This story has been updated with new interviews.
On March 29, 2016, Farrokh Sekaleshfar — a British-born medical doctor and Shi’a Muslim scholar — was invited to speak at the Husseini Islamic Center just outside Orlando, Florida.
His sermon, “How to deal with the phenomenon of homosexuality,” at the Sanford-based center, happened behind closed doors, but it alarmed local gay and lesbian leaders. Only three years before, in another U.S. speaking engagement, the scholar and sheikh had described in characteristically sotto voce what it meant to do the compassionate thing for gay people:
“Death is the sentence. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about this. Death is the sentence.”
He continued: “We have to have that compassion for people. With homosexuals, it’s the same. Out of compassion, let’s get rid of them now.”
Portions of that 2013 sermon at the University of Michigan, were captured by Orlando TV station WFTV in the video report shown above, uploaded to YouTube by the Islamophobic group “United West.”
Sekaleshfar’s comments represented one particularly harsh Islamic perspective on gays — one that’s not shared widely by Muslims, particularly in the United States. But in light of the Sunday morning attack on Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando — the deadliest mass-shooting in U.S. history — many observers were raising questions about Sekaleshfar’s invitation to speak in Orlando on homosexuality just weeks ago.
“The management at the Husseini Islamic Centre were unaware of these remarks when he was invited,” a representative of the Orlando mosque told Fusion. “Please understand that the singular views of guest speakers do not represent those of the Husseini Islamic Center. We want to reiterate that nothing, absolutely nothing, can justify yesterday’s atrocious actions.”
Fusion got in touch with Dr. Sekaleshfar, who lives in the holy city of Qum in Iran and is currently traveling in Sydney, Australia.
Asked what his reactions are to today’s attacks, he told Fusion through Facebook, “I am totally against the barbaric act of violence that has happened. In no way at all can such a killing be justified Islamically.”
He called Orlando shooter Omar Mateen Siddiqui “an ill and perverted, animalistic entity who has abused an ideology to satiate his sad, twisted desires.”
Asked specifically about his March comments about gays in Orlando, as well as his better-known 2013 speech, Sekaleshfar called his approach an “academic discussion” in which he was describing the “theoretical angle as to what Islam says.”
“I never gave the call to a death sentence,” he said, adding that lines of his 2013 speech had been taken out of context. “I was explaining what Islamic law – in a country whose people democratically desired Islamic law to be exercised – states in relation to NOT homosexuals, but rather in relation to when the act of anal copulation is executed in such an aforementioned public,” he said.
WFTV, which reported in March on the Orlando sermon, focused on the tone of Sekaleshfar’s homosexuality-oriented lecture at the University of Michigan three years earlier. That lecture was recorded and uploaded to YouTube, where it’s available today:
In it, Sekaleshfar took issue with the perception that he was advocating hatred of homosexuals, “Because the sinner is Allah’s creation,” he said. “You could never hate Allah’s creation.”
Following the attacks, Sekaleshfar told Fusion he would call for Muslim leaders to invite LGBT leaders to talk and listen.
Asked about inviting the LGBT community into a mosque, he told Fusion, “Even if one were to believe that LGBT members coming inside the mosque is a sign of disrespect to the mosque, that does not matter, because the dialogue need not take place in the mosque.
Reverend Bryan Fulwider of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida called the sheikh’s comments on homosexuality as a “terrible statement.”
Fulwider has a history of working with the LGBT and Muslim communities in Orlando, including with Muhammad Musri, imam and president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida. Together, they host, The Three Wise Guys, an NPR affiliate radio program, along with Rabbi Steven Engel, of the Congregation of Reform Judaism in Orlando.
The harsher attitudes of some Muslims toward homosexuality could never be carried out because the requirements are impossible to reach, according to Fulwider. Under Islamic law, Sekaleshfar told WFTV, to be convicted of committing a homosexual act, four people have to witness it.
Still, Fulwider said he’s not defending the sheikh at all. The reverend said he’s focused on bringing calm to the vulnerable LGBT community and vulnerable Muslim community that have “become intertwined by a mad man.”
“What this young man did has nothing to with the values of the Islamic community; it has to do with hatred, and probably derangement of some sort,” he said.
Fusion also reached out to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which offered only the following statement on today’s shooting:
“This horrific situation is still fresh and information is still unfolding. We couldn’t add anything to what is already being said by investigators and other officials.”
The Husseini Islamic Center, which was founded in 1990, offered the following statement on Twitter and Facebook following today’s Orlando attack:
The Center’s Media Director, Dr. Aunali Khaku, also provided the following statement in a press release:
Husseini Islamic Center of Florida Condemns Orlando Shooting
(Sanford, FL – June 12, 2016) Members of the Husseini Islamic Center of Florida join fellow Americans in condemning today’s shooting attack in Orlando. We share in the grief and sorrow of the nation. Our hearts go out to the victims and their families.
“We condemn this horrific attack and offer our heartfelt condolences to the families and loved ones of all those killed or injured,” said HIC Media Director Dr. Aunali Khaku. “Our community stands united with our fellow Americans in denouncing any action that would claim to justify such atrocious acts of violence.
We are encouraging our members to donate blood and support any and all efforts to alleviate the pain and suffering caused by this tragedy.”
This story has been updated with new interviews since its original post, and clarifies that Sekaleshfar’s comments on homosexuality were taken from his 2-13 Michigan speech, not his closed-doors talk in Orlando.