Issue I: Transforming Tomorrow
I-11 | Ani Zonneveld: “Universal human rights values and true Islam is one and the same”
Interview by Alexander Görlach
"Universal human rights values and true Islam is one and the same"
She is the first Malaysian Grammy winner and founded the non-profit organization Muslims for Progressive Values. This organization calls for Muslim societies to pay more attention to human rights. Learn why many young Muslims like Zonneveld believe Islam needs reform.
GÖRLACH: Ms. Zonneveld, you work on human rights-based Muslim societies – what made you decide to dedicate your life to this endeavor?
ZONNEVELD: When I was 12 years old I was reading the Far Eastern Economic Review, a foreign policy magazine which no longer is in print. Through this, I realized how wonderful of a life I had lived. Today, as an adult living in Los Angeles with my rights intact, sitting on the sidelines while so many are deprived of basic human rights is simply unconscionable.
I started Muslims for Progressive Values as a way to bring like-minded Muslims in America together post 9/11, but the message of inclusivity and egalitarian Islam resonated beyond my expectation. When mapping out the issues in Muslim societies – in Muslim-majority countries, Muslim minorities and in the West – the source and justification for the many human rights violations are the same, a particular interpretation of Islam, and the only difference is the degree in severity to which a punishment is applied. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, a conviction of apostasy will result in one’s head getting chopped off, and in Malaysia it will result in “therapy” until you recommit to Islam. This despite the Qur’an mandating in verse 2:256, “there is no compulsion in faith”.
The long-term view is the role of culture, which is shaped by food, language, the arts, and of course religion. And if the religious influence of culture is unjust, then the society intrinsically is shaped by an unjust set of values, resulting in individuals electing government representatives that legislate and implement the same unjust values. This is by no means just a Muslim issue; we see this in America and many democratic societies.
The solution and my purpose are very clear to me – inculcating a culture of human rights. And when you had a father who ingrained the values of “make your life count”, sitting on the sidelines is not an option. I consider myself lucky to be able to live a life that can tangibly lift up those who aren’t as lucky as I am, especially those in Muslim societies.
GÖRLACH: As for the status quo: what are the biggest obstacles to overcome in order to achieve this goal?
ZONNEVELD: Funding. There are many progressive Muslim organizations all over the world, but they are out-funded and therefore, out-organized, out-gunned, silenced by threats, and suffering from assassination attempts. In 2017, I brought many of them, spanning five continents together under the first human rights umbrella organization Alliance of Inclusive Muslims, but three years on, our collective voice is barely audible.
The United Nations aims for the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. As a collective, there is a lot we can accomplish in nine years.
GÖRLACH: So far, the Islamic Human Rights Declaration, which is seen as an opposition to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations, falls short in acknowledging human rights. Do you see any development to bridge this trench?
ZONNEVELD: No, because the Islamic Human Rights Declaration wasn’t designed with the intention of bridging Islam and universal human rights norms. The exemption, or loophole, in the Islamic HRD is the disclaimer “unless it contradicts sharia law.” Sharia law is a 100% man made construct, but is falsely promoted as God’s law. Therefore, the justification and exemptions for many of the human rights abuses in the name of Sharia law is built on false religious premises.
The Islamic Human Rights Declaration is more of a public relations stunt designed to give the impression for concern of basic human rights. If it were truly a genuine effort, then why are human rights abuses such as child and forced marriages, apostasy and blasphemy, and the basic right to think and express freely still rampant?
My attitude to all this is succinctly expressed by a line from a Tom Cruise movie when he yelled “show me the money!”
„I don’t believe the majority of the Muslim population understand what “true” Islam means. For centuries, religious institutions, leaders, and educators have taught us falsehoods.”
GÖRLACH: It seems to me that Muslim countries all over the world struggle with modernity in a twofold way: there is, on one hand side, the encounter with Western and Asian Modernity, but, on the other hand Muslims in Marokko can see, due to media, how their Muslim counterparts in Malaysia or in the European diaspora live their lives as Muslims. The questions arise within the Muslim community what “true” Islam ultimately means. Is this observation somewhat accurate?
ZONNEVELD: First, let’s decouple the idea of economic development as an indicator of adherence to human rights norms.
Malaysia looks modern on the exterior but over the last 20 years, internally, it has become oppressive toward its Muslim population. Just because a Muslim country has tall buildings and a functioning public transportation system does not mean it upholds human rights values. Dubai, Saudi Arabia and many of the Gulf States are not lovers of human rights norms. And I should add, Western States who fund human rights work make the mistake of equating a country’s adherence to human rights with GDP. It is a false equation.
When the ex-premier of Malaysia Najib declared feminists and progressive Muslims are just as much of a threat to Malaysia as ISIS is, when a campaign to harass and fan hate and death threats toward progressive Muslims is a funded initiative by the government, you know human rights is not a set of values that goes hand-in-hand with development. I raise this after being on the receiving end of this campaign.
With the exception of the governments of Indonesia and Tunisia, the definition of Islam is a utility used to control its citizens. This is reflected in the sermons at Friday prayers at the mosques, the religious school curriculums that curtail critical thinking and abhor diversity of humanity, and an environment that non-conformity can lead to a death sentence, either at the hands of the State or by radical vigilantes.
What is “true” Islam? I don’t believe the majority of the Muslim population understand what “true” Islam means. For centuries, religious institutions, leaders, and educators have taught us falsehoods.
For example, in the last few years there was a genuine effort by Sheikh Abdallah bin Bayyah to correct course in promoting the Marrakesh Declaration, an effort that spells out the rights of religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries. But this is not a new concept in Islam! It was revealed in the Qur’an 1400 years ago. Why this sudden awakening? And how will the many imams who have been indoctrinated in these false teachings now address this issue in their communities and curriculums? Are they going to now say “Oops, I was wrong for demonizing religious minorities”?
When I am in the field speaking, teaching, participating in community activities in the most remote villages in Burundi or in a radicalized area of Tunisia, the true Islam is one that lifts people up from their misery. For the womenfolk, they now understand their husband does not have the right to beat them in the name of Allah, or that their entry to heaven is not obedience to the husband; that girls have the right to schooling as much as boys, and parents understand that marrying a young daughter may release you from that extra mouth to feed, but an educated daughter will care for the parents till their dying day.
One of the most beautiful passages in the Qur’an is in 50:16: God is closer to you than your jugular vein. To know your true self is to know God which is where you will find that internal peace. That peace is unattainable if you are oppressed and curtailed from living your true self. Universal human rights values and true Islam is one and the same.
„A large percentage of the Arab youth agree with the statement: “Islam is incompatible with the modern world and requires reform”. The trend is definitely shifting away from traditional dogma.”
GÖRLACH: Academics who look into the identity of young Muslims in the Western world find that they are not much preoccupied with dogmatic questions, questions of orthodoxy but rather with such of ortho-praxis. Is the young generation more prone to accept the idea of human rights or are they preoccupied with their quest for identity?
ZONNEVELD: The work I do is to create an American Muslim identity. Similarly, it is just as important for European Muslims to develop their own home-grown identity. For their own survival, Muslims in the West tend to be more politically progressive or liberal, but yet hold conservative religious values, resulting in a dysfunctional identity.
How can you support human rights for yourself, but vote against the rights of LGBTQ+ folks, as an example.
According to a 2007 PEW report in the U.S., 69% of American Muslims find spiritual inspiration outside the mosque, and 52% of American Muslims say Islam’s teaching need to be reinterpreted. A large percentage of the Arab youth agree with the statement: “Islam is incompatible with the modern world and requires reform”. The trend is definitely shifting away from traditional dogma.
Therefore, creating a cohesive Western and Muslim identity that is rooted in human rights is the key. And that is why our work frame is in an Islamic human rights language fulfilling both identities.
GÖRLACH: The role of women in parts of the Muslim world is precarious. If we dare look into the future: what would have to happen to transform Muslim societies into such that are based on human rights? Do you see a path to gender equality based on Muslim scriptures and doctrine?
ZONNEVELD: Since I founded Muslims for Progressive Values in 2007 I have seen a proliferation of Muslim organizations, scholars of Islam as well as Facebook groups and other social media outlets identified as “progressive,” “liberal,” or “inclusive” both discussing and challenging orthodox interpretations of Islam and offering an alternative egalitarian interpretation and a human rights framing. The challenge takes the form from scholarly writings to the arts and everything in between. To many critical thinking Muslims, it is an Islam they identify with. And to many of these Muslims, they do not look up to any religious figure or leader.
The heart of the transformation of Muslim societies is at the community level. It is through our Inclusive Islam Curriculum rooted in human rights for children, through our network of over 200 feminist male imams, whom we call #ImamsForShe Champions. They are mostly in Burundi, DRC and Rwanda, and they advocate for women and girls’ rights by conducting workshops on “Islamic Human Rights Language,” organize an overnight camp for young women #ClubsForShe, and preach both at their mosques and in a weekly radio program that in Burundi reaches 9.6 million listeners.
There is a set of human rights values outlined by scholars of Islam centuries ago called Sharia al-Maqasid. The concept of human rights is therefore not an alien idea, but one that has been marginalized. It is with these set of values that MPV, along with our partner organization in Kenya and the Kadhi Court are working toward — a religious court that is women’s rights compliant on matters of marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance.
Qur’an gives women the right to divorce for many reasons — from waking up one day and finding your husband undesirable, abandonment or domestic violence by the husband. Yet, in most sharia courts, a court that supposedly implements God’s law, denies women the rights due to them.
At all levels, from social media, scholarship, the courts and at the community level, we have consistently framed our education and advocacy with an Islamic human rights language.
I invite your audience to read two books to be published this year: “Handbook of Contemporary Islam and Muslim Lives” – I contributed a chapter titled “Transnational Progressive Islam: Theory, Networks and Lived Experiences.” And “Islam et Démocracy: une révolution en intérieur” by Yadh Ben Achour.
The pollination of Islam and universal human rights language is resulting in a healthy young tree. The future looks bright!
Ani Zonneveld was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She is a Malaysian-American singer, songwriter, activist and writer based in Los Angeles. She is the first Malaysian person to have won a Grammy.
She is the president and founder of Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV), a non-profit organization in the United States with affiliates in Canada, Europe, Chile, Australia, and Malaysia creating inclusive communities that welcome and support interfaith marriages, gay marriages, gender & sexual minorities, as well as sectarian minorities.
Zonneveld is also the editor, along with Vanessa Karam and Olivia Samad, of "Progressive Muslim Identities: Personal Stories from the U.S. and Canada," a 2011 anthology that features a diverse groups of progressive Muslims, with a foreword by Aasif Mandvi, published in the United States by Oracle Releasing.
She recommends the two books:
1. Handbook of Contemporary Islam and Muslim Lives, Editors: Lukens-Bull, Ronald, Woodward, Mark (Eds.). In it Adis Duderija (Griffith University, Australia) and I contributed a chapter titled "Transnational Progressive Islam: Theory, Networks and Lived Experiences."
2. Islam et Démocracy: une révolution en intérieur by Yadh Ben Achour, Gallimard Publishing.