Progressive Muslim scholar challenges stereotypes

By Clay Evans

Faced with a sharp question from a critic following a talk about progressive Islam at the University of Colorado Boulder in early November, Omid Safi was ready.

The professor of Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill nodded as the speaker read from the Koran’s Surah 95, which some critics of Islam interpret as a call to Muslims to kill “all infidels.”

Omid Safi, professor of Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

“Just as you would pull that out … I would say, ‘Do you know that (the Old Testament) book of Deuteronomy calls upon believers to smash the children of your enemies?’” he replied. “There. Now I’ve just ___ on your scriptures — does it feel good?”

Safi’s hour-long lecture, “America and Islam: Rising Beyond the Politics of Fear Post 9/11,” was peppered with such sharp remarks, leavened with sometimes ribald humor and liberally seasoned with progressive political ideas. Yet the underlying theme was sobering.

“These are difficult days for Muslims. No two ways about it,” he told the audience of about 100 students, faculty and members of the community. His presentation was sponsored by the CU-Boulder Department of Religious Studies.

The Iranian born author and editor of the 2003 collection “Progressive Islam: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism” and co-founder of the Progressive Muslim Union often sounded like a progressive on any campus in America, emphasizing his support for gay rights, environmental stewardship, international worker solidarity, feminism and religious pluralism.

Yet, he said, he has been relentlessly demonized by conservative media as “trying to raise an Islamic army and impose Sharia (Islamic) law” in the United States.

“Do you know how hard it is to raise an Islamic army?” he said, inspiring laughter.

He frequently cited Martin Luther King, Jr. and said the slain civil rights leader’s most important address was not the more famous “I Have a Dream” speech, but rather a 1967 talk at New York’s Riverside Church in which King blasted the American involvement in Vietnam, decried racism and criticized materialism.

“A nation that spends more on (its) military than social uplift is approaching spiritual death,” Safi said, paraphrasing King.

Ironically, and tragically, Muslims in other parts of the world have suffered greatly from U.S. military campaigns in the post Sept. 11 world, he said. Citing “a million dead Iraqis and Afghans,” he said unmanned American drones “drop bombs on wedding parties and kill women and children in the hundreds and hundreds.”

Yet even as they suffer such grave losses in other countries, in the United States Muslims — along with gays and lesbians, Hispanics, women and the poor — have become the target of prejudice and hatred.

“We (Americans) have simply found new victims for the old prejudices, the old virus, the old disease that is still with us, still in us,” he said, pointing to historical demonizing of African Americans, Irish immigrants, Catholics, Jews and others.

Contrary to stereotypes frequently repeated in Western media, Safi said, Islam is not a monolith; just as in the United States, the faith is rife with passionate debates over the meaning of its tradition and scriptures in a modern world. And progressivism, he said, has long been part of his faith.

“There is a tradition in Islam, echoed in the Jewish and Christian faiths, that gives a moral commandment to speak for the weak, to be the voice for the voiceless,” he said. Muslims are commanded to “take care of the poor, the needy, widows — and graduate students who make horrible, horrible life decisions.”

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