Muslimwakeup.com [MWU], a very popular Muslim e-zine has definitely enriched and shaken up the American Muslim public sphere and is also being noticed by Muslims overseas. It has also received rave reviews from the mainstream press in America, which is thirsting for proof of diversity within the Muslim community and MWU is a flaming example of that. Importantly MWU is part of the rapidly coalescing of progressive Muslim forces in North America and is perhaps their most important vehicle for communications. Along with the book Progressive Muslims, edited by Prof. Omid Safi, Asra Noamani’s mosque protests, and Amina Wadud’s leading of friday prayers, MWU is easily one of the key Progressive Muslim moments in the history of American Islam. Thus MWU has clearly carved a place for itself, in the American Muslim public sphere.
Since the Friday prayer initiative, I have been engaged in many debates and discussions with Muslims of all types in many Internet forums, conferences and on phone calls on the subject. While in most cases I was trying to defend the importance of the progressive agenda of the Progressive Muslim Union [PMU],I was also defending my right to dissent against Progressive Muslims who were attacking me for not endorsing the Wadud initiative.
Before I make my arguments, I would like to state in the interest of disclosure that I am connected with both the Progressive Muslim movement and with Muslimwakeup.com. I am on the advisory board of PMU and several of my articles have been published by MWU in the past. This article should be read as advise from someone invited formally to sit in an advisory position and be read and engaged in the spirit of constructive criticism. I am essentially reporting, with some analysis, the criticisms of MWU that I receive. There are other nasty and eminently false allegations being made by some mainstream Muslims about MWU being a conspiracy of Rand Corporation and Neoconservatives in the US. I ignore them. There is no room for rational discourse with those who subscribe to conspiracy theories. For them their own imagination serves as evidence and it is irrefutable.
The conclusion that I can draw from all these debates and discussions is that while majority of Muslims sympathize and may even endorse the agenda of Progressive Muslims (1) seeking gender justice, (2) struggling for social justice, (3) advancing a moral inclusivist theology, and (4) opening the doors of Ijtihad for reinterpretation of Islam in the contemporary context, they strongly oppose the method and style of MWU.
I repeat, most American Muslims seem to sympathize with the causes that underpin the philosophy of Progressive Muslims, but they strongly disapprove of MWU’s style. This raises the question, will MWU in the long run undermine the very movement, the Progressive Muslim movement that it seeks to promote.
Based on my discussions these are the main reasons why MWU maybe undermining the PMU.
[A] Style: There are several aspects of style that seems to bother average Muslim readers. The tendency to immediate mock and ridicule prominent American Muslim leaders and organizations – a song that calls Siraj Wahhaj a fag is often cited. Most people have no problems with criticism, but they object to the complete lack of Islamic adab. Regardless of what ploy MWU editors may use to defend this – “oh it is under the section satire, or humor “ – the distasteful content speaks or rather stinks for itself. This is not the Islamic way. One thing that many people told me was that they were deeply hurt by the manner in which MWU either dismissed or mocked traditional Muslim scholars of the past and the present.
[B] Islamic content: The manner in which many articles on MWU approach debates on Islamic theological issues are also an issue with many readers. Remember these are not complaints from fans or regular readers. These are complaints from most mosque related mainstream Muslims who have visited MWU once or twice to gauge what progressive Muslims are up to and have been turned off.
The woman led Friday prayer has attracted a lot of attention to the Progressive Muslim cause and increased traffic to MWU. But the arguments advanced in several articles published by MWU has sent Muslims two messages:
(1) Progressive Muslims are arrogant, full of themselves and condescending of other Muslims.
(2) Most importantly, Progressive Muslims are empty when it comes to knowledge of Islam and Islamic sources.
While the first accusation may be applicable to several other Muslim outfits, the second one is most debilitating. If MWU will convey the message that Progressive Muslims do not know their Islam then the cause is lost, PMU might as well convert to Buddhism that shares many of the same goals. The most commonly cited examples of this flaw in MWU articles are Hussein Ibish’s responses to Hina Azam andLouay Safi. They are read as insulting and above all completely and absolutely devoid of any Islamic content. They seem to be written by someone who knows nothing about Islam and on a more scary level, does not really care for Islamic sources at all. Many Muslims also seem to recall that Ibish had declared on national TV that he was an agnostic and did not practice Islam or something to that effect.
I agree with the traditional Muslims’ argument that Progressive Muslims are methodologically weak, essentially because the progressive Islamic jurisprudential tradition has yet to begin. That is understandable. But to engage in a theological discussion without engaging theology is absurd to say the least. Surely Ibish and some of his friends may get a good laugh out of it, but I am afraid the joke might be on PMU.
Ibish is an important activist of the American Muslim and Arab communities and has already served them brilliantly. Islamic thought is clearly not his forte and while he may have interesting observations to make about the state of Muslim affairs from a progressive standpoint, he would do better to eschew engaging theological issues.
It is incumbent on the scholars associated with the Progressive Muslim movement to provide the Islamic theological justifications for their initiatives. Progressive Muslims have always claimed that Islam is a progressive faith and progressive values are embedded in its sources and it is our job to extract and articulate them. This was an opportunity to do so. The traditional and conservative traditions engaged Progressive Muslims seriously and systematically for the first time. I must say that the Progressive Muslim response lacked the same intellectual depth and vigor [with regards to Islamic thought] and MWU compounded this by frequently indulging in unbecoming conduct. Instead of using the opportunity to deeply engage Islamic sources, to highlight its progressive nature, MWU unfortunately engaged in ridiculing traditional arguments.
[C] Sex: This is a source of great contention. Many Muslims have a problem with the discussion of sex itself, others have a problem with how some prominent Islamic personalities have been dealt with in some of this sex columns. I think the sex columns do more to establishing the personality of MWU with their fan base and may not directly undermine the progressive Muslim movement as long as they do not seek to reform theology through fictionalized discussion of sex. But I guess that is the objective of the column, not only to subvert the Victorian values that have crept into the Muslim world, but also to problematize orthodoxy.
[D] Intolerance: This is the irony and tragedy of the Progressive Muslim Movement, that it is accused of intolerance. Most Muslim readers argue that MWU while preaching loftily for tolerance and inclusion are vociferously intolerant towards Muslims who disagree with them. “They have made a big show of hugging Jews”, said one sarcastic young woman to me, “how about hugging some Muslims who disagree with them”. Her point is valid. I can personally testify to the rampant intolerance that characterizes several progressive Muslim groups. Not only do many articles on MWU, but also several postings in the discussions reflect a culture of animosity and intolerance for Muslims who do not share their views. This of course is not limited to progressive Muslims but is displayed widely across Muslim groups of all ideological inclinations.
Progressive Muslim Union and Muslimwakeup.com do not have any formal relationship; A few months ago the decision to separate MWU and PMU was taken and now there is no institutional relationship between the two. The only thing common is the presence of Ahmed Nassef, the editor of MWU, on the executive board of PMU. The justification for the Friday Prayer initiative that Omid Safi wrote was not even published on MWU. But MWU clearly has become the vehicle for some progressive Muslims to push their causes. Its novelty value continues to attract both mainstream and Muslim attention. But hopefully MWU will settle down and focus on pressing issues of progressive reform in the Muslim community, abhor juvenile tactics and distasteful style. One cannot ridicule and alienate the very audience one seeks to reform. Most importantly, when serious issues are raised, MWU should give it due respect. It must show respect for the issue and for those who disagree with it. There is no point in advocating tolerance and acceptance of the other if one does not practice it. How can progressive Muslims preach an inclusive theology if MWU adopts exclusivist tactics?
Both PMU and MWU are uniquely American Muslim institutions. They have a lot of good to offer to Muslims and to the rest of the society here and abroad. Let’s not squander the opportunity and the meager resources available to our community through juvenile and distasteful packaging.
In the coming years the battle for the soul of Islam will rage across the world. Already one can see the beginning of a global impact of the woman led Friday prayers. We will be engaging contentious issues more regularly. Progressive Muslims, all of us including myself, cannot have an impact on the practice of Islam in Muslim communities without practicing Islamic and progressive values of tolerance, adab, inclusion and acceptance of the other.