Agenda of the progressive Muslim Union of North America - by Abdus Sattar Ghazali

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Articles - Political

Executive editor of the online magazine American Muslim Perspective
December 13, 2004


Moderate Islam is a buzz word these days to reform the Muslim society. Many Muslim rulers as well as Muslim and non-Muslim experts/intellectuals/scholars are calling for ‘moderate Islam’. President General Parvez Musharraf of Pakistan is for Enlightened Moderation in Islam while Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is promoting Islam Hadhari (contemporary Islam).

To promote moderate Islam in North America, Progressive Muslim Union (PMU) was formed on November 15, 2004 by some professed moderates who embrace the simple proposition that “you are a Muslim if you say you are a Muslim -- for whatever reason or set of reasons -- and that no one is entitled to question or undermine this identity.”  Ironically, the PMU has drawn bitter criticism from both the staunch advocates of moderate Islam,  who do not find them moderate at all, and also the mainstream Muslims and scholars who see them as publicity monger perverted Muslims who may prove a Trojan horse, by design or default, for the Rand Report - titled "Civil Democratic Islam: Partners, Resources, and Strategies" –  that calls for revamping of Islam by, among other things, encouraging moderate Muslims to counter what it described as fundamentalist and traditionalist Muslims.

An analysis of the PMU statement of principles gives some insight into the mindset of its founders. The PMU tries to create a big tent to embrace Muslims of all shades, leanings and schools of thought when it defined a Muslim as is anyone who identifies herself or himself as "Muslim," including those whose identification is based on social commitments and cultural heritage. It also calls for critical inquiry and dynamic engagement with Islamic scripture (read Quran which Rand Report describes as legend). The PMU also supports the political separation of religious institutions and state functions, and the strict neutrality of the state on matters of religion. This provision may put them in the category of secular Muslims rather than modernists.

The PMU has a bumpy start as many invited to join its advisory board either declined the request or were dropped because of their support to Bush administration’s policies in Iraq. Among those who are dropped from the advisory board are Seeme and Malik Hassan, founders of Muslims For Bush website. Their son Mohammad Ali Hassan wrote an article entitled: The Muslim World's Savior (refering to Mr. Bush), that included this sentence:"I believe Bush is bringing liberation not war." Another person not included in the board is Fareed Zakariyya who wrote in Newsweek (August 5th, 2002)  that the invasion of Iraq is "the single best path to reform the Arab world." Nawaal al-SadawI, an Egyptian writer, was also dropped. She has campaigned for the enforcement of the hijab (head scarf) ban in French public schools. For many Muslims enforcing the wearing of hijab is as reactionary as a ban on wearing it.

Farid Esack, a South African theologian who teaches at St. Xavier University in Cincinnati, stunned the PMU organizers by refusing an invitation to join the board. He didn't want to work with those who, although they might defend gender equity and homosexual rights, also support Bush's "expansionist" policies. In a critique of the PMU, he pointed out that the PMU’s emphasis on diversity and pluralism rather than justice and liberation shows its ideological lines clearly. “There is of course another dimension – virtually the entire list that you have put together consists of the mighty, wealthy and/or famous. Is this really what progressive Islam is about?”

Not surprisingly, the PMU was given wide coverage in the mainstream media. The New York Times on Nov. 16, 2004 reported the launch of the Progressive Muslim Union under the headline: A little late, but a stand against hate. Before the formal launching of the PMU, Washington Post on Oct. 16, 2004 carried a long story entitled: For U.S. Muslims, a push from the progressive wing; broader rights backed for women and gays. On Oct. 7, 2004, USA Today reported: Progressive Muslim members plan to form the Progressive Muslim Union of North America as an alternative U.S. voice of Islam.

The PMU is being launched at a time when Muslims remain under siege in US. Since 9/11, and attack on Islam has become a past time for many, particularly the Christian right. Just two recent examples: (1) After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Franklin Graham called Islam "an evil and wicked religion." In an interview with The Los Angles Times on Nov. 27, 2004, he was asked if he still thought of Islam in the same way. "I haven't changed my mind," he said. (2) Bruce Tefft, a founder of the CIA's counter-terrorism center and now an advisor to the New York Police Department's intelligence and counter-terrorism divisions, told a seminar in Canada on Dec. 8, 2004: Islamic terrorism is based on Islam as revealed through the Qu'ran and that while there may be moderate Muslims, Islam itself is immoderate.

The PMU apparently comes as a response to this pressure on the American Muslim community. The PMU founders in their formal launching statement emphasized: “PMU will defend the Muslim community from the calumnies of those who seek to insult and degrade Islam and/or the Muslim community, in particular the relentless campaign of defamation from some evangelical preachers, like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, or from supporters of the extreme right in Israel, like Daniel Pipes.”  A prompt response from Pipes was not unexpected. He described the PMU founders as “the worst Islamist and leftist extremists in the United States.”

It has to be seen how the PMU will be received by the American Muslim community and will it be successful to become an effective voice of the community just like the established organizations such as CAIR, ISNA, ICNA and MPAC who have grassroots contacts with the community in contrast to the PMU academia, activists or their millionaire supporters who not enjoy this privilege.

This discussion leads us to the basic question, who is a moderate or progressive Muslim? Moderation is a quality of being moderate and avoiding extremes. American Heritage dictionary defines a moderate “one who holds or champions moderate views or opinions, especially in politics or religion.”  However, these days apparently the title of "moderate Muslim" is only reserved for those who do not question the U.S. foreign policy in the Muslim world and openly abandon Islam's beliefs and malign its scripture.

If this is not the case then what was the reason to revoke visa of the renowned Swiss Muslim intellectual, Professor Tariq Ramadan, who was supposed to begin teaching at the Notre Dame University this fall. It looks that his unwillingness to deny Islam as his identity is his crime. He made this point abundantly clear when he addressed Dec 2 interfaith conference in Prague sponsored by former Czech president Vaclav Havel: “I'm a European Muslim; I'm a Western Muslim. So it's obvious that when you speak like this you will have traditionalists and literalists saying that you are betraying the religion. So it is controversial within the religious community. But at the same time, I'm still too much Muslim for some Europeans and some Americans.”

Professor Ramadan is a scholar recognized throughout the world for his labors on behalf of interfaith understanding and the building of peace as evidenced in his most recent book, "Western Muslims and the Future of Islam," in which he says: A silent revolution is sweeping Islamic communities in the West, as Muslims actively seek ways to live in harmony with their faith within a Western context. French, English, German, and American Muslims--women as well as men--are reshaping their religion into one that is faithful to the principles of Islam, dressed in European and American cultures, and definitively rooted in Western societies.  

So, the question remains unanswered, who is a moderate Muslim?

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