What's a progressive Muslim? Don't ask, just read and nod

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Reading the Associated Press's recent article on so-called progressive American Muslims is like a game of fill-in-the-blanks. Except that the blanks are never filled.

With its usual broad strokes, AP paints a broad mural of younger American Muslims who are getting more comfortable as Americans and less so as Muslims.  It starts with the tried-and-true anecdotal lede: Omar Akersim of Los Angeles, who prayed and fasted for Ramadan and is (shock alert!) openly gay.

The story then opens the nut graphs:

Akersim, 26, is part of a small but growing number of American Muslims challenging the long-standing 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; that females can preach and that Muslim women can marry outside the faith — and they point to Quran passages to back them up.

The shift comes as young American Muslims work to reshape the faith they grew up with so it fits better with their complex, dual identity, with one foot in the world of their parents' immigrant beliefs and one foot in the ever-shifting cultural landscape of America. 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 Quran for new interpretations that challenge rules that had seemed set in stone.

"Islam in America is being forced to kind of change and to reevaluate 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."

All of that is so eloquent, it's easy to forget some difficult questions. But we'll ask anyway.

How many are in this "small but growing" group?

Which Quran passages back them up?

Do any Muslim scholars share their feminist, interfaith, pro-gay interpretation?

And how about reaction from mainstream, traditional Muslim leaders? You know, like the new U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations. Or maybe the Islamic Society of North America. Or even the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which seems to be the go-to Muslim organization for many secular media.

How did they answer when AP asked them?

(crickets)

That's right. They didn't ask.

AP does plug in a few numbers: "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." Yeah, that's interesting, and it could signal a generational difference on how to relate to secular society.

But that's all supposition. And AP doesn't even quote an opinion -- from any of its four named sources in this story -- on what proportion of that 40 percent would sign on to this social and religious "progressivism."

AP does offer a token outside appraisal, from an academic talking head:

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 non-religious," 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."

Fair enough. Much of what Haddad describes resembles a generational shift in American Christian identity. Descendants of Polish Jews, Irish Catholics and Greek Orthodox celebrate their culture while often going light on religious observances. But again, the story is not complete without more mainline leaders, those who represent most American Muslims.

You may have guessed my final question: Why does AP label these youths "progressive" Muslims? Because they're libertarian on sex, music and religious practice? Does the "progressive" brand mean they're going in the "right" direction? And is AP qualified to make that judgment call?

When you think about it, what are the AP folks really examining in this article? A new interpretation of Islam? Or a slightly Muslim-tinged version of secular society?

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