Website Promotes ‘Progressive Muslim Movement’

Content includes calls for reformation, ‘Hug a Jew’ and racy fiction. The audience is mostly young U.S. followers of Islam, says a co-founder.

It’s not often you find an Islamic website that features a photo of rocker Jimi Hendrix with a story that exhorts Muslims to put down their suicide bombs and pick up guitars instead to change the world.

Even more startling is the site’s “Hug a Jew” feature, which includes short interviews with Jews and photos of them hamming it up in hugs of solidarity with Muslims.

Most shocking is the site’s Sex & the Umma section. Here are racy fictional works about a single, pregnant Muslim woman living with an alcoholic non-Muslim, Islamic love poetry and articles by scholars urging Muslims to “celebrate the sexual impulse.”

It’s all found at, which was established last year by two UCLA graduates, Ahmed Nassef and Jawad Ali. With more than 800 articles posted and 90,000 hits per month, the site is billed as representing the “vanguard of the progressive Muslim movement.”

The nascent movement aims for a broad-based reformation that champions social justice, gender equality, pluralism and free inquiry into the full range of the religion’s 1,400-year-old traditions.

The website and movement are attracting a largely younger, Americanized Muslim audience that finds most mosques and U.S. Islamic organizations too conservative and rigid, Nassef said.

In April, he posted a piece, “Time to Listen to the Muslim Silent Majority in U.S.,” that criticized such organizations as the Council on American Islamic Relations and the Islamic Society of North America as reflecting “an ultraconservative Muslim agenda not shared by most within their community.”

“Among the new generation, there is a tremendous feeling of disaffectedness from the established Muslim community,” said Nassef, 38, in an interview.

An Egyptian native who moved to Los Angeles at age 10, he majored in Islamic studies at UCLA and has worked in marketing in New York and the Mideast.

In general, U.S. mosques “are run by people trained in Saudi-funded institutions abroad or who have no formal training,” he said. “As a result, you have a very conservative approach that is foreign-dominated, which is not realistic for the American environment.”

Some of the community’s established leaders disagree that their organizations are out of touch. Some, such as Muzammil Siddiqi of the Islamic Society, said they had never heard of Muslim Wakeup! Others privately dismissed it as “childish” or simply in bad taste.

Sayyid Muhammad Syeed, the Islamic Society’s secretary general, said that the organization’s annual conventions drew more than 30,000 people and that its website got an average of 2.6 million hits a month. Syeed added that the society was firmly in the moderate mainstream, with a female vice president and open membership that imposed no religious litmus tests.

Ibrahim Hooper of the Islamic council also said his organization reflected mainstream opinion. Its staff, he said, includes both bearded and clean-shaven men, women with and without head scarves.

“Everyone has a right to their opinion,” he said, when asked his reaction to Muslim Wakeup!

For Sarah Eltantawi, a 27-year-old Muslim activist and writer, the website is a “lifeline.” In a recent posting, she and six fellow feminists were touted for daring to protest gender segregation in a West Virginia mosque by walking through the men-only entrance.

Although Eltantawi said she was in step politically with most other American Muslim organizations in their opposition to the Iraq war and Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, she called herself disaffected from them on such social issues as women and gay rights.

“I feel Muslim Wakeup! is the most relevant website in terms of exploring issues facing American Muslims,” she said. “It’s a young, edgy, modern thing. It’s a place to read about taboos and explore them. I feel it reflects my experience as a woman, a Muslim and someone with progressive views.”

Nassef and Ali, who met in UCLA’s Muslim Student Assn., launched the website in January 2003.

Today, it offers lively, provocative and often humorous articles on at least 40 topics, including sexuality, spirituality, gender issues, U.S. politics, civil liberties and film.

Political targets often include the puritanical strain of Islam known as Wahhabism, the Israeli occupation, Bush administration policies on civil rights and the Mideast. Cultural articles feature book and film reviews, plus interviews with popular Muslim musicians and film artists. There are ruminations on Ramadan and on hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.

At the moment, the most popular — and controversial — feature is Sex & the Umma (community). Introduced in April, it is aimed at reclaiming a rich tradition of sensuality in Islam that Nassef argues has been buried under the current influence of puritanism.

One article, for instance, said that Islam’s literature was filled with erotic poetry, that its medieval sciences offered recipes to enhance desire and that its Scripture praised sexual pleasures.

Also popular is “Hug a Jew,” which has largely featured opponents of Israel’s policies toward Palestinians. They include a mother who organized a baby picnic for peace and Noam Chomsky, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology linguistics professor and outspoken critic of much of U.S. foreign policy.

Nassef said his team started the feature to combat what he called rampant anti-Semitism among Muslims.

But he said it had been criticized by some Jewish organizations and individuals for primarily spotlighting opponents to Israel’s policies.

The guitar piece urged Muslims to “forget militancy.”

“Too often, we hear the words ‘Muslim’ and ‘terrorist’ in the same sentence. But how often do we hear the phrase ‘Muslim guitarist?’ The guitar has the potential to be one of the most useful and powerful weapons in the arsenal of change and progress. The guitar screams. It shrieks. It speaks to us,” wrote Shadi Hamid, a Georgetown University graduate student in Arab studies.

In recent months, Muslim Wakeup! has organized monthly gatherings in several cities to bring progressive Muslims together to brainstorm on how to advance the cause.

The site has also begun urging readers to make “Wakeup Calls” to other Muslim organizations about actions regarded as regressive, such as one Canadian imam’s refusal to allow a female Muslim political candidate to speak.

Although the site has been variously criticized for trying to destroy Islam or attack America, Nassef said neither was the goal.

“All of this questioning is going to enrich us,” he said. “It will give us a faith that is appropriate to the times and that is as Islamic as you can get.”

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Los Angeles Times, USA
June 26, 2004
Teresa Watanabe, Times Staff Writer
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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday June 28, 2004.
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