On the other hand, the moderates--whose basic ideals are supported at some level by most American Muslims--have little money or organization with which to fight back. They are now in a period of soul-searching and, to some extent, blaming themselves for not speaking up.

"We just can't keep on going to the same conferences and teaching the same information to the same people," says Omid Safi, a Qur'anic scholar at Colgate University. "The sad fact of the matter is there are genuine voices of fanaticism in the Muslim community. How do these hateful voices function in our community? Why are we silent when they talk right next to us?"

Safi says he is frustrated by Muslims' lack of "active wrestling" with the faith. "On one hand, you have reformers who want to throw out the entire thing, and on the other hand, you have people who feel completely bound by it because one jurist said one particular thing in the 14th century," Safi said.


Six Tenets of Reformist Islam
  • Gender equality
  • Mosque-state separation
  • Non-literal Qur'anic interpretation
  • Interfaith dialogue
  • Embracing modernity
  • Emphasis on the artsRead more about the tenets.


  • How to Be a Progressive Muslim
    How Islam relates to our here and now.
    By Farid Esack

    Mostly, average Muslims are exposed to what Safi calls "testosterone Islam"--run by men, many of them engineers and physicians, who are drawn to spare Wahhabi theology. Safi says their line of thinking goes like this: "Islam is sick. We need to heal it. We need to do this and this and this." Or: "The circuit of Islam is broken. If we attach this and fix this, it will work."

    Sheila Musaji is typical of the ranks of frustrated moderates. She says she has grown angry in the last decade as new immigrants, often fundamentalists, take over local mosques. "The immigrants may have a narrower outlook. A lot of time gets wasted on what kind of hijab (head covering) someone is wearing," she says.

    A few years ago, she said, she made copies of an article by an important Muslim scholar explaining why interfaith dialogue is Islamically correct. When she tried to pass them out at the mosque, a leader there said the writer was wrong-and simply threw the papers away.

    After a while, Musaji says, she got tired of fighting. But when the terrorist attacks happened, she couldn't stand by anymore. First, she watched moderate Muslims speak out against the terrorists. But then she noticed that many of them were attacked by conservative Muslims. So she started her newsletter. "I personally wanted to offer support for those in the forefront of what hopefully appears to be a movement to recapture traditional, moderate Islam," she wrote in the first issue.

    If we are in the beginnings of an Islamic "reformation" in the West, it wouldn't be the first time American immigrants have taken the religion of their ancestors and put a distinctly American stamp on it. When Catholics came to the United States in 150 years ago, they had the freedom to start their own organizations and build their own churches. Eventually, they began questioning the Vatican's hierarchical power and conservative moral stance--a struggle that continues to this day.

    When Jews immigrated to America, they, too, experimented with theology and social organization. They built Jewish Community Centers and all manner of synagogues for different kinds of Jews. American Jews invented Bat Mitzvah ceremonies for girls and Reconstructionist theology.

    In both cases, they sought to join the American religious mainstream. First, Catholics united with Protestants in ecumenical groups. By the 1950s, Jews had joined the interfaith scene to create what we now think of as the "Judeo-Christian" ethic.

    Reform-minded Muslims are pushing for the same story line.

    "There have been two responses to this thing," says Esack. "One is to sweep all our theological garbage under the carpet and say, 'It's not us.' Another position is to say 'It's not us' but at the same time say secretly, 'We did it! Brilliant!'"

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