Progressive Muslims in a world of ISIS and Islamophobes

‘There is such a strong desire on the part of many of us to make clear that “I am not ISIS. I am not like those crazies,”’ according to Ani Zonneveld, founder of Muslims for Progressive Values. She explains the struggle to organize progressive Muslim communities and institutions in a fight back in the era of ISIS, in conversation with Karima Bennoune.

Karima Bennoune: What led to your own fight against Muslim fundamentalism?

Ani Zonneveld: I am an immigrant from Malaysia to the United States. What first brought me to activism was my personal experience of gender inequality within the Muslim community in the US. I thought I would put out an Islamic pop CD and that would be a positive contribution to counter stereotypes after 9/11. I was surprised to find that some in my Muslim community thought that as a female singer my voice is "aurat," an extension of my body that also needed to be covered. This was an alien concept for me, given that for centuries Muslim women have contributed to music and singing. That forced me to reassess. Going back to the community I was part of was not an option. So, I started a progressive Muslim community. Fortunately, there were many Muslims that concurred.

Ani Zonneveld. Photo:

Karima Bennoune: Tell us about the founding of MPV and the shape of the organization today.

Ani Zonneveld: The founding of MPV came about through the coalescing of several progressive Muslim communities in several US cities. Our founding meeting was in 2007. I have been President of Muslims for Progressive Values since then. It is a 100% volunteer organisation with chapters in Los Angeles, New York, Washington, Atlanta, Chicago, as well as in Canada, France, Chile, Malaysia and soon in Uganda. Our Facebook group has over 15,000 members from around the world; our YouTube channel has had more than 2.5 million views.

Karima Bennoune: How has your work evolved?

Ani Zonneveld: It started with founding progressive Muslim communities on the ground because there were a lot of Muslims that were disenfranchised in their mosques. They were alienated by the gender inequalities and racism. There are a lot of American Muslims who are critical thinkers. Obviously, it takes an entity to organize them, and so that is how MPV started - by building grassroots communities. Now, we have evolved into securing United Nations consultative status, so we are countering human rights abuses perpetuated by Muslim majority countries in the name of Islam at that level.

Karima Bennoune: What does the term “progressive” mean to you?

Ani Zonneveld: We define it in terms of certain values: human rights, the ethics of equality, egalitarian and critical thinking, and critical reading of the scripture. For gender equality, what it means here in the US is different than for someone in Pakistan or in Sudan. Here in the US, it means we empower women to be spiritual equals with men. What it means to be progressive is to have an inclusive and compassionate understanding of Islam - and living it.

Karima Bennoune: Why was it important to you, among the many issues you work on, to openly tackle LGBT rights?

Ani Zonneveld: Prejudice in the name of Islam is unacceptable. This is a matter of justice. Imam Daayiee, the first openly gay Imam in the US is on our advisory board. In your book, “Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here,” you note that his acceptance of Muslim same-sex unions has been cited by advocates in Pakistan. It warms my heart to be able to see a young LGBT person come out in front of our community, that includes straight as well as LGBT people. And to be affirmed by the Muslim community we have created.

Karima Bennoune: What are the biggest challenges in doing this work?

Ani Zonneveld: The biggest challenge is funding. We also face some pushback from within the Muslim community and also from Islamophobes, but also unfortunately from some non-Muslims on the left.

Karima Bennoune: In my book I argue that the right and the left in the West have both gotten this issue wrong at times, and we often find ourselves caught in the middle.

Ani Zonneveld: Let us take the media, for example. As progressive Muslims, ours is a narrative that does not fit the dominant story line. We were interviewed by a public television station, akin to the BBC, for the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Afterwards, the executive producer said, “your voice is irrelevant.” That is one example. Another is coverage of LGBT issues. They will interview the LGBT Muslim who has been discriminated against, and they will interview the homophobic Imam. But, even after interviewing me, they will not include us in the story. That adds to the Islamophobia. Because then the narrative is “all Muslims are intolerant so why should we tolerate them?" 

Karima Bennoune: As a progressive Muslim, what is your message to progressives in the West?

Ani Zonneveld: Those on the left should stop giving space to radical Muslims. If they are intolerant, why should they be given airtime?  ISIS is in the picture and there are even some Muslims in the US and Europe that are going to Syria to join.  However, the progressive voices that are countering all that are not being promoted. The question we always hear from non-Muslims is ‘how come Muslims are not speaking out?’ It is simply not true. 

Karima Bennoune: What are the social responsibilities of people of Muslim heritage in the ISIS era?

Ani Zonneveld: We have to be honest. The recruiting materials ISIS and Al-Qaeda use are very flashy. On every page there is religious language, and Islamic content. They are using religion to recruit radical kids to their cause. Why is it working? That is what Muslim institutions are not addressing. It is working because it is familiar language. They were taught that Islam is exclusive, and we are the only ones going to heaven. We have been infiltrated by Wahhabi teachings. We need to address that.  We need to say to the teachers in Islamic schools, “we are not teaching this particular theology anymore.” If you grow up and have this sense of entitlement as a Muslim and then become disenchanted with your society because you have been discriminated against since your name is Mohammed and you cannot get a job, this becomes an easy line to cross. You use religion to go kill, because you are angry and you have a religious justification on top of that.

Karima Bennoune: Some in the diasporas say there is too much discrimination against Muslims for us to speak critically about this.  How do you respond?

Ani Zonneveld: The only way to address the discrimination against Muslims is for us to deal with the problems first and to be honest. If you are going to be dishonest and simply say Islam is a religion of peace and everything is hunky dory, that does not work. Islam is a religion of peace, but what are we teaching? That is the issue. If we just brush the issue under the rug, it will not go away.

Karima Bennoune: This echoes what Pakistani feminist Nuzhat Kidvai said when I interviewed her for my book. During a TV debate with a mullah about violence against women, he lectured her about Islam-religion-of-peace.  Nuzhat replied, “I don’t need to be told how peaceful Islam is.  I want to know about your practice and how that is peaceful.” That is an important distinction.

Ani Zonneveld: Yes. MPV has established its positions based on sacred text and traditions. Scholars do not attack us. Young punks who do not know Islam are the ones that do. When we say women are allowed to lead co-ed congregations in prayer, scholars know that the first Imamah was appointed by the Prophet Muhammad and she did so. But we are not taught that. When people claim Sharia law states we should punish people for homosexuality, we push back by asking, “where does it say that in the Quran?” Where is Sharia law coming from? It is man-made.

Karima Bennoune: What is the potential for people of Muslim heritage using religious strategies and those using non-religious strategies to work together?

Ani Zonneveld: We need to work together if we have the same end goal and that is to do away with injustice.

Karima Bennoune: That is why I interviewed both people like the “liberal mullah of Herat” who fights forced marriage with religious discourse in Afghanistan, and atheists organizing protests against Taliban terrorism. What stories in the book stayed with you?

Ani Zonneveld: My favorite line is the quote from a mother who lost her son to Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group in the 1990s. She wanted to explain how the fundamentalists take advantage of ignorance:  “If you want to confuse an ‘ordinary person’, you talk about God instead of about politics – and you have won.”  The stories brought out the realities on the ground. They made me even more determined to persevere. I cannot imagine the suffering people have gone through in the name of Islam. 

Karima Bennoune: In this moment, are you optimistic for the struggle against Muslim fundamentalism and for progressive Islam?

Ani Zonneveld: I am very optimistic, despite what is going on in the world. The amount of people that have been reaching out to us from across the globe is incredible. They are all seeing this radicalism that has destroyed their Islam and their community and their culture from the inside. They are waking up. I think it took something like a Boko Haram and an ISIS to wake people up.

For our part, MPV is creating a partnership called the Alliance of Inclusive Muslims with the Quilliam Foundation and UK - based human rights lawyer Tehmina Kazi. It is an umbrella group, gathered around shared values. One key value is human rights for all regardless of religion, sectarian affiliation, gender identity, or sexual orientation. Another is freedom of and from belief. We believe these values are in the Qur’an at its core. This alliance is a way to push back against Wahhabism. There is such a strong desire on the part of many of us to make clear that “I am not ISIS. I am not like those crazies.”

Karima Bennoune: What can sympathetic readers do to support MPV?

Ani Zonneveld: If you read about this and our work compels you, please share it.

This article originally appeared in on 8 December 2014.