Meeting of the Minds: Progressive Christian Interviews Progressive Muslim Ro Waseem

Meeting of the Minds: Progressive Christian Interviews Progressive Muslim Ro Waseem March 6, 2015

EricHeadshotBlackandWhiteEric:  Thanks for joining me Ro! You are a progressive Muslim and I am a progressive Christian, but I think at the end of the day we are much more alike than different. We both want peace, hope, and love for all humanity. And we both value our faith traditions without wanting to see them forced on anyone else. Our theological language may be a little different due to the culture and prevailing religions from which we come, but I think the underlying precepts are very much the same.

So my first question is, what do you see as the most important steps in progressing or reforming the Islamic faith tradition?

Ro:  Well, I think it is essential to separate culture from religion first & foremost. Otherwise, religion risks becoming very superficial – which, in my opinion, mainstream Islam has unfortunately become. Under the guise of following Prophet Mohammed, which is of course a core tenet of Islam, some religious leaders convince Muslims into believing that following him equals to following his personal likes & dislikes, and adopting the culture he grew up in, instead of following his character and adopting his values.

 So, to me, being a Muslim or Christian or whatever else shouldn’t be about dressing or speaking a certain way, it should be about trying to reach self-actualization and being a better human being.

EricHeadshotBlackandWhiteEric:  I recently saw a funny satirical skit by Jon Stewart called “the Condemnologists.”  The bit was a response to some Americans claims that Muslims don’t speak out enough about the radical Muslim extremist factions who claim Islam as the rationalization of their criminal acts. Do you think that Muslims should speak out more often to assure the world that most are peaceful?


Ro:  Yeah, that skit was hilarious! Eric, I think that there are two sides to that.  Firstly, many Muslims do speak out whenever such an incident takes place, but the mainstream media does not report it as much since it goes against their narrative of “otherising” Muslims and spreading fear of them.  That is after all what mainstream media does best: spread fear!  Most of the Muslims in my circle condemn terrorism in the name of Islam by writing blogs, making documentaries, and what not.  But, unfortunately, these folks hardly get any coverage in mainstream media, if at all.

But, I must also add here that it seems quite ridiculous that thousands of Muslims come out in protest against an insult of the Prophet Mohammed in a certain movie or a cartoon, but do not come out in the same volume when Islamofascists wreak havoc in the name of Islam. Although this shouldn’t be interpreted as silent approval of these groups, because that is statistically inaccurate, I do feel that these Muslims have got their priorities mixed up, and this needs to be addressed.

For example, in the Quran, Prophet Mohammad is repeatedly advised by God to ignore the insults that are thrown at him. He is also repeatedly told to stand up for justice, and to challenge those who spread corruption and violence in the world.  As Muslims, we should heed this advice, and prioritize the struggles we face. Groups like ISIS are a far worse insult to Prophet Mohammad’s message than a satirical cartoon will ever be!


EricHeadshotBlackandWhiteEric:  We are living in an age of increased islamophobia, xenophobia, and some extreme acts of rage against Muslims such as the recent murders at the University of North Carolina, which are causing some Americans to connect the majority of peace loving Muslims with the small factions of terrorist groups who claim the mantle of Islam for their actions.  

President Obama recently spoke about this at the National Prayer Breakfast to help Americans understand this intolerance and the difference between religion and the twisted use of religion to justify heinous acts. What did you think about President Obama’s statements?

Ro:  I completely agree with the President’s statements in that video.  Although ideology does play a crucial role, especially in recruitment to these death cults, placing all the blame on ideology is a very naïve position to adopt, in my opinion.  There are so many other factors to consider, such as poverty, frustration, injustice, a sense of worthlessness, herosim etc.  So, it’s not so black & white an image when we come to the question of addressing the problem of terrorism.

Additionally, I think there is much in common between President Obama’s state sanctioned terrorism and imperialist policies that account for the death of so many innocent civilians in the Middle East, and terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, ISIS, & Taliban.  The only difference is, one side does it under the guise of nationalism, while the other does it under the guise of religion.  So, just like it is foolish to hate American people due to the oppression done by the USA government, it is also foolish to hate Muslims because of the acts of Islamofascists.  On both sides, there are many who speak out against the atrocities committed, and I think these voices should be given more coverage in the media.


EricHeadshotBlackandWhiteEric:  A major component of progressive forms of Christianity that helps people to open their minds toward inclusiveness and acceptance, is the conclusion that the Bible is not inerrant, infallible, literal, or universally authoritative. Would that same concept apply to progressive Muslim’s view about the Quran?


Ro:  In my view, no.  Most progressive Muslims I’ve spoken to believe that while the Quranic text is divine, our interpretations of this text are most certainly not.  So, they, like me, advocate for a Muslim reformation, instead of an Islamic reformation.  Of course, there are exceptions.  For example, Irshad Manji, a prominent Muslim reformer, maintains that the Quran is not infallible, and that it is “full of contradictions”.

But, the idea that the entire Quran must be taken literally in order to get its “true essence” is not Quranic at all, which tells us at multiple times that God sets forth parables so that people may reflect (Quran 59:21), or that some verses, which mention the laws, are to be taken literally while other “ambiguous” verses should be interpreted differently, as metaphors (Quran 3:7).

This literal reading of the entire Quran is a new phenomenon known as Wahhabism which emerged in the 18th century, as a very puritanical movement. The reason why this ideology is getting more and more foothold in Muslim thought is because Saudi Arabia exports this ideology to Muslim majority countries, funding this project by its petrodollars.  We, Muslim reformers, have nowhere near that amount of funding to promote our voice, which is why it’s so challenging for us to get our voice across and put forward an alternative narrative.


EricHeadshotBlackandWhiteEric:  That last point sounds a lot like what happens in the U.S. with the National Association of Evangelicals and others like it, which put a lot more time and money into promoting their fundamentalist ideals than progressive groups can put into it.  And to that point, I’m not sure if you’ve ever read some of the loose definitions of some progressive forms of Christianity that have been crafted to create awareness, such as the 8 Points of Progressive Christianity.  

I’m curious regarding those 8 Points, is there anything  that you think progressive Muslims might want to change, add, or remove if the same statement was presented in an Islamic context?

Ro:  Yes, I have read it. And truth be told, I wouldn’t change a word there. See, that’s the thing that is so beautiful about progressive movements in different religions. I find more in common with progressive religious folks than I do with conservative adherents of my own faith!  So, in that sense, I really think there should be a platform where all of us can bond together and have a common voice against organized religion.

Coming back to that list, I especially like point 5, which talks about encouraging skepticism, instead of having absolute answers.  It is such a powerful insight, that I believe it has the potential to change the whole world.  A world without fundamentalisms of different sorts.  A world in which we are confident in what we believe, but humble enough to the possibility that we might be wrong.  A world where we recognize each other through our commonalities, instead of our differences.

After all, how boring would this world be if all of us were the same!

This post originally appeared here.

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Eric is an author, speaker, and the founder of Christian Evolution

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