Ani Zonneveld

Founder and president | Muslim for Progressive Values

Find Ani online:  Wikipedia profile  |  Twitter

Find Ani online: Wikipedia profile | Twitter

This Inauguration Day, Women in Foreign Policy and Middle East Collective is launching a new partnership to support the work of Muslim-American and Middle Eastern-American women in the United States. Every month, on the anniversary of Donald Trump’s accessing the White House, we will feature an exclusive interview with a progressive woman working in foreign policy.

Lucie: What do you do with Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV)?

I'm the founder and president. MPV was founded in 2007 in the United States. We are a faith-based, grassroots, international human rights organization that embodies and advocates for the traditional Qur’anic values of social justice and equality for all, for the 21st Century.

I was voted in by the founding governing board to register Muslims for Progressive Values as a non-profit, and given the task to run it. I manage the day to day functions, I administer much of the programming, oversee our UN work, our global initiatives, our imams outreach programmes as well as our local United States programming.

Whitney: What are the key challenges that you face?

Funding. Some people recoil at the idea of supporting any organisation with the word ‘Muslim’ in its title. Yet if we are countering extremism and radicalism within the Muslim community, it has to be done by Muslims. It is naïve for private foundations to stick to the language of secularism. As secular as I am, it's not about what I believe. It's not about how I live my life. It's about how I’m going to affect change in society in a positive way. You use whatever tools you have, and one of the tools is using the language of religion, because that is how people function in many parts of the Muslim world, whether you like it or not.

Many feminist organisations throw money away advocating for women's and girls' rights in the Muslim world. They do it in the context of secularism because they're anti-religion. If you want to affect change, you have to speak to the religious leaders in their language. You have to speak to the society with its  cultural nuances.  You have to get into their head regardless of where your head’s at! That's how we conduct ourselves, and that is how we form our programming.

We tailor our programming based on what civil societies at the local level are going through. Women and girls' issues in Burundi are different than in Tunisia, different than in Malaysia, in Afghanistan. They are different in the next town over. Even within a town, for instance in Tunisia, you have women who are very secular, and  you have others who base everything on what the religious leader dictates. You have  to use the right tools to facilitate change, to move people to be more egalitarian in their understanding of Islam and not to buy into the misogynistic interpretation as truth. Our tools are Islamic human rights language and the arts.

On the other side are non-Muslims who use radical theology of Islam as truth, and use that against us progressives. They accuse us of not being Muslim enough. We get that from the right within our community and from the progressives in the non-Muslim communities. That is really frustrating.

Lucie: How do you deal with it?

I have a one-liner I throw back at their faces. If you perpetuate radical Islam as truth, then you are as bad as ISIS and the rest of them. You are our enemy.

Whitney: Some non-Muslims believe that the Muslim American population should speak out against radicalism. What is your stance on the matter?

It's been really pathetic. Instead of parroting “Islam is a religion of peace, Muslim religious leaders in America  need to pick each one of those justifications used by terrorists, debunk it and push hard against it.  Claiming “this has nothing to do with Islam” may be so, but in every recruiting tool, ISIS use religious language.

This lack of honest discourse with the American public is why the anti-Islam sentiment is so high. Why do you think the  idea of defending the Caliphate is appealing?  Who and what book teaches that? It is   part of the history of Islam, but it is not in the Quran. It's not sacred. It's political. Religious leaders have not disconnected the spirituality of Islam and the political Islam, and the use of the language of Islam for power. And that is why the anti-Islam camps believe Muslims are about taking political control and enforcing Sharia law in America.

I don't blame non-Muslims for having such a misconception of what Islam is and what Muslims are about. Muslims have not been addressing it in the most honest and brutal way.

President-elect Trump tapped on the fear and the prejudices against Muslims, because they were there.

In 2006, a USA Today/Gallup survey showed that 39% of Americans believed that American Muslims needed to carry an identity card to indicate that they were Muslim. It's gotten worse since then. All Trump did was tap into that prejudice.

Since Obama, every election in the United States has been about how much hate do you have against Muslims and Islam? The more hateful the rhetoric was, the more popular those politicians were. The fact that we have a president elect that spews that kind of hate isn’t surprising.

The media is also to blame. Every time Muslims have issued statements against terrorists attacks, or that 170 religious leaders came together to write an open letter against Caliph Baghdadi, not a single main American media outlet covered the story.

Lucie: How have the challenges facing your work evolved since you founded MPV?

Our work was built on the foundation of progressive theology. For the first few years, we built that foundation with scholars of Islam nd imams  who hold an egalitarian and inclusive world view. This is necessary. For the longest time, people in America didn't understand that by advocating for an egalitarian interpretation of Islam, we were by default  debunking radical Islam,  as well as intolerant, homophobic and misogynistic interpretations of Islam. We have always advocated against blasphemy, the concept that if you convert out of Islam or if you criticise Islam, it's blasphemous, resulting in imprisonment or death. Those are not Quranic values. Those are misogynistic, tribal, medieval and more importantly political basterdized interpretations of Islam that got stuck in our system and have not evolved

When ISIS came around, people suddenly understood what we’ve been advocating for  all these years. It took ISIS in the background for people to see the contrast between what ISIS is about and what  MPV is  about. In other words, ISIS made us even more relevant. ISIS is not our challenge, it is these so called “moderate” Muslim countries and institutions that are.

Here’s the spectrum of our challenges. It doesn’t matter how true we stay to the message of the Quran, for some Muslims, we will always be accused of being an American tool, a house slave, a CIA and Zionist agent and because I don’t wear the hijab, that I am therefore not Muslim enough to speak on issues related to Islam. To the non-Muslims, because I am not a bearded Arab man, everything we advocate for is therefore questionable and that they would rather partner with a misogynistic, homophobic Muslim institution led by a man than one that shares their values led by a woman. With media, they seem to only want Muslim women in hijabs regardless whether she has the expertise in the subject matter. Lastly, the anti-Islam camp hate us because what we stand for undermines the very basis for their prejudices toward all things Islam and Muslim. They go berserk.

On an international level, the more visible we’ve become, the more people have reached out to us to partner with, expressing interest in opening local chapters in their countries. This is all wonderful but we are perpetually understaffed and under-funded. While, our nemesis are well established with millions of dollars at their disposal as they destroy lives with their theology of hate, while our initiatives such as #ImamsForShe, one of building lives with an inclusive Islamic theology in Muslim communities globally not only faces constant financial struggles, but in some instances, death threats.

Challenges aside. We know the work we do is precious to those lives we touch. For instance, we’ve worked on highlighting the human rights abuses committed by ISIS. We set up a document. We had ISIS in one column and in the second column, Muslim-majority countries that are either influenced or rooted in Sharia Law. The third column was the UN human declaration of human rights. The fourth column was Sharia, as in Quran and Hadith: guidelines of how to live an ethical life. The first two columns are the human rights abuses in the name of Islam. All we have to do was cut and paste between ISIS and the Muslim-majority countries. The only difference between column one and two was the severity of the punishment. ISIS would chop your head off if you didn't convert to Islam. In a country like Malaysia, which is supposedly moderate, you would be sent to a rehab centre until you finally gave to the pressure that you will not convert out of Islam.

The root of all that is a bastardised version of theology. The human rights declaration talks about freedom of and from religion and belief. The Quran speaks of freedom of choice, whether you want to believe or not. That is just one example of one particular issue. There really isn't much difference between what ISIS does and what much of the Muslim majority countries are basing their theology on.

Whitney: How can we support and empower American women who are policy makers, or who are in consonance with religious leaders?

To policy-makers: Before you partner with any Muslim organisation, you have to ask hard questions. If you are progressive, you need to ask all the progressive questions that you would ask for those from within your community. For example, do you support women's reproductive rights? If they say no, then that is not your partner. Many progressive Christian, Jewish and non-faith entities  do not ask these hard questions. They want to work with Muslim organisations because they want to support them, in advance of Trump’s anti-Muslim policies.

I don’t think gender should be the basis for supporting policy makers. There are plenty of female members of Congress who are hostile to women’s reproductive rights. 

Because Muslims for Progressive Values is the only Muslim organization that have advocated for women’s reproductive rights, many faith-based coaltions come to us. These relationships built over many years has also resulted in an open letter, signed by 90 organizations urging Congress to: support core principles of the First Amendment and religious freedom in our country by denouncing anti-Muslim rhetoric and policy proposals.

Lucie: I have been interviewing Muslim women at the State department, at USAID, and they seem quite split between over leaving an administration they don't agree with, or staying and being able to say no, this is wrong, this shouldn't happen. What's your take on this?

Progressives should stay within the administration, because otherwise it's a disaster. You can't throw in the towel. Muslims for Progressive Values has always worked and partnered with the national American organisations that have been allocating for women's reproductive rights. When we dish out those aids to other countries, often they go to the Muslim organisations on the ground.

There are times when Christian organisations receive the funds, but they will not give women the reproductive health services they need, like condoms or HIV medication. Bush was actually good about that. He saved billions of Africans with his HIV activism. This is American money, but because it's in this bill-free condition on how that money is being spent, religious organisations on the ground, especially the conservative ones, will choose not to opt out of giving those services to women who need it. This is unacceptable. Quitting is not an option. We need to double down.

Whitney: What are some main policies that should or should not be implemented in 2017 to ensure that the Muslim American population will not be further marginalised?                                           

The registry would take us down the route of where Muslims in Europe are. American Muslims much more in integrating into American society. We are some of the most educated and some of the wealthier ones. To have this registry is to marginalise Muslims and to radicalise those who are not radicalised, particularly the youth. That worries me. Plus, a potential terrorist is not going to register. Therefore, only a stupid politician would make such a decision.

Lucie: What would you advise to a young woman or a young girl who would like to do something similar to what you've done with your career?

Finding your calling is really important, and sometimes that's really difficult to discover. For some it comes early in life. For me, it came much later. My original career was as a songwriter/producer, and that's why I moved to Los Angeles. I did well in it, but when 9/11 happened, I found myself wondering “should I continue with this pop music writing business?”

I've been able to do what I'm driven to do, whether there's money in it or not. And I did that by recognizing a problem and resolved to address that problem. Find that problem, or cause that moves you and work toward it.

Whitney: Can you give us some concrete example of the work you do at MPV?

Given our consultative status at the U.N., we conduct workshops, host interactive dialogues, and conferencing as a means to educate, and inform relevant Member States at the UN in New York and in Geneva, with UN agencies, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), on how to push back against the religious justification of human rights abuses with Islamic human rights language. Having a Muslim organization counter with: "their claim that child marriage is their religious and cultural right is false, because child marriage contradicts what the Quran stipulates, and that is: marriage is between two consenting adults of sound mind. That counter narrative is effective, regardless of what religion you are. 

It's not just about Muslim-majority countries. Many Western member states face the same issues in the Muslim communities in their countries. They can take this knowledge to their Home Office and open doors for us to offer this counter narrative in helping them understand an Islam that is inclusive and one that they can be used to protect their fellow citizens of Muslim heritage.

We have been pushing some of the member states in the EU to empower the progressive Muslim voices in their country because they're being buried by the radical ones and the states are, in many instances, frozen in fear as to which Islam to support, and thus end up doing nothing. By not doing anything about it, they're empowering the radical voices, resulting in a false impression that all Muslims are radical. Many countries have this division in their societies.  One radical voice empowers the other. We hope diplomats use and share the advice we offer to remedy their own discourses at home.

Within the U.N. process, we file the Universal Periodic Review, or UPR, stakeholders report.  For example, we filed a report on Somalia’s human rights abuses on issues regarding women and LGBTQI rights, on freedom of expression and of religion and belief. And for each of these issues we debunked their religious justifications with ours. We've seen some of the member states use our report on the ground in educating grassroots organisations in the Horn of Africa.

I'm here in California, a very privileged Muslim woman in America. We're coming up with these profound position statements in partnership with Islamic scholars and have them used on the ground to affect change. It's incredibly fulfilling. That's the power of strategic, well thought out work that one can do when you know what the problem is and how you can solve it. It's doable, because if you do good works it happens. The Universe gives it to you.