BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media, I’m Brooke Gladstone. In the aftermath of attacks in Paris by Al Qaeda affiliated gunmen, we heard a familiar refrain:
clip: Where are the good Muslims, the ones that aren't engaging in violence? Why aren't they condemning this?
clip: What’s so important and critical is for moderate Muslim voices to speak out.
BROOKE: The Daily Show’s chief Muslim correspondent spoke out, but his colleagues weren't buying it.
Daily Show clip: Oh I know what’s going on - cuz I’m Muslim I got to be condemn-ier than you guys. Muslims around the world already spoken out… The Arab league, French Muslim religious council...Muslim leaders in India, Spain, Austria, Ukraine, Lebanon, all have released statements of condemnation. In Paris, just to show how condemny we are, and to honor the Kosher supermarket victims, Muslims were holding "I Am Jewish" signs.
I don’t know, nah buddy. Thats a sandwich board. He’s wearing the lunch specials…
BROOKE: Ani Zonneveld is founder and president of Muslims for Progressive Values. She’s also a musician, and she started her organization after releasing an Islamic pop album that many in the Muslim community took umbrage with, both because she’s a woman and because she fused Islamic scripture with a progressive interpretation.
BROOKE: Ani sought a community that embraced Islam’s egalitarian spirit, that she says is enshrined in the Quran. But what began as a personal project has since evolved into larger-scale policy work, with the UN and others, to counter Islamophobia and radical misinterpretations of Islam. Following the Paris attacks her group responded differently from other moderate muslim organizations.
ANI ZONNEVELD: Our reaction was not to issue yet another condemnation. Our reaction was to post an image of Prophet Muhammad that was drawn centuries ago, with a caption that said, ‘No one died for this drawing.’ And we went on to describe the many incidences where intolerance was directed at Prophet Muhammad. And his reaction which was essentially no reaction. Because we hear about all these bombings and killings - Anjem Choudary is a regular on Fox News, and even on CNN.
BROOKE: He’s the British-Muslim cleric notorious for his extremism and support of ISIS. And he’s recently published an Op-Ed in US Today. And a few months ago he was featured on 60 Minutes. He does get a lot of press.
ZONNEVELD: Yes. And if you’re prejudiced already against Muslims, and you have this fear of Islam, that’s an easy narrative for you to buy into. And it’s probably a narrative that you want to buy into. And that has been an uphill battle for many of us, especially progressive Muslims, who get cut out of many of the stories.
BROOKE: Give me an example of that. How do you get cut out?
ZONNEVELD: An example is, when LGBT Muslims are being interviewed, a lot of times they are being ostracized by their family, by members of their community, and by the Imams. And we would be interviewed because we are the only Muslim organization that advocates, and is affirming of, LGBT Muslims. And then, of course, your homophobic Imam is interviewed. At the end of the day, the one that gets cut out is us. So the big picture you would get is the poor LGBT Muslim that’s discriminated by family and their community, and the homophobic Imam. And when you hear enough of that story, then your perception of Islam is completely homophobic. It is incompatible with democracy. It is incompatible with our American values. Especially given where we’re at right now.
BROOKE: Do you find in the moderate mosques there’s a great deal of tolerance for LGBT members?
ZONNEVELD: In the moderate mosques they have shifted their positions. They’re gay. They’re more than welcome to come and pray at the mosque. It’s a human rights issue, period. We were not a homophobic society for centuries, anywhere in the Muslim world. Some of their justification for the British colonial powers, occupying the Muslim lands, was because we were too homo-friendly. And they implemented criminilization of homosexuality in the nation states that they ruled over, which we still have in some of, you know, like Malaysia for example. As a matter of fact, a lot of people don’t even know that there is no punishment for homosexuality in Islam.
BROOKE: Your work is rooted in religion. And you say that acknowledging the religious basis of extremist violence, even if that religious justification is invalid, is crucial for Muslim organizations. You don’t see enough of that direct countering of the argument made by groups like ISIS, do you?
ZONNEVELD: No, and I don’t think that we Muslims can have an honest discussion if we’re going to be dismissive of the theological basis for all these atrocities, when the recruiting tools that are being made by Al-Qaeda and by ISIL is religious language.
BROOKE: On the other hand, in arguing against their interpretation, don't you run up against the problem that, as with the Bible, you can find practically anything to support your issue in the Quran? In the Quran, believers are warned that if you kill one person, it’s as if you've killed all of humanity. But it also commands them to slay the idolators wherever you find them.
ZONNEVELD: That particular verse about slaying the idolators where you find them--if you are buying into that interpretation because you want to find religious justification, I think it’s the responsibility of Muslims and religious leaders to re-frame that in a historical context.
BROOKE: You talk about the severe consequences of what happens when that discussion gets shut down, specifically you mentioned the Mosque in Boston prior to the marathon bombing.
ZONNEVELD: So when one of the brothers, I believe it was Tamerlan came into the Mosque in Boston, and started spitting hate, radical rant. The reaction from the Mosque authorities was to throw him out. And on one level, we in the Muslim community completely understand the fear of what could happen to the Mosque. Homeland security would be on them in no time. But on the other hand, the conversation that’s being had in the Muslim community, is we should’ve been more compassionate to these boys. We should have directed them. We should have counseled them. So there is a real in-depth re-thinking in the Muslim community. That’s a conversation most outside the community do not know about.
BROOKE: It’s often said that moderate Muslims lack a united front. So that, their individual statements condemning extremism kind of get lost in the ether. They lack impact. But there have been some collective actions, right?
ZONNEVELD: There are 129 scholars, for examples, who wrote an open letter to al-Baghdadi...
BROOKE: The head of ISIS…
ZONNEVELD: Countering point by point Baghdadi's religious justification for his human rights abuses, his atrocities, in the name of Islam. As a Muslim organization this is almost like a gift to us because on, say, for example Child’s Rights, when a child is being forced into marriage, that is against Islam. And we can use the very argument that the scholars have made in order to prop up our position as well.
BROOKE: It’s ironic because they were countering injustice with sound theological arguments. But, back home…
ZONNEVELD: Unfortunately, back home, these very scholars in traditional Muslim societies are not following through with their own rulings. Now, when Saudi Arabia comes out condemning the murder at Charlie Hebdo. Well, two days later they were lashing Raif Badawi.
BROOKE: He’s a blogger?
ZONNEVELD: He’s a blogger. And he set up a liberal Saudi website where he was encouraging Saudis to have a healthy discussion about religion. He is in prision for 10 years, 1,000 lashing. So he received his first 50. The flogging happens after prayers. So, they will announce it to the congregation to come witness the lashing of Badawi for his insult of Islam.
BROOKE: Um, the texts that ISIS uses, are they Quranic texts generally?
ZONNEVELD: They are Hadith. Hadith is a collection of writings by laypeople, a hundred to a hundred years after the prophet Muhammad died, claiming he said this, claiming he did that.
BROOKE: And it is with the Hadith that ISIS has justified beheadings, slavery, selling of women, killing of non-Muslims, forced conversions, and all of that. In contradiction, you say, to the Quran.
ZONNEVELD: Correct. A lot of the Hadith contradicts the Quran. Now, if you’re a Muslim you’re supposed to believe the Quran is God’s work. But they’ve elevated the status of the Hadith to the point of equal of the Quran. And that is the problem.
BROOKE: So, organizations like yours are working on the local level, on the international level -- you’ve worked with the U.N. Do you feel that you’ve made some gains? What will it take to change perceptions?
ZONNEVELD: Perceptions will change when Muslims will actually do the hard work. We cannot claim that this is just Islamophobic rant. Our message of redefining what Sharia is, and what Sharia law is, is actually taking root at the international level. A lot of nations, and a lot of Muslims even, are ignorant of the difference between the two. Sharia is divine inspiration. It is described as that watering hole that quenches your spiritual thirst. Sharia law is extrapolation of Sharia, meshing it up with secular, cultural practices of the day, and pre-Islamic practices. Now, if Sharia law was truly god’s law, it would not be contradicting what is in the Quaran, number one. If Sharia law was truly God’s law, every time I go back to Malaysia, Sharia law should not be changing. It should be a constant between all the Muslim countries. But that’s not the case. So, our argument against Sharia law is pulling the rug from underneath all the human rights abuses done in the name of Islam.
BROOKE: Do you want to go out on a song?
ZONNEVELD: (Laughter) From heavy theology to a song. Sure! I would love to.
BROOKE: Ani, thank you very much.
ZONNEVELD: You’re welcome.
BROOKE: Ani Zonneveld is founder and president of Muslims for Progressive Values.