Young Muslims turn progressive
Group not bound by the interpretations of their parents
Posted: August 3, 2014 at 3:36 a.m.
LOS ANGELES -- Omar Akersim prays regularly and observes the dawn-to-dusk Ramadan fast. He is also openly gay.
Akersim, 26, is part of a small but growing number of American Muslims challenging the interpretations of Islam that defined their parents' world. They believe that one can be gay and Muslim; that the sexes can pray shoulder to shoulder; and that females can preach and that Muslim women can marry outside the faith.
They point to Koran passages to back them up.
The shift comes as young American Muslims reshape the faith they grew up with so it fits better with their complex, dual identity. The result has been a growing internal dialogue about what it means to be Muslim, as well as a scholarly effort to re-examine the Koran for new interpretations that challenge rules.
"Islam in America is being forced to kind of change and to re-evaluate its positions on things like homosexuality because of how we're moving forward culturally as a nation. It's striving to make itself seen and known in the cultural fabric, and to do that, it does have to evolve," said Akersim, who leads a Los Angeles-based support group for gay Muslims. "Ten or 15 years ago, this would have been impossible."
The shift doesn't end with breaking obvious taboos, either. Young American Muslims are making forays into fashion, music and stirring things up with unorthodox takes on staples of American pop culture.
A recent YouTube video, for example, shows Muslim hipsters skateboarding in head scarves and skinny jeans as Jay-Z's "Somewhere in America" blasts in the background.
Nearly 40 percent of the estimated 2.75 million Muslims in the U.S. are American-born, and the number is growing, with the Muslim population skewing younger than the U.S. population at large, according to a 2011 Pew Research Center survey.
Advocates for a more tolerant Islam say the constraints on interfaith marriage and homosexuality aren't in the Koran but are based on conservative interpretations of Islamic law that have no place in the U.S. Historically, in many Muslim countries, there are instances of unsegregated prayers and interfaith marriage.
Many second-generation American Muslims still practice their faith in traditional ways, but others are starting to see the Islam of their parents as more of a cultural identity, said Dr. Yvonne Haddad, a Georgetown University professor who has written extensively about Islam's integration into U.S. society.
As a result, there's a new emphasis on meeting for prayer and socializing in neutral spaces, such as community centers instead of mosques, and on universal inclusion.
"Some of them still want a mosque. They still want to belong and to pray, and others are shifting, and they are very comfortable being nonreligious," Haddad said. "These people feel that they can get rid of the hang-ups of what the culture has defined as Muslim and maintain the beliefs and values, the spiritual values, and feel very comfortable by shedding all the other restrictions that society has put on them."
In Los Angeles, a religious group called Muslims for Progressive Values has been pushing the boundaries with a female imam who performs same-sex and interfaith marriages. It also supports groups for gay Muslims and a worship style that includes women giving sermons and men and women praying together.
The group has chapters in six major U.S. cities and at least six foreign countries, and last year it was recognized by the United Nations as an official nongovernmental organization.
Founder Ani Zonneveld, a Muslim singer and songwriter of Malaysian descent, started the group in 2007 after she recorded Islamic pop music that generated a backlash because it featured a Muslim woman singing.
"For us, the interpretation of Islam is egalitarian values -- and by egalitarian it's not just words that we speak. It's practice," she said. "It's freedom of religion and from religion, too."
Akersim, the gay Muslim, knows about the difficulty of the shift.
Last year, he fled his parents' home in the middle of the night after they called him at work and demanded to know when he was going to get married. He stays in touch with his mother but hasn't spoken to his father in a year and a half.
Now, he avoids mosques but prays privately. He has no regrets about coming out.
"All these struggles that I've had to endure have only brought me closer to God," Akersim said. "Within that storm, I feel like I've been able to persevere because of my faith, because of this strength from God."
A Section on 08/03/2014