Isaac Firman is a Malaysian cartoonist. His work focuses on highlighting everyday problems faced by gay men in a heavily religious Islamic society. His relatable and hard-hitting cartoons underscore the reality of being gay in an oppressive environment.
He graciously agreed to speak with Clarion Project Dialogue Coordinator Elliot Friedland about his work. Cartoons are reproduced with the permission of the artist.
1.How did you first get into cartooning? What draws you to the medium?
I’ve been drawing since kindergarten, but I started making these cartoons last year. I think it’s easier to talk about difficult topics in the form of cartoons, because people are more likely to open up and give their opinions over a lighthearted cartoon than a long news article.
2.Do you have a specific message that you want to get out with your art or are you just trying to express yourself?
When I initially made my cartoons, I was only doing it for fun. But eventually I noticed that there are lots of other gay Muslims who feel the same way as me. That’s when I decided to tweak the cartoons with a slight religious bent. Now, I just wanted other gay Muslims out there to know that they are not alone.
And I wanted straight Muslims to know that we are normal human beings who just want a normal happy life, just like them.
3.What has the response been like to your cartoons?
It’s a mix of positive and negative. Most of the negative ones come from Muslims who condemn me for making Islam look bad. But the truth is, the things that they are reading are the reality gay Muslims face on a daily basis.
I’ve also gotten some heartfelt thanks from closeted gay Muslims as far as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, which really motivate me to keep going.
5.You were recently banned from Facebook for being anti-Islam. What happened?
Initially, I posted my cartoons on my personal Facebook account. Eventually, people started sharing my cartoons everywhere, and I started to get threats and insults from homophobic people. I guess they were so angry that they reported every single cartoon for nudity and hate speech against Muslims. Both are against Facebook rules, so eventually Facebook agreed with them and banned me – for the third time.
Given that most of my cartoons poke fun at Muslim attitudes and gay Muslims, I ended up starting a Facebook page to avoid problems with my personal account.
5.Many other critics of Islam have been taken down from social media. Why do you think tech companies are not safeguarding gay people and other minorities in Muslim countries who want to criticise Islam?
I think, at the end of the day, tech companies are out there to make money. Sometimes, they have to sacrifice their core values for a quick buck. In fact, Facebook is desperately trying to set up shop in China, and I’m sure the company is more than willing to play second fiddle to the Chinese government. That’s just how business works, sadly.
6.A lot of your cartoons talk about the repression and self-hatred that gay people growing up in religious communities experience. How did you face that struggle and come to terms with yourself as a gay man?
When I was younger, I hated myself for being gay and contemplated suicide many times. I was so lost, but there is nobody for me to turn to, because let’s be honest – most Muslims are homophobic and will tell me to repent. If only it was that easy!
During my university years, I came out to my close friends. Some of them tried to “fix” me (i.e. make me straight). Others grew more distant. In the end, I ended these toxic friendships. I’m hesitant to lose more friends, so I kept quiet about my sexuality to the remaining friends I had. And I could never come out to my parents, because I know it’ll break their heart!
I think the turning point was in 2016, when the gay nightclub shooting in Orlando happened. When the local media reported the news on their Facebook/Twitter page, the comment section was full of hatred. It was so bad that I felt disgusted, and lost respect towards Islam as a religion. I began to be more vocal on my criticism of Islam, and that was also when I begin to come to terms with my sexuality.
Even so, I always pretend to be straight whenever I meet someone new. You just have to do whatever it takes to stay safe.
7.You grew up in a Muslim family in Malaysia. Are there parts of Islam that you like and would want to hang onto despite the religion clashing with your sexuality?
I like how Islam teaches a non-materialistic, sober and restrained lifestyle. There are many things in Islam that I strongly disagree with, but at the end of the day, my identity was shaped by this religion. I know several people who abandoned Islam and I have a lot of respect for them, but to me, Islam is a cultural identity that I identify with.
8.Do you think Islam and homosexuality will always be incompatible?
100 years ago, homosexuality was a crime in most of Europe. They justified it on the basis of religion. If we go even further back, people justified slavery in the name of religion! But society evolves over time, so I expect the same to happen in the Muslim world.
Sure it will be slow, and I might not live to see it. But I’m optimistic that it will happen in the future. Maybe 100 years from now.
9.Let’s say you were talking to a teenager who lives in a Muslim county in a strict Muslim household and has just realized they are gay. What would you say to that person?
You are fine the way you are. People will mock you, insult you, say whatever they want – but their words have no power over you, unless if you let them.