This essay is adapted from the introduction of a new book, Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2003).
Walk into any Islamic center, and there is likely to be a table featuring pamphlets bearing titles like "The Status of Women in Islam," "Concept of God in Islam," "Concept of Worship in Islam." Printed in pale yellow, pink, and green shades, they promise truth in black and white. I hate these pamphlets.
I think Muslims are in imminent danger--if we are not there already--ofsuccumbing to "pamphlet Islam," the fallacy of thinking that complex issues can be handled in four or six glossy pages.
A few years ago, when I started teaching at an undergraduate college in NewYork, I was the only Muslim faculty member. I was advisor to the small group of Muslim students, about six of them at that time. As we went around introducing ourselves, one student gushed: "What I love about Islam is that it is so simple!"
"Islam is simple" is a slogan used as an excuse to avoid discussion, and even disagreement. Islam is not simple because Muslims are not simple. We argue, we disagree, we joke, we walk away mad, we come back, we compromise. But we do not, and will not ever all agree on one interpretation of Islam.
And that is why there is progressive Islam.
Our movement is an attempt to help Islam swim through the rising waters of our world. We intend to work through our traditions of thought and practice--even though some interpretations of Islam are part of the problem. On the other hand, we want to come up with solutions to new problems.
For progressive Muslims, an essential part of our struggle is to challenge the great impoverishment of thought and spirit brought forth by Muslim literalist-exclusivists (popularly known as fundamentalists). Groups such as the Wahhabis have bulldozed over not just Sufi shrines and graveyards of the family of the Prophet in Arabia, but also whole structures of Islamic thought. Wahhabism started as a movement in what is today Saudi Arabia in the late 18th century, and over its existence has deemed illegitimate all other interpretations of Islam except its own. There is an urgent need for progressive Muslims to resist and replace the lifeless, narrow, and oppressive ideology that Wahhabism poses to Islam.
Yet ours is not simply an "anti-Wahhabi" Islam. It is equally important to avoid the trap of dehumanizing Wahhabi-oriented people. We have to engage them as well, and offer them an opportunity to join us on a higher ground.
By contrast, our aim is to envision a socially and politically active Muslim identity committed to social justice, pluralism, and gender justice. The aim here is not to advocate our position as uniquely "Islamic" to the exclusion of the last 1,400 years of Islamic thought and practice. This is not an attempt to insist that we finally "got it right"! No, warts and all, from its glorious nobility to sexism, there has always been a spectrum of interpretations in Islam.
At the heart of a progressive Muslim interpretation is a simple yet radical idea: every human life, female and male, Muslim and non-Muslim, rich or poor, has the same worth. The essential value of human life is God-given, and isn't connected to culture, geography, or privilege. Central to our idea of a progressive Muslim identity are a few fundamental values that we believe are essential to a vital, fresh, and urgently needed interpretation of Islam for the 21st century.
An important part of being a progressive Muslim is the determination to hold Muslim societies accountable for being fair and open. It means resisting and overthrowing injustice. It means contesting gender apartheid (practiced by groups such as the Taliban) as well as the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities (undertaken by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds, for instance). It means exposing violations of the rights to speech, press, religion, and dissent in Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, Egypt, and others. More specifically, it means embracing and implementing a different vision of Islam--a vision we are still working out, particularly here in the United States-from that offered by Wahhabi and neo-Wahhabi groups.