Progressive Islam, or how to accept it's time to start a-changin'

Posted in Broader Middle East | 10-Jun-05 | Author: William Fisher| Source: The Daily Star (Lebanon Edition)

Omid Safi, the co-chair of the Study of Islam section at the American Academy of Religion, and a professor of philosophy and religion at Colgate University.

In the United States there is an impression that no internal struggle exists within Islam between reformers and more rigid conservatives. The truth is, however, that such an internal debate, centering on how to interpret the Koran, has been going on for centuries. It is also true that today the debate has risen to a new level, fueled by the emergence of a small but rapidly growing branch of the faith known as Progressive Islam.

What is Progressive Islam, where is it, what does it believe? Long before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, many Muslim spokesmen realized there was a growing, worldwide network of Muslim terrorists killing in the name of God. They also knew that the rights of women and non-Muslims were being routinely denied by Islamic regimes, such as the one in Saudi Arabia.

"We have our fanatics just like everyone else," says Omid Safi, the co-chair of the Study of Islam section at the American Academy of Religion, and a professor of philosophy and religion at Colgate University. Safi was one of the co-founders of the Progressive Muslim Union, which was launched in 2004. "We have to take a stand against Saudi-infected extremism," insists Safi. Many American Muslim communities, he adds, "are far too uncritical of Salafi and Wahhabi tendencies."

He and other progressives believe that unless these radical tendencies are defeated, "the humanity of Muslims will be reduced to the caricature of violent zealots painted by fanatics from both inside and outside the Muslim community. It is time to start a-changin'," he says, borrowing from the lyrics of a famous Bob Dylan song.

In North America, Progressive Islam is a small but growing movement of Islamic scholars and activists whose believers also include gays, peace and justice advocates, feminists advocating gender equality and Muslims working to improve Islamic relations with Jews and people of other faiths. Figures are hard to come by, but they surely number in the millions, particularly if we include the many Muslims who are progressive, but who have never heard of the term "progressive Islam."

Progressive Islam is a kind of Islamic humanism. Social action and transformation is the movement's defining characteristic. Progressive Muslims oppose racism, Islamophobia, the imposition of class differences, sexism and homophobia. They see their task as giving voice to the voiceless, power to the powerless, and confronting the "powers that be" who disregard God-given human dignity.

Says Safi: "Justice lies at the heart of Islamic social ethics. Time and again the Koran talks about providing for the marginalized members of society: the poor, the orphaned, the downtrodden, the wayfaring, the hungry." Progressive Muslims believe that it is time to translate the social ideals in the Koran and Islamic teachings into "a way of action that those committed to social justice today can relate to and understand."

Progressive Muslims begin with a simple yet radical stance: The Muslim community as a whole cannot achieve justice unless justice is guaranteed for Muslim women. Gender equality is a measuring stick for the broader concerns of social justice and pluralism.

"There can be no progressive interpretation of Islam without gender justice. Gender justice is crucial, indispensable and essential. In the long run, any progressive Muslim interpretation will be judged based on the amount of change in gender equality it is able to produce in small and large communities," Safi says.

Progressive Muslims also stand squarely on the shoulders of many "liberation theologians" who viewed a purely conceptual criticism of theology, devoid of any real commitment to the oppressed, as "radically irrelevant." At the same time, progressives are equally comfortable with the late Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said's challenge to Muslims to "speak truth to the powers." Like Said, they believe that many (though not all) previous generations of liberal Muslims were often defined by a purely academic approach reflecting their elite status.

Safi argues: "Vision and activism are both necessary. Activism without vision is doomed from the start. Vision without activism quickly becomes irrelevant." But progressives face a delicate balancing act. They need to defend Islam against virulent stereotypes but also to acknowledge oppressive practices and ideas within Islam.

The movement is profoundly skeptical of nationalism, whether American, Arab, Iranian or otherwise. They also reject the notion of an "American Islam" to be exported to the world. Their opposition to "neocolonialism" is a way to avoid their appropriation by the Bush administration, which has used the language of reforming Islam to justify its invasion of Muslim countries such as Iraq.

North America is probably the most fertile soil for progressives at the moment. One indication of their growing popularity can be found at a Web site called Meetup, which publishes a list of 143 different progressive Muslim groups. The largest are in such cities as New York, Toronto, Washington and San Francisco. But the movement says it is following, not leading, like-minded adherents worldwide. The socially active communities in Iran, Malaysia and South Africa are examples.