Meetup Spotlight: Muslims for Progressive Values
Shortly after September 11th, 2001, Ani Zonneveld, a Malaysian-born singer-songwriter, released a pop album. Ani is a lifelong Muslim, but several American Muslim retailers and organizations refused to promote the album release. The problem? Ani is also a woman, and according to traditional Muslim beliefs, only men are permitted to sing publicly. Ani was outraged by the situation. “I found it to be completely unacceptable,” she says. “There have been centuries of Muslim women teachers, leaders, scholars, poets, and singers, and yet, the woman’s voice within the Muslim community was being silenced even here within America.”
Ani was certain she wasn’t alone in her frustration with the traditional Muslim community. “I knew from statistics that only 25% of Muslims attended mosque. I knew there were a lot of Muslims that were disenfranchised with the traditional mosque, but I didn’t know why they were or where they were. I thought: there’ve got to be Muslim Americans like me who are inclusive in nature, and in favor of gender equality and freedom of artistic expression. I knew they were out there, so it was just a matter of ‘someone’s gotta start this’—so I did.” On January 6, 2006, Ani founded the Muslims for Progressive Values Meetup in Los Angeles.
At the beginning, the group met once a month at coffee shops around Los Angeles. “A lot of us that came,” Ani recalls, “men and women, were not happy with the traditional Muslim community. We bonded around our shared frustrations. In the beginning it was like therapy for many people—we found out there were many people who felt the same.” In time, the Meetup expanded to include social activities, as well as Quran study. “We read the Quran from a progressive lens,” Ani explains.
As Ani’s Meetup grew, she became aware of other progressive Muslim communities springing up in cities around the country, many also through Meetup. “It all happened at once,” she says. The organizers connected through social media, and began talking. In 2007 they came together in New York City with the goal of joining together and forming a non-profit. “It was real people, real bodies with common interest, coming together and finding a way to be effective in our voice,” says Ani. At the founding meeting, the group created a governing board and appointed Ani as their executive director. “It was a turning point,” says Ani.
Upon her return to California, Ani registered the organization, Muslims for Progressive Values, as a 501c3 non-profit organization. “Our mission is to promote egalitarian expressions of Islam because we believe Islam is progressive. We challenge the traditional notions of what is accepted to be Islam.” The organization primarily works to address issues around gender equality, LGBT rights, freedom of belief, and freedom of expression in the Muslim community. And over the past eight years, news of their work has spread to Muslim communities around the world. Currently, there are Muslims for Progressive Values chapters in Canada, France, Chile, Australia, and Malaysia. “We have people all over the world reaching out to us, wanting to come together,” Ani says. “We have people reaching out from Uganda and Burundi. Our message is really resonating, especially now with the backdrop of ISIS and all the radicalism. People are really searching for the loving, caring Islam.”
Ani’s hope is that in time, the expression of Islam her community champions, rooted in compassion and inclusivity, will be adopted in mosques across the country. “I actually think that our interpretation of Islam is going to be the American Islam,” she says. “We think love is going to win the day. We believe that ten years from now the traditional mosque will evolve to be more inclusive in its form of practices too. When that’s done,” she says with a laugh, “we can close shop. That’s our exit strategy.”
Until then, Ani takes pride in how far Muslims for Progressive Values has come. “If I died tomorrow, I can rest in peace knowing that I initiated such a community here in Los Angeles,” she says. “I’m honored and touched by the fact that there are so many Muslims out there who have trust in what I do, in leading this community and the organization. A movement doesn’t happen without the trust of the community at large—we’re building a movement, and I’m very proud of that.”