A Pagan's Blog

A Pagan's Blog

Working with progressive Muslims

One of my oldest friends is a woman who has been working with progressive Muslims in Denmark.  As many of my readers know, there has been far more friction in Denmark between right wing Muslims and the secular society to which they have emigrated than is the case in the US.  Amid these tensions good people Muslim and non-Muslim alike have begun working to see that the bigots on both sides are kept marginal. The importance of this work is worldwide, for to the degree it is successful, the entry of 1 billion Muslims into modernity will be made far easier for all concerned.

Nancy always sends me an end-of-the-year email, and this year a good part of what she sent deals with her work with the Muslim community. I think it stands on its own as a valuable insight for us all.


Why do I do all this posting on Muslims?  I think two things are at stake here, along with one insight.  First, if  Christian and other bigots have their way in marginalizing America’s Muslims, can anyone really doubt that Pagans are far behind? I never forget that in Europe during the early part of the 20th century Jews were widely thought to be more accepted and integrated into Germany than anywhere else in Europe. The Abrahamic traditions, all of them, have a deeply authoritarian, even totalitarian, strain.  It is not the only strain by any means, but it is there and we should never lose track of it.  If we do not hang together we may hang separately.

And that brings me to my second reason.

The more we Pagans support liberal Christians, Jews, and Muslims the more we weaken that totalitarian strain.  It will never disappear completely so long as some regard their texts as infallible and read them without understanding or integrity.  And it seems there are always such people.  But it can become a minor theme, relegated to well deserved obscurity.


Finally, from a spiritual rather than a political perspective, if Spirit is truly immanent, every path is potentially a good one, just as every path can go astray. Many Pagans like the Muslim poet Rumi. Think on that.

Anyway, here is what Nancy sent me:Progressive Muslims

While Henrik [her husband] was relaxing in Skagen, I was schlepping a tripod and camera around hot weathered America: Washington DC to Atlanta to cooler San Francisco then Los Angeles and back to Berkeley. In June I had been carting the same gear around England. I think 68 is a little old to start working as “one man band” and I really needed a good technician to crew for me as I collected interviews from nine western Muslims who have progressive politics.


It all started in March when a friend that teaches religion approached me at a party. “I hear you’ve been studying Muslim cultures,” she said. “Have you ever thought of developing a program or curriculum for kids? A lengthy discussion revealed that many Danish teachers are unhappy with the existing materials and feel they need alternative interpretations of Islam and Muslim immigration sociology. I politely replied that I’d be happy to help but since I’m not Muslim, I had no credibility or credentials to take on such a project. A month later, Henrik and I were at the 50th birthday party of an Egyptian friend and he introduced me to the chairman of Demokratiske Muslimer, Danmark. After chatting for awhile he mentioned that I was – for a non Muslim – rather knowledgeable about Islam, especially about the politics of reform. He asked me if I would work with them to – (guess what?) – develop a curriculum for the schools. After meeting a second time for several cups of coffee, I agreed.


Demokratiske Muslimer developed as a result of the cartoon crisis in 2005. Members represent the well-educated elite of Muslim immigrants, mainly professionals. The leadership includes two doctors, Moustapha Kassem and Akmal Sawfat who are both oncology physicians/ researchers with no time in their lives to develop a curriculum.

I offered to work pro bono because I’ve become increasingly concerned about Islamophobia and I saw this project as an opportunity to help reverse a dangerous trend.

I then spent the next two months communicating with Danish teachers to make sure they wanted such a thing while simultaneously reading. I needed to identify individuals I’d like to interview for a DVD. I ended up with a list of twelve and when the dust settled, I had arrangements with nine. They are all fascinating and extra- ordinary individuals: legal scholars, Muslim feminists, academics, journalists and human rights activists. Three are British nationals; seven are American citizens. They are all bona fide intellectuals but also believers in Islam. I edited 30 hours of interviews into a one-hour program and then wrote a Teacher’s Guide. All the interviews have Danish subtitles. Ijtihad is scheduled to be out in mid January.


Why Am I Interested in Islam?

My year long absorption in this video project has raised eyebrows and my father-in-law recently asked: “Nancy, what exactly is your relationship to Muslims?” I assured him that I am not converting. I remain a deeply spiritual person but without affiliation to any organized religion. I also have a problem with the fundamental premise that The Prophet was the last prophet. I believe in “revelation” but I include science and discoveries from the laboratory in that as well as those from deserts and mountaintops. And it makes no sense that “God” would stop sending revelations as early as the 7th century. I am interested in Islam because I am interested in politics and history. Borrowing a line from the VO in our video: politics is about power: who has it and who doesn’t. I see Islam as a victim of western bigotry and I see the reformist movement inside Islam as just as significant as the 16th century’s Reformation of Christianity.


My interest in Islam started with the Danish cartoon crisis in 2005 and was intensified by three people I met and heard at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival in Wales in 2006. The first was the wonderful former nun and scholar, Karen Armstrong, arguably the most respected writer on religion today. The second was religion historian and sociologist, Reza Aslan who started out as a New Testament scholar and then after, 9-11, returned to his childhood faith of his native Iran.

I attended several events at Hay that featured Armstrong and Aslan and came away enamoured with their scholarship and analysis of the Islamic reform movement. Aslan describes religious reform as the transfer of legitimacy and power from traditional institutional authorities to individual scholars. The Augustinian monk from Wittenburg, Martin Luther did it in 1517 with his 95 Theses when he challenged Papal authority. The Reformation in Christianity that followed was a bloody process, just as much about politics as it was religious canon.


This is exactly what’s been happening inside Islam for over one hundred years. The ulama – clerical scholars – are slowly losing authority as other interpretations of the Qur’an and Sunnah fight it out for legitimacy. Puritanism comes through laymen such as Osama bin Laden who was an engineer. Reformist thought is coming from Arabic scholar academics such as the “Muslim Pope of compassion,” Khaled Abou El Fadl (UCLA), scholar, Tariq Ramadan (Oxford) and lawyer, Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im (Emory). (DVD cover: top row in turban)

These guys challenge the puritans, e.g., Wahhabism.

In brief, there are many opinions in Islam and some interpretations of shari’a are essentially compatible with modernity including the civil rights of women and gays. More importantly, there are Muslims who accept these progressive interpretations of Islam and mould their politics from its premises. This is what I learned from Karen Armstrong and Reza Aslan at Hay and in their books. Armstrong is particularly eloquent in her appeal to resist Islamophobia, a social disease that threatens the security of us all.


But there was another writer at Hay in 2005 that had an even greater influence on me. In an interview by his good friend and writer, Ian McEwan, I met the late Christopher Hitchens, arguably journalism’s most celebrated contrarian. He called all Muslims a threat to western civilization and used this to justify his personal support of the Iraqi war. He categorically refused to acknowledge a reform movement. Coming on the heels of Armstrong and Aslan, this sounded and smelled like racism and bigotry. Hitchens knew that less than one half of 1% of Muslims were terrorists, yet he condemned all one billion of them. I went home to Denmark determined to learn about Islam and understand the subtext of the debate.

I developed a bibliography and started reading. The next year, Hitchens published his best seller, God is Not Great; How Religion Poisons Everything. H-H and I read it and in 2008, went to Hay where we got a program with quintessential “Hitch:” entertaining with the most stunning sense of factual recall I’ve ever witnessed. But during the Q and A, he transformed into a first class intellectual bully. It became obvious to me that intellectuals like Hitchens hate Muslims (and orthodox Jews and Christians) for no other reason than because they are religious.


Many intellectuals  campaign against racism and racist policy when the race lives in a culture with values they approve, e.g., African-Americans. But racist remarks about Muslim African-Africans in Somalia are not criticized because religion trumps the color of their skin. Religious belief by itself is not worthy of respect. Religion is a mentality that is – according to Hitchens – essentially “totalitarian.” My theory got tested in January 2010 when I published an opinion piece in The Guardian about the attempted assassination of Jyllands-Posten cartoonist, Kurt Westergaard. I got over 1000 hits of hate mail because I was defending the right to be religious.

So here it is in a nutshell: my interest in Islam is inspired by what I interpret as intentional bigotry. It doesn’t stop with Fox News. Public intellectuals like Ayaan Hirsi Ali make a living from peddling half-truths and categorically ignoring the reform movement inside Islam. Both sides – the bubblegum brains and the smart ones from conservative think tanks – intentionally contribute to a dangerous Islamophobia. My desire to help reverse this mentality is why I said yes to Akmal and Moustapha.


In the process, I’ve made some new friends. The woman in glasses with the big smile is Egyptian journalist, Mona Eltahawy. ( Some of you might know her and her work since she is a staunch feminist and outspoken critic of the Mubarak regime(s). She lives in Harlem, New York City and recently became an American citizen. In November, Egypt’s security police arrested her in Cairo, blind folded her and kept her in detention for twelve hours. When she resisted their sexual assaults, they beat her and intentionally broke one of her arms and one of her hands. I had just seen Mona in Copenhagen two weeks earlier and hearing about her arrest was a shock.

I recently got an email from her:

“I came back to NYC 3 weeks ago. It’s a good thing too because the X-rays there missed that my arm fracture was a displaced one that needed surgery which I had 2 weeks ago to reset the bone and keep it in pace with titanium and screws that will stay awhile.


Just this week, thousands of Egyptian women demonstrated against the brutality. Maybe some of you saw “the girl in the blue bra.” The image of her prone, beaten body shocked the nation and became a new rallying cry.

The revolution is three steps forward, two back. One forward, one back. In August, I published a profile on Azza Khalil who took leave from her job at an Aarhus hospital and went home to Cairo where she set up a first aid clinic in Tahrir Square during the first phase of the uprising. She and her colleagues decided not to wash the blood out of their white coats but to keep them as a symbol of the revolution they’ve waited so long for.

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posted December 28, 2011 at 7:28 pm

What she said. An additional factor that obtains in the United States is that, in many instances, Muslim is a code word for “people whose skin is brown or black,” and is meant as a dogwhistle for the bigots of the old Confederacy (and elsewhere).

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Apuleius Platonicus

posted December 28, 2011 at 9:01 pm

The difference between modern Christianity and Medieval Christianity is not that Christianity was “reformed”. The difference is that Christianity was systematically stripped of it’s power (a process that is still far from complete). This was not an internal movement within Christianity to improve it, it was a movement external to Christianity by those who opposed the Church, and, to a large extent, opposed Christianity itself.

What the Muslim world needs is the freedom to oppose Islam itself. In the process, the “Muslim world” must cease to exist, just as the West is no longer “Christendom”. Muslims, and Islam itself, cannot be expected to be allies in this process.

Revolutionary anti-clericalism, not “reform”, is the model that is needed in order to bring about “the entry of 1 billion Muslims into modernity.” And many of those Muslims must become ex-Muslims in the process.

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Gus diZerega

posted December 28, 2011 at 9:27 pm

True enough. And that is why working with Muslims within liberal societies where they do not have ingrained clerical and political institutions is so very important in my mind. The external pressure will come from Muslims in the West and perhaps India.

But let us not under-estimate people’s abilities to reframe their understanding. It is difficult to imagine Quakers arising from the cultures of Luther or Calvin, let alone the Catholic Church, yet their impact has been way out of proportion to their numbers. And they arose before the churches had lost political power. Indeed, the history of religions is filled with radical reframings for good or bad.

One possibility: far more than with Christianity, from what I understand of Islam it can be interpreted in a monistic sense. It truly sees ONE God, and this God, as I understand it, is often not considered purely transcendent. That insight if I am at all on target, has very fertile implications for the future within a depoliticized Islam.

No one knows. But one thing I do know – religious communities never become more open to influences from the outside world when they are under attack.

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Gus diZerega

posted December 29, 2011 at 1:42 pm

An additional thought.

As I understand it, Asian Buddhism has treated women as decidedly second class Buddhists for a very long time. When Buddhism came to America on a large scale in the 60s, many Buddhists were women. They decisively changed American Buddhism, where today David Chadwick tells me 50% of Dharma teachers are women. Now I understand the American example is reverberating backward to Asia.

A much published scholar and trained Christian minister whom I have known since we were undergraduates at the University of Kansas who has long been active in international interfaith has told me that while Buddhist Christian dialogue has influenced Christians, less appreciated over here is how the influence has been both ways. Buddhists are much more involved in social issues today than they historically have been, at least in part due to this influence, and perhaps also the influence of their being so deeply exposed to democratic societies.

No society is hermetically sealed off from others and the more we can open dialogues and such with less open societies, the better from my perspective. Western Muslims are wonderfully situated to be the agents in this dialogue from which we can only gain.

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