The “p” word has had a tortured history with Muslims, as it does with many other religious communities. Ironically, it tends to work as a better marker to many non-Muslims of the social and political commitments of the Muslims who self-identify as progressive. For too many Muslims, the term progressive has often been a cover for overtly secular approaches, a tendency to operate outside the “tradition”, or an insufficient grounding in the legal and spiritual traditions of Islam.
This is part of the difficulty of Muslims, like myself, who simultaneously embrace the terms progressive and religious. This was one reason that many of us came together to put together a volume titled: Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism. For us, our concern for the wellbeing of the whole of humanity, and an unrelenting commitment to emancipatory movements, arises out of our religious tradition. It is the very notions of serving as God’s agents (khalifa), being held accountable for our actions, and speaking prophetically to the false gods of Market and Empire, Exclusivism and injustice, that inspire us. In another age, the false gods were made out of wood and stone. Today they are market realities and the violence of the military-industrial complex. Part of our radical monotheism is saying “no” emphatically to these false idols that ask for our ultimate commitment so that we can say “yes” to divine Unity and the oneness of humanity.
On the other hand, there is a hard secular critique from the Left that tends to distrust, fundamentally, (m)any religious voices that identify as progressive. Quite often, this center around issues of gender and sexuality. I both understand that distrust and sympathize with it, even as I point out to my secular friends the large number of emancipatory movements that have been grounded in religious traditions.
So I find that we are always moving back and forth: When speaking with our community, it is the emphasis that in fact we are and continue to be rooted in our tradition (and our community), while in speaking with more secular progressives that we are somehow legit. This going back and forth is draining, yet necessary. My concern, ultimately, is that the justifying back and forth does not take the place of what needs to be done: the doing. Ultimately love is a verb, not a sentiment. Justice is a relationship, not an ideal.
I am not a big believer in litmus tests, as ultimately the lists always shrink and expand depending on whom one is speaking with, but here are a few relationships that I always look to in navigating these tricky terrains of being religious and progressive:
· Is there an unrelenting commitment to the wellbeing and uplifting of the whole of humanity, where the wellbeing of no one community is allowed to come at the expense of another?
· Are we talking about merely being nice, or are we actually emancipating, liberating?
· Is there a recognition that one-fifth of God’s children live on a dollar a day? For us, this is not merely an economic or political problem, it is a profound moral and religious crisis.
· Is there an oppositional stance vis-à-vis colonialism and occupation? Is there a recognition of the lingering wounds of colonialism, and the fact that for millions of human beings, these wounds are fresh, on-going, and not healed?
· Are we drawing inspiration from our religious traditions, even as we object to certain practices and interpretations of those same traditions?
· Do we speak prophetically to/with our communities?
· Do we, always, always, speak against the falsest of gods, those of the Market, and the Empire?
· Do we engage in self-criticism, and listen to the criticism of those who speak out of concern and shared values?
· Is there more emphasis on doing, and not just thinking/talking/developing new “theologies”?
· Lastly, for me, there has to be a big dose of humility and compassion in our deals with one another. How we live with each other has to be as lofty and luminous as the ideals we espouse.