Home » Nonfiction » Aasif Mandvi » Progressive Muslim Identities

April 17 , 2011

Progressive Muslim Identities

Personal Stories from the U.S. and Canada


Introduction In the fall of 2010, I got a call from a Muslim friend in New York whose eleven-year-old son was assaulted by a schoolmate while riding the bus. The attacker was influenced by the prejudice around him and had watched comedian Jeff Dunham’s and his puppet “Achmed the Dead Terrorist.” My friend filed an official complaint with the school district at the urging of her Jewish friend, a lawyer. He told her that at a neighboring school district, kids had painted “Muslim go home” on a student’s car. He also pointed out that it was only a few decades ago when Jews were “the Other.” My own thirteen-year old daughter was taunted and called “terrorist” by her schoolmates in Los Angeles. These incidents made me realize that I had to act– this anthology is the result. After 9/11, I not only came out of the closet as a Muslim, but fell into activism. As a songwriter and producer, I had kept my Muslim identity private for a long time. A lot of it had to do with my own insecurities as someone trying hard to fit into the entertainment industry. Keeping different aspects of my identities compartmentalized didn’t feel honest. When one identity was lived out, the other parts of me felt suffocated. Blending all my identities together freely was transformational. Incorporating Islam into my music was my “coming home” moment. I produced an Islamic pop album. Instead of appreciation for creating a new genre, Muslim retailers and organizations told me repeatedly that what I did was religiously forbidden. According to them, music is only permissible if a percussion accompanies the voice, and only a man’s voice at that! I was born and raised Muslim, and had never heard this interpretation of Islam. Fortunately, Ahmed Nassef, who was leading a new progressive movement, appreciated my modern pop approach. He introduced me to activism, and Patricia Dunn and Jawad Ali, the website editors of Muslim Wakeup!, introduced me to progressive Muslim writings. Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV) is a non-profit organization I co-founded with Pamela Taylor in 2007 with chapters in Los Angeles, New York, Washington D.C., Atlanta, and Ottawa, Canada. In our prayer spaces, families may pray together (like we do in Mecca), women may lead coed congregations, and mixed faith couples and LGBTQ Muslims are welcomed. For more information about MPV, please turn to our fact page. Like Muslims in general, our progressive Muslim community is diverse, as is reflected in this collection of writings. We are African American, Caucasian, South and South-East Asian, Arab, Latino, straight, gay and transgender. Despite our wide diversity, what draws us all together is the common belief that Islam is inherently progressive, inclusive and egalitarian, an understanding that informs the principles of MPV. In this anthology, we don’t claim to speak on behalf of all Muslims, but as a community, we want share our values and perspectives in the public square. This is not a book of Islamic theology or history; a reader looking for that has other sources. This book is a snapshot that captures the brave faces of individual progressive Muslims at this point in time. Their personal and honest narratives give readers a look into the lives of progressive Muslims in the United States and Canada. For the most part, the contributors are not professional writers or “famous Muslims.” They are the voices you never get to hear, quite simply, the Muslims next door. Patricia Dunn finds truths in Islam that confirm her strong feminist ideals. Sahira Traband and Ameerah Saleem describe how their quest for authenticity brought them in contact with other religions and led them to a fuller understanding of Islam. We see in the writings of Dizery Salim and Nakia Jackson, two women who shed their conservative upbringing and struggle with being “Muslim enough.” Tynan Power writes about raising his children and facing layers of discrimination from the straight Muslim and non-Muslim gay communities. Jack Fertig describes how he converted to Islam in a gay-friendly space, despite the homophobia in the larger Muslim community. Mona Eltahawy’s piece shows that, conservative Muslim women and their Christians counterparts have very similar views on matters of sexuality. Mixed-faith marriages are another difficult topic our authors address. While a Muslim man marrying a Jewish or Christian woman is acceptable in the mainstream Muslim world, tremendous tensions arise when a Muslim woman marries a Christian or Jewish man. Ahmed Morsy and Sumaya Cole talk about their mixed-faith marriages. Ahmed, an immigrant from Egypt, found common cultural connections with his Jewish wife and discovered his place in the world by questioning the answers he was given as a youth and as a sales manager in the rat race in New York. Sumaya candidly shares how her interfaith marriage challenged both the Muslims in her family and the Christians in her husband’s family. In their contributions, Shahla Khan Salter and Yarehk Hernandez both touch on the Wahhabi and Salafi undercurrents that have swept through communities in Canada and the United States. Shahla calls out the ultra-conservative Wahhabi sea of change that destroyed the tolerant and inclusive Winnipeg mosque her father helped build. Yarehk’s initial brush with Salafis demonstrates the breadth of beliefs that fall under Islam and shows both why the extreme interpretation can be compelling and why it was not sustainable. In an interview that highlights the Islamic call to help the oppressed, Dr. Rab Razzak talks to us about his experiences mentoring young black men in Los Angeles. And Ismail Butera shares the story of a remarkable teacher, an Albanian imam whose faith exemplified tolerance, humility, and compassion. As we approach the tenth anniversary of 9/11, it is our job to make meaning out of this national tragedy. Muslims must continue to demand that progressives and liberals within the Muslim community are represented in our public discourse. While many non-Muslims have stood in solidarity with their fellow Muslim citizens, 22% of Americans say they would not want a Muslim as a neighbor, 44% say Muslims are too extreme in their religious views, over 50% of Americans believe U.S. Muslims are not loyal to the United States, and 39% support a requirement for Muslims to carry a special ID. Muslims have been demonized for political convenience to secure more votes. In Canada, 55% of non-Muslims don’t believe their Muslim compatriots share their values. According to a Time Magazine Poll conducted in August 2010, 62% of respondents say they don’t personally know a Muslim American. But, what the mainstream media paints as the typical Muslim is not the majority of us. Our men do not all wear beards and robes and our women do not all wear veils. This anthology tells us the stories of many authors who may not appear Muslim according to the prevalent stereotypes. Their religion and spirituality, and the way they live out their Islamic faith, is quietly interwoven into their daily lives. It is very likely that you have met many Muslims like us before. We are your neighbors and colleagues. And maybe, through the stories presented here, you will see yourself in us. Ani Zonneveld
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