While in Los Angeles a few days ago to interview the musical great A. R. Rahman (watch for the piece in a coming issue of The Progressive), I sat down for coffee with Ani Zonneveld, a singer/songwriter who is the president and co-founder of Muslims for Progressive Values. Ani and I connected via Twitter, and I met her to learn more about the work her organization is doing.
"The whole issue of radicalism is rooted in male supremacy -- in using Islam to validate it," explains Ani. "Our notion of Islam is based on equality and justice -- the same values that can be found in the American Constitution."
To this end, the group operates mosques in places such as L.A. and Atlanta, organizes events and lectures with progressive scholars, and makes resources available online to counter the virulent Wahhabi strain. One recent project has been a San Francisco-area ad blast as a response to Islamophobe Pamela Geller's hate campaign.
"The best way to counter Islamophobia is to look inward and clean our own closet," explains Ani. "We call ourselves self-critical Muslims."
A major project of Muslims for Progressive Values has been a 2011 book, "Progressive Muslim Identities: Personal Stories from the U.S. and Canada," with a foreword by "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" crew member Aasif Mandvi. The contributors chart their journeys trying to reconcile their value systems and their religion.
"What this book does so well is present a collage of Muslim faces and voices that allows all of us, Muslim and non-Muslim, to see a piece of ourselves," writes Mandvi. "The only way to break the cycle of intolerance, misinformation, and prejudice is to connect to the human experience, to find the things that bind us all."
The main issue for reformist Muslims is to interpret the Quran in a more progressive way.
"My reading of the Quran is that it is much more liberating than is commonly supposed," says Ani. "Often traditional Muslims quote me the Hadiths [traditions of the Prophet Muhammad] to me and I quote back to them the Quran. I ask them: 'As a Muslim, what has precedence for you, the Quran or the Hadiths?'"
Many customs that Islam gets condemned for, Ani emphasizes, are actually cultural and have little to do with Islam. We discussed female genital mutilation, for instance. Just the past week, a guest on Sean Hannity's show berated a Muslim fellow panelist for the practice. In fact, the tradition is prevalent chiefly in Muslim and non-Muslim communities in Africa, and, conversely, is absent among the hundreds of millions of Muslims in South Asia.
Ani is confident that her group's interpretation of Islam will attract more and more American Muslims as time goes on.
"Twenty years from now, we'll be much more relevant," she says. "Our Islam is more appealing if you're American. Young Muslims find it difficult to relate to the Islam of their parents."
Ani also has words of criticism for the likes of New York Congressman Peter King, who has advocated intense scrutiny of Muslim Americans. "The profiling of mosques is counterproductive, since you're alienating the very people you want on your side," she says.
Muslims for Progressive Values is thus engaged in a two-pronged battle, against those who demonize the community and against the Saudi-funded hardline clerics who spread their message backed by petrodollars ("We all need the Saudi kind of money," Ani sighs).
Ani has used her talents as a songwriter to further the organization's mission by recording Muslim spirituals in English, a rarity. She generously gifted me a copy of her CD along with the Muslims for Progressive Values book as we said goodbye.
To learn more about the organization, visit: www.mpvusa.org.
Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of The Progressive and co-editor of the Progressive Media Project, is the author of the recent book "Islam" Means Peace: Understanding the Muslim Principle of Nonviolence Today (Praeger).