Progressive Islam: Lessons learned from the PMU experiment

The Progressive Muslim Union is going through a rough patch. A series of defections of prominent supporters that started in July (Muqtedar Khan, Michael Knight, Laury Silvers, and others) culminated in August with the collective resignation – accompanied by some acrimonious public exchanges within PMU’s board – of Omid Safi, Hussein Ibish, and Sara Eltantawi, three of the PMU’s four founders (only MuslimWakeUp! editor Ahmed Nassef remains). And a new (rival?) website, ProgressiveIslam.org, featuring former PMU stalwarts has been launched. The Progressive Muslim movement seems to be splintering, if not crumbling before our eyes.

As someone who sympathizes with many of the organization’s stated goals and as someone who’s sometimes has occasionally found himself defending the work of Progressive Muslims – not every charge lobbed at them is fair and there are some very good, sincere Muslims involved – I’ve observed PMU’s recent travails with great sadness. I have to admit, though, that this sadness isn’t really for PMU per se, but rather for the activists and causes that will have to deal with the fallout from the latest twist in the increasingly unseemly saga of Progressive Islam in North America (which Sheila Musaji has summarized admirably in her hard-hitting recent article “MWU and PMU: Progressive Voices?” in The American Muslim).

PMU’s protean and seemingly relativistic approach towards Islam and its unwillingness to unambiguously affirm transcendent values in Islam and the normative authority of Quran and Sunnah have always distressed me as a Muslim and prevented me from identifying with the organization, even when it was alone in tackling problems and issues that I felt strongly about.

I’ve never believed in “Progressive Islam”, either. Not because “progressive” is a dirty word, but because its principles are already at the core of Islam. Contrary to all the historically and philosophically illiterate rubbish one hears about the sinister implications of the term, there is nothing inherently secular or anti-Islamic about progressivism. To the contrary, many of the most laudable advances in American politics and society that Muslims view as in keeping with Islamic values (e.g., civil rights, economic justice, the welfare safety net, child labor laws, women’s rights, environmentalism) are the result of the dreaded Progressive political tradition. While it’s true that this tradition is not consciously grounded in religious faith, its objectives of alleviating suffering and bringing about equality are ones that any Muslim should applaud. (Besides, who doesn’t believe in some kind of “progress”, and why is it so hard for some people to consider the possibility that a Muslim “progressive” might consider the pinnacle of progress to be nothing more than living up to Allah’s message and doing good?)

My biggest frustration is how PMU’s monopolization of the discussion of Islamic reform and its horrendous PR missteps have not only made the word “progressive” radioactive in the Muslim community, but have put activists and reformers on the defensive. I mourn the fact that activists now have to devote so much energy to explaining what they’re not rather than making a cause for much needed reform.

The activists I know would sooner admit to being ax murderers than “Progressive Muslims”. How did this happen? How did the Progressive Muslim movement lose credibility with so many Muslims who would’ve normally been predisposed to enthusiastically support them?

There was a time where I certainly had high hopes for this nascent movement. In the beginning, MuslimWakeUp.com was an innovative and promising venture, a truly exciting voice for reform and Muslim debate that was leveraging technology to create a virtual community and communication channel for liberals and reformers around the globe. By the time I got the chance to contribute an article to MWU in August 2004, I had already begun to feel grave misgivings about MWU’s direction due to the advent of the “Sex and the Umma” column, but I hoped this was an aberration. Unfortunately, that did not prove to be the case, and PMU/MWU became increasingly fringe, confrontational and seemingly out of touch with its community, reveling in vulgarity and puerility, passing off lazy secularist slogans as Islamic reform, and gratuitously offending normal Muslim sensibilities. Soon thereafter in 2004, I gave up on PMU as a credible voice for Islamic reform, even if I sympathized with some its efforts.

I don’t think it was PMU’s string of PR missteps or the influence of any one individual – considerable criticism has been leveled many of those resigning at the outspoken leftist activist Tarek Fatah – that did it in, but something far more fundamental, its trying to be, if you’ll forgive the expression, “all things to all men”. In its effort to forge a grand uber-coalition of leftists and activists, PMU refused to apply even the most minimal doctrinal litmus tests to its leaders and representatives. As a result, PMU (here I use the term loosely to refer to more than its board of directors) runs the gamut from hard-line secularists to fuzzy New Agers to normal Muslims who just want reform in the community. To some, this diversity is undoubtedly PMU’s crowning glory, but to me it a sign of an organization lacking substance or vision.

On the one hand, I want to make some allowances for PMU in this regard, as I realize that they are trying to do something extraordinarily difficult, namely updating the Muslim community’s norms of tolerance to address thorny contemporary realities. For example, in our era of fragmented globalized identities, postmodernism, and widespread secularism, the idealistic assumptions about a Muslim’s identity and practice found in Islamic tradition do not always correspond to the reality of contemporary Muslims. Historians might debate whether the Ummah is more doctrinally diverse or less practicing today than in the past, but it’s safe to say that modern Muslims must face unheard of pluralism when dealing with their fellow Muslims. The days when most Muslims lived in a community in which a single madhab, culture, language, race, or even denomination predominate and block out other competing Islamic paradigms are long gone. Also, however one views or explains this phenomenon (i.e., secularization, decadence, modernism, materialism, etc.), it is a sociological fact that a significant segment of contemporary Muslim populations is made up of “cultural Muslims”. There are large numbers of Muslims today who do not accept the need to practice Islam as laid out in Islamic tradition and fiqh. From a traditional perspective, they are not normal Muslims, but it is no less problematic to categorize them as non-Muslims, as they have not renounced Islam and they clearly are part of modern Islamic civilization in some meaningful sense.

To PMU’s credit – and unlike many mainstream Muslim organizations – it has tried to grapple with this conundrum and create a space where Muslims who do not conform to mainstream expectations (however legitimate most such expectations may be) or who are struggling with their faith can participate without fear of knee-jerk takfir or harassment by self-righteous vigilantes.

Nonetheless, I think that PMU has allowed the pendulum of tolerance to swing to far in the opposite direction, to the point where it’s not always clear what makes the organization “Muslim”. It is certainly laudable to ensure that Muslims are allowed to make their own moral choices without fear of reprisals from the community – that’s a considerably less often noted consequence of the Quranic dictum, “There is no compulsion of religion.” Religious freedom should apply no less to Muslims than non-Muslims! – but this can’t come at the expense of devaluing fundamental values and norms about which there is no debate within Islam or at the expense of promoting radical Antinomianism that makes all religious practices and prohibitions seem superfluous. All organizations must define not only what they believe in, but what they do not believe in. A “Muslim” organization cannot formulate a coherent message, much less promote any mission for reform, if it is stretched to accommodate the whims and sensitivities of every dissident, radical and New Age dabbler.

I also fear that PMU has done some real damage to the causes it aspires to promote. I mourn the newfound ability of reactionaries to tar any person who tries to talk about, say, the need for women khateebs – an infinitely more important objective than the PMU crowd’s almost bourgeois obsession with women imams – as secularized elites who are aren’t serious about Islam. Sure, this reflex to dismiss all reform has always been present-tradition, like patriotism, is the first refuge of the scoundrel-but now that PMU has made the whole Muslim Left look libertine and trite, I believe that the old slur carries a new sting.

Activists in the trenches in their communities working to get something positive done not because it’s “progressive” but because that’s what they believe Allah (swt) requires of them are the ones who will have to clean up the mess left behind by PMU. The sad thing is that they will probably have to throw the baby out with the bathwater, distancing themselves entirely from all things “progressive” rather than just the Progressive Muslim Union. Which is unfortunate, given the numerous worthy causes that Progressive Muslims have embraced and associated themselves with.

Still, my hope is that lefty Muslim activists and reformers will learn some lessons from the PMU saga:

Tie your camel. Activism requires concrete plans and specific objectives. That requires establishing shared goals, objectives and commitments. Assuming “likeminded” people will all naturally work together and ultimately agree on long-term policy is naïve and utopian, and the Muslim community sure doesn’t need any more utopians.

Think small. Activists should focus on ad hoc coalitions and campaigns that get things done on the local level as opposed to more overarching organizations. It’s the work that counts. Grand initiatives tend to be heavy on ideology and media buzz, but light on substance.

Avoid high-profile media campaigns against the Muslim community. True reform results from dialogue, not high profile media campaigns, which I think do more harm than good. Given the way the modern American media work, major media campaigns on sensitive topics affecting besieged, misunderstood minorities reinforce stereotypes, alarmism, and exaggerations rather than promote communication or serious debate. Nuance, balance, and constructive criticism don’t sell newspapers-screaming headlines do. That is the tragedy of the modern media.

Thus, the most lasting legacy of Asra Nomani’s mosque ambush campaign – which made mosques the targets of “direct action”, which is usually reserved for military bases, polluting factories, and sinister embassies as opposed to houses of worship – in the final analysis might well be reinforcing sensationalistic popular images of mosques as dens of extremism and oppression rather than opening up mosques to women. In a post-9/11 world, showing up with a camera crew at a mosque you’ve never set foot in before and bullying your way in to stage triumphant photo-ops seems unlikely to do much for interfaith relations or consciousness-raising.

Embrace uniformity. Again, “big tent” organizations sound great in theory, but in practice they’re paralyzed by philosophical differences and contradictory objectives. Small, goal-oriented groups of like-minded people are far more likely to get things done and evolve in a healthy direction.

Unto you, your religion; unto me, mine. Finally and most importantly, religious people and secular people can and should collaborate on many things, but religious reform is certainly not one of them. Muslims of all shapes and sizes – practicing and non-practicing, religious and secular, orthodox and radical – can collaborate fruitfully on an infinite variety of worthy initiatives, from social justice to the environment, but a coherent spiritual vision cannot be formulated by a group that lacks common underlying assumptions about the ultimate purpose to life and the place of religion in society. In these domains, secularist and religionists do not, and cannot, speak the same language – their worldviews are ultimately incommensurable. People of conscience from both camps must agree to disagree on matters of faith, refrain from demonizing one another for these inevitable and natural differences, and remember the many more areas that unites them.

Looking on the bright side, many of the worthy causes for which MWU and PMU were once lonely voices crying in the wilderness have now gone mainstream. Today, concerns about discrimination against women, closed-mindedness and obscurantism, prejudices against non-Muslims, takfir and sectarianism towards other Muslims, and racial prejudices are no longer the domain of leftist Muslims, as they have been adopted to a significant extent by mainstream Muslim organizations. (I think the jury’s still out on whether PMU has ultimately contributed positively towards these developments, as the ambiguous legacy of Nomani’s campaign illustrates, but that is a whole other discussion.)

There are many lessons to be learned from the development of the Progressive Muslim Union. Supporters and detractors alike would do well to ponder both its successes and failures in order to steer future endeavors down a more balanced path.

Svend White is an IT consultant and Muslim activist in Washington, DC.  His blog is at http://akramsrazor.typepad.com


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