Beyond Infidels and Fundamentalists: The Progressive Muslim Movement in the United States

March 2005 marked the beginning of the progressive Muslim movement in the United States.  Or maybe it was the end.  Or maybe it was neither.   On the 18th day of that month, amidst a crowd of cameras and security guards, a female Muslim scholar named Amina Wadud led 50 men and 50 women in prayer.   As expected, many traditionalists condemned the event as a violation of the Islamic norm of male-led prayer, while some progressives cheered it as a victory for women’s rights.  Yet, the responses were far from uniform.  An influential Egyptian Mufti issued a public statement indicating that nothing in the Qu’ran or Islamic law prohibits the prayer.  Further, the initial joy of progressive Muslims quickly turned sour as a result of their skepticism towards relying on public media to bring about change in the Muslim world.  Two years later, the consequences of that day continue to reverberate in the Muslim community, both progressive and traditional, in America and abroad.

From scholars to grassroots organizations to everyday practitioners, progressive Muslims in the US are challenging traditional understandings of what makes one an ‘authentic’ Muslim.  The prayer highlighted not only the potential for success for progressive Muslims in the US, but also the struggles they face to this day. While progressive Muslims agree about the need to encourage ‘moderate’ Muslims, they disagree about whether to use ideological labels like ‘moderate,’ ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’ at all.   Though they identify common opponents in American foreign policy – the media and fundamentalist ideologies – progressives disagree about what strategies would best combat them. They have successfully reintroduced issues of human rights into the Muslim community, but disagree over how to engage in discussion with fellow Muslims on religious matters. 

“A hundred people in New York made the Muslim world shit in its pants,” said journalist Mona Eltahawy, a self-proclaimed liberal Muslim who participated in the prayer,  “It was a victory.”   Eltahawy believes that the prayer was a success because it opened a door for Muslim women beyond New York City.  In an Arab satellite television appearance, Egyptian Grand Mufti Ali Gum’a declared that women-led prayer was acceptable if the congregation agreed to it.  Grand Mufti is one of the highest religious authorities in the Sunni Muslim world, and Ali Gum’a is one of less 25 Grand Muftis in the entire world. The endorsement of female led prayer by a traditional cleric such as Grand Mufti Gum’a is a sign that progressive activities in the US can have an effect on the greater Islamic world.

Not everyone, however, shares Eltahawy’s view.  Daanish Masood of the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA) called the event a “publicity stunt” and questioned whether it is possible for American progressives to be credible in the Muslim community abroad.  “If you do it in America, it undermines you,” he said. Masood is concerned that photo-ops such as the prayer will estrange the larger Muslim public.  When progressives organize events specifically designed to provoke traditional Muslims, they lose their credibility with the more traditional Islamic world.

Sam Aboelela, who organizes a Meetup for progressive Muslims in New York City, echoes Masood’s skepticism about the prayer’s media-centrism.  “It cannot be a media endeavor alone,” he said, “There were more cameras [at the prayer] than people praying.” Aboelela expressed frustration that progressive Muslims put so much energy into a single event, but failed to translate that energy into long-term engagement at the grassroots.  Aboelela started a regular Meetup group where progressive Muslims could meet other like-minded individuals, as well as debate controversial political and religious topics. 

Struggling to find a voice

Aboelela’s group is one of many organizations hoping to fill the vacuum left by mainstream Muslim organizations in the US, many of which fail to represent the views of young professional Muslims.  At the August 2007 Meetup at Turkish Cuisine restaurant in Midtown West, Manhattan, the group built slowly, with most members arriving at least 15 minutes late.   As each member arrived, they were greeted by a flurry of handshakes and introductions, the only formality of the afternoon necessitated by the large number of newcomers.  While many members appeared to feel awkward upon their arrival, they quickly relaxed and began to chat about their background and New York life.  Conversation jumped quickly between frustration at a towed car, the Iowa Caucuses, and the condemnation of gays in the Qu’ran.   By itself, these conversations will do little to free Muslim women in Saudi Arabia, but they allow Muslims to confront their faith in an individualized way.

Along with the Meetup, groups such as the Progressive Muslim Union (PMU) and Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV) are trying to organize and create such forums for progressive Muslims. “Mosques have become more conservative in the past 20 years. There was no space for progressive Muslims. No place for people to say, ‘I’m a Muslim but, hey, I’m OK with gays,’” said Pamela Taylor, who broke with the PMU to co-found MPV.

Along with her work with MPV, the religiously engaged Taylor frequently leads prayer at her Ohio mosque.  In an attempt to reach a broader Muslim audience, she regularly publishes in national newspapers and Internet media outlets. Recently, the 200 member MPV organized a conference at Sarah Lawrence College entitled “Finding our Voice,” and is currently planning a Youth Camp. In response to the proliferation of either boring or angry ‘fire and brimstone’ Friday sermons, the group has also offered a $1000 dollar “Malcolm X prize” to the individual who can write the most engaging sermon.  Since Taylor founded MPV, many individuals who renounce traditional Islam but have kept their own sense of faith have emerged from their silence.  For example, a transsexual woman told Taylor at the conference that she felt comforted by the acceptance at the conference that she couldn’t find at a traditional mosque.

While most progressives can agree that there is a need to provide this sort of space, much disagreement exists in the community about the movement’s goals and strategies.  Muslims for Progressive Values was formed when two members of the Progressive Muslim Union’s board split off from the group due to disagreements about the group’s focus.  Though the groups’ mission statements are similar enough that they at times quote each other verbatim, they continue to disagree about how to engage traditional Muslims, the role of the media in the movement, and whether to focus on socio-political or religious reform.

Taylor frequently uses Qu’ranic quotes to make her points that Islam is a foundation for an egalitarian society based on social justice and human rights.   “My hope is that we can move the far right mosque community a bit to the left and provide alternatives,” she said.

Eltahawy, who is a board member of the PMU, believes that progressives should focus on providing support, comfort, and a voice to others who are dissatisfied with traditional and conservative Islam. Rather than attempting to win over conservatives, Eltahawy uses her opinion pieces in the Arab and American media designed to increase the visibility and political sway of liberal Muslims in the US.  “We don’t try to change their mind.  We don’t try to quote one verse or another, we’ll always lose that game,” she said.

The discord in the community is not limited to the issue of how to engage conservatives.  Many progressives, such as Masood and Aboelela, argue that the movement should shift its focus away from the media and towards grassroots initiatives that create change on the ground.

Eltahawy, whose column was blacklisted from prestigious Egyptian newspaper Asharq Alawsat, sees the media as an effective way to broaden the movement both in the United States and abroad.  While the Egyptian government can ban Eltahawy from publishing her column, they cannot ban media coverage of her participating in a mixed prayer in New York. 

The movement also struggles to define its scope.  Certain factions wish to emphasize reforming Islam itself, while others, such as Aboelela, wish to focus more exclusively on political issues, such as Darfur, universal health care and Guantanamo Bay.  “To call yourself a progressive you need to take up progressive issues,” the Meetup organizer said.

Others advise progressives to focus on political reform, arguing that they have little to no credibility amongst the individuals whose opinions are most important. "The most impressive elements of the progressive Muslim campaign have been the reintroduction of the fight for social justice into our community's agenda," says al-Hussein Madhany, executive editor of Islamica magazine, “Because their arguments are theologically weak and because the messenger isn't regarded as a religious authority by the masses, [liberals and progressives] are completely disregarded. They have no resonance in the broader community."    Madhany would not label himself a progressive, but he is a believer in pluralism. His Islamica magazine, which does not place ideological limitations upon its submissions, allows for what Madhany calls “public scholarship”— debate which is more accessible than academic writing, but more substantive than hard news.  

The most optimistic of the progressives see the movement as having the potential to achieve both kinds of change simultaneously.  Eltahawy, for example, believes that the progressive goals of political and religious reform are not mutually exclusive.  “Liberal Muslims are best capable of taking on the two right wings,” she said.   They can rebut the political right’s arguments that Islam is a backwards religion, because they live a modern life as Muslims.  Likewise, they can combat conservative Islamists in ways that the secular left cannot, because they can do so from within the boundaries of Islamic tradition. This offers approach progressives like Eltahawy a distinct advantage over self-proclaimed “liberators of Islam” like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Dr. Wafa Sultan.   While the latter group argues that the religion of Islam is itself backwards, Eltahawy is less interested in putting down religion.  As a result, conservative Muslims will have trouble casting her as anti-Islam, and may be forced to give her arguments more credence.  

Eltahawy acknowledges the disagreement within the community, and admits that an umbrella organization might allow them to work together on the areas about which they agree.   Still, she argues that debate and dissent fits into the movement’s philosophy.  “The last thing we need to do as a movement is become very dogmatic and regimented.  It will ultimately strengthen us.  It will lead to more groups people can identify with,” she explained. 

“I’m not a fan of the word progressive…”

If an umbrella organization were to be created, the first question that would need to be answered is what to call it.  Some prefer the term “progressive” over the term “liberal,” which American conservatives have turned into a slur.  Others find “progressive” to be vague and meaningless.  In spite of the potential to offend one group or another with a label, it is clear that they need some way to distinguish themselves from conservatives, as well as attract those with similar ideas.

“I’m a progressive Muslim,” exclaimed Ahmed, a young professional originally from Kashmir as he left Friday prayer at a Sufi mosque in Tribeca, “I go about a modern life, I work at a bank, I date, I don’t pray five times a day.” His soft-spoken Egyptian colleague, with whom he attended mosque, who was also named Ahmed, echoed his sentiment.  Both say that they chose the Sufi mosque because of the “spiritual” sermons, which they prefer over the politicized or “fire and brimstone” lectures found at the Pakistani mosque around the corner.  The mosque had the added benefit of being located close to a good sandwich bar and the Citibank offices at which they work. 

Still, many individuals who are involved in progressive organizations refuse to even define themselves as progressive.

Though some practitioners question the use of the term “progressive,” its greatest skeptics are scholars.  Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, a renowned Islamic thinker and religious leader of the Sufi Mosque in Tribeca, thinks that the term progressive limits his attempts to reach out to and unite the broader Muslim community.  “The term progressive tends to divide Muslims.  My objective is not to divide,” he said. 

Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar, who made international headlines with her “inclusive” English translation of the Qu’ran, questions the efficacy of using a word from American political discourse to reform the Islamic tradition. “Progressive is not really a term in Islamic history.  In order to have an effect on the Islamic world, you have to use words from within the Islamic tradition,” she said. 

Because the movement is so young and diverse, it isn’t surprising that it is unsure what to call itself.  Still, to achieve the sort of political and religious change these progressives aspire to, at some point they’ll need to agree on a name or simply decide to set aside these linguistic squabbles.   At the moment, though, the movement struggles to define not just what it is, but what to call itself.  “We are digging in the mud, trying to find out what it means to be liberal, progressive; more than just conservative,” Eltahawy said.

While these Muslims haven’t settled on an ideological label, some have begun to assert a conception of Muslim identity that goes beyond the traditional one that is based upon five pillars of the Islamic faith: the proclamation of faith, fasting during Ramadan, pilgrimage to Mecca, giving alms to the poor, and daily prayer.  Conservative Muslims would argue that an individual who does not fast during Ramadan is not a Muslim.  In contrast, the MPV and PMU are organizing around the principle that anyone who calls herself a Muslim is a Muslim. “The biggest problem in the Muslim community is that the only way to be authentic is to be conservative.” Eltahawy said.

Echoing Eltahawy’s skepticism, MPV founder Pamela Taylor is concerned about what she calls the “downward pressure of conservatism,” which arises when Muslims try to be more devout than their neighbor by acting upon increasingly conservative interpretations of Islam.  Given the dominance of this conservative form of Muslim thinking, many Muslims feel guilty for not adhering to an orthodox version of the faith.  While it is common for Muslims to not pray five times every day, for example, they feel as if they are less Muslim for not doing so.  Progressives challenge the idea of an ‘official’ Islam that is ‘more correct’ than others.  They argue that such an interpretation is a recent development and is out of step with the Islam that they love.  Islam, they assert, has a long tradition of pluralism, critical reasoning, dissent and debate.  

Some progressives such as Eltahawy believe that it is necessary to accept as Muslims those who identify only on a cultural basis, but share no religious convictions with their fellow Muslims.  This cultural basis may include coming from a Muslim family, emigrating from a Muslim country, or being brought up with Muslim Sesame Street and cooking.  Eltahawy argues that this identity may extend even to those who lack the most basic convictions of the faith.  While emphasizing her personal belief in God, Eltahawy emphatically asserts, “I support the right of an atheist to call himself a Muslim.” 

Progressives further criticize the extent to which Islamic scholars’ opinions about religious norms influence the daily lives of Muslims.  Instead of cultivating a personal understanding of their faith, they turn to others to tell them how to act and what to believe.  “We’ve been taught that scholars do the thinking for us.  We have to start thinking for ourselves,” said Eltahawy.

Still, the consequences of this democratization of interpretation are not entirely positive.   As the example of internet fatwahs and satellite dish Imams shows, allowing anyone to interpret a text as they please opens the doors for manipulative and literalist interpretations that are exactly the force that progressives hope to combat. “The question is, ‘Are you qualified?’” Imam Feisal argues, “To drive a car you need a license.”  He goes on to compare these Internet fatwahs with junk medicine, arguing that not everyone is enough of a scholar to interpret holy texts accurately.  

As the fatwah example makes clear, interpretation matters.  No matter what your ideological leanings, your particular reading of the Qu’ran will emphasize certain verses over others, and as such will reflect the reader’s personal preferences and inclinations. Progressives, therefore, are pushing for a more historical, context sensitive and evolving understanding of the Qu’ran.  As Taylor argues, “The Prophet gave different answers to the same question.  The idea of one answer did not even exist in the Prophet’s times.” 

Islam: An American Export Product?

While most progressives agree that this movement’s emergence in America is no coincidence, they cite different reasons when they describe what about America makes it a fertile ground. 

Imam Feisal draws a direct connection between American values of individualism, pluralism, and freedom and the potential for an Islamic revival movement. “Just as Muslims have produced Persian, Indonesian and North African expressions of Islam over the centuries, we Muslims in the United States are now forging our own American expression of Islam. In the same way that America's liberty, diversity and open environment gave rise to new developments in other world religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism, this country can catalyze a renaissance in Islamic thinking and interpretation”, wrote Imam Feisal in a recent Newsweek article dedicated to Islam in the US.

According to the Imam, the founding documents of American democracy reflect values that are also deeply imbedded within the Islamic tradition.  Because the American Constitution and Declaration of Independence are a product of the Judeo-Christian tradition, there is a deep resonance between the ideas in these documents and all three Abrahamic traditions.  Given America’s almost unprecedented religiosity in the Western world, the country appears to be a uniquely hospitable host for an Islamic revival.  

Other progressives link the emergence of a progressive Muslim movement to of civil liberties and freedom from persecution, factors which are present from the Netherlands to South Africa.  “If you have a progressive movement in Iran, you’ll end up in jail being tortured.  In other countries you’ll have vigilante action against you or the use of political pressure,” said Taylor.  

Bakhtiar echoes Taylor’s sentiment that democracy and civil liberties are a precondition of the emergence of a movement.  “Its possible to effect change,” she said, “but it will have to come from the West.”  Bakhtiar further emphasizes that the American progressive movement could spill over to other countries, but only if the movement does not stray too far from the Islamic tradition.

Masood sees the potential for the movement to spread, but points to challenges it will have to overcome in order to do so.  “If Muslims are adequately empowered and play their cards right, work on their perceptions in the global Muslim community, America is an excellent launching pad for setting an example of living together and learning from it,” he said.   American Muslims are currently viewed suspiciously abroad, because they are seen as an arm of American foreign policy.  Still, Muslims in the US have deep ties in the Islamic world, which contributes to their ability to spread the progressive Muslim message.  When everyday practitioners and immigrants visit their countries of origin, they describe their experience of American life to their families and friends.  Professionals and lawyers are educated both at Ivy League schools as well as traditional centers of Islamic study, which erodes the distinction between Eastern and Western scholars.  

Although the American movement’s influence abroad is limited, American progressive Muslims are quick to point out that they draw inspiration from Muslim scholars and activists abroad.   Across the Muslim world, a group of Muslim intellectuals has emerged that situate themselves between the traditional conservative scholars and secularists.  Scholars such as Nasr Abu Zayd and Fareed Esack work within the Muslim religious framework, but use modern methods of text interpretation.  Names such as these are frequently dropped by progressives, who see these scholars as an important way to bridge the gap between the requirements of modern life and the Islamic tradition.  American progressives draw further inspiration from activists in the Muslim world who stand up to oppressive regimes and torture and push for democratic societies.  “The real heroes are overseas,” said Taylor.

Progressives’ ultimate goal is to have a similar influence on the Muslim world. “There has always been a one way flow of information from the Middle East to the United States,” said Eltahawy.  Progressives’ vision of success is to make this exchange a two-way street. 

E pluribus Unum

If 100 Muslims in New York City can spark debate in the Muslim world and prompt a controversial statement from a Mufti in Egypt, it is clearly possible for American Muslims to effect change in the Muslim world.  Still, the progressive movement in the US faces serious challenges.

In spite of the movement’s agreement on a few common problems, much time is spent discussing petty linguistic squabbles such as the proper label for itself.   Although there is general agreement that Muslims within the tradition are better positioned to reform the faith than individuals like Ayaan Hirsi Ali who are outside of it, many progressives define “the tradition” in such a narrow way that they exclude those with only slightly more liberal ideas.  


Louaay Messari, Julia Thimm, Sean Williams


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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Muslim World Today.

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