of fast and easy deportation, I want to say
the following:
George Bush, as the un-elected President
of the United States of America, you have a
lot in common with the mullahs that preach
intolerance from their bully pulpits, during
their Friday “khutbas,” or sermons.
Like them, nobody really elected you.
Like them, you feel that preaching the
politics of hatred and intolerance for the
other and for queers is your birthright.
Your crusade is no different from their
jihad, which by the way in its purest,
Quranic form can mean a personal journey
of self-discovery and awareness, rather than
a holy war.
You misuse your God and invoke his
name wrongfully, just as they do with their
And that is where this documentary
that we are trying to make comes in. “In
the Name of Allah” has always been a
truly independent film, and if
independent filmmaking is like guerilla
warfare, then this film comes to you from
the trenches. As it emerges, built with the
contradictions of the so-called East and
the so-called West, the contradictions of
its filmmaker, and, indeed, the contradictions
of the faith it tries to defend, it
deals with the contradictions of creating
faith, tolerance and understanding in a
filmmaking world, where the exchange of
dollars and euros is fundamental to the
process itself.
It’s hard to describe the lives put at
stake by the very act of appearing in this
film to a commissioning editor sitting
somewhere in Paris, Berlin, London or
New York. Other than the heat and dust,
the power failures, taps that run dry and
phones that die, the reality of existence in
Delhi, Cairo, Karachi or Kabul is a very
different one. Sitting at the Big Cup in
Chelsea, the contrast cannot be greater. A
photographer from HX Magazine is
eagerly taking pictures of six semipubescent
gay boys dressed in their Gap
T’s and very gelled hair. We are informed
that this is for the “Back to School” issue
of the magazine and, to reflect the true
diversity of America, and indeed American
homosexuals, the group includes four
white boys, one brown, Latino-looking
boy and one Asian, probably Chinese,
boy. Surely, this is the manufacture of the
new gay image in process. Can we easily
underestimate the reach of HX? And what
about shows like “The L-Word,” “Boy
Meets Boy,” “Will and Grace” and “Queer
as Folk,” which I have on more than one
occasion referred to as “White as Fuck”?
Where does that really leave the poor, gay
or lesbian Muslim? Oppressed, of course,
by many Muslims. And not even included,
of course, in most “gay sub-culture”
As we try and construct the first real
and comprehensive image of these
unlikely creatures—to be P.C., the gay,
lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and
queer Muslims—we must realize that
these terms are a Western construct. Let
me be clear: none of these categories
means anything to many of my friends
living in Cairo or Islamabad. If anything,
the languages they speak—Farsi, Arabic,
Urdu, Punjabi, Bengali—have very few
words of affirmation to describe the
“odd” and “unnatural” behaviors, so to
speak, that we indulge in. The cinematic
representation of these complex identities
therefore comes with many of the
challenges of almost developing a new
And then there are the contradictions
of Islam itself. In the early years of the
Abbasid empire, in a region that would
include present-day Baghdad, the Arab
poet Abu Nuwas, a favorite of the Caliphs,
flourished. Nuwas wrote a kind of verse
that would not easily be accepted in a
moralistic society like America. Let’s
sample some, and I quote in JW Wright’s
Oh Sulayman, sing to me and give me a
cup of wine…
And if the wine comes round, seize it and
give it to me!
Give me a cup of distraction from the
Muezzin’s call
Give me wine to drink publicly
And bugger and fuck me now
Abu Nuwas, whose risqué verse did get
the better of him eventually, went on to
take Ayahs—or verses—17 and 22 from
Surah—or chapter—56 of the Quran and
transform it into a homoerotic fantasy,
filled with “beautiful lads” with “fingers
dyed with henna” serving wine. What
many of us don’t know is that all Muslims,
like the eager young, Intifada-angst-filled
Palestinians who blow themselves up, are
promised not just seventy virgins bearing
wine, but also young boys serving the
same forbidden liquid in paradise.
Abu Nuwas’s grave is somewhere in
suburban Baghdad and is no doubt
reduced to rubble by the eager bombs
dispatched by teen marines.
In the construction of the image and
life of the “queer” Muslim is also the
awareness of the not so well-known fact
that a sexual revolution of immense
proportions came to the earliest Muslims,
some 1,300 years before the West had
even “thunk” it. This promise of equal
gender rights and, unlike in the Bible, the
stress on sex as not just reproduction but
also enjoyment within the confines of
marriage has all but been lost in the
rhetoric spewing from loudspeakers
perched on Masjids—or mosques—in
Riyadh, Marrakech and Islamabad. The same Islam that has for centuries not only
tolerated but also openly celebrated
homosexuality is, today, used to justify a
state-sanctioned pogrom against gay men
in Egypt—America’s “enlightened” friend
in the Middle East.
I have spent considerable time filming
with Ziyad, a young Egyptian male in his
early twenties. Ziyad, after almost two
years in prison, was recently granted
asylum in France. Unfortunately, the
French system gave him nothing beyond
that, and, treated with contempt, he now
lives a penniless life on the streets of Paris,
trying desperately to learn the language
of his new country. He can never go back
to Egypt. Describing his time in custody
to me and also to my friend Scott Long,
who compiled a report on the Egypt
situation for Human Rights Watch, this is
what Ziyad had to say about some of his
adventures in custody:
I go inside. Heaven help us, this guy is
sitting in a chair. I had a position before I
was arrested, in the family, in the
neighborhood. The biggest bully would call
me Mr. Ziyad. And this man spoke me to me
like a child…
Then the head man, Fakhry Saleh, walks
in. ‘Strip, kneel.’ Oh, he talked to me like a
dog. I got down on all fours. I had taken my
pants off. I assumed the position. He said,
‘No, no, this will not do. Get your chest
down and your ass up.’
I said ‘I can’t’ and I started crying hysterically.
And he said, ‘All these things you are
doing will not cut any ice with me. Be quick
about it, we’ve got work to do.’ I still could
not control myself at all. He said, ‘Shut up,
everything is clear and we can see it in front
of us.’ First, he looked and felt me up.
Suddenly, six doctors came in. What is there
about my anus? They all felt me up, each in
turn, pulling my buttocks apart.
They brought this feather against my
anus and tickled it. Apparently that was not
enough. So they brought out the heavy
artillery. After the feather came the fingers.
Then they stuck something else inside. I
would cry and he would stick stuff inside
and I would cry and he would stick more.
I hoped that they would feel sorry from all
the crying, but they didn’t, they did not
seem to feel anything. Fakhry said after,
‘Why didn’t you cry when men put their
things in you?” I wanted to spit on him. But
I was still crying.
Chillingly, Ziyad repeats the same story
to me that he told Scott many months
earlier in Cairo. This has to be true.
How can the documentary filmmaker
therefore exploit this story for mass
consumption? Surely, the desire to bring it
out is a noble one. But the exchange of
money as a necessity for filmmaking
without Ziyad benefiting from it
financially, penniless as he is, presents a
conundrum. The producer of “In the
Name of Allah” is Sandi DuBowski, a
Jewish filmmaker who achieved
tremendous success, both financial and
artistic, with his film “Trembling Before Gd.”
Sandi and I see a tremendous
similarity in our journeys and our faiths.
Working together we hope that, as gay
filmmakers, we can open a necessary
dialogue between Islam and Judaism,
both religions—like Christianity—born
from the same father, in the same, now
contested desert. However, it is interesting
to note that more than one character I
have filmed with in the last two years has
dropped out of the film, not wanting yet
another dialogue on Islam to have Jewish
or American complicity in it. But where
has the media or the cinema of the West
truly allowed Muslims to wield power and
My friend Jim De Seve, who has just
made a remarkable documentary on gay
marriage called “Tying The Knot,” is at the
forefront of that debate today in this hot,
American summer of politics where the
issue is suddenly one of national
importance. Often more than the
shameful, sexual and physical abuse of
prisoners at Abu Ghraib, which more than
one commissioning editor has encouraged
me to document. And often more than the
humiliation of entire civilizations that
precede this one by several centuries. As he
travels this landscape and becomes a
filmmaker and, foremost, an activist, I
wonder how many years will it take for my
Muslim brothers and sisters to engage in a
similar discussion. Is it even a necessary
debate? After all. “gay” men or more
accurately, men who enjoyed sex with
men, were marrying each other in the
Egyptian oasis of Siwa just 50 years ago.
Another friend, Michael Luongo, is
engaged in the admirable task of writing
about gay travels in Islam. Michael just
wrote a piece about gay life in Kabul for
the Gay City Newspaper. It might be easy to
dismiss him, saying that here is yet another
white man creating the next frontier for
gay tourism, and we might wonder how
long it will be before planeloads of Chelsea
boys descend upon the locals in Kabul—in
this case, the Pathan’s. But I see Michael
engaged in a task far more important.
Writing in the gay mainstream press, he is
actually creating the first, post-Taliban,
non-academic media representation of the
first Muslim men who have celebrated their
love for each other openly and for
Manufacturing consent is all that the
powers in Islam and in the West have
successfully done. And, unfortunately, the
liberal left that so many queer Western
ideologies are naturally attracted to has
done little to counter that. In closing
thoughts, I need to stress a different kind
of manufacture: that of dissent. Let’s make
a deal. While you all try and do it here in
a more productive fashion, I shall try and
do it in the Muslim “worlds.” I shall go
with my camera and some of my anger
and take this film and this dialogue to the
Mullahs and the Masjids that they hide in.
But there is more to the bargain. I hope
for a change that can be more
constructive. To a conservative Christian
family sitting in rural Alabama, the
crusaders for gay marriage, abortion rights
and peace, with their ragged T-shirts with
angry, clever slogans must evoke a
reaction that might go like this: “See, I
told you so. Look at them. What about
family? And do they even have a job?”
So as “academics, non-academics,
artists, interested citizens, lots of students
and a range of vernaculars,” let us
imagine a new kind of crusade. The cool
air-conditioned corridors of Western
Academia, lined with books and ideas, are
just not enough. Don’t get me wrong:
ideas are good – and vital. Hell, ideas are
just what make us human. But it’s time to
get our hands dirty, my friends.
Allow me to use another example.
Arundhati Roy, the mistress of words and
ideas, as she stands on a pedestal at
Riverside Church exhorts the so-called
American Left to change. She is sari clad,
mysterious and dark with kohl-lined eyes.
She is smart and she is sexy. She tells her
throngs of well-meaning admirers that
what Mr. Bush and his gang of war
criminals export to Iraq and Afghanistan is
“Instant Mix Imperial Democracy—Bring
to Boil, Add Oil and then Bomb.” It’s
heady to listen to the intoxicating, catchy
language of ideas coming from the
luscious lips of a frail woman coming from
a country far, far away and go back to the
East Village, to Democracy Now!, to any
of the idea-rich hangouts of this battle
scarred city, but it’s hard to do what Ms.
Roy did so successfully. A Delhi socialite
with a genius-like ability to write, she
transformed herself into a tireless, often
controversial and much reviled-in-India
crusader. She went out and used the
power of her privileged education and her
words—and her appearance—to make her
voice heard and to even force thought.
She got her hands dirty.
When are we going to stop talking to
ourselves? I know I am preaching perhaps
to the choir here. There needs to be an
understanding of the privilege that comes
even to the poor in this country. And
there needs to be change. If this is the
world’s most capitalist society, it does
understand the language of a consumer
economy. Dissent has been manufactured
too long amongst ourselves, on the
assembly lines of our self-indulgent ideas.
Let’s take it now to those who oppose us
and talk in a language they can
understand. Let’s manufacture dissent.
And consume ideas, knowledge and
tolerance. Lets decide here that together
this will be our ‘Project for a ‘Newer’
American Century’.

Parvez Sharma, filmmaker, is currently
working on “In the Name of Allah,” the first
documentary to explore the subject of Islam
and homosexuality. (www.inthenameofallah

On September 10, 2004
CLAGS presented “Beyond the
Liberal Moment,” a
two-panel event which
explored the heightened
visibility of queers in the
media and the absence of
representations of broader
queer agendas in that
media exposure. Pictured here
are members of the first panel,
“Queers, Media, Representation:
Beyond Commerce vs.
Politics,”beyond (left to right)
Katherine Sender, Assistant
Professor of Communication,
University of Pennsylvania;
panel curator and moderator
Lisa Henderson, Associate
Professor of Communication,
University of Massachusetts,
Amherst.; Craig Willse,
Sociology and Women’s
Studies, CUNY; Parvez
Sharma, Filmmaker, New
York City; and Liza Johnson,
filmmaker. The second panel,
“The Radical Edge:
Beyond Gay Marriage”
featured: Trishala Deb,
Audre Lorde Project; Joseph
DeFilippis, Queers for
Economic Justice; Bran
Fenner, FIERCE!; Christina
Hanhardt, American Studies,
NYU; and was moderated by
Dean Spade, Sylvia
Rivera Law Project.