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Muslim-American Internet Site Aims at Wide Audience - 2004-09-02


The Internet site is aimed at Muslims who embrace their heritage but reject a conservative vision of their religion. One of the founders of the web site says it caters to what he calls "progressive Muslims."

It is irreverent and racy, with articles on sex and love poetry, and more serious matters like violence against women and presidential politics. It deals with humanitarian issues like the killings in the Darfur region of Sudan, and offers debates over U.S. policy on topics like immigration.

The web site is aimed at the children of immigrants and Muslim converts of all sectarian shadings and ethnic backgrounds. Ahmed Nassef co-founded the site with a friend named Jawad Ali, and says tens of thousands of readers now visit the site.

"Our target audience is really Muslims in North America. So probably 85 to 90 percent of our readers come from that population of about seven million American and Canadian Muslims together," he said. "The rest come from mostly English-speaking countries like England and Australia."

Many, he says, are secularized Muslims or are religiously liberal and chafe at traditional restrictions, for example, the requirements that women cover their heads and be segregated from men while praying in mosques.

He says the site is aimed at what he calls a "silent majority" of liberal Muslims. "We see ourselves addressing this progressive Muslim movement that goes beyond that, that really is looking for a way for people to practice Islam, be Muslim according to their own definition of what that means, and at the same time be fully active members within American society," he said.

There is little information to gauge the religious beliefs of American Muslims because most surveys are conducted by religious organizations, who only pose questions to their own members.

But even a recent survey of religious Muslims in Detroit suggests they are moderate and have little tolerance for extremism. The survey by the Michigan-based Institute for Social Policy and Understanding found that 38-percent of active Muslims in Detroit call themselves "progressive," while 28 percent term themselves "traditional." Only eight-percent identified themselves as extremely conservative. The survey assumes that one-third of Detroit's Muslims attend mosques, while two-thirds do not.

Mr. Nassef says that many immigrant groups have struggled to find new ways to express their faith in a new country. He says that happened with European Jews, whose Reform branch of Judaism re-evaluated traditional practices, such as kosher food restrictions. He says the same re-evaluation is happening in Islam in informal settings.

"We are in a special position in the United States in that we have an opportunity to really discuss things in a very open environment," he said. "And we speak very loudly about our critique of U.S. foreign policy and domestic issues with civil liberties and so on, and we do it as Americans and people who love their country. But we're in a special position since we do not have the kind of intimidating situation that exists in many other parts of the world."

A regular feature on the web site is called "Hug a Jew," and Mr. Nassef says it is aimed at improving Jewish-Muslim relations. Many of the people featured, however, like Jewish American social critic Noam Chomsky, are critics of U.S. Mideast policy, like Mr. Nassef and many website columnists.

He says that in the past, Islamic thinkers welcomed open inquiry, and says that's one tradition his web site is promoting.