A female imam’s message at the end of a tragedy-filled Ramadan

Sheridan Mahavera Nabihah Hamid

In Part II of The Malaysian Insight interview with Ani Zonneveld, the female imam speaks about what it would take to change Islam’s increasingly negative image.

AS Muslims the world over mark the end of a Ramadan marred by terror attacks and militancy, a Malaysian female imam advocates for an Islam that is more compassionate, just and truer to its roots.

Ani Zonneveld, born Zuraini Abdul Khalid, who is one of the Muslim world’s rare female imams, said Islam’s increasingly negative image was due to the misogynistic, homophobic, and racist attitudes of many Muslims.

What makes it worse is the spread of radicalism among Muslims which creates a supremacist attitude towards non-Muslims, said Ani, who made headlines recently at the opening of the Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque in Berlin, Germany.

This ideology of radicalism that has spread among Muslims makes it easy for them to justify killing others who do not agree with them, she told The Malaysian Insight.

“To change the ‘image’ of Islam, we need to live up to the values of Islam. That begins with each individual Muslim – love, compassion, kindness and mercy to everyone,” said Ani, who is based in the United States.

Ani shared her views with The Malaysian Insight in which she also talked about her work in the Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV) movement.

MPV activists have helped set up scores of inclusive mosques throughout the world, in the US, United Kingdom, Canada and South Africa which provide an alternative interpretation of Islam from what is conventionally practised by the majority.

The Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque was opened during a Ramadan which has seen a rash of terror attacks involving Muslims in the UK, Indonesia, Egypt, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran.

The Philippine army is also waging a four-week battle to dislodged militants who took over a city in the Southern part of that country at the start of the month.

On Saturday, a suicide bomber targeting Mecca, Saudi Arabia, blew himself up and injured six people.

Below are excerpts of her interview:

Q: What did you do in Germany before you became president of Muslim for Progressive Values (MPV) and get involved in the Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque? What made you want to get involved in the mosque?

A: I am not part of the Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque. Because I have led our community in the US in prayer for over 11 years, I was invited to simply do the azan. I did to show solidarity in our global collective progressive movement.

Q: What roles do you play in the mosque besides imam and bilal?

A: For 10 years, as a grassroots organisation in the US, MPV provides services for our community needs such as creating inclusive spiritual spaces for Muslims of all types where their dignity is respected; promote critical thinking by way of forums, educational workshops, arts and music; and we also provide interfaith Islamic marriages particularly between Muslim women and non-Muslim men.

Our mission is: MPV is a faith-based, grassroots, international human rights organisation that embodies and advocates for the traditional Qur’anic values of social justice and equality for all, for the 21st Century.

As an advocate for social justice and as president of MPV, I work on fair sentencing of youth, child or forced marriages, women’s reproductive rights, and LGBT rights in the US.

At the United Nations, MPV is an official non-government organisation (NGO) association member. MPV’s consultative status enable our advocacy to go global by challenging human rights abuses in the name of Sharia law of Muslim-majority countries at the United Nations and at the Human Rights Council.

Q: How big is MPV’s community in the world?

A: We are probably about 10,000 strong but our reach and number of allies and partners have grown exponentially. In the US we are in seven cities – Los Angeles, DC, Atlanta, New York, Chicago, Columbus and San Francisco with hundreds more individuals dotting the map.

Q: What prompted the founders to establish such a mosque? According to reports, it’s based in a community with an immigrant population. How have local Muslims responded to it?

A: I can only speak of the environment in the US. What is important to note is that only 24% of American Muslims attend the traditional mosque.

Many don’t because they understand Islam to be egalitarian and just and therefore despise the intolerant, misogynistic and homophobic teachings they hear at the mosque.

Our inclusive mosques are made of all sorts of people, immigrant, native, old, young, straight, gay and transexual. We all come together on the principle of a loving and compassionate Islam and God. How other Muslims respond does not matter. They have their mosques, we have ours.

At Muslims for Progressive Values we don’t invite the media. Whether it is a woman or a man leading prayer in our community, it is not an issue.

The men in our community don’t have sex on their minds and by praying together like we do in Mecca, unsegregated, is proof of our “ummah” – truly in sister and brotherhood. After all, if you are thinking about sex during prayer of your sister in prayer, then you are not really living the spirit of the “ummah”.

Q: What topics do you cover in your sermons? Are they in German or English?

A: The sermons in the mosque in Germany will be done in German, while in the US in English. At MPV’s religious spaces we cover topics about the environment, about human rights, about being kind even to animals, about contributing to society especially as privileged Muslims.

Q: In an age where Germany itself is the target of militants, what role does the Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque play?

A: There are many inclusive mosques in the world – US, Canada, UK, The Netherlands, Germany, France, and South Africa. I started one in January 2006. There is nothing contradictory to Islam about these mosques.

The Quran promotes participation of community members for everyone, no discrimination, the first female imam was appointed by Prophet Muhammad himself, the first teachers of Islam were women, and we pray together “Mecca-style” like we do at haj.  What’s the problem?

(Saudi Arabia is changing this mixed prayer of centuries old and segregating the sexes because they look at women as sex objects which we have unfortunately embraced.)

Islam is truly most interfaith and most egalitarian. Maybe our so-called “traditional” mosques need to change to something more true to the spirit of Islam.

Radicalism promotes an ideology that is supremacist. That’s why they kill everyone that disagrees with their ideology. In Malaysia, the government doesn’t kill you, but their goons will threaten you. I am speaking from experience.

The bedrock of our mosques is critical thinking. This is a threat to national security, and that is why the Malaysian government has declared progressive and liberal Muslims “as dangerous as ISIS (Islamic State).

Q: How can mosques such as the Berlin one contribute to the increasingly negative image that Muslims and Islam are getting all over the world?

A: No matter where you are, Islam and Muslims have a bad reputation because of our misogynistic, homophobic, and racist attitudes and teachings. No public relations campaign will earn back the respect for Islam. To change the “image” of Islam, we need to live up to the values of Islam. That begins with each individual Muslim – love, compassion, kindness and mercy to everyone. – June 26, 2017.

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