Muslim Group Takes Up Taboo Topics

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The Progressive Islam movement seeks to encourage dialogue about issues that are considered too sensitive for discussion in mosques. The role of women is a special focus. The meetings are drawing criticism and praise from Muslim groups.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Earlier this year, history was made in the Muslim world. It happened at an unlikely place, an Anglican church in Manhattan. There, before a large group of Muslims, a woman for the first time publicly led the traditional Islamic Friday prayer.

Dr. AMINA WADUD(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: The woman is Islamic scholar Amina Wadud. She and the organizers of this service are part of a moment called Progressive Islam. It's a diverse movement with varying opinions, but all have the same goal. They want to open dialogue among Muslims, especially after the attacks on September 11, 2001. Hana Baba of member station KALW and New California Media reports on the movement in the United States. It's focusing primarily on the role of women.

HANA BABA reporting:

About 25 men and women are assembled in a small classroom on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. Some women are wearing head scarves. A young African-American man sports a skullcap while one young woman is dressed in a track suit. The group is sitting casually, some sipping coffee, others nibbling on cookies. They're here for the monthly meeting of American Muslims Intent on Learning and Activism, or AMILA. Today, the guest speaker is a controversial author.

Ms. ASRA NOMANI: So "The Bill of Rights in the Bedroom" are 10. And so why did I bother, first of all?

BABA: Asra Nomani is a former Wall Street Journal reporter who was stationed in Pakistan after September 11th. She tells of her distress the night she found out her close friend and colleague, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, was kidnapped and murdered by Muslim extremists. That prompted her, she says, to go on a search for the soul of Islam.

Ms. NOMANI: And so from that night, my life changed. It changed in the most dramatic of ways, and I cared how Islam expressed itself in the world.

BABA: Nomani says her number one concern is women's place in Muslim communities. The audience listens attentively, but many in the room don't share Nomani's views. Marhi Hussein(ph) berates Nomani for imposing her beliefs on others.

Mr. MARHI HUSSEIN: It's trying to change people. Instead of that, why don't they build their own mosques? That would be the proper way, just like in Judaism, the orthodox Jews and...

BABA: This is one of many events where AMILA invites speakers to talk about issues that aren't generally discussed in a mosque. AMILA was started 13 years ago by a group of men and women seeking a better understanding of Islam within their American lives. Member Moina Noor says the group isn't trying to alter the religion, just open up a free dialogue.

Ms. MOINA NOOR (Member): We're looking for community where we can be intellectually free and open, and unfortunately, most of us aren't finding that in the mosques, so we've created our own community.

BABA: Since AMILA began, other progressive groups have cropped up. Muslimwakeup.com is an online magazine famous for raising eyebrows with its daring criticism of Islamic text and sexually explicit articles. There's also the Progressive Muslim Union of North America, which endorses a popular activity called Meetups. These are informal get-togethers in restaurants or cafes where devout and liberal Muslims meet to discuss all sorts of community issues. Today there are over a hundred Meetups spread across the country.

Mr. JOWAD ALI(ph): We are the Muslims and them the Hindus.

Mr. CESAR ZAHI(ph): But it's politics. It's the same way in Algeria.

BABA: At this Meetup, Jowad Ali and Cesar Zahi are having coffee in a trendy standing-room-only San Francisco cafe. Most of the discussion on this day is centered on women leading prayer. Jowad Ali thinks it's a good idea because of the ripple effect he sees it creating.

Mr. ALI: There's already momentum for a progressive movement in America. And every little subtle thing opens up the discussion a little bit more.

BABA: But skeptics are many. In response to the woman-led prayer last March, most Islamic organizations either denounced the event or shrugged it off. Most moderates saw it as a non-issue, too far down on the list of priorities of real Muslim women's issues. Even on the progressive liberal muslimwakeup Web site, 70 percent of those polled disagreed with the event. Still, it caused a heavy debate on college campuses. The UC Berkeley Muslim Student Union is wrapping up its weekly prayer services on campus. It's a traditional service with a male imam in the front and rows of men behind him. The women are in the back. Sociology student Dina Ahmed(ph) is an Egyptian American wearing a long tunic with loose pants and a pink head scarf. She says she's angry with progressive Muslims and resents the idea they think they know what's best for her.

Ms. DINA AHMED (Sociology Student): Women in Islam have the right to property in the seventh century. How long ago did they get that right in America? A hundred years? It's not about progression or rights. We have rights in Islam. I wish that they'd come ask us what we think, practicing Muslim women.

BABA: Equality aside, the idea of women praying right next to men is not generally accepted under Islam. Imam Mustafa Navir(ph) of Pleasanton, California, says the segregation is necessary so the congregation can focus on prayer and not be distracted by the opposite sex.

Imam MUSTAFA NAVIR: If you look at the structure of our prayers, it is much different than just standing next to each other singing a song or chanting or clapping. We have to go through a lot of formality, and that is bowing down and then going onto the ground, etc., and there will be a lot of distraction if men and women are praying together.

BABA: The female struggle for a place in religious institutions is not new, nor is it exclusive to Islam. Catholicism and Orthodox Judaism are still faced with calls for reform, and one fear within the American Muslim community is that like Christians and Jews, Muslims will end up divided into many sects and denominations. Omid Safi is a scholar and author of the book "Progressive Muslims." He argues that Muslims are already deeply divided.

Mr. OMID SAFI ("Progressive Muslims"): In most American cities, you can walk into a mosque and you can tell if it's an Arab mosque, a South Asian mosque, an African-American mosque, a Bosnian mosque, a Sufi mosque, you know, and as much as I would love to have that idea of unity be a reality, that's something in our future, not in our past.

BABA: But for many Muslims, a fear of fragmentation is very real. Despite that fear, Moina Noor of AMILA says change is necessary. Today, as she plays in the park with her two-year-old Isha(ph), she says those changes will benefit her daughter. Noor grew up in Connecticut where she says there were few Muslim activities for children, but for baby Isha, things will be different.

Ms. NOOR: For example, this past Ramadan, the night before Eid, which is our big holiday, we had a huge moon-sighting party for the kids. And it was beautiful. It was something I had never done in my whole life. That's a very kind of American thing, you know, is to make things very kid-focused.

BABA: No one can deny the change that has occurred since progressives have shown up on the American-Muslim scene. Just recently, the Islamic Society of San Francisco released plans to take down a partition that sealed women off from the main prayer hall. And this past June, the continent's largest Muslim body, the Islamic Society of North America, distributed a manual titled "Women Friendly Mosques."

For NPR News, I'm Hana Baba in San Francisco.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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