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Irshad Manji Headshot

Wanted: Reformist Muslims In Obama's Campaign

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For now, forget who he'll pick for vice-president. Barack Obama first has to fill a different job vacancy.

That's because his Muslim outreach coordinator, Mazen Asbahi, has just resigned. I can't say I'm disheartened. He'd been embraced by groups like the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the Islamic Society of North America, renowned for their conservative politics and "moderate" double-speak.

Because Obama's campaign trumpets "Change We Can Believe In," he needs reform-minded Muslims. I mean Muslims who recognize that the Quran has been left in a 7th-century tribal time warp. Its interpretations can and must be updated for the pluralistic context of the 21st century.

In my experience, most Muslim moderates won't go there. They insist that "classical" interpretations are the answer. As if 10th-century Muslims dealt with exactly the same dilemmas that we have today.

Who, then, could Obama tap as his next Muslim outreach coordinator? Without having consulted either of them, I nominate two reform-minded Muslims:

* Zainab Al-Suwaij -- executive director of the American Islamic Congress (AIC), which promotes Muslim introspection and personal responsibility. Sound familiar? These are precisely the themes that animate Obama's adult expectations of his African-American community.

The AIC describes itself as being "passionate about moderation." As I much as I take issue with moderates, Zainab's brand of moderation has serious integrity. Her AIC is the first major Muslim organization to speak out about Arab participation in the Sudanese genocide. For that alone, this woman is an agent of moral courage.

Bonus: In the Save Darfur campaign, she's worked right alongside George Clooney. Isn't he about to throw a fund-raising dinner for Obama? On the off-chance that my own recommendation doesn't cut it, Clooney could pull the Democratic candidate aside and give him a first-hand reference about Zainab.

Finally, she's Iraqi-American at a time when such a pedigree matters. Born in Basra, Zainab shuttles between Iraq and the U.S. every few weeks, bringing back key insights from ordinary folks -- information that Obama could surely use to positive effect. And what a signal it would send to the people of Iraq that he's got one of their own as his ambassador to Muslims in America.

* Asra Q. Nomani -- journalist and activist for the rights of women in Islam. She was a close colleague of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter slain by militant Islamists in Pakistan. That moment sealed Asra's conviction about the need for religious reform.

Since then, she's led the Muslim Women's Freedom Tour -- a series of sit-ins at mosques that segregate women and men. It got results, shaming establishment players such to advocate female-friendly mosque spaces.

Asra has also helped organize the first widely documented woman-led mix-gender prayer in Islamic history. Held in New York City in March 2005, that event blew the lid off a simmering debate throughout the Muslim world -- a debate, now full-throated, about whether women can be imams.

The ramifications for America could be huge. Studies routinely show that in any society, women's status has implications every other quality of life indicator, including economic development and political stability. In their own way, Asra's efforts contribute to American national security.

Above all, her Pakistani heritage, combined with her insider knowledge of how authority operates in South Asia, can only prove valuable for Obama. He's trying to move the war on terror from Iraq to the Afghan/Pakistani border. Which will require serious outreach to Pakistani-Americans as much as to the people of the sub-continent. Need I say more?

Both of these women are provocative for being authentically themselves. Both have been excoriated by Muslim-American defenders of the status quo. Both represent a generation that's still dissed by the feudal elders who steer too many of our mosques and community groups. Beyond that, they're perfect.

Correction: Because of that, they're perfect. Zainab and Asra are the change that Obama advertises. Which is why I can see them sharing the job as co-directors of Muslim outreach for his campaign.

Oh, and one wears the headscarf while the other doesn't. You might wonder what message that would convey. Freedom of expression? Diversity of belief? Bipartisan cooperation of sorts?

Yes, yes and yes. It's the revolutionary ethos of America bringing out the reformist potential of Islam -- and vice-versa. Let the recruiting begin.