The Member Communications Standing Committee of the Canadian Library Association/Association canadienne des bibliothèques is pleased to announce that the CLA 2015 Student Article Award is being presented to Gianmarco Visconti for his paper: “Queer Muslim Users: Intersectional Spaces in Libraries”.
Gianmarco’s interesting paper reflects on the idea that “systems of marginalization propagate because dominant society believes marginalized people do not have any stakes within the system they occupy.” He poses the question – “So, how do we assess the information needs of individuals who do not fit into the niche we have created for them?”
He argues that “queer muslims deserve access to materials that pertain to their lives, as there is no guarantee that a space dedicated to new Canadians or to LGBTQ people will be relevant or safe for them.” He concludes that librarians must anticipate the need for these safe spaces and create them.
As a graduate student in the School of Library and Information Studies, University of Alberta, Gianmarco Visconti pursues a Master of Library and Information Studies (MLIS) degree.
Pictured above: Gianmarco Visconti and James Bennett, CLA’s Member Communications Standing Committee
Queer Muslim Users: Intersectional Spaces in Libraries
The Canadian Library Association believes that a diverse and pluralistic society is central to our country’s identity. Libraries have a responsibility to contribute to a culture that recognizes diversity and fosters social inclusion. Libraries strive to deliver inclusive service. Canada’s libraries recognize and energetically affirm the dignity of those they serve, regardless of heritage, education, beliefs, race, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical or mental capabilities, or income. Libraries understand that an acceptance of differences can place individual and collective values in conflict. Libraries are committed to tolerance and understanding. Libraries act to ensure that people can enjoy services free from any attempt by others to impose values, customs or beliefs.
As an institutional authority, the CLA’s position statement on diversity and inclusion is incredibly profound. Its sentiment is equally reflected by the American Library Association (ALA) and the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA). Therefore, these intermingling notions of diversity, social responsibility, and anti-discrimination unquestionably make up the foundations of LIS in of itself, and the significance of this cannot be discounted; however, there tends to be one weakness in this rhetoric, and this is a general weakness common to most of the language used to discuss issues of diversity. There is an implicit assumption that inclusive service must cater to individual differences in isolation. The way we speak about these issues often fails to explicitly acknowledge the fact that all the elements of individual identity named in the CLA’s core values, as well as ALA’s and IFLA’s, can mix and coexist in a single body, and almost always do.
Western librarianship, as reflected by its literature, has failed to acknowledge the specific needs of its contemporary Muslim user base. Particularly, Muslims who also identify as gender and sexual minorities. The literature displays a tendency to reduce marginalized peoples into single-topic issues: i.e., library services for immigrants, library services for children of immigrants, library services for multilingual users, library services for LGBTQ youth etc. As a field dedicated to service and outreach, LIS ought to reflect the subtle, multitudinous relationships that make up human identity.
The goal of this work is to further discussions of Muslim identity in the Western world and to uproot Western, Islamophobic perceptions of Muslims and Islam, which undoubtedly affect LIS professionals. The importance of having specific library spaces for queer Muslims is explored through a discussion of Samra Habib’s “Queer Muslim Project,” from July 2014, and its relationship with the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives (CLGA) and Toronto Public Library (TPL).
First, it must be acknowledged that there is no such thing as a homogenous Muslim identity: Islam in itself is a religious identifier, crossing multiple ethnic, racial, and linguistic groups, and, indeed, contains within itself multiple social and political stances. The use of the broad term, as it pertains to this work, is to acknowledge the social reality of the collective marginalization and racialization of people with Muslim cultural heritage. The persistence of Muslim stereotypes in the Western world, particularly after the events of September 11, 2001 in the USA, in many ways, has forced all Muslims, whether they are practicing or not, to accept the single label of “Muslim” as a means of expressing solidarity. It is a means of resisting those currents in dominant Western culture that demonize Muslims and all perceived expressions of Muslim-ness. Under these circumstances, the embracing of a universal Muslim identity becomes a way to anchor oneself and to share the common experience of displaced identity, as well as the pain of being a target for bigotry and violence:
[Since] September 11, we are all identified with Islam… And I have tremendous difficulty with this because I see [that] after September 11, our younger generations are being forced or made to become Muslims. I mean they have found their identity in Islam as a way to oppose the U.S. policies. I have a dear friend who is gay. After these events he now says, ‘I am a Muslim too.’ How on earth can that be? I tell him, ‘If you go to Iran now, they’ll put you in a bag and throw you over a cliff. What kind of Muslim are you?’ And this is only because he feels his opposition to [the mainstream] is best shown through identifying with Islam. (Iranian male)
Western society has already decided that Islam is “a wellspring of backwardness and religious fanaticism, hateful of women, and… a permanent enemy,” without considering that Muslim society is just as socially, politically, and religiously varied as the Western world. This concept of the Muslim world does not account for the presence of secular Muslims, for instance, who only identify with Islam culturally. Furthermore, it does not account for the presence of practicing Muslims who are marginalized within their own communities and still find comfort in religious rituals:
The most serious problem Muslims suffer from in Canada is the negative stereotyping about Islam which is promoted through the Canadian media, and which is pervasive. Muslims may differ among themselves as to how conservative or liberal they might be on issues like the dress of women, or as the nature of their religious practice, but they all suffer greatly from this negative stereotyping. They all seek ways to combat it. It is the seriousness of this problem that distinguishes the Muslim’s experience.
These stereotypes undermine the fact that Canadian and Muslim identities can exist within the same body. Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world — it cannot be defined by geographical boundaries. Even in Canada, where Islam is viewed as a recent phenomenon, imported by immigrants, Muslims have historical roots: Al-Rashid, the first mosque built in North America, was built in Edmonton, in 1938.
The Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives and Samra Habib
In Summer 2014, the Canadian Lesbian and and Gay Archives (CLGA), Videofag Gallery, and Toronto Public Library collaborated to hold an exhibition of photographs and videos by Canadian artist Samra Habib entitled, “Just me and Allah: Photographs of Queer Muslims.” Karen Stanworth, head of the CLGA curatorial committee had this to say of the project: “Samra’s work is not only aesthetically engaging but also culturally demanding. The location of the show in the CLGA Reading Room will inspire dialogue around identity, politics, and history.” The work is a testament to intersectional identity, exploring individuals who embody multiple identities at once and who reside at the limits of multiple communities. In particular, it deals with how LGBTQ Muslims are (re)defining themselves, either as active practitioners of Islam or as non-practicing Muslims who enjoy incorporating aesthetic or symbolic elements of Islam into their lives.
Samra Habib and El Farouk Khaki, the founder of Salaam, an organization that provides spaces and prayer services for queer Muslims, both identified a trend in Muslim communities where queer members feel obligated to live invisibly, to not claim their identities openly, as if being LGBTQ and being Muslim were mutually exclusive. They also acknowledge the need for queer Muslims to know about other kids who are the same as them and the imperative role that social media plays in connecting marginalized Muslims: “We were all isolated,” Khaki said. “We didn’t have validation. But we do now.” This is why safe spaces for intellectual exploration, such as the library, where social pressure is theoretically lessened, are necessary. However, perhaps it is visibility that is the most important issue at hand: marginalized people need to be able to personalize and humanize themselves before they can reclaim their identities. Samra Habib echoed this sentiment, commenting on her project: “While there has been discussion around multilayered identities in academia, there is a need for accessible visual representation that will serve as historical evidence of the existence of queer Muslims.”
“Just me and Allah” actively challenges the cultural myths the West has created about Muslims. It actively works to undo the specific narratives about gender, ethnicity, race, and religion mainstream media projects onto its viewership. Thus, Habib’s photos force us to confront those popular images of what Muslims look like, what a queer people look like etc. It turns the process of viewing, which is often accepted as a direct conduit to knowledge, into what it really is — a moment of exchange and interaction, and active interpretation.
Systems of marginalization propagate because dominant society believes marginalized peoples do not have any stakes within the system they occupy. These negative attitudes are still reflected in LIS: white librarians are happy to note the historical contributions of Muslim libraries, but this seldom translates into concern for contemporary Muslim users.
In this particular case, this leaves LIS completely unable to truly participate in this discussion of queer Muslims, and other such intersectional identities. So, how do we assess the information needs of individuals who do not fit into the niche we have created for them? In the queer Muslim community, many are the children of immigrants and Canadian-born, many are non-religious but identify with Islam culturally, thus some multicultural/multilingual services may apply to them, but many will not. Similarly, some LGBTQ services would apply to them, but many would not, and the same goes for any strictly religious services offered by the library. Yet, queer Muslims deserve access to materials that pertain to their lives, as there is no guarantee that a space dedicated solely to new Canadians or to LGBTQ people will be relevant or safe for them. At the end of the day, the onus is not on the user to create safe spaces, but rather on the librarians to anticipate the need for these spaces.
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 Ahmad F. Yousif, Muslims in Canada: A Question of Identity (Ottawa: Legas, 2008), p. 59.
 Ahmad F. Yousif, Muslims in Canada: A Question of Identity, p. 12.
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 Diane Watt, “Challenging Islamophobia Through Visual Media Studies: Inquiring into a Photograph of Muslim Women on the Cover of Canada’s National News Magazine,” Simile 8:2 (2008): 4.