02/03/2012 10:55 EST | Updated 04/02/2012 05:12 EDT

A Much-Needed Muslim Education for the West

Muslims for Progressive Values have just published a new book tackling all the factors such as interfaith marriage and hijabs that seem to set Muslims apart from the rest of humanity, and cause 55 per cent of Canadians to claim that Muslims do not share their values. Reading it would be a step in the right direction.

Muslims for Progressive Values is a newly formed North American organization, with a smaller Canadian chapter, which has been gathering momentum for the past two years. Their website states, "MPV endorses separation of religious institutions, whether church, mosque, synagogue, or otherwise, from state institutions. The imposition of religious codes by the state prohibits citizens from exercising their moral agency. We believe that secular government is the only way to achieve the Islamic ideal of freedom from compulsion in matters of faith."

They have just published a must-read book for those who truly wish to understand modern progressive Islam. This wonderful book is an anthology of interesting, and some riveting stories of brave progressive Muslim women and men, which I strongly recommend. I admit that I am biased, because so many of the issues discussed are also the very issues which I provocatively portray in my new novel Final Flight from Sanaa; and which revolve round how Muslims deal with sexuality.

We are talking about treating women as second class citizens, dating, teen rebellion, virginity, interfaith marriage, pregnancy, homosexuality, honor, hijab, accepting others as equal and acting as a citizen of the adopted country; in other words, all the factors that seem to set Muslims apart from the rest of humanity, and cause 22 per cent of Americans to not want a Muslim for a neighbour, 44 per cent to claim that Muslims are too extreme in their religious views, and 55 per cent of Canadians to claim that Muslims do not share their values. In this review I can only sample some of the critical statements by some of the 20 contributors.

Ameerah Saleem states:

There was a constant focus on differences in our dress. I wore a scarf to cover my hair, and pants underneath my uniform. These outward statements of faith became an issue. It was scary how quickly someone could decide and believe you aren't acceptable over religious differences. I wanted to show that faith and modesty live in the heart; you can see them in a person's character, not in her head wrap. One time I posed the Q: Why is it unacceptable to not wear hijab, and be in a natural state of beauty, yet acceptable to wear our scarf as a large colourful display, and be in an enhanced state of beauty?...Why don't Muslims confront the poor treatment of women in the U.S. and elsewhere?

She observes that traditional Muslims engage in inter-religious dialogue, but rarely entertain intra-religious dialogue; something that I have observed too, and came to the conclusion that the latter nearly always results in accusations and counter accusations of being "not Muslim enough."

Sumaya Cole, speaking from personal experience, complains that no imam was willing to perform a marriage ceremony between a Christian man and a Muslim woman, and reminds readers that children of such marriages will make their own choices about religion, in the end.

Patricia Dunn, who calls herself a feminist Muslim and immediately wonders if that is not an oxymoron, defines the often abused word of Jihad as personal and inner struggle to live a just life, and defend those who cannot defend themselves -- a great definition to my mind.

Daayiee Abdullah courageously challenges the strong adherence to ancient rules of Islam, reminding us that Islamic history covers 1,450 years, and that we should not adhere to them as if they are appropriate for modern times; adding that we cannot as thinking individuals, mindlessly and blindly apply ancient teachings.

Ismail Butera, originally from Albania, counsels Muslims to dress as others do in their country of residence, not in exotic and different clothes, as if to say, "Look at me; I am Muslim."

Mona Eltahawy, who gained fame during the Egyptian revolution against Mubarak, is typically not afraid to raise taboo issues, such as hymen reconstruction and sexuality. She admits, "There was a time when I, too, thought I should wait until marriage before I had sex -- but then it took forever, and I got fed up waiting!"

Sahira Traband wrote the chapter "The Emperor is Naked," a 16-page critique of Islam as practised today. If you only had time to read one chapter, this is the one to read. I liked her candid conclusion, "I completed reading the Quran in Arabic, fulfilling an obligation, and not understanding a single word."

Sixty-two per cent of Americans do not personally know any Muslims. Reversing that trend will be a formidable task. Publishing this book is a small step in that direction.