Activist and co-founder of Muslims for Progressive Values Ani Zonneveld explains how Islam fits into her modern life.
I was a closeted Muslim. As a songwriter and producer in secular America, being closeted is better, easier. I wasn’t trying to be an activist, definitely was not trying to "make a difference," except for myself. But all my life my dad had always hammered in the values of “making my life count.” I only understood the meaning and recognized the weight of those words as the aftermath of 9/11 presented itself. That was a turning point.
My journey to co-founding and running Muslims for Progressive Values started with reassessing Islam, leaving no stone unturned, throwing out what I was raised to believe as Islam and shifting my identity to this newly discovered, pure, liberating version.
There are many progressive scholarly books out there, and living in America gave me access to them. Most importantly, the books opened my heart and my eyes and it allowed me to think freely and to live out those idealistic values promoted in the Quran. The traditional mosque was no longer good enough. And so I left.
At the mosque men always led prayer, women always at the back. The fact that we don’t pray segregated in Mecca, Islam’s holiest place, became an alien concept in the mosque. Wouldn’t it be wonderful for families to pray together?
Why are Muslim women sexualized? Islam doesn’t sexualize women, but Muslims sure do, when all that matters is how a woman dresses--not what she speaks. The latest belief is the idea that women’s entry to heaven is hinged on her obedience to her husband. Then there’s the "honor" system, female genital mutilation, and the horrible miss-interpretation of verse 4:34 (which many misinterpret to mean that men are superior to women).
And what about LGBT Muslims? Why such a homophobic stance, when God the most merciful created gays? Why such severe punishment of gays when Prophet Muhammad himself never punished them, nor is there a prescribed punishment in the Quran?
I started a progressive community in Los Angeles on January 6, 2006. I wanted a community that expressed an Islam that was relevant to this century; not just as some abstract values system, but one that is put to practice, where a woman and LGBTQ Muslims were of equal spiritual status as straight men; where compassion and love for humanity was emphasized, rather than heaven and hell; where women were given opportunities to lead prayer, give the sermon, and do the call for prayer; where a woman’s singing voice and the arts had total freedom of expression. I wanted a community where we all could be honest with each other rather than pretend to be "good" Muslims.
Since the founding of Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV) we now have chapters not just in the U.S., but in Canada and France, and with interest in other countries. We believe Islam is inherently progressive, inclusive, and egalitarian--an understanding that informs our ten principles.
MPV is uniquely positioned. Our values of equality and justice sit neatly into the American ideals of “Freedom and Justice for All.” Our Islamic expression of freedom is nothing less than there is “no compulsion in faith,” meaning you can choose to be Muslim or not.
“Justice for All” is especially relevant in Islam. Muslims often tout “Islam as the religion of peace.” Maybe in theory, but certainly not in practice. Peace is born from justice, and justice is an illusion in our Muslim societies.
For many years MPV has created non-denominational inclusive prayer spaces, advocating it as the norm. Our mere presence has been a thorn for many traditional Muslims. We have seen that by offering an alternative, members of the traditional mosques have forced their leadership to answer many of the taboo questions long swept under the rug, including questions about violence against women, LGBTQ rights in Islam, women-led prayer, and women’s reproductive rights.
We have also seen parents challenge their Islamic Sunday Schools to teach girls as well as boys to lead prayer, using resources from our website to support their argument. We have seen "Sheikhs" admitting that there is historical proof of women leading co-ed congregations in prayer.
We have seen gay Muslims from all over the world come to our website for theological grounding, seeking Islamic validation for the legitimacy of their identity. (Still, so much more needs to be done in this field, because the level of homophobia in our communities is reprehensible.)
At MPV we offer nikah (Islamic marriage) officiant services for interfaith and same-sex couples. Many Muslim women in America marry outside the faith, and the 1400 year interpretation which bars such marriages is tribal rather than Quran-based.
We have been accused of "picking and choosing" our Islam. Everyone does. The difference is that we choose an egalitarian Islam, while others choose to be misogynistic and discriminating. Which Islam would you choose?
John Esposito, a scholar of Islam, describes MPV as the avant-garde Islam. If we want to inspire change in the Muslim societies, we have to challenge the status quo, not just by speaking and writing about it but more powerfully, by living it. While many Muslims equate our challenging them to rethink Muslim with an attack on Islam, we are finding that there are many who agree with our principles and our vision but are closeted about it.
As someone who was once a closeted Muslim, I can almost understand it.