New Muslim group challenges the status quo: "Progressive Muslim Union of North America" comes as a Ramadan gift
- Oct. 07, 2004
Progressive American Muslims
Push for Reinterpretation of Islam
By RACHEL ZOLL
The Miami Herald
NEW YORK - The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks emboldened many outside the Muslim
community to demand Islamic leaders re-examine religious teachings on
matters from war to women's rights.
But in the United States, the latest call for reform is coming from within.
On Nov. 15, as the holy month of Ramadan is expected to end, a group of
mostly young Muslims plans to launch the Progressive Muslim Union of North
America in New York.
As their name suggests, the organization will take positions that
conservatives consider objectionable, even heretical: Progressives believe
women should have a broader role in mosques; they back gay rights; and they
believe Muslims should borrow from traditions as varied as Buddhism and the
U.S. civil rights movement to reshape Islam for modern times.
"When you've been taught ever since you can remember that Islam is a certain
thing, especially as women ... you reach a certain point where it's not
tenable anymore," said Sarah Eltantawi, 28, one of four founders of the
Progressive Union. "People need to feel that there is an alternative Islamic
space that has some legitimacy that they can turn to."
The organizers are taking significant risks with their platform.
Progressives intend to speak out publicly against Muslim practices they
consider harmful, at a highly sensitive time when the community fears
fueling prejudice against Islam. And by promoting acceptance of
homosexuality and women's religious leadership, they leave themselves open
to accusations that their agenda is not truly Muslim.
Sayyid Syeed, secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America, a
leading Muslim organization in this country, warned that "creating forums
and making them too radical" will alienate other Muslims.
"They might have something good on other issues," Syeed said, but their more
controversial positions - on homosexuality, for example - will undermine
"It will do a disservice," Syeed said.
Omid Safi, a religion professor at Colgate University and another founder of
the Progressive Union, said the movement must take these chances.
Progressives will not be "standing outside pointing an accusatory finger" at
other Muslims; they want the religion to flourish, he said.
"We're trying to make it clear that this is somehow more than just a bunch
of Muslim people who just happen to be socially progressive," said Safi,
editor of the book "Progressive Muslims," which serves as a guide for the
movement. "We're confronting a lot of problematic practices that are part of
our faith and our community, while also admitting and acknowledging that
there are incredible reservoirs of wisdom for us to draw upon from our
The idea for the new organization grew from the Web site muslimwakeup.com.
Ahmed Nassef, 38, a former marketing consultant and progressive activist who
grew up in California, created the site with a friend about two years ago to
find like-minded Muslims.
The site is anything but timid.
It openly criticizes major U.S. Muslim organizations for being too
conservative and hosts discussion boards where Muslims debate the future of
their religion. It also includes many provocative articles on topics such as
Muslim women's sexuality, while running a "Hug a Jew," feature that profiles
progressive Jews with a photo of them embracing a Muslim.
Muslim activists from overseas who cannot get their work published in their
own countries often ask Nassef to post their writings on his Web site.
Muslimwakeup.com has quickly built a readership, reaching nearly 2.8 million
hits last month, Nassef said. A few months ago, Progressive Muslim Meetup
chapters grew from the site and now draw about 750 people for monthly
gatherings nationwide, he said.
There are comparable progressive movements among Muslims in South Africa,
Iran, Malaysia and elsewhere, that, like the American movement, include a
critique of U.S. foreign and economic policies, and human rights abuses in
Muslim and non-Muslim countries.
However, U.S. activists see something particularly American about how the
ideas are spreading here.
The Muslim community in the United States is one of the most diverse in the
world, encompassing Arabs, South Asians, Europeans and U.S.-born blacks.
Among the thinkers the U.S. progressives are studying are the Rev. Martin
Luther King Jr. and Elie Wiesel.
Yet, their chances for becoming a major influence in the United States are
Studies have found that the majority of U.S. Muslims are not active in
mosques or affiliated with national Muslim groups. Nassef hopes they will
find a home in the Progressive Union.
"Part of our mission as Muslims, as we see it, is to stand for justice in
our community as well as critique what's outside of it," Nassef said. "As an
American, I want to make sure that my country is doing what is right. As a
Muslim, I want to make sure things are being done right in the name of our