Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, has called for a "jihad against jihad," meaning an all-out fight against the extremist ideology that has become identified with the term jihad, an Arabic word that can apply broadly to a personal spiritual struggle on one end and on the other, to the war on the West as perpetuated by ISIS.
Jasser, the subject of New Times' recent cover story, "All-American Muslim," is not alone in his fight.
In a December 4 press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, a dozen imams, activists, and faith-based leaders declared the principles of what they call the Muslim Reform Movement: nine precepts that advocate for human rights and freedom of thought and action, as well as a rejection of the radical religious ideology that has inspired slaughter from Paris to San Bernardino.
Joining Jasser in this courageous stand, one that could earn its proponents the death penalty in certain areas of the world, is Asra Nomani, a journalist and author whose fight for women's rights within Islam is at the heart of her 2005 book Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam.
At the press conference, Muslim Reform Movement members took turns at the mic, discussing the importance of the document that they had spent the previous two days hashing out. It could not have been more timely, given recent events in San Bernardino, where a married couple, drunk on radical Islam, murdered 14 people and injured 21 at an office Christmas party, later dying themselves in a shootout with authorities.
"We need to have a progressive, forward-thinking interpretation of Islam," Nomani said at the media event. "[One] that represents opening hearts, minds, and doors in our Muslim world. We need to do it for our children, and we need to do it for future generations, so they can live in peace and harmony."
In a discussion with New Times, Nomani concedes that many of the ideals espoused by the Muslim Reform Movement's founding document are not controversial in the context of Western democracy. But in an Islam co-opted by political "Islamism," the precepts are revolutionary.
The mere mention of "violent jihad," Nomani says, is certain to raise the ire of Islamists.
"That's what we struggle with," she explains. "So many of the mainstream [Muslim] organizations and leaders won't acknowledge there is a violent interpretation of jihad that we haven't challenged,"
Similarly, the document's repudiation of "theocracies" and "monarchies" alights on yet another taboo with many Muslims.
"Theocracy means the government of Saudi Arabia," she tells New Times. "And many Muslims will not touch that."
Not only is Saudi Arabia the birthplace of Islam, the country's oil wealth has given the Saudis enormous power in the Muslim world.
Nomani points out that the interpretation of Islam that she and others want to reform is "really a Saudi interpretation," which has been spread throughout the world by means of Saudi petrodollars, thereby "overtaking everybody else's really much more rational version."
That's one reason Nomani urged the group to go to the conservative, Saudi-financed Islamic Center of Washington, DC and post its precepts to the mosque's door. Following the press conference, members of the group did this, though the document was quickly taken down by the mosque's caretaker.
In most mosques, men and women are segregated in prayer, a practice that Nomani continues to battle. In the past, Nomani and other Muslim women have attempted to pray in the main part of the DC mosque reserved for men, instead of in a basement area, where women are supposed to pray.
The mosque has called the police to have Nomani and the other women removed on past occasions. She anticipated that they would do the same on December 4, but reformist imams present with the delegation of men and women, argued on their behalf.
"Let the sisters pray," one imam told mosque employees, according to Nomani.
"No, they must go downstairs," was the response.
Eventually, Nomani and the other women were allowed to pray in the space reserved for men, a breakthrough of sorts, considering the discrimination Nomani normally confronts.
She claims that in Islam, daughters get one-half of the inheritance of men and can only serve as one-half of a witness to a ceremony.
"In order to say men and women are equal," she says. "You have to be ready to depart from the literal reading of the Qur'an. Not everyone is willing to do that."
Another reformer present that day was Phoenix resident Courtney Lonergan, a convert to Islam, originally from Alaska.
A grassroots organizer, Lonergan works with AIFD's Muslim Liberty Project, which holds classes for young Muslims on the importance of the separation of mosque and state.
During the press conference, she described the need for the movement's message, citing her work in inner cities as an organizer.
"I've seen where this extreme rhetoric comes from," she said, when a reporter asked if the reform movement was justified. "I've witnessed it first hand, in communities with youth who have a loss of identity that are searching for something
"There is definitely this victim mindset that has been perpetrated within the Muslim communities that allows for this type of [radical] thinking. And it's important now for Muslim leaders to stand up and address this and not be apologetic."
In an interview with New Times, Lonergan admits that sometimes it's difficult for people to understand the difference between Islam and Islamism.
She calls the latter "a political extremist movement," which is "using Islam" for its own selfish ends.
The reform movement that she, Jasser and the others are working for is necessary to free the religion she loves from its extremist elements.
"It's the civil rights movement of our time," Lonergan.says.
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