Friday, November 12, 2004

Text of A Comment on the formation of PMUNA

In the Name of Allah, the Gracious, the Dispenser of Grace

A Comment on the Formation of the Progressive Muslim
Union of North America

The Progressive Muslim Union (North America) is expected to be launched in New York on 11.15.2004 under the leadership of Professor Omid Safi from Colgate University and Ahmed Nassef, the editor of

We are well acquainted with the founders of the PMUNA and it is with much regret that we distance ourselves from this venture. We have been in conversation and debate with them for more than a month now on the Network of Progressive Muslims’ discussion list and we regret that our concerns about its direction and agenda as reflected in their choice of persons to serve on the Advisory Board have not been clarified.

Some of us were invited to serve on this Board. Our critique, however, stems from a deep concern about what we view as a reactionary direction of the nascent progressive Muslim movement and does not in any way reflect on the sincerity of Omid Safi or Ahmed Nassef.

Who are we?

We are activists and/or scholars who have been part of the shaping and articulation of a global progressive Islamic discourse for a number of years. Some of us are from North America while others are not. For us, progressive Islam has been about an approach to our faith that is discovered in actual engagement with other Muslims and those who live on the margins of society (e.g., persons living with AIDS, under occupation, dying as the victims of multi-national corporations, under-funded or non-funded health programs or genocidal regimes).

While we have all been working in our local or national contexts, we have connected with each other in person and on the internet for a number of years. Most of us have served or are serving as the administrators of the major international discussion lists of Progressive Muslims.

For us Islam is a faith that affirms justice, compassion and diversity. It is, however, also one that challenges both the manifestations of injustice as well as its socio-economic systemic causes.

Islam, for us, is a faith that will refuse to exist in partnership or in a cozy relationship of ‘moderation’ with injustice and imperialism (of which the most dangerous contemporary kind is that represented by US expansionism.).

Our Critique of the PMUNA

Regardless of how inclusive the outreach of progressive Muslims ought to be, we assume that anyone serving on the leadership or Advisory Board of such an organization will be a) Muslim and b) progressive (however broad one’s understanding of these terms).

Anything else leads to the conclusion that this venture is a Trojan horse for “religion-building” along the lines of “nation-building” now being witnessed in Afghanistan and Iraq where people with no organic links to Islam, to the Muslim community or to the progressive movement become instruments of “humanizing” the so-called primitive Muslims.

Some of us have been invited to serve on the Advisory Board of the PMUNA and have declined to do so because we are deeply troubled by the inclusion of a number of individuals invited to serve on it but who do not seem to belong there. It is not a question of being inclusive or exclusive, for no person is beyond redemption; it is about who are our allies, advisors and who are we reaching out to.

We have tried in vain to seek clarity on the PMUNA’s motivations to include the following people:

- Seeme and Malik Hassan, founders of Muslims for Bush, who have praised Daniel Pipes and raised and/or donated more than a million dollars to the Bush presidential campaign. Their campaign included an article on, ‘The Muslim World Savior,’ (referring to Mr Bush) wherein Seeme Hassan writes “I believe Bush is bringing liberation not war.”

- Farid Zakaria from Newsweek whose public imperialist credentials are impeccable and whose only problem with the empire is that it is doing an inefficient job. In an August 5th, 2002 Newsweek article titled "Invade Iraq, but bring friends", Zakaria stated: "Done right, an invasion (of Iraq) would be the single best path to reform the Arab world."

- Nawaal al-Sadawi who has campaigned for the enforcement of the ban on hijab (head scarf) in French public schools. Such a ban, we believe, is as reactionary as forcing women to wear it.

- Ziyad Asali who, at a UN/NGO conference on September 2002, publicly denied the right of return to Palestinian exiles and refugees.

- Muqtedar Khan, who wrote that “as soon as it became clear that Muslims were behind 9/11, I told my wife ‘there goes my chance to be this country’s first Muslim Henry Kissinger’” In reference to the war on Iraq he wrote: “We will fight with America and we will fight for America; we have a covenant with this nation; we see it as a divine commitment […].”

The collection of people invited from far-right to far-left, from people who have publicly stated that they are not Muslims, and others who identify with the Muslim community and Islam is a strange one regardless of whether they accept the invitation to serve on the Board or not. This collection may be understood if we are merely interested in advancing the well-being of some tribal, ethnic or social community; not if our primary agenda is one of justice. In none of the formations describing themselves as “progressive” – or even “liberal” - in the world would such an array of individuals as Advisors be comprehensible. Furthermore, the notion of being located within a community in to order address its concerns and to participate in mutual transformation is intrinsic to the term “progressive”.

Academics, writers or millionaires who have chosen to sit outside cannot legitimately claim a role in the transformation process of a community. Why should Muslims be held to different standards of acceptability by friends and allies from the progressive sectors? The logic of holding different criteria of “progressive” for Muslims smacks of racism and is deeply offensive and patronizing.

In the case of any entity that describes itself as “progressive” and as “Muslim”, this array and inclusion of individuals who have been unashamed in their embrace of an imperialist agenda reflects an unprincipled utilitarianism where one makes use of anyone who can bring in some money.

Alternately it reflects a bewildering ideological confusion – something not quite expected of those who are taking it upon themselves to take Muslims in North America on any progressive journey.

For progressive Muslims these people listed above should be the targets of our activism - people that need to be converted – not embraced as comrades or Advisors.

We acknowledge that there is space and need for diversity in contemporary Islamic discourse. The PMUNA’s emphasis on ‘broad-tent-ism” rather than justice and liberation, however, shows its ideological agenda clearly and it is not a progressive one.

Progressive Muslims value diversity as part of a process of liberation – and not part of a supposedly ideology-less butterfly dance of escapism and digression away from the cutting issues of justice, invasion, occupation and poverty.

The Context for the Emergence of the PMUNA

The Muslim community ‘mainstream’ Muslim organizations in North America and elsewhere has often been - regrettably - rather unkind to those seeking space to dissent. They have been far more interested in seeking an accommodation with “established” American society than with addressing the many internal issues of gender injustice, the marginalization of African-American Muslims, and intolerance. In seeking to reach an accommodation with “American society” - in reality its dominant and dominating sectors - there has been no attempt to critique this society from any principled Islamic justice perspective that would address issues of gender justice, environmentalism, consumerism, or human rights for all regardless of race or sexuality.

The PMUNA is an understandable response to the way many young and critical Muslims are being pushed to the edges by “mainstream” Muslim organizations far more interested in patriarchal control over Muslims than in a creative and living expansion of our faith along a progressive path. However, from the margins into the embrace of those who seek to construct ‘pliant’ and ‘moderate’ Muslims who will serve the strategic objectives of the Empire is not a credible option for progressive Muslims.

There are frantic battles taking place for the soul of Muslims in the United States and elsewhere. The project to hijack Islam and strip it of its prophetic essence to speak truth to power and to oppose injustice is clearly outlined in policy documents such as “Civil Democratic Islam” produced by Cheryl Bernard of the Rand Corporation. The empire is quite literally seeking to create compliant Muslim subjects – at home via intimidation and “friendly” organization-building, and abroad through brute force.

Not a single Prophet of God ever came along to “merely fit in”. Prophetic faith is about engagement alongside the marginalized and speaking truth to power. With advisors such as the individuals listed above, we fear that the PMUNA is setting itself up for precisely the opposite.

Altaf Bhimji San Francisco, CA (altafb (at)
Anna Ghonim, Cairo, Egypt (anna_ghonim (at)
Farid Esack, Cincinnati, OH/Cape Town, South Africa
(Esack (at)
Itrath Syed, Vancouver, Canada ( itrath (at)
Junaid Ahmad, Yorktown, VA (junaid.ahmad (at)
Na'eem Jeenah, Johannesburg, South Africa (jeenahn (at)
Trish Kanous, St Paul, MN (tkanous (at)
Karima Vargas Bushnell, Minneapolis, MN
(karima1 (at)
Rami el-Amine, Washington D.C.

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Appendix, List of the PMUNA Advisory Board members

The following names were invited to serve on the
Advisory Board of the PMUNA on 24th September 2004 we
do not know who has accepted or declined and who else
may have been invited since then

Abdol Karim Soroush
Akbar Ahmed
Tarik Ramadan
Ali Abu Nima
Amina Wadud
Ebrahim Moosa
Faisal Abdul Rauf
Fareed Zakariya
Farid Esack
Hamid Dabashi
Khaled Aboul Fadl
Malik and Seeme Hassan
Mohja Kahf
Naeem Jeenah
Nawal el-Sadawi
Rashid Khalidi
Salaam al-Maryati
Sheikha Fariha
Tarik Ramadan
Tariq Ali
Ziyad Asali