Minneapolis Star Tribune: A New Vision for Islam
By Susan M. Barbieri
Published: October 30, 2004
They are Muslims without a mosque, believers in a new vision of Islam that's taking root in the safe haven of cyberspace.
Shereen Fakier is a young Muslim-born Indian who immigrated to the United States from South Africa after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Karima Bushnell, Trish Kanous and Erik Kamperschroerer are white Americans and converts to Islam. Hassan El-Bakouri is a Moroccan Muslim who came to America in the 1980s.
This diverse group of Minnesotans, whose ages range from mid-20s on up, are members of the fledgling Progressive Muslim Union (PMU) of North America. Tolerance is the cornerstone of the PMU, which advocates speaking publicly against Muslim practices that members consider harmful and divisive.
The organization takes positions that conservative Muslims consider objectionable, even heretical: Progressives support gay rights, a broader role for women in mosques and the notion of borrowing from traditions such as Buddhism and the U.S. civil-rights movement to reshape Islam for modern times.
Not surprisingly, they often have trouble fitting in with the larger Muslim community.
"One of the problems I have encountered as a Muslim is finding the community that's out there to take you in and make you one of their own," El-Bakouri said. "It has been difficult. I went to several mosques, and I just really never found my place."
At a friend's suggestion, he went online to muslimwakeup.com and meetup.com to find other Twin Cities Muslims who felt, as he did, that tolerance and respect for others in all their diversity is a core value of Islam. He found other progressives to be kind and welcoming. "There is not that rigid way of thinking that is usually associated with some in our community," he said. "They were gracious enough to embrace me."
Now with 14 members and growing, the group meets monthly for Qur'an study, prayer and discussion. One goal is simply to find a physical space in which local Muslims can feel comfortable asking questions and discussing issues without fear or shame.
"It's very broad, it's a large umbrella," said Bushnell, who conducts workshops in intercultural relations. She said the movement provides a way to study the Qur'an and the hadith (Mohammed's word and deeds) deeply with others "without feeling like if I said the wrong thing I'd get squashed or I would have to accept things that weren't acceptable and pretend it's all right."
"Very often if you just go to the regular mosque, you meet a lot of very delightful people, but it's very hard to be yourself. There are a lot of things you can't talk about." In the progressive movement, everyone is welcome -- men, women, people of any ethnic background, Muslim-born and converts, Bushnell said. "That's the beauty of it; there's really room for all these people."
Kamperschroer, who converted to Islam two years ago, agrees. "It's very unifying," he said. "You don't have divisions between Sunnis and Shias, stuff like that. That was a big draw for me."
But by promoting acceptance of homosexuality and women's religious leadership, progressives 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, said 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 will undermine their credibility and "do a disservice."
Omid Safi, a religion professor at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., and a 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, said Safi, editor of "Progressive Muslims," which serves as the movement's guidebook. "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 faith," Safi said.
The progressive movement is a response to Wahhabism, a version of Islam named for Abdul Wahab that is about 200 years old, Bushnell said. "Traditional Islam can be very conservative in some ways, but [Wahhabism] is very radical. It was considered a fringe movement until recently. It's very exoteric as opposed to esoteric. Very much surface ritual, not depth."
While the Sufis, or Muslim mystics, also emphasize ritual, "it's all things to bring you toward love, it's all things to bring you deeper into the experience of God or to purify or open your heart," Bushnell said.
"In everything that you do, there are these very beautiful, joyful reasons for it. But this other form [of Islam], it isn't really like that. It's like, 'If you don't grow your beard we will arrest you.' It's very harsh."
The events of 9/11 helped inspire the progressive movement's birth as many Muslims wanted their voices to be heard, Kanous said. But speaking out and advocating tolerance has its risks, even though the principles are grounded in the Qur'an. "In some countries, we'd be killed or thrown in jail," Kanous said.
"We've heard all this stuff about certain people co-opting Islam and hearing this very conservative interpretation. After 9/11 you did hear a more moderate interpretation, but it was still something that wasn't meaningful in many ways for a lot of us out there. It was a very apologetic view," she said.
Progressives say they don't want schism, they want unity and acceptance among Muslims. Safi writes that at the heart of a progressive Muslim interpretation is the simple yet radical idea that every human life, female and male, Muslim and non-Muslim, rich or poor has the same value -- unconnected to culture, geography or privilege.
"The thing I love about this movement is that it's willing to confront injustice, no matter who's doing it," Bushnell said. "Unjust things are being done in the name of Islam, and even if the people have a lot of money and they're kind of scary, [progressives] confront them. If the injustice is being done in the name of democracy and America, they will confront it just as strongly."
Then there is also the personal side of the movement. Fakier, who grew up Muslim, feels comfortable among progressives because she wants to be free to ask questions and learn more about such things as Islamic rituals around food and attire. The progressive movement has helped her realize that there's more than one way to see Islam.
"It's a space where Trish or whoever can bring their world views and I can have mine," Fakier said. "We don't have to agree, but it's kind of a place where you can come and explore your religion together. This is a space where you can talk about anything, any questions you may have."
Progressive Muslims point out that both the Qur'an and the hadith teach the importance of seeking knowledge. The Qur'an also contains many teachings about diversity, multiculturalism and reaching out to others, Bushnell said. "So to learn from Martin Luther King or from Buddhism or whatever, there's nothing wrong with that. It's within Islam to reach out and acknowledge others," she said.
And the directive to seek knowledge works both ways, Fakier said. When she came to the United States after 9/11, neither she nor her husband would tell people that they were Muslim. But now she welcomes encounters with curious people of different faiths.
"A lot of the time when you meet, people are closed off. And I'm like, 'No, ask me these questions.' I want to have a dialogue going on because I think that's the way we're going to start to heal and also start to understand each other better."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Susan Barbieri is at firstname.lastname@example.org.