Muslim group debates future of Islam


MPV members and event attendees pose with signs containing variations of the message "ISIS does not represent Islam." Photo: Mallory Shelbourne.

Muslims for Progressive Values members and event attendees pose with signs containing variations of the message “ISIS does not represent Islam.” Photo: Mallory Shelbourne.

Muslims for Progressive Values held its eighth annual retreat on August 30 at the Metropolitan Community Church of New York in Hell’s Kitchen. This year’s forum, called Islam for Critical Thinkers, included a variety of panelists discussing issues currently affecting both the Muslim and non-Muslim communities, including the rise of the Islamic State, known as ISIS, the terrorist group in Iraq and Syria.

The retreat, which ranged in cost from $35 for students to $80 for those who decided to attend last minute, began with opening remarks from its founder and current president, Ani Zonneveld, who reiterated the organization’s tagline.

“This is a community where you can be yourself and be Muslim,” said Zonneveld, a singer-songwriter who was born in Malaysia, but grew up all over the world. Zonneveld founded MPV’s Los Angeles chapter in 2006 and officially registered the organization as a 501 (c) (3) in 2007.

According to a 2009 press release from the New York Police Department, the city’s Muslim population is approximately 600,000. A 2013 report by the PEW Research Center expects the Muslim population in the United States to double over the next 20 years, “from 2.6 million in 2010 to 6.2 million in 2030.”

The MPV New York Chapter, which has attracted about 100 members since its founding last year, most of them under the age of 25, meets at the MCCNY church each month. One member, Tahsin Chowdhury, was discovered by MPV after he wrote a post on his personal blog discussing God’s gender.

“I’m openly critical of religion,” said Chowdhury, 23, an undergraduate studying international relations at the City College of New York. “I appreciate the open discussions.”

The first panel of the day featured human rights activist Austin Dacey, a former Christian who now identifies as an atheist/secularist. Dacey participated in a discussion with Zonneveld on issues ranging from the MPV’s LGBTQ advocacy at the United Nations to Dacey’s 2012 book, “The Future of Blasphemy: Speaking of the Sacred in an Age of Human Rights.

Zeinab Eyega, the Executive Director of Sauti Yetu Center for African Women, led the second panel on various family issues, including gender equality, forced marriages, and female circumcision.

Midway through the daylong retreat, MPV members and attendees gathered in the back of the second floor room to take pictures with signs that contained variations of the phrase “ISIS does not represent Islam,” to post on social media. This was in response to a gruesome video of an Islamic State militant beheading James Foley, a GlobalPost journalist who had been missing since Thanksgiving 2012.

Several days after the MPV retreat, the Islamic State released a second video showing the murder of Steven Sotloff, a freelance journalist captured in Syria last August.

Speaker Farouk Peru, an academic who is starting his own madrasa, the Arabic word for school, in London, repeated similar sentiments about the Islamic State not representing Islam.

“Islam looks nothing like what it should be. That is my humble opinion,” Peru said. “These people [ISIS] are the worst manifestation of Islamofacism.”

Peru’s panel closely analyzed the Quran, as he dissected specific verses to show how teachings and interpretations have changed over time.

Several other speakers also focused on interpretations of Islam. Dr. Sultan Abdulhameed, a professor at Stony Brook University’s Institute for Terrestrial and Planetary Atmospheres, spoke with John Ishvaradas Abdallah, the founder of World Without Borders Interfaith Sufi Ashram, about the fundamental question of whether Islam is a religion or a movement.

Abdallah, who argued that Islam as a religion “makes it a rigid system,” said Islam was not originally a religion, but has evolved into one. “It is a movement, rather than a religion,” he said.

Twin sisters Omnia and Leila Hegazy, 23, who are half-Egyptian, concluded the day with songs, Leila playing the piano and Omnia playing the guitar, including several that advocated for women’s rights. Omnia was inspired to write one song, “Change This Place,”by the 2011 protests in Egypt that expelled longtime President Hosni Mubarak.

“[This is] for the people everywhere fighting for freedom, because that’s a human right,” she said.

Zonneveld cited the conflict between her musical background and traditional Islam as the inspiration for developing the organization. When her original Muslim community refused to sell her CD because of its use of modern equipment, and because a woman’s singing voice is considered “haram,” or sinful, in some traditional teachings, Zonneveld decided to define her own community.

Zonneveld said she wanted to foster a community that would be “inclusive without its biases and cultural baggages.”

MPV is an all-volunteer non-profit organization, with 13 total chapters worldwide, ranging from Los Angeles and New York to Malaysia and South Africa. MPV has approximately 5,000 members nationally.

Correction: In an earlier version of this post, Ani Zonneveld’s name was incorrectly spelled as Zonnevald.