Progressive Muslim voices are actually everywhere

Via Tehmina Kazi, a brilliant piece at Open Democracy by a friend of hers, Akmal Ahmed Safwat, an oncologist in Denmark.

Instead of verbally denouncing terror, many Muslims in the West are now challenging the radical, ultra conservative and violent Wahhabi/salafi version of Islam that gives religious justification for hideous crimes. They are doing so through a growing movement of progressive Muslims such as British Muslims for Secular Democracy, Muslims for Progressive Values (USA) and the Liberal Muslim Network (Norway).

We progressive Muslims do not distinguish between atrocities committed by radical movements like Al-Qaida or Boko Haram and those committed by despotic dictatorships that dare to call themselves “Islamic” governments; the ones that administer the death penalty for apostasy and homosexuality; that practice stoning and flagellation; that legitimize child marriage. Both justify their atrocious practices through selected, outdated interpretations of primary Islamic scripture and a so-called “irrefutable authority” of ancient scholars and books.

Yessssss. I’ve been saying this for years – it’s not just terrorism, it’s also the brutally reactionary theocratic rules and practices that we need to oppose and resist. The latter affects vastly more people than the former can.

Wahhabi/salafi Islam is a literal way of looking at religious texts, taking it out of historical context and extending straight lines to current times. Its authority is often external to the Qu’ran, using things that are claimed to have been spoken(hadith) or performed (sunnah) by the prophet. These claims and interpretations are man-made.

Progressive Muslims, on the other hand, believe that history matters and that these claims can be challenged. The ancient Islamic Scholar Al-Shafi’i, changed his fatwas when he moved from one Islamic country to another because he acknowledged how his previous ideas did not suit the new environment. Yet today’s salafists insists on applying Al-Shafi’s old fatwas unchanged, more than 1000 years after his death.

Progressive Muslims essentially differ from traditionalists in the way we approach the Qur’anic texts. In his book, The Place of Tolerance in Islam, UCLA scholar Khaled Abou El-Fadl says “It is impossible to analyse any verse, except in the light of the overall moral thrust of the Qur’anic message. TheQur’an commands Muslims to do the good and it is not accidental that the word used for ‘the good’ is ma’aruf, meaning ‘that which is known to be good.’ Goodness in the Qur’anic discourse, therefore, is a lived reality, the product of human experience and constructed normative understanding.”

As an atheist, I don’t really think any religion is the best place to look for the good, but since most people are not atheists, that’s somewhat beside the point. I think it’s urgent and beneficial for theists to shape their religion in such a way that it helps them to do the good. I think we should all try to do the good, using whatever paths can get us there. But it has to be the good – so hatreds and repressions are right out.

So, when we progressives say Islam is a religion of justice, tolerance andcompassion, we approach the holy texts with these values and vision and let the Qur’an guide us to an understanding of contemporary life. Consequently, we support women’s rights and agency and human rights for all. We support the civil rights of the LGBT community. We reject the idea that shari’a is immutable. We support procedural secularism and the separation of church and state. We oppose capital punishment.

This is how we distance ourselves from Islamists’ crimes, by trying to livema’aruf on a day-to-day basis.

Progressive Muslim voices are actually everywhere, what is missing is critical mass. The problem with challenging the status quo is that you are marching into an unequal battle. Progressive Muslims are individuals and academics facing radical movements as well as whole countries moving towards political domination.

The rest of us need to help them and signal boost what they say.

Furthermore, we are competing with Saudi Arabia’s unlimited petro wealth, a nation that has spent close to $100 billion dollars to export Wahhabi Islam into Islamic societies and thus assert its political influence. Through monopolizing satellite media and infiltrating religious institutions previously known for its progressive views, Saudi Arabian Wahhabism has managed to grip the hearts and minds of millions of Muslims. El-Azhar in Egypt is just one example.

Despite an appalling human rights record, the Saudi regime can always count on the West’s unconditional support in its quest for dominating the Muslim world.

In fact, a closer look would clearly show the striking resemblance between Saudi Arabia and the newly born Islamic State. It defies credibility and fundamental logic that Western nations would ally themselves with Saudi Arabia to fight ISIS, since the latter is the brainchild of the first and any difference between them is only in scale but not in kind.

At the end he says something very like what Maajid said on Fresh Air last week –

Legal philosopher, Abdullahi An-Na’im has taught us that the divide is not between Islam and western society but between people who have different values. He counsels us to promote connections between people who want to contribute to human values because people who share that commitment can collaborate effectively, irrespective of their own culture.

That. It’s not The West versus The Rest or West v Islam; it’s universal human rights versus fascism.


  1. says

    I went on a bit of a Heina youtube binge the other night.

    she was taking about sexuality in Islam, and said that during her religious phase she couldnt understand how gay people could be sinning against Islam if the weren’t Muslim.

    Maybe we should encourage more 10 year old girls to become community leaders.

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