Monday, August 11, 2008

Progressive Muslims: Why so often an oxy-moron?

I've been asking myself this question for much of my life, but especially lately. I read an article this morning on by Omad Safi, a professor at UNC titled "Tricky Terrain: 'Progressive' and 'Religious'" . It deals with this tension within the Muslim community, and it pushed me to finally write about this, though I've been talking and thinking about it often as of late.

I had the great fortune of appearing on the UK television network Channel 4's special Shariah TV series about life for young American Muslims in the post-Sept 11th world. The episode I appeared on was focused on our lives in America called "Pledging Allegiance." It was about how we as young American Muslims navigate American culture and remain true to our Muslim identities. Where do we cut corners? What are we comfortable with? It was a truly interesting experience, with an incredibly diverse panel of young people coming from all over the spectrum of America's Muslims. Many of the young people were activists within their Muslim communities, working to make their communities better places. That was a first for me- meeting Muslim peers who are also involved in activism and social justice but from a particularly faith-based perspective, as opposed to my civic-minded, secular perspective. I met a fellow progressive (and Sagittarius!) that day on the show, and we clicked. We've been having really interesting and useful conversations about what being progressive young American Muslim women means, and how we feel within our greater Muslim communities as a result of our staked out ideological and social positions. We have had decidedly different experiences, but definitely both feel isolated within the Muslim communities we've experienced in addition to the progressive communities we've been a part of.

Being a woman within the framework of speaking about Islam and being Muslim is an incendiary position to be in. I find that speaking to other Muslims, my Islamic authenticity is challenged and questioned, as if believing in equal rights for all people, not supporting injustice of any kind and being pro-social justice makes my shahada (declaration of faith) less valid. People, including a coworker last week, will literally quiz me on the pillars of Islam or details regarding the proper way to pray or verses from the Quran that all Muslims must memorize in order to be able to pray. I find these interactions incredibly insulting and frustrating- I self identify as a Muslim, therefore I am.

I believe in one God, whom I refer to by the Arabic name of Allah. I believe in the same God that Jesus, Moses and Adam all prayed to and were messengers of, and count them among the prophets of Islam (peace be upon them all). I believe in the books that were revealed by Allah/God- the Torah, the Bible and the Quran.

Granted, I do believe that both the Torah (the Old Testament) and the Bible (the New testament and the Gospels) have been changed many times over the centuries by those in charge of the transcribing and translation in order to fit political and social convenience and gain.

None of this faithful belief infringes on my ability to think that women should have control over their bodies always and under all conditions and that women deserve nothing short of reproductive justice and freedom- all the time, no matter what. That includes everything from access to abortion, birth control, family planning, right to marry or not marry as one chooses, the right to an education, the right to move freely where and with whomever and wherever a woman pleases, the right to work, the right to pursue any occupation, career or life path a woman might ever want, the right to love whomever she wants, and the right to protection against all forms of rape, genital mutilation, assualt, harrasment, domestic violence, molestation, and any type of intimidation or coercion that puts any girls or women in any kind of danger.

My beliefs in Islam do not in any way hinder my dedication to developing an active, informed civic society on all levels of our citizenry, regardless of race, class, gender, sexuality, education levels, religion, geographic allegiance, political orientation, economic standing, incarceration status, immigration status. Islam is not opposed to democracy or social justice in any way. In fact, my belief in Islam supports all my beliefs in social justice and activism.

I would argue (supported by many scholars, activists and important historical figures) that Islam exhorts its adherents to oppose injustice at any turn and to always fight for those voiceless, marginalized people who cannot fight for themselves, and to aid those who are fighting for self determination, justice, respect and their human rights.

Speaking to many members of the various progressive communities I'm a part of, you'd never know those above statements are true or even possible. By declaring myself a Muslim woman, many in the progressive community think that I am oppressed and need their help. think I am acting out of sheer defiance of my "oppresive, violent" faith in having the ideals I do and organizing on behalf of non- Muslims, women, people of color, gays and lesbians, civic engagement, national service and my anti-war beliefs, to name some. Although, according to them, since I don't wear hijab and since I speak (rather loudly and often) about what I believe I must not be all that oppressed.

On the other hand, sometimes I get embraced in a rather ferocious way because I am willing to discuss the rampant misogyny I've seen abroad in undereducated, economically depressed and oppressed Muslim communities and the violence against women and the insistance of some ultra-conservative immigrant families on keeping their daughters from getting higer education, getting their drivers licenses and getting their daughters married off very early, often to a member of the extended family. This ferocious reception and acceptance is strange, and sometimes makes me feel strange about my position as a dissenter. I in no way mean to provide ammo to Islamophobes, xenophobes or anti-religious people. I do my utmost when discussing what I see as unjust amongst Muslim communities to educate my listeners to understand Islam and the true nature of what the Quran intended, as opposed to the way American media, and Western media in general depicts my faith and the many misconceptions many people have about it as a result.

I'm not trying to badmouth my faith or my fellow Muslims. I am deeply critical of this oppressive, dangerous patriarchal behavior that people try to pass off as being couched in Islam. It isn't. Racism, classism, materialism, sexism, misogyny, imperialism and oppression have no place in Islam or in the culture of Muslims.

I've been recently introduced to the group Muslims for Progressive Values and was overjoyed. Finally, a group that embodies all the progressive values that are vitally important to me, completely in harmony with Muslim values and people who don't see a need to change Islam, but the way Muslims regard Islam and its practice!

Also, after reading Omad Safi's article this morning, I checked out his new collection of essays online, called Progresive Muslims: On Justice, Gender and Pluralism and also found the book Quran and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Texts from a Woman's Perspective and plan to get both of them. I hope to find more information to strengthen my sometimes lonely positions.

There is a new masjid being built and started in my hometown that many people I know are actively involved in. One of the recipients of the various articles I send out every day recommended that I attend some of the board meetings to bring "the sister's perspective" to the planning process of what function this masjid is going to serve for the surrounding community. I think it is equally important to have progressive voices represented during this process as well. Just wish I had more support and allies to work with me on this. We'll see....


Passionista said...

Excellent post! Wow girl. This line really embodied everything for me in this article, and what you have explained to me throughout our friendship: "In fact, my belief in Islam supports all my beliefs in social justice and activism." I know this is true, because you've taught me this. It is so often people who lower the tenants of a religion to stand behind their own agendas and too often this is what gets portrayed to people who do not understand. The media grabs hold to all the negatives, while itself not truly being educated. We need more people like you, and hopefully you've found them, to continue to advocate true Islam and fight for human rights.

Farheen said...

You have echoed my sentiments exactly!! Thank you for writing this.

The said...

I self identify as a Muslim, therefore I am.

If you have a totally subjective definition of "Muslim", then really the word means nothing at all. As your very next paragraph implies, there has to be *some* sort of objective criteria for defining what "Islam" is and what a "Muslim" is.

None of this faithful belief infringes on my ability to think that women should have control over their bodies always and under all conditions
One of the most important principles in Islam is that all property, including our bodies, is only held in trust for God, and therefore we are duty-bound to handle our bodies in the way that God specifies. So, there are some limits to what we should do; the question is to what degree these limits are enforced.

We all have our nafs -- our lower selves. Not everything which pleases us is necessarily good for us or for society. Therefore, we should be wary of making the ultimate authority our Self instead of God. That's the danger with some "progressive" movements-- they lean too heavily towards making self-indulgent individualism a virtue.

There and back again said...

There is an objective criteria for what denotes a Muslim (as I mentioned in my post): the Shahada. Professing the Shahada, and being a believer in Allah as our Creator and sustainer, along with Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) as Allah's messenger makes you a Muslm.
We have free will for a reason- we're supposed to make the right choices and do the right thing. We might be duty bound by the rules set down in the Quran, but we are not forced to. The question is not just what degree to which this duty is enforced, it is also who has the right to do the enforcing? As we see in Muslim countries where alcohol is banned and drinking still happens, simply regulating a behavior or choice away does not make it disappear. Individual free will is ultimately what decides what we do (within a societal paradigm of patriarchy, racism, classism, sexism and misogyny of course).
Even if we mess up (since all people do), it doesn't mean that we are less of a person or a Muslim as a result.

"That's the danger with some "progressive" movements-- they lean too heavily towards making self-indulgent individualism a virtue."

Let's take a moment to acknowledge the danger of "conservative" movements- fascist tendencies, outright oppression, conformity of action, thought and belief, violence, and war. I'm not trying to trivialize your response, but I truly have to say I'll take self-indulgent individualism over state sponsored control over every aspect of my life. Community building and buiiding understanding amongst people is possible in most environments, and while it is hard among the self-absorbed, it is not out of reach. Community building across diverse groups of people is pretty hard when conservative movements are villifying everyone who isn't in the ruling majority or when they have outlawed the right to assemble.

Anonymous said...

Interesting dialogue, and one I spend a lot of time pondering myself.

For the amount of "progressive" movements I jumped right into in college - some of them posing as answers to the increasingly conservative American administration - I always struggled with what liberation came to mean for my peers. I certainly made my own mistakes, but ultimately, there were always boundaries I couldn't push, things that didn't sit right with me. I'm still encountering these issues at every turn. This summer,in fact, I found myself at a demonstration that three years ago I would have been at because, well, I'm "progressive" and it was what "progressive people do". However, this time around, I was unbelievably uncomfortable. So much so that I needed to leave. The space was not for me. In retrospect, it never really was. I have vivid memories of college 'friends' teasing me about my "sensibilities", and quizzing me about how I could 'possibly' buy into religion when it is "so restrictive". What on earth is so 'progressive' about such a judgemental attitude? Nothing at all! Funny, now that I've dissociated myself from some of these groups, I find myself to be much more free. I am still making some of these social changes and it's a truly valuable experience.

I think the fundamental issue is exactly what you guys are discussing - enforcement. Do we trust women to employ the values instilled in them by faith? That sort of becomes the ultimate question. Islam has rules and guidelines, but we also have free will and accountability to God. I believe that one of religion's great values is just that - accountability to God for the choices we've made. Free will doesn't mean we get to be so cocky that we think we're the ultimate authority. That's where the waters get murky. For me, real "progress" has really started to reveal itself as not being about any one social group's idea of liberty. I missed that point when I got bogged down in identity politics.

It is so important, I believe, to say the things Yazmin is saying. More Muslims absolutely need to reveal to the world that Islam is NOT incompatible with the safety of women's bodies, the sanctity of human life -- and that those who violate these precepts do not speak in our name.

As an aside, I recently read Chris Hedges' book "I Don't Believe in Atheists" - a great read. Highly recommended.

Mariko said...

People do sometimes jump to judgment when you identify yourself as a certain something. I find that when I tell people that I'm an atheist, they think that I'm a moment away from going on a shooting rampage and that I probably have no morals to speak of.

Me having morals and being (generally) a "good" person, all the while believing that there is no God, comes across as an oxymoron to many as well.

The said...

Me having morals and being (generally) a "good" person, all the while believing that there is no God, comes across as an oxymoron to many as well.

Well, I used to call myself an atheist/agnostic, but I came to realize that it is somewhat of an oxymoron to believe in "good" but not "God". The main problem is that your morals (while they certainly exist) are not grounded in anything except your cultural conditioning. When culture breaks down, and it is in your self-interest to (for example) eat a baby, there's really nothing to prevent you from doing so and believing it is a good thing because it lets you survive. The existence of objective morality has to, by definition, come from outside ourselves.

Aisha La Estudiante said...

Sallam Sis,

Love the article. Some time, I'd like to post on this as well and link to you and Sister Raquel. You somehow capture my thoughts and debate them well. Islam is freedom, equality, defending the weak, loving others, helping the poor, respecting all women, all races... it's a million and one wonderful things to me. You've expressed the best of them.

You're bookmarked on my browser.
Your blog is cute thanks :)

The Funky Ghetto Hijabi said...

A Facebook Friend connected me to this post.
I've posted the Omid Safi article on my own blog, Confessions of a Funky Ghetto Hijabi with my own comments:
My own struggles are more with the imperial and colonial legacy of Islam, particularly in Africa and South Asia. As a Black African Muslim woman I struggle with the racism of mainstream Muslim communities but, at least here in Canada, there aren't many Blacks involved in progressive spaces...partly because many of these progressive spaces are pretty cliquish and South Asian focused.
Keep pondering the big questions.
I've added you to my blogroll.

Mayana said...

Couldnt agree more!
You are so inspiring, truly, Allah is working through you
keep on speaking loudly about the truth!