Vancouver, British Columbia -- The newly formed Progressive Muslim Union of North America knew it would be drawing criticism from conservative imams and their allies. But most of the heat has been coming from Muslims who don't think the network of moderate Muslims is progressive enough.

The Progressive Muslim Union of North America, which has been making international headlines since it was formally launched Nov. 15 in New York City, devotes itself to women's equality, gay rights and religious tolerance.

But instead of being attacks by the "reactionary" and "paranoid" conservative imams the new organization is trying to circumvent, the most vigorous protest against the group has come from an international group of noted scholars and activists who say the Progressive Muslim Union (PMU) shouldn't include supporters of the war against Iraq.

The goal of the PMU is to reform Islam from within, say the group's co-founders, Colgate University Prof. Omid Safi, editor of the best selling book, Progressive Muslims, and Ahmed Nassef, editor of the immensely popular website,

The two prominent U.S. Muslims began PMU to encourage free-thinking Muslims to "stand up to those whose God is too small, too mean, too tribal and too male." At this stage in history, Safi writes, "our primary responsibility is to come to terms with the oppressive tyrants and fanatics inside our own communities, our own families and our own hearts."
However, while conservative Muslim leaders in North America have expressed some concerns about the liberal goals of the PMU, criticisms from Muslim activists such as Canada's Itrath Syed and Cincinnati scholar Farid Esack have been provoking widespread debate among Muslims.

The dissidents are challenging the way the PMU invited active participation and board membership from both left- and right-wing Muslims, including staunch supporters of President George W. Bush and the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Syed, who is based in Vancouver, said the international controversy has been "emotionally difficult" for her, because she admires Safi and Nassef and, until recently, considered them friends.

Both PMU founders supported Syed during Canada's June federal election, when the imam at Syed's suburban Vancouver mosque criticized her from the pulpit for running for the left-wing New Democratic Party, particularly since the party supports homosexual unions.

In response, Syed, a graduate student in women's studies at theUniversity of British Columbia, issued a passionate defense of the Canadian Charter of Rights, which she said makes everyone, including homosexuals and Muslims, equal under the law.

Despite their support for women's equality and many other goals of thePMU, Syed and other Muslim activists from Canada, the United States, Egypt and South Africa attacked the PMU in an open letter, which is being widely debated on and other Muslim Internet sites by some of the estimated six million Muslims in the United States and 600,000 in Canada.

The dissidents, some of whom had been asked to serve on the PMU board, were appalled that PMU organizers had tried to draw in high-profile supporters of Republican policies in Iraq, such as Malik Hasan, and his wife Seeme, founders of Muslims for Bush, and Farid Zakaria, who wrote in Newsweek that the invasion of Iraq is "the single best path to reform the Arab world."

Syed's group also protested how the PMU approached noted Muslim Nawaal al-Sadawi, who has campaigned for enforcement of the head-scarf ban inFrance. "Such a ban," said the Muslim dissidents, "is as reactionary as forcing women to wear it."

Esack, a South African theologian who teaches at St. Xavier University in Cincinnati, stunned PMU organizers by refusing an invitation to join the board.
He didn't want to work with right-wing Muslims, who, although they might defend gender equity and homosexual rights, also support Bush's "expansionist" policies.

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