MWU (Muslim Wakeup) and PMU (Progressive Muslims Union): Progressive Voices?
Posted Sep 13, 2005

In January 2003 MWU was launched.  Initially, I was very hopeful as this seemed to be the beginning of an excellent publication that would speak to the younger generation of Muslims in the U.S.

Even before PMU (which grew out of MWU) was officially launched, an article appeared in the Vancouver Sun which noted that there was controversy over the PMU within the Muslim community, and that one of the primary objections was the invitation to join the PMU advisory board of individuals who were staunch supporters of the war in Iraq ” such as Seeme and Malik Hassan, founders of Muslims for Bush, and Farid Zakaria, who wrote in Newsweek that the invasion of Iraq is “the single best path to reform the Arab world.”  The article also pointed out that Farid Esack had turned down an invitation to join the board because of this reason.

Another article in Newsday stated:  “With just weeks to go until the launch, Nassef and other organizers are lining up a board that is a global Who’s Who of Muslim leaders, from former Pakistani ambassador to Britain Akbar Ahmed to Muslim Public Affairs Council director Salem Al-Marayati.”

When the final list of the PMU Board of Directors and Board of Advisors was published on the website, many of these individuals were not listed. 

In October of 2004 Daniel Pipes published an article Failing to Find Moderate Musims at the PMU and I thought this looked promising as they were being attacked by both extremes and just might represent a legitimate middle position.

On November 15th,  2004 the Progressive Muslims Union (PMU) was officially launched.  The four original founders were:  Omid Safi, Sarah Eltantawi, Ahmed Nassef, and Hussein Ibish.  The ezine Muslim Wakeup was the primary vehicle for disseminating information about this new movement.  In fact MWU was called the Flagship of the PMU.  The Board of Directors of the PMU was:  Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur (Azizah magazine), Mona Eltahawy (journalist), Tarek Fatah (Muslim Canadian Congress), Aiman Mackie (Middle East Bridges Program), Naeem Mohaiemen (journalist), Ahmed Nassef (MWU Editor), Pamela Taylor (writer), and Zuriani ‘Ani’ Zonneveld (musician).  The Board of Advisors was: Ali Abunimah , Akbar S. Ahmed, Ziad Asali, Muqtedar Khan, Scott Siral al-Haqq Kugle, and Amina Wadud.  The PMU grew out of MWU but after some time the websites were separated, and it appears that they are now at least technically two separate organizations, but with MWU still the main vehicle for publication of PMU views.

Again, I was initially very hopeful as I was completely in agreement with the stated goals and purposes and mission statement.  In a very short time, however, this hopefulness began to change to concern.  On the PMU website there is no membership application, no information about how decisions will be made, or whether or not there will be a vote, or who is eligible to vote. 

In an article in April of 2005, Is Undermining the Progressive Muslim MovementӔ, Muqtedar Khan, a member of PMU’s advisory board states: The conclusion that I can draw from all these debates and discussions is that while majority of Muslims sympathize and may even endorse the agenda of Progressive Muslims (1) seeking gender justice, (2) struggling for social justice, (3) advancing a moral inclusivist theology, and (4) opening the doors of Ijtihad for reinterpretation of Islam in the contemporary context, they strongly oppose the method and style of MWU.  I repeat, most American Muslims seem to sympathize with the causes that underpin the philosophy of Progressive Muslims, but they strongly disapprove of MWUԒs style. This raises the question, will MWU in the long run undermine the very movement, the Progressive Muslim movement that it seeks to promote.

Also, in April Louay Safi published Islam’s Encounter with American Culture: Making Sense of the Progressive Muslim Agenda.  In June, Omid Safi did an interview on this movement with Yoginder Sikand Interview on ‘Progressive Muslims’

I watched closely over the next few months for a response by MWU to the concerns raised by Muqtedar, but there was deafening silence.

In July of 2005 Muqtedar Khan, resigned.  His letter of resignation stated in part: “But lately the culture of takfir and the absolutely lack of basic adab and simple etiquette that is becoming a defining characteristic of PMU has become suffocating.I have been extremely critical of many Muslim organizations, specially ISNA, AMSS and CAIR organizations that are routinely ridiculed by PMU members who feel that they are morally superior to all Muslims—both in private and in writing but have never, ever been abused by any of them and most importantly never ever been made to feel that I do not belong.”

On August 24, 2005 three of the original four founding members of the Progressive Muslims Union (Omid Safi, Sarah Eltantawi, and Hussein Ibish) resigned.  In their letter of resignation they stated in part: “Unfortunately, PMU has not developed in the direction that we had envisioned and worked to promote. We readily accept our share of the responsibility for this, and do not seek to blame or second-guess any of our former colleagues. They are entitled to develop PMU in any direction that they see fit. However we have become convinced that PMU is not a forum that will allow us to successfully pursue the agenda we envisioned at its founding, and that this is not likely to change. We believe that the vision that we outlined in the PMU mission statement and that informed the founding of PMU remains vital and urgently needed, but has yet to find a vehicle for its effective expression. We remain committed to the values and goals of that mission statement, and we will continue to work to help develop and implement a progressive agenda for American Muslims.  We wish PMU all the best, offer it our support and encouragement, and hope that it will to grow into a vital and important organization that represents a significant constituency among North American Muslims.”

I have received a lot of negative comments and emails because MWU is listed on the main page of the links section of The American Muslim as a Selected Link (These are sites we visit regularly and which share our commitment to professionalism and rational discourse.)  I have up to now refused to remove the link.

Over time the articles appearing on MWU have become more and more strident, and the general tone actually malicious and often mean-spirited.  Many articles seem to have no purpose other than to shock.  If the purpose is to influence public opinion within the Mulim community, then the method chosen is not very effective because it can only alienate a majority of Muslims.  Right after the ISNA convention, MWU published an article “ISNA Thugs” and on the front page of MWU there was a “MWU Poll” asking the question: Most Muslim Religious Leaders Are? The response choices given were - corrupt, irresponsible, ignorant, all of the above.  This is not a poll, there are no options for differing opinions - not even “other”.  A poll attempts to discover what public opinion is, not to enforce a pre-existing opinion.

I wrote a response to this article entitled “ISNA? Thugs” and sent off a request to MWU to also publish my response.  I have not heard from them yet.

Then on (9-13) MWU published an article Michael Muhammad Knight about the ISNA convention.  This article was the final straw for me in attempting to see the positive in what has become a very negative and embarassing voice for Islam in America.  In this article Mr. Knight admits that rather than applying for press credentials, he went through a very dishonest process which resulted in his receiving a press pass that he wasn’t entitled to. 

These sorts of tactics can only hurt the cause of Progressive Muslims and I do not want to be associated with individuals or organizations that show so little professionalism or concern for truth and rational discourse.

Sadly, I am removing the link from The American Muslim website because I believe that the current methods being used by MWU has become so extreme that it will be used as justification to stifle the voice of the Progressive Muslim Movement.

UPDATE 9/26/2005

Svend White has published Lessons Learned From The PMU (Progressive Muslims Union) Experiment

The Progressive Muslim Union is going through a rough patch. A series of defections of prominent supporters that started in July (Muqtedar Khan, Michael Knight, Laury Silvers, and others) culminated in August with the collective resignation � accompanied by some acrimonious public exchanges within PMU’s board � of Omid Safi, Hussein Ibish, and Sara Eltantawi, three of the PMU’s four founders (only MuslimWakeUp! editor Ahmed Nassef remains). And a new (rival?) website,, featuring the blogs of former PMU stalwarts has been launched. The Progressive Muslim movement seems to be splintering, if not crumbling before our eyes.

As someone who sympathizes with many of the organization’s stated goals and as someone who’s sometimes has occasionally found himself defending the work of Progressive Muslims � not every charge lobbed at them is fair and there are some very good, sincere people involved � I’ve observed PMU’s recent travails with great sadness. I have to admit, though, that this sadness isn’t really for PMU per se, but rather for the activists and causes that will have to deal with the fallout from the latest twist in the increasingly unseemly saga of Progressive Islam in North America (which Sheila Musaji has summarized admirably in her hard-hitting recent article “MWU and PMU: Progressive Voices?” in The American Muslim).

PMU’s protean and seemingly relativistic approach towards Islam and its unwillingness to unambiguously affirm transcendent values in Islam and the normative authority of Quran and Sunnah have always distressed me as a Muslim and prevented me from identifying with the organization, even when it was alone in tackling problems and issues that I felt strongly about.

I’ve never believed in “Progressive Islam”, either. Not because “progressive” is a dirty word, but because its principles are already at the core of Islam. Contrary to all the historically and philosophically illiterate rubbish one hears about the sinister implications of the term, there is nothing inherently secular or anti-Islamic about progressivism. To the contrary, many of the most laudable advances in American politics and society that Muslims view as in keeping with Islamic values (e.g., civil rights, economic justice, the welfare safety net, child labor laws, women’s rights, environmentalism) are the result of the Progressive political tradition. While it’s true that this tradition is not consciously grounded in religious faith, its objectives of alleviating suffering and bringing about equality are ones that any Muslim should applaud. (Besides, who doesn’t believe in some kind of “progress”, and why is it so hard for some people to consider the possibility that a Muslim “progressive” might consider the pinnacle of progress to be nothing more than living up to Allah’s message and doing good?)

My biggest frustration is how PMU’s monopolization of the discussion of Islamic reform and its horrendous PR missteps have made not only the word “progressive” radioactive in the Muslim community, but have put activists and reformers on the defensive. I mourn the fact that activists now have to devote so much energy to explaining what they’re not rather than making a cause for much needed reform.

The activists I know would sooner admit to being ax murderers than “Progressive Muslims”. How did this happen? How did the Progressive Muslim movement lose credibility with so many Muslims who would’ve normally been predisposed to enthusiastically support them?

There was a time where I certainly had high hopes for this nascent movement. In the beginning, was an innovative and promising venture, a truly exciting voice for reform and Muslim debate that was leveraging technology to create a virtual community and communication channel for liberals and reformers around the globe. By the time I got the chance to contribute an article to MWU in August 2004, I had already begun to feel grave misgivings about MWU’s direction due to the advent of the “Sex and the Umma” column, but I hoped this was an aberration. Unfortunately, that did not prove to be the case, and PMU/MWU became increasingly fringe, confrontational and seemingly out of touch with its community, reveling in vulgarity and puerility, passing off lazy secularist slogans as Islamic reform, and gratuitously offending normal Muslim sensibilities. Soon thereafter in 2004, I gave up on PMU as a credible vehicle for promoting Islamic reform, even if I sympathized with some its efforts.

I don’t think it was PMU’s string of PR missteps or the influence of any one individual � considerable criticism has been leveled many of those resigning at the outspoken leftist activist Tarek Fatah � that did it in, but something far more fundamental, its trying to be, if you’ll forgive the expression, “all things to all men”. In its effort to forge a grand uber-coalition of leftists and activists, PMU refused to apply even the most minimal doctrinal litmus tests on its leaders. As a result, PMU (here I use the term loosely to refer to more than its board of directors) runs the gamut from hard-line secularists to fuzzy New Agers to normal Muslims who just want reform in the community. To some, this diversity is undoubtedly PMU’s crowning glory, but to me it a sign of an organization lacking substance or vision.

On the one hand, I want to make some allowances for PMU in this regard, as I realize that they are trying to do something extraordinarily difficult, namely updating the Muslim community’s norms of tolerance to address thorny contemporary realities. For example, in our era of fragmented globalized identities, postmodernism, and widespread secularism, the idealistic assumptions about a Muslim’s identity and practice found in Islamic tradition do not always correspond to the reality of contemporary Muslims. Historians might debate whether the Ummah is more doctrinally diverse or less practicing today than in the past, but it’s safe to say that modern Muslims must face unheard of pluralism with their fellow Muslims. The days when most Muslims lived in a community in which a single madhab, culture, language, race, or even denomination predominate and block out other paradigms are long gone. Also, however one views or explains this phenomenon (i.e., secularization, decadence, modernism, materialism, etc.), it is a sociological fact that a significant segment of contemporary Muslim populations is made up of “cultural Muslims”. There are, unfortunately, large numbers of Muslims today who do not accept the need to practice Islam as laid out in Islamic tradition and fiqh. Yet one cannot by any reasonable standard categorize them as non-Muslims, as they are clearly a part of modern Islamic civilization. To PMU’s credit � and unlike many mainstream Muslim organizations � it has tried to grapple with this conundrum and create a space where Muslims who do not conform to mainstream expectations (however legitimate most such expectations may be) or who are struggling with their faith can participate without fear of kneejerk takfir or harassment by self-righteous vigillantes.

Nonetheless, I think that PMU has allowed the pendulum of tolerance to swing to far in the opposite direction, to the point where it’s not always clear what makes the organization “Muslim”. It is certainly laudable to ensure that Muslims are allowed to make their own moral choices without fear of reprisals from the community � that’s a considerably less often noted consequence of the Quranic dictum, “There is no compulsion of religion.” Religious freedom should apply no less to Muslims than non-Muslims! � but this can’t come at the expense of devaluing fundamental values and norms about which there is no debate within Islam or at the expense of promoting radical Antinomianism that makes all religious practices and prohibitions seem superfluous. All organizations must define not only what they believe in, but what they do not believe in. A “Muslim” organization cannot formulate a coherent message, much less promote any mission for reform, if it is stretched to accommodate the whims and sensitivities of every dissident, radical and New Age dabbler.

I also fear that PMU has done some real damage to the causes it aspires to promote. I mourn the newfound ability of reactionaries to tar any person who tries to talk about, say, the need for women khateebs � an infinitely more important objective than the PMU crowd’s almost bourgeois obsession with women imams � as secularized elites who are aren’t serious about Islam. Sure, this reflex to dismiss all reform has always been present�tradition, like patriotism, is the first refuge of the scoundrel�but now that PMU has made the whole Muslim Left look libertine and trite, I believe that the old slur carries a new sting.

Activists in the trenches in their communities working to get something positive done not because it’s “progressive” but because that’s what they believe Allah (swt) requires of them are the ones who will have to clean up the mess left behind by PMU. The sad thing is that they will probably have to throw the baby out with the bathwater, distancing themselves entirely from all things “progressive” rather than just the Progressive Muslim Union. Which is unfortunate, given the numerous worthy causes that Progressive Muslims have embraced and associated themselves with.

Still, my hope is that lefty Muslim activists and reformers will learn some lessons from the PMU saga:

UPDATE 12/2007

Although MWU and PMU no longer exist (and neither do their websites), the idea of such a movement is still alive.  In 2007, a new organization called Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV) was formed by Ani Zonneveld.  This is the “values” statement from their website:

Muslims for Progressive Values is guided by the following ten principles. Each branch of the tree in our logo represents MPV’s ten principles rooted in Islam.

1.Identity: We accept as Muslim anyone who identifies as such. The veracity and integrity of that claim is between the individual and God, and is not a matter for the state nor an issue which other individuals can or should judge.
2.Equality: We affirm the equal worth of all human beings, regardless of race, sex, gender, ethnicity, nationality, creed, sexual orientation, or ability. We are committed to work toward societies that ensure social, political, educational, and economic opportunities for all.
3.Separation of Religious and State Authorities: We believe that freedom of conscience is not only essential to all human societies but integral to the Qur’anic view of humanity. We believe that secular government is the only way to achieve the Islamic ideal of freedom from compulsion in matters of faith.
4.Freedom of Speech: We support freedom of expression and freedom of dissent, whether political, artistic, social or religious, even when that expression may be offensive and that dissent may be considered blasphemous. No one should be legally prosecuted, imprisoned or detained for declaring or promoting unpopular opinions.
5.Universal Human Rights: We affirm our commitment to social, economic and environmental justice. We believe that the full self-realization of all people, in a safe and sustainable world, is a prerequisite for freedom, civility, and peace. We support efforts for universal health care, universal public education, the protection of our environment, and the eradication of poverty.
6.Women’s Rights: We support women’s agency and self-determination in every aspect of their lives. We believe in women’s full participation in society at every level. We affirm our commitment to reproductive justice and empowering women to make healthy decisions regarding their bodies, sexuality and reproduction.
7.LGBTQ Rights: We endorse the human and civil rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer (LGBTIQ) individuals. We support full equality and inclusion of all individuals, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, in society and in the Muslim community. We affirm our commitment to ending discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
8.Critical Analysis and Interpretation: We call for critical engagement with Islamic scripture, traditional jurisprudence, and current Muslim discourses. We believe that critical thinking is essential to spiritual development. We promote interpretations that reflect basic Qur’anic principles of tolerance, inclusiveness, mercy, compassion, and fairness.
9.Compassion: We affirm that justice and compassion should be the guiding principles for all aspects of human conduct. We repudiate militarism and violence, whether on an individual, organizational, or national level.
10.Diversity: We embrace religious pluralism and the diversity of inspirations that motivate people to embrace social justice. We believe that one’s religion is not the exclusive source of truth. As such, we will engage with a diversity of philosophical and spiritual traditions in pursuit of a more just, peaceful and sustainable world.

Only time will tell whether or not this will develop into a movement with staying power.