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American Muslims Disagree About Nature of Islam

A group of young Muslims – pious, intense, hostile - made Haitham Bundakji, the mosque chairman, uneasy. Isolated from other worshippers, they criticized him for wearing western clothes, for not wearing a beard, for reaching out to the Jewish community in Garden Grove, California. So it was not a complete surprise, writes the Washington Post, when the group produced an Islamic terrorist now sought by the FBI.

This is the kind of Islam Ahmed Nassef rejects. Executive director of the Progressive Muslim Union of North America, he says Islam is open, questing, inclusive. Yet too often its spokesmen, amplified in the media, are rigid and orthodox.

"We do have, of course, the ultra-conservative element that sees us as trying to change the faith, which is not what we are trying to do by any means," says Mr. Nassef. "We are actually trying to go back to our own vision of what Islam means; that is, an egalitarian, inclusive kind of vision."

Mr. Nassef says this broader view of Islam is to a large extent generational. Recent immigrants tend to cling to the traditions of their homelands, while their children and grandchildren reflect an American environment. "What this means is that we have a large number of people who are extremely comfortable with their American identity just as much as they are with a Muslim identity," says Mr. Nassef. "In many ways our Muslim institutions in America have lagged behind. They continue to be dominated by foreign issues, by people who are recent immigrants and plan to go back home."

This narrow approach tends to alienate many Muslims, says Mr. Nessef. Out of four to five million Muslims in America, only about ten percent have any relationship with mosques or Muslim institutions. "So the vast majority of them have really felt disaffected, disenfranchised, not welcome in many of the existing Muslim institutions. So we felt it is time to give voice to that silent segment that was not being expressed," says Mr. Nassef.

One voice is an internet website – – that discusses a range of issues once considered off limits. Among them is the increasing role of women in Islam. Nancy Sadiq, an Egyptian-born American Muslim who works at Cornell Medical Center in New York, told the Jerusalem Report that some mosque leaders insist women’s place is in the home. Not so, she says, if you read the Koran. She cites the Prophet Mohammed’s wife Aisha.

"In the Prophet’s time, a lot of the women who are exemplified by Aisha – may peace be upon her – were very progressive in their actions. They were included during war. They were involved in the community. They worked. They had children. They led prayer. They were just as scholarly in their religious beliefs and knowledge as men were."

Nancy Sadiq is a devout practicing Muslim who wears a head scarf, avoids alcohol and obeys Islamic law. This occasionally leads to trouble. On New York’s subway, a group of girls once yanked off her scarf and ripped her shirt with a razor blade while cursing her religion. Ahmed Nassef says critics come from two directions.

"We get equal emails from people telling us, you’re not a good Muslim and you need to stop calling yourself a Muslim. And then we get emails from people who say you’re Muslims, and I want you to stop talking and get out of my country or that kind of thing," says Mr. Nassef.

John Voll, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, says non-Muslim Americans must become more aware of the richness and variety of Islam. "In the broader historical trend, we have really entered a period where the old outlines of political Islam are now being blurred," says Mr. Voll. "Until recently, most of the people who would be thought of as Islamic activists also advocated a legalist implementation of Sharia in society. And that kind of political Islam – top down from the state to society, Islamization of society – in many ways has become the attitude of the past, the older generation."

Professor Voll says today’s progressive Muslims represent a strong, viable alternative to radical militants so much in the news. There is a battle underway for what some people call the soul of Islam.

"It’s very important for policy makers to recognize that this is not a struggle between separate individual civilizations, between Islam and the West or Islam and modernity," says Mr. Voll.

"What you have is an argument within the Muslim world between the progressive Muslims who are firmly part of the modern world against the more radical extremists that are represented by something like al-Qaeda." Whoever wins that battle, says Professor Voll, is crucial for both Islam and the rest of the world.