THE BLOG
02/12/2013 05:31 pm ET Updated Apr 14, 2013

Lonely Progressive Muslims: Trapped in the Crossfire Between Islamophobes and Intra-Muslim Hatred

There is a new but largely unrecognized phenomenon in Europe and North America, a nascent but steadily growing movement of Muslim feminists and progressives. Some are independent, solitary individuals. Others are organized. One of the leading organizations is headquartered in Los Angeles: Muslims for Progressive Values. Across the Atlantic in London is British Muslims for Secular Democracy and a little further north is MECO, the Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford. Similar to other organizations found in France, Holland and Germany, these three campaign for an Islam for the 21st century and are wholly unrepentant about their enthusiasm for Western society.

These forward-thinking Muslims don't necessarily agree with one another on everything but what they have in common is their enduring love for Islam parallel to a rejection of conservative interpretations of the Qur'an and Sunnah as well -- as one might expect -- a categorical condemnation of Jihadism. The movement can be a lonely one, however, since they frequently have only themselves for company. There are three significant reasons for this.

First, the media seldom give progressive Muslims coverage because they are merely emerging and not yet considered mainstream enough to matter. Therefore, the very concept of Muslim feminism -- if mentioned at a dinner party -- sounds oxymoronic. Worse, the word shari'a evokes images of horrific medieval physical punishments instead of its true nature, i.e. a code of conduct for good behavior to build character. Without public recognition and a serious discussion of these ideas, progressive Islam gains no currency.

Secondly, Islamophobes are frequently ideological in their hatred of Muslims and they don't want to hear anything positive. For them, liberal Muslims are not liberal enough. If they were truly "liberal," they argue, they'd be atheist or at least agnostic. Why, Islamophobes ask, do they cling to their faith and identify as "believers." How, for example, can British Muslims for Secular Democracy still be religious? The problem here is that many Islamophobes conflate secular with atheism and fail to appreciate that it merely signifies a separation of church and state.

Thirdly, there is the other side: mainstream and/or traditional Muslims whose interpretations of the Qur'an and Sunnah are conservative at best, Jihadist at worst with a wide variety of nuanced differences in the middle. These are the Muslims who are not comfortable with diversity and unorthodox beliefs. For many of them, progressive Muslims are an abomination. They see them as heretics, defectors and apostates who have no right to call themselves Muslim.

Among these traditional Muslims is a sub-division that hates anything Western. Locked into a colonial mentality, they refuse to even use the phrase "feminism" because it is a Western construct from a corrupt, exploitative and immoral culture. The logical extension of this is that any acceptance of "progressive" ideas becomes the equivalent of capitulation to the enemy. Does this sound extreme? Unfortunately, it is not. At a 2012 conference at the venerable Boalt Hall Law School at UC, Berkeley, a conference entitled Critical Discourses on Islamophobia gave legitimacy to this idea when more than one speaker referred either directly or obliquely to the phenomenon of "the good Muslim." Evidently, this is a pejorative term, referring to any Muslim who not only enjoys living in the West but also embraces so-called Western values. Progressive Muslims, therefore, have enemies. Some have received death threats. Others just get a steady dose of vitriolic hate mail.

Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im is one of them. As Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law at Emory Law School, he is an internationally recognized scholar of Islam and human rights. Originally from Sudan, Prof. An-Na'im calls his commitment to human rights an "African Muslim value" and cautions the rest of us not to believe it is exclusively Western. An-Na'im likes to call himself a heretic and says that heresy is necessary to challenge the status quo. He says that ijtihad, which means critical thinking, is not restricted to the so-called ulama but the obligation of every Muslim. He asserts further that the priests historically claimed an exclusive role in the interpretation of the Qur'an and the Sunnah in order to maintain their class privilege. An-Na'im believes that a separation of church and state is the only way a person can practice his faith with free will. He also says that shari'a is not immutable because it is a human invention and that if you mentioned it to Muslims in the first or second century after Mohammed, they wouldn't know what you were talking about. It evolved, he says, in the 3rd century and can evolve even more in the 21st century for a modern society.

Ani Zonneveld is a professional musician and songwriter in Hollywood but also the co-founder and President of MPV, Muslims for Progressive Values. Originally from Malaysia and married to a non-Muslim from The Netherlands, Zonneveld says that progressive Islam is a "thinking religion" and not for "sheep." She says the foundation of Islam is justice and that any form of exclusivity is un-Islamic. "It is unjust to discriminate against people because of their sexuality," she says. Therefore, MPV champions the rights of the LGBTQ community and offers a religious home to Muslim gays in MPV's gender egalitarian mosque. Zonneveld is also opposed to full-face veiling because it is not, she says, Islamic but an inherited custom that historically was given a religious veneer. Ani calls the faithful to prayer and officiates at interfaith marriages.

Progressive Muslims will remain marginalized until the media start to give them more attention and Islamophobes cut them some slack. They'll never be acceptable to conservatives. In the meantime, you can hear more from Abdullahi An Na'im and Ani Zonneveld along with seven others by clicking here.