by Shanon Shah
As a gay man from Malaysia, I often feel conflicted when Malaysia makes the headlines, especially on gender or sexuality. It pains me that there is still so much homophobia and transphobia there but, at the same time, it is deeply frustrating when the news reports – especially in the Western media – resort to stereotypes and distorted views about Islam or non-Western cultures. These ideas can be downright condescending, especially when they are spouted by people with supposedly liberal, Western perspectives. It exhausts me greatly to clarify repeatedly that there is more to Malaysia – and Islam – than this.
Doing doctoral research about gay Muslims in Malaysia and Britain helped me to analyse the issue more critically, including by understanding how these stereotypes also affect other former British colonies and Muslim societies. Around the time I was doing my fieldwork, in 2012 and 2013, the headlines were also rife with homophobia in Uganda and Nigeria. Being Malaysian, however, I knew in my heart that there had to be more to these countries than what was in the news cycle.
LGBTQ Muslims at London Pride in 2015 (Photo courtesy of Shanon Shah)
Part of that knowledge came from getting to know the members of the St John’s congregation from different African backgrounds. Thus, when the dust had settled after I finished my PhD, I jumped at the chance to attend the Ugandan Martyr’s Day service at Okusinza mu Luganda. By this time, I was aware of how Martyr’s Day was used by some sections in Uganda to justify homophobia, but I also knew that this wasn’t the whole story. More importantly, I wanted to experience Martyr’s Day for myself, Okusinza style.
Giles and Alice Mwanje catching up after the Martyr’s Day service in 2018
Photo courtesy of Shanon Shah.
Martyr’s Day, Okusinza style
When we arrived, Canon Giles Goddard (my beloved spouse) and I were ushered to the front aisle like guests of honour – we were even singled out for thanks by Reverend Godfrey Kaziro in his welcoming remarks. Immediately afterwards, we were each served with a plateful of Ugandan delicacies. “I’m sorry,” I said, slightly nervously, “I can’t eat this right now because I’m keeping my Ramadan fast.” The Ugandan auntie holding my plate looked at another Ugandan auntie who nodded and took it away. Within five minutes, she returned with the goodies packed neatly in a carrier bag. “For your iftar (the Ramadan fast-breaking meal),” she said. No fuss about me fasting, no fuss about me being gay, but plenty of delight that both Giles and I were there to join in the festivities.
I’ve been reliving many of these memories while conducting interviews for the Waterloo Festival’s 2020 digital edition to commemorate the start of Okusinza’s 30th anniversary celebrations. The interviews have featured Godfrey’s pastoral voice and our organist Michaiah Mukiibi’s musical reflections, both of whom are familiar faces to many St John’s members. I enjoyed the added privilege of speaking at length to co-founder Dorothy Mukasa and Okusinza’s behind-the-scenes tech wiz Stephen Kafeero. I even had a chance to catch up properly with Sara Kwagala, whom I often greeted warmly but hurriedly on Sundays, BC (Before Coronavirus). But what made me – a gay Malaysian man of Muslim background who only moved to the UK less than a decade ago – so passionate about this modest project with Okusinza?
Melba and Shanon holding meeting up just before the Black Lives Matter demonstration at Parliament Square on 6 June 2020
I came to the UK in 2010 initially to pursue my Master in Religion in Contemporary Society at King’s College London. I was meant to be here for only a year and then return to Malaysia – I had begun to establish myself as a journalist with The Nut Graph, an independent news analysis site there.
Circumstances then changed. I fell in love – with Giles and with my academic studies – and I decided to stay on. One day, Melba, whom I was gradually getting to know better, approached me in church after a Sunday service and presented me with a homemade cake. I was incredibly moved, but this was in the middle of Ramadan, so I said tactfully, “I’ll make sure I tuck into this delicious cake in the evening – I won’t have it right now as I’m fasting.”
“Me too,” said Melba.
And, just like that, I experienced St John’s Waterloo on an entirely different level. This effortless comfort with Muslim-Christian hybridity was rare even in the multi-cultural, multi-religious Malaysia I know and love.
Incidentally, I’ve also experienced this breezy comfort with the Sierra Leonean members of the congregation, many of whom would not bat an eyelid if a Christian attended a mosque or a Muslim went to church. One of my other favourite early memories of St John’s was my first bring-and-share lunch when I had the pleasure of devouring Rebecca Paul’s legendary jollof rice. “Auntie Rebecca,” I whispered to her some months later, “Your jollof rice is the main reason I come to St John’s.” Rebecca hushed me but broke into peals of laughter when I said I’d already confessed this to Giles.
And, as a final tangent, quite early on I was accosted by Maureen Mills, who said, “Shanon, I hear you’re Muslim.”
“Yes?” I replied, cautiously.
“Well can you come over and talk to my Beavers and Scouts for their diversity badge, please? I need me a Muslim speaker because I certainly can’t talk about Islam,” said Maureen. We both laughed and I said yes.
Shanon Shah chatting with members of St John's congregation.
Photo courtesy of Eleanor Bentall
These bite-sized experiences quickly started adding up. Soon, I realised that Okusinza – along with jollof rice and the Beavers – was becoming part of my story here in the UK. But it’s a story that remained frustratingly invisible or side-lined whenever I got stuck in discussions about religion and inclusivity, whether at dinner parties or academic conferences. In the years since, I have longed to share these stories, but in ways that not only illuminate my personal experiences. I’ve wanted to do justice to the many layers of engagement that shape St John’s Waterloo, starting with the profound contributions of Okusinza mu Luganda.
Storytelling and activism have always gone hand in hand for me. In Malaysia, my baptism of fire at The Nut Graph happened when Malay supremacist politicians started fomenting anti-Chinese and anti-Indian rhetoric after the watershed elections of 2008. “Squatters” was the ugly word used to dismiss Malaysians of immigrant, minority ethnic backgrounds, and populist Malay politicians often manipulated Islamic teachings to justify this bigotry.
Yet the Malay Archipelago has a rich history of hybridity which pre-dated independence and European colonialism. I therefore pitched a feature article to my editor which would involve talking to well-known Malaysians about their backgrounds. Scratch beneath the surface, I said, and you’d be hard pressed to find an ethnic Malay individual who didn’t also have Indian, Chinese, Arab, Thai, Indonesian, Filipino or even European ancestry.
My editor, Jacqueline Ann Surin – an ex-Catholic feminist of Portuguese-Eurasian and Chinese extraction – loved this idea so much from me, her hybrid Pakistani-Chinese Muslim colleague, that she made it a weekly fixture. We made sure the entire team was involved and we all sought Malaysians from as many backgrounds as possible to tell their stories and share their hopes for the nation. This is what gave birth to our hugely popular “Found in Malaysia” interview series, which we eventually compiled into two best-selling book volumes.
These interviews effectively turned the post-independence narrative of Malaysia on its head. The official version of the Malaysian story is that we are a predominantly Malay and Muslim nation which skilfully accommodates a diverse array of ethnic minorities via a unique framework of multiculturalism and consociationalism. At The Nut Graph, we flipped this story to say that we are and always have been a hybrid nation even from the glory days of our Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms and our pre-colonial Malay sultanates. European colonialisms expanded our diversity, but at the cost of imposing racist divide-and-rule policies which our post-independence autocrats have only been too happy to continue.
Christmas Carol Service, conducted by Samuel Kimuli. Photo courtesy of Shanon Shah.
Found in Waterloo?
My contribution to Okusinza’s 30th anniversary celebrations – and Okusinza has much more in store, so do stay tuned – is probably also my personal “Found in St John’s Waterloo” project. Something that’s repeatedly struck me about the concept of an “inclusive church” is that inclusivity is almost always defined through the prism of white, British and, dare I say it, middle-class experience. To achieve inclusion, it sometimes feels like one simply needs to add women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ), or disabled, or ethnic minority people to the mix and stir – and then everything will magically become OK.
What I’ve learnt from Okusinza mu Luganda is that this story can and should be flipped, too. Many members of Okusinza form part of the backbone of St John’s Waterloo, now and over the past three decades. Also, whilst the debate on equal marriage in the church rages on – accompanied by the pervasive stereotypes that black and brown countries are exceptionally homophobic – many Okusinza members have been here for me and Giles as a constant source of friendship and encouragement. And as we as a congregation reflect on the implications of Black Lives Matter on our mission and fellowship, we’ve actually benefited from the contributions of a church with uniquely Ugandan origins right here in St John’s since the early 1990s. It’s never been a case of simply adding Okusinza to the St John’s pot and stirring.
I hope this is only the start of how we reciprocate and support Okusinza as they move forward and flourish. I also hope this signals the next phase of how we, at St John’s, can do the delightful work of deepening our ethos as an inclusive church.
Shanon Shah is the national coordinator of Faith for the Climate and the author of The Making of a Gay Muslim: Religion, Sexuality and Identity in Malaysia and Britain. He is also part of the Waterloo Festival’s programme committee and sings in the St John’s Choir during Sunday service.
You can read more about Shanon Shah here: a conversation with our Festival Director on his experiences as a journalist.