Toward a More Inclusive Islam

An item in this week’s LGBT Global Roundup about the struggle to recognize marginalized pro-LGBT voices in the Arab world, reminds us that while religious voices are typically the loudest in denying human dignity, religions are not homogeneous. Here in the US, meanwhile, much of the post-Obgergefell v. Hodges opposition is framed as a religious concern, though it’s seldom noted there have been deep, ongoing debates about inclusion in American Muslim communities for years.

Globally, key movements in the US, France, and South Africa receive the majority of media attention for more progressive discussions on sexuality and Islam, though a 2011 report shows how pervasive (and deep) these conversations truly are. More importantly, a recent report by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) demonstrates that the conversation isn’t restricted to theology and law, but also includes the practical considerations around creating inclusive spaces. [Full disclosure: I am a Senior Fellow with ISPU, and a co-organizer of the conference at Harvard.]

The report, called (Re)Presenting American Muslims: Broadening the Conversation, seeks to move beyond inclusion as simply referring to sexual orientation. Instead, it aims to revive a broader ethos of pluralism and cosmopolitanism, grounded in Muslim traditions, that has historically been the hallmark of healthy, thriving Muslim societies. In many ways, it sets the stage for and goes beyond the open letter to American Muslims published by Reza Aslan and Hassan Minhaj here on RD.

According to the ISPU report, there is a deep desire by American Muslims to return to a religious imagination that isn’t bounded by simple legal edicts, but which calls forth the best of a person through a Prophetic example. As a result, one can no longer see mosques operating in isolation from American Muslim public servants, organizations, activists, advocates, artists, or other worship spaces; they all form part of a larger American Muslim ecosystem, and the conversations in each of these communities are in fact conversations in the larger community.

For many of the participants in the convening that informed the report, it’s important that American Muslims start acting with an “attitude of gratitude,” that centers Muslims in a relationship with God which is grateful, thereby creating a generous relationship with other people. This approach helps set up theological conversations that are determined by ethical conviction, rather than by cultural fear or legalist exclusion. The result is a vision of inclusivity that seeks to meet people where they are, rather than where the community believes they should be.

The conversation then moved easily to thinking about how we create centers that exclude people based on sexual orientation, gender, race, class, school of thought, generation, ethnicity, and myriad other identifications. Part of the concern was the role of the mosque in the American context; that they’ve become spaces of enforcement of what a community thinks it means to be Muslim. Rather than an expression of the community, the mosque is made to function as an enforcer of community.

There’s a need to create beautiful and spiritually inspired physical spaces, which generates the environment for inclusivity and a sense of belonging. There’s also a push to recognize that the mosque represents a place of prayer, and cannot do all the community work that is required of it, unless it’s designed to accommodate those needs. Again, it’s a call back to historical realities when mosques worked with markets, schools, medical centers, and additional worship spaces like dargahs and jamaat khanas.

Ultimately, the report reveals how complicated the community is by showing that the debates around inclusion have more depth and a longer history than is readily apparent, even to those within the community.

In their letter urging American Muslims to stand up for the LGBT community, Aslan and Minhaj wrote that “Challenging the status quo for the betterment of society is one of the very foundations on which Islam was built.” The ISPU report and convening echo this sentiment, only they seek to apply it to a far broader set of issues.


  •' Whiskyjack says:

    It is good to hear voices of moderation from the Muslim community. I find it sad that all too often the media focuses on the extremists.

  •' andrew123456789 says:

    Very encouraging!

  •' GregAbdul says:

    My issue is that we have Muslim leaders in America….”Aslan and Minhaj” are not our leaders….white liberals always are doing a thing where you find minorities saying what you want us to say and then you amplify those voices…..but those voices simply do NOT speak for us.

  •' phatkhat says:

    So who ARE the Muslim leaders that speak for all American Muslims? I would like to read about them.

  •' GregAbdul says:

    we are big on decentralization, but still, like music, there are some who are “rock stars,” in a sort of way in that even though they are local, they are nationally known. My favorite Imam who is building a national reputation is Imam Suhaib Webb. Another, who used to live in my area is John Ederer. The most famous black American Muslim off the top of my head is Zaid Shakir, but I recently got a chance to be around Muhammad Mendez and he is a great guy and a great teacher. A final one I think is up and coming is Shaykh Abdullah Ali. He is based in Georgia, I think, but he represents a distinctly American Islam as do the others I mentioned. These guys run Muslim organizations, have the credentials and are recognized in the American Muslim community. Their biggest detractors are in the American Salafi movement. When RD only gives air time to watered down folks who no one really follows, in reality, they are aiding and abetting the Salafis, who do not believe in shades of gray and compromise and talking across differences. Arslan and Mihaj are a tool for the Salafis to say Americans can’t accept real Muslims. They will even say it about the shaykhs I mentioned, but these guys are Muslim scholars, so then it becomes a silly internal argument… which Catholics really follow the Pope.

  •' GregAbdul says:

    this is not moderation…..this is a Christian run website trying to dictate dogma to Muslims…..go to Imam Suhaib Webb’s website and find out what actual Muslim leaders have to say on this topic as opposed to the RD game of picking the Muslims who say what they like and pretending they speak for Muslims.

  •' phatkhat says:

    Well, to be fair, Aslan is a scholar of religion in general, not just Islam. He isn’t an Imam. And, perhaps, his views are more scholastic than religious.

    When I have a chance, I will read up on some of these Imams. Even though I am an atheist myself, I’m interested in how religious leaders shape culture and politics. I’m also interested in how religions change over time, and how culture also shapes religion. Thanks for the info!

    Have a nice weekend!

  •' Fired, Aren't I says:

    Sarah Posner, the senior editor (I believe), is Jewish. But then again, it’s not like we haven’t been accused of running conspiracies.

  •' Whiskyjack says:

    You can’t judge a whole tradition like Islam with one, or even several examples. There are a diversity of voices that should be heard.

  •' joeyj1220 says:

    Foolish to think one (or a handful) of individuals speak for an entire religious group

  •' GregAbdul says:

    in religion, one can speak for an entire group, when properly addressing dogma or as a recognized leader of said group. The Pope speaks for all Catholics…whether they agree with what he says or not. My Imam speaks for me..whether I agree or not. We have Muslims who speak for us….and it’s not the ones represented here…to pretend otherwise is just more liberal foolishness.

  •' joeyj1220 says:

    Not so sure I agree Greg… I understand what you’re saying. But if I knew very little about Catholicism and simply assumed that what the pope says is what all Catholics believe, I’d be making a big mistake. And if, let’s say, the majority of Catholics don’t believe nor follow the institutional Church’s position on birth control (which they do not), can one reasonably say “Catholics don’t believe in the use of birth control”?

  •' GregAbdul says:

    everything is not an opinion. I gave you a simple correct answer with a clear obvious example. If you don’t like reality…you need a shrink…not a long internet conversation with me.

  •' joeyj1220 says:

    Wow! Chill the fuck out man… So much for reasoned conversation which you are obviously clearly incapable of. Go troll somewhere else

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