c. 2004 Religion News Service
VANCOUVER, British Columbia _ The newly formed Progressive Muslim Union of North America knew it would be drawing criticism from conservative imams and their allies. But most of the heat has been coming from Muslims who don’t think the network of moderate Muslims is progressive enough.
The Progressive Muslim Union of North America, which has been making international headlines since it was formally launched Nov. 15 in New York City, devotes itself to women’s equality, gay rights and religious tolerance.
But instead of being attacks by the “reactionary” and “paranoid” conservative imams the new organization is trying to circumvent, the most vigorous protest against the group has come from an international group of noted scholars and activists who say the Progressive Muslim Union (PMU) shouldn’t include supporters of the war against Iraq.
The goal of the PMU is to reform Islam from within, say the group’s co-founders, Colgate University Prof. Omid Safi, editor of the best-selling book, Progressive Muslims, and Ahmed Nassef, editor of the immensely popular website, http://www.MuslimWakeup.com.
The two prominent U.S. Muslims began PMU to encourage free-thinking Muslims to “stand up to those whose God is too small, too mean, too tribal and too male.” At this stage in history, Safi writes, “our primary responsibility is to come to terms with the oppressive tyrants and fanatics inside our own communities, our own families and our own hearts.”
However, while conservative Muslim leaders in North America have expressed some concerns about the liberal goals of the PMU, criticisms from Muslim activists such as Canada’s Itrath Syed and Cincinnati scholar Farid Esack have been provoking widespread debate among Muslims.
The dissidents are challenging the way the PMU invited active participation and board membership from both left- and right-wing Muslims, including staunch supporters of President George W. Bush and the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Syed, who is based in Vancouver, said the international controversy has been “emotionally difficult” for her, because she admires Safi and Nassef and, until recently, considered them friends.
Both PMU founders supported Syed during Canada’s June federal election, when the imam at Syed’s suburban Vancouver mosque criticized her from the pulpit for running for the left-wing New Democratic Party, particularly since the party supports homosexual unions.
In response, Syed, a graduate student in women’s studies at the University of British Columbia, issued a passionate defense of the Canadian Charter of Rights, which she said makes everyone, including homosexuals and Muslims, equal under the law.
Despite their support for women’s equality and many other goals of the PMU, Syed and other Muslim activists from Canada, the United States, Egypt and South Africa attacked the PMU in an open letter, which is being widely debated on http://www.MuslimWakeup.com and other Muslim Internet sites by some of the estimated six million Muslims in the United States and 600,000 in Canada.
The dissidents, some of whom had been asked to serve on the PMU board, were appalled that PMU organizers had tried to draw in high-profile supporters of Republican policies in Iraq, such as Malik Hasan, and his wife Seeme, founders of Muslims for Bush, and Farid Zakaria, who wrote in Newsweek that the invasion of Iraq is “the single best path to reform the Arab world.”
Syed’s group also protested how the PMU approached noted Muslim Nawaal al-Sadawi, who has campaigned for enforcement of the head-scarf ban in France. “Such a ban,” said the Muslim dissidents, “is as reactionary as forcing women to wear it.”
Esack, a South African theologian who teaches at St. Xavier University in Cincinnati, stunned PMU organizers by refusing an invitation to join the board.
He didn’t want to work with right-wing Muslims, who, although they might defend gender equity and homosexual rights, also support Bush’s “expansionist” policies.
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“The PMU is a liberal organization, not a progressive one,” Syed says. “It should be standing up for justice and offering geo-political analysis,” she said.
However, Nassef, co-founder of MuslimWakeUp.com, which draws hundreds of thousands of readers each month, strongly disagreed with the allegations by Syed, Esack and others.
“Launching witch hunts against people for not fitting someone’s narrow views goes against everything we believe as progressives, and fighting this kind of thinking is a big reason we started PMU in the first place. We want to bring people together, not build ideological litmus tests,” Nassef said in an interview from San Francisco.
“This is a nonpartisan organization, not a political party. Our statement of principles makes it clear that we are committed to justice and compassion at every level. We’ve issued unequivocal statements committing ourselves to the struggle for civil rights at home and human rights abroad.”
Although supporters of Bush’s foreign policy were invited on to the PMU advisory board, Nassef said they never agreed to join. The PMU’s advisory board, announced last week on its website (http://www.pmuna.org), includes “some of the most respected names in academia, public policy, media, and community organizing on behalf of the Muslim community in North America and worldwide,” Nassef said.
They include Chicago-based media commentator Ali Abunimah, co-founder of Electronic Intifada and Electronic Iraq; Swathmore College professor and author Scott Siraj Al-Haqq Kugle; Muqtedar Khan of the Brookings Institute and Switzerland’s Tariq Ramadan, author and one of Time magazine’s 100 most important innovators of the 21st century.
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