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Quest to Create “Progressive” Islam

  • Carolyn Weaver

A new movement of young American Muslims is finding followers and creating controversy - all in the quest to create what they call a "progressive" Islam. Carolyn Weaver has a report.

It made headlines throughout the Muslim world last month when a group of young Americans held a mixed-gender Friday prayer service led by a woman. It wouldn't have happened without co-organizer Ahmed Nassef and his widely-read web site, muslimwakeup.com, which is aimed at an estimated five-million Muslims in North America.

Ahmed Nassef says, "Only about 10% of them attend mosques on a weekly basis. Now the vast number out there, the other 90% or so of American Muslims - they're not really associated with any institutions. So, we wanted to address that large segment that wasn't being addressed: both those who are very religious, but who are liberal in terms of their social ideas and political views, and also the people who may not be religious at all, but who have some sort of cultural identification with being Muslim."

For Mr. Nassef, an Egyptian-American with a marketing background, that means appealing to young Muslims like himself, who grew up inside dual - and dueling - cultures: conservative Islam and socially liberal America. So, MuslimWakeUp takes on the most sensitive topics, such as anti-Semitism, Islamist extremism, women's rights, and homosexuality - not only in political articles, but through poetry, fiction and humor.

"One of the things we wanted to do from the beginning is to dispel this notion that Muslims can't talk about anything fun as Muslims. What that leads to a lot of the time is kind of this double-life mentality, where if I'm in a mosque or Islamic setting, I have to be very serious and solemn, but then I have a different kind of lifestyle outside of that. And we wanted to go back to this kind of holistic idea of what being a Muslim is about," says Mr. Nassef.

About 70,000 people visit the two-year-old site every month. One of its most popular sections is a forum on sexuality, a topic that Mr. Nassef says wasn't always taboo:

"Traditionally, Muslims have been very open about dealing with sexual topics. So, we've done that -we've featured everything from fiction, erotic fiction with Muslim themes, or that feature Muslim characters, all the way to topics dealing with gay and lesbian Muslim issues, for example. We featured a column by a physician who just answered questions that young people might have," says Mr. Nassef.

Last year, Mr. Nassef and co-founder Jawad Ali also began using the website to organize informal "meet ups" of Muslims in cities around North America. A new political organization, the Progressive Muslim Union, was born from those last winter. Its first order of business: the woman-led mixed-gender prayer. But it's been a controversial and risky enterprise. Ahmed Nassef has received death threats, and hackers have shut down the MuslimWakeup web site twice. And even like-minded Muslims, such as Shahed Amanullah, who runs another popular web site, altmuslim.org, have reservations about the degree of change that's possible - or even desirable - among Muslims in America.

Shahed Amanullah explains, "If our goal is to change mainstream Muslim opinion about some of these issues, and have them take a serious look at them, then we have to do it at a level that they respect. I would hate for a debate over what is progressive to overshadow some of the real points we're trying to make, about accountability, about equal access for women."

Mr. Amanullah and his wife, Hina Azam, an Islamic studies scholar, say they, too, want more participation by women in mosques. But Ms. Azam says that her reading of Islamic law suggests no support for female imams:

"It would require really a new legal methodology. The traditional legal methodology doesn't really allow for that. It's possible, but it would take a lot of time and a lot of effort," says Mrs. Azam.

Hina Azam and her husband say they are more traditional on some issues, such as sexual mores. And they say that even naming the movement "progressive" may be problematic:

"The word 'progressive' tends to lead one further and further to a particular edge. When you call yourself progressive, you're inevitably going to keep on pushing the envelope," explains Hina Azam.

Ahmed Nassef, however, is certain that American Muslims are eager for change. He says, "Muslims want this kind of thing to happen. In the end, we need choices as a community. If people want to practice Islam in a very conservative kind of environment, there are places for them to do so. There are other Muslims who want to have spaces that are open and pluralistic. And they need those spaces, and we're building that."

The debate about a "progressive" Islam continues on muslimwakeup.com - which Ahmed Nassef says he hopes to publish next in Arabic, Pashto and Urdu versions.

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