Liberal Muslims

Many people think of Islam as a monolithic religion with two main groups, the Sunnis and Shi-ites, battling it out for fundamentalist supremacy. Just like Christianity and other religions, there are differing degrees of modernism among believers, and with some sects being very progressive and others with a total disregard for human rights, and even human life. An article earlier this year in the National Post discusses the movement towards modernity in some groups of Muslims.

Omar Akersim prays regularly and observes the dawn-to-dusk Ramadan fast. He is also openly gay.

Akersim, 26, is part of a small but growing number of American Muslims challenging the long-standing interpretations of Islam that defined their parents’ world. They believe that one can be gay and Muslim; that the sexes can pray shoulder-to-shoulder; that females can preach and that Muslim women can marry outside the faith — and they point to Qur’an passages to back them up.

The shift comes as young American Muslims work to reshape the faith they grew up with so it fits better with their complex, dual identity, with one foot in the world of their parents’ immigrant beliefs and one foot in the ever-shifting cultural landscape of America. The result has been a growing internal dialogue about what it means to be Muslim, as well as a scholarly effort to re-examine the Qur’an for new interpretations that challenge rules that had seemed set in stone.

Religious beliefs are not immune to societal changes, and over the past 200 years or so, most have become more tolerant of those who do not follow the prescriptions of the clergy. A primary counter-example is the religious right in the US who are attempting to force their own version of theocracy on the American people. It is important to note that members of certain faiths do not follow the commands of their leaders. A familiar example is the number of Catholics who support birth control, abortion, women’s rights and gay marriage despite the blustering from the Vatican.

Nearly 40 per cent of the estimated 2.75 million Muslims in the U.S. are American-born and the number is growing, with the Muslim population skewing younger than the U.S. population at large, according to a 2011 Pew Research Center survey.

Advocates for a more tolerant Islam say the constraints on interfaith marriage and homosexuality aren’t in the Qur’an, but are based on conservative interpretations of Islamic law that have no place in the U.S. Historically, in many Muslim countries, there are instances of unsegregated prayers and interfaith marriage.

“I think it’s fair to say the traditional Islam that we experienced excluded a lot of Muslims that were on the margins. I always felt not very welcomed by the type of Islam my parents practiced,” said Tanzila Ahmed, 35, who published an anthology of love stories by Muslim American women in 2012 called “Love Inshallah.”

One group, started in 2007, has spread beyond the US into a number of other countries.

In Los Angeles, a religious group called Muslims for Progressive Values has been pushing the boundaries with a female imam who performs same-sex and interfaith marriages, support groups for gay Muslims and a worship style that includes women giving sermons and men and women praying together. The group has chapters in half a dozen major U.S. cities and at least six foreign countries and last year was recognized by the United Nations as an official non-governmental organization.

Here in Canada, there are also very progressive Muslims. The Association of Progressive Muslims of Canada and the Muslim Canadian Congress. Here is the mission statement of the latter:

As Muslims we believe in a progressive, liberal, pluralistic, democratic, and secular society where everyone has the freedom of religion. We want our communities to be equal and active contributors and participants in the development of a just, democratic, and equitable society in Canada.

  • We believe in the separation of religion and state in all matters of public policy. We feel such a separation is a necessary pre-requisite to building democratic societies, where religious, ethnic, and racial minorities are accepted as equal citizens enjoying full dignity and human rights enunciated in the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  • We believe that fanaticism and extremism within the Muslim community is a major challenge to all of us. We stand opposed to the extremists and will present the more humane and tolerant face of our community.
  • We oppose gender apartheid that is practiced in parts of our community, and believe it is contrary to the equity among men and women enshrined in Islam. We believe that Muslim men and women should work together, shoulder-to-shoulder, in their effort to rejuvenate our community.
  • We envision Canada as a society with strong and well-funded public institutions in the health, education and social services sectors. We feel these public institutions are the foundation and pre-requisite for an enterprising and vibrant private sector.
  • We will work for a more progressive, anti-racist and accessible immigration policy in Canada; a policy that recognizes the contributions of immigrants as vital assets of society and essential for the survival of the country.
  • We hope to build a Canada where personal initiative and creativity are celebrated and rewarded, but not at the cost of our collective social conscience and an abandonment of our responsibility towards the broader community.

There are also gay activists who identify as Muslim such as El-Farouk Khaki and Irshad Manji and Mosques that are gay friendly. Just like the Christianity most of us are familiar with, believers cut across all segments and genders.

Most westerners are only aware of the Islamists, or those who are attempting to force a harsh fundamentalist view of Islam on their people and spread it around the world. It is important for us to remember that not every Muslim shares those views.

While I am critical of the belief in any gods, I always try to separate the despicable actions of the extremists in any group from the beliefs of the rest.

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