Progressive Muslims Launch Gay-Friendly, Women-Led Mosques In Attempt To Reform American Islam

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    Mar 30, 2012 3:08 PM GMT
    Progressive Muslims Launch Gay-Friendly, Women-Led Mosques In Attempt To Reform American Islam

    At first, the devout Muslims who gathered in a Washington, D.C., conference center seemed like they could have come from any mosque. There were women in headscarves and bearded men who quoted the Quran.

    But something was different. While mingling over hors d'oeuvres, they discussed how to change Islam's future. A woman spoke about fighting terrorism; she had married outside the Islamic faith, which is forbidden for a Muslim woman. A Pakistani man mentioned his plans to meet friends for drinks, despite the faith's ban on alcohol.

    In a corner of the room, an imam in a long gray tunic counseled a young Muslim with a vexing spiritual conflict: being gay and Muslim. The imam, also gay and in a relationship, could easily sympathize with the youth's difficulties

    On this brisk Monday night in late October, members of Muslims for Progressive Values, a nascent American reformist organization, had gathered from around the country to celebrate a milestone: In four years, the group had grown from a few friends to a thousand members and spawned a string of small mosques and spiritual groups that stretched from Atlanta to Los Angeles.

    ...They're taking bold steps, reinterpreting Islamic norms and re-examining taboos. While far from accepted by mainstream clerics, these worshippers feel that the future of the religion lies not solely with tradition but with them. Women are leading congregations in prayer, gay imams are performing Islamic marriages, and men and women are praying side by side.

    ..."We can't move forward as a society, as a faith system, if we subscribe to these old draconian ways of practicing Islam," says Ani Zonneveld, who is the president of Muslims for Progressive Values. A 49-year-old singer-songwriter who lives in Los Angeles, she leads prayers for men and women together and tells gay Muslims, often shunned in other mosques, that their religion welcomes them.

    ..."What's taking place in Islam in America right now is what happened before in other religions," says John Esposito, a professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University.

    A few denominations within Judaism and Christianity have openly welcomed gay people and women, Esposito points out. Some Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Jewish communities are led by gay and women rabbis. The Presbyterian Church, United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church allow gay and women clergy. The United Methodist Church ordains women.

    ...Most [American] Muslims rarely attend mosques outside of major holidays although the Quran commands men to pray in a group every week. In a Pew survey last year of 1,033 American Muslims, just under one-half said they attend a mosque once a week. Many said they worship on their own or seldom. A majority of Muslims surveyed think the religion is flexible, with only about a third saying there is but one true way to interpret it.

    That kind of view is becoming common among Muslims, according to Esposito, as more people try to separate what's in the Quran from cultural traditions. "They say if we don't see anything clear in our scripture, then that trumps tradition. And people are applying that to women's issues and gay issues."

    ...Across the globe, the rise of the women's and gay rights movements has not left Islam untouched. For more than two decades, Muslims scattered around the world have been re-examining gender roles within Islam. In the Middle East and South Asia, Muslim activists have fought against female genital mutilation and honor killings, convincing clerics to issue fatwas declaring the practices un-Islamic.

    ...The gay rights movement within Islam has been quieter [than women-led]. An organization for gay Muslims, Al-Fatiha, sprang up in the United States the late 1990s. The group organized annual retreats and its members marched in gay pride parades in San Francisco. Widely condemned by sheiks for promoting homosexuality in Islam, the organization disbanded by the mid-2000s.

    ..."It's hard to tell how successful these progressive groups will be," Esposito says. "Often, these kinds of reforms, when they start to take place, usually consist of small groups that are a vanguard within the religion. You run the risk of alienating even people who see themselves as reform minded if they see one issue, such as gay imams, that they think goes too far."

    Two weeks ago in Los Angeles, Zonneveld gathered with progressive Muslims at a Middle Eastern cultural center to inaugurate a new mosque. Sitting cross-legged in a circle with her companions, she sang the call to prayer, exulting the glory of God. She made a bold proclamation about the believers who were joining her that day. Muslims from San Francisco to Seattle tuned in via Skype.

    "We are gender equal, queer-friendly and religiously nondiscriminatory," Zonneveld declared. "In other words, all are welcome. Allah tells us in the Quran that the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was a 'mercy to the worlds.'"

    The group praised Allah in Arabic -- and English, a language rarely used for formal prayers. Women stood beside men. Among the ragtag group of Muslims were gay converts, feminist academics and lapsed believers seeking to rediscover their faith.

    ...This wasn't the first time the Los Angeles Muslims had met for prayers. In 2009, they had gathered at a Methodist church but never could draw steady crowd. And not all Muslims received them well. In one instance, a traditional Muslim stopped by to lecture them on their faults. Then the church, where they rented a meeting room, closed in April.

    ...At last, the group came up with a simple solution, one reflecting its aims of openness and inclusion. The plaque outside their rented space, they agreed, would bear an inscription that started with "MPV" (Muslims for Progressive Values) and ended with "mosque." And in the middle there would be one word: "Unity."

    ...everything changed after Sept. 11. The attacks by terrorists invoking Islam for a war against the West had nothing to do with the religion Zonneveld knew. Imams appeared on television with politicians to condemn violence. They echoed her views, but she was put off. She had little in common with the bearded middle-aged men on screen.

    "The vast majority of American Muslims believe in an Islam that is so different from the people that represent us," Zonneveld says. "It's like if you had an Orthodox Jewish rabbi representing all American Jews."

    For the first time, Zonneveld put religion at the forefront of her music. Two years after the attacks, she released an album, "Ummah, Wake Up!" The word ummah means "community" in Arabic. In the opening track, she called for a new jihad. To her, that meant striving to be more merciful, not taking up arms. Another track, "Bury Me," lamented what she saw as the marginalized state of women in Islamic communities.

    Her album didn't go over well. When Zonneveld applied to perform at an Islamic music festival in Toronto, the event's organizers told her that men are forbidden to hear women sing. Islamic retailers banned the album. Prominent Muslims said Zonneveld was focusing too much on the bad in Islam and not enough on the good.
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    Mar 30, 2012 3:15 PM GMT
    ...Most scholars agree that the Quran, which Muslims believe is the written word of God, does not explicitly prohibit women from leading prayers or gay people from taking leadership roles in Islam. The holy book also does not forbid men and women to pray together. Yet, centuries of scholarship on the Quran and the sunnah (the way the prophet lived his life) have resulted in the prevailing view among Muslims worldwide that prayer leaders should be male and that homosexual activity is a sin.

    ...There are parts of the Quran that condemn homosexual acts but their interpretation is debated. Today, in at least seven majority-Muslim countries, gay sex is punishable by death. Most opposition to homosexuality in Islam stems from the Quran's story of Lot, which follows the Old Testament story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Conservative clerics say Allah destroyed these cities because men were having sex with men. Like liberal Christians, progressive Muslims interpret this story to be one about condemnation of rape, not homosexuality.

    The idea of welcoming gay and lesbian Muslims as part of the Islamic community is more recent, says Kecia Ali, an Islamic studies professor at Boston University who researches sexuality and gender in the Quran.

    "We have always had gay people in prayer [groups], but they have been closeted," Ali says. "What's new is this idea that we are now thinking why we are praying the way we are praying, why we are Muslim and who is considered Muslim."

    ...Their differing takes [within the group, about Shariah] were emblematic of that often unspoken conflict within this community: Are the progressives practicing religion? Or do they resemble secular, cultural Muslims?

    Yasir Qadhi, a popular conservative cleric and dean of academic affairs at Houston-based AlMaghrib Institute, holds the latter view. A lecture on progressives that he has given at Islamic conferences has garnered thousands of views on YouTube.

    "The very fact that the movement is so small or marginal speaks volumes about their sway and influence," says Qadhi, who lives in Memphis, Tenn., and whose institute trains 6,000 students annually. "It's pretty clear the mainstream of Muslims of North America, who are under no pressure or threat of physical violence, have clearly identified with traditional voices."

    ...Dalia Mogahed, director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, also takes a critical view of the progressives. Muslims for Progressive Values "are little more than a footnote or a special interest," she writes in an email. "Their actual influence in the [Muslim American] community is virtually non-existent," adds Mogahed, who spent six years collecting 50,000 interviews for the book "Who Speaks For Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think."

    Mohamed Magid, the president of the Islamic Society of North America, takes a softer approach. As the imam of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, a 5,000-member cluster of mosques in Northern Virginia, he welcomes a "marketplace of ideas" competing within Islam. "I have no right to strip anyone from Islam who wants to be Muslim," he says. Men, however, always lead prayers at his mosque, and Magid doesn't believe Islam condones homosexuality.
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    Apr 03, 2012 12:40 AM GMT
    Another Islamic reformer:

    Dr. Tawfik Hamid, is an Islamic thinker and reformer, and one time Islamic extremist from Egypt. He was a member of a terrorist Islamic organization JI with Dr. Ayman Al-Zawaherri who became later on the second in command of Al-Qaeda. Some twenty-five years ago, he recognized the threat of Radical Islam and the need for a reformation based upon modern peaceful interpretations of classical Islamic core texts.