Feeling unfulfilled in her traditional religious community, Ani Zonneveld began to re-study the Qur'an for herself after 9/11. Within the Qur'an, she found that the foundation of Islam was profoundly different from what either the sensationalist media or her traditional religious leaders were saying. “What I concluded,” she says, “is that Islam was actually very liberating in its values and what it advocated for. Once I understood that for myself, it was very hard to go back to the traditional mosque.”
An immigrant from Malaysia to Los Angeles, Zonneveld wanted a faith community that took to heart the call to social justice work and critical thinking she found in the Qur'an. She began organizing meet-ups for progressive Muslims who felt unsatisfied in their traditional faith communities. “I discovered there were other pockets of like-minded Muslims who had also established communities. So we all came together and formed Muslims for Progressive Values” (MPV).
Zonneveld has led MPV for nearly eight years. “What started out as a personal need for a freer, more liberated, and egalitarian expression of Islam,” has grown into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with consultative status at the United Nations. MPV has chapters and affiliates in many countries across six continents, and will soon open a third office in Tunis, Tunisia.
LGBTQI inclusion is one of the central principles in MPV’s work. There is nothing in the Qur'an that suggests LGBTQI people should be oppressed, says Zonneveld. Islam teaches that all people should be treated with dignity and compassion. “The criminalization of homosexuality is un-Islamic at its root,” Zonneveld explains, “and the position MPV takes is based on sound Islamic scholarly research.” The Prophet Mohamed never punished anyone for being homosexual. The Qur'an references “men who are not attracted to women,” and there is no punishment for that.
MPV approaches LGBTQI issues differently depending on location. “In the American context, we advocate for full civil rights for all. We rejoice at the Supreme Court decision on marriage—we’ve been conducting same-sex Islamic weddings for some years now.” Internationally, MPV is cautious in its approach and avoids focusing on marriage. “We approach LGBTQI issues from a basic human rights perspective,” Zonneveld says. “Because there’s so much animosity and violence we have to be very careful for the safety of people on the ground.” MPV argues that LGBTQI people “should not be criminalized or have to go through corrective therapy, corrective rape, or other awful human rights abuses that run contrary to the values of compassion and understanding.” MPV sticks to the basic message that “LGBTQI people are human beings and deserve basic human rights like everyone else. We’re not making this up: we’re just going back to the egalitarian roots that Prophet Mohamed advocated for.”
Illustrating a contrast to Zonneveld and MPV’s vision for an inclusive and compassionate religion, Zonneveld, a musician, faced criticism in 2012 for releasing an album of Islamic hymns. The first Islamic pop album in English, it was immediately rejected by traditional Muslims. “You’re a female singer,” critics said. “Your voice needs to be covered, just like your skin, your hair.” But Zonneveld knew better. “I know this is bogus and is not based in the Qur'an. We’ve had centuries of women leaders, teachers, scholars, poets, singers, and torch bearers.” Zonneveld continues to carry this torch, not only for herself, but for Muslims everywhere who believe in Islam’s dedication to inclusion, compassion, and equality.
Contributed by Leah Entenmann