On September 10, representatives of the Muslim Reform Movement (MRM) convened a town hall meeting at the University of Minnesota's Anderson Hall. Open to the public, the conference offered a rare and candid opportunity for Muslim Americans, unencumbered by Islamist oversight, to answer difficult questions concerning their faith.
Within America's overbearing Islamist establishment, certain topics remain stubbornly off-limits. Just ask Muslims for Progressive Values founder and human rights activist Ani Zonneveld, who received a vicious dressing-down from Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar in July for asking an "appalling" question about female genital mutilation (FGM) – a sickening practice which reportedly affects 99 percent of Somali women from Ms. Omar's own district.
It is no coincidence that MRM would choose Omar's own backyard to host a community forum addressing Islam's place in modern American society. A trio of leading Muslim reformers — Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, founder and president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD); Asra Q. Nomani, journalist and co-director of the Pearl Project; and Shireen Qudosi, national correspondent for the Clarion Project — expounded upon the most contentious issues concerning the Islamic faith, from Shariah law to slavery and the ideological duplicity of lawful Islamism.
This was not an enviable task. Not only must Muslim reformers convince progressives that Islamists make poor political partners, they must also persuade skeptics that their intentions are genuine, and that reformists are not simply engaging in Islamist doublespeak. It was a tough crowd, with several attendees slandering Muslim reform as "a fake movement" and refusing to take the panelists' advocacy at face value.
"To us there is one Islam," an audience member insisted. "Killed us. Slayed us. Raped us. Raped our women. Taxed us to death. Destroyed and crushed our will. That's the only Islam that I know."
Rather than balk at the prospect of criticizing radical Islam, the panel, as advertised, confronted these statements head on -- acknowledging Islamic atrocities.
Much of the discussion during Tuesday night's town hall centered around taqiyyah, the widely-disputed religious doctrine which says that Muslims must lie and dissimulate to protect their faith. Jasser observed that taqiyyah was historically practiced by Shi'a Muslims to escape persecution from the Middle East's Sunni majority. As a journalist, Nomani said she doesn't "accept that interpretation of Islam that says we can practice lies in order to defend the religion."
Still, Islamist activity in Minnesota appears noticeable enough that even after the panelists openly rejected taqiyyah, a participant asked, "How do we believe that?"
"All I can tell you is, vet us," Jasser answered. "Hold us accountable. I've got 15 years now — if not 25 of public work. If you can find speeches in which I said things to one group and said different things to another, that is something — I mean in politics you call it pandering, right? So taqiyyah is religious pandering."
Speaking on Omar's home turf in Minnesota, the panel consistently returned to a single talking point: the political partnership forged between Islamists and elements of the Left. "They are in a dangerous alliance, the Democratic Party, with Islamists," Nomani said. "They are masquerading as liberals, but they really are using our agenda and our values of free speech, freedom of religion, [and] civil liberties to win this alliance." She called it the "Achilles heel of the liberal community from which I come."
To emphasize her point, Nomani pointed to 2020 presidential nominee Senator Bernie Sanders' appearance at ISNACON 2019, a convention sponsored by the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), an Islamist organization identified in federal court as an "apparatus" of the global Muslim Brotherhood movement.
"How does [Sanders] feel about a book being sold downstairs that says: 'Muslims, kill the Jews and the Christians?'" asked Nomani, holding up a copy of Reliance of the Traveler, a classical manual of fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence] that she said was sold at ISNA's conference.
The panelists were not always in agreement about the shape and direction of the reform movement. Qudosi suggested Muslims should avoid lending legitimacy to outdated and extremist texts. She said that Muslims need to "get back to basics." She noted that a significant amount of extreme religious instruction was "tacked on" to Islam after the Quran, and that the question of these additions separates many moderate Muslims from Salafis and other hardline Islamic sects.
However, Asra believes that this text "does matter," insofar as modern Muslims have a responsibility to reject that material.
When asked how Muslims could be exposed to more moderate interpretations of their faith, Jasser conceded: "We don't have books we can leave in front of you written by Islamic legal scholars that actually represent what we are saying. We admit it. We're the lay community."
However, Jasser offered a solution: "We need a new school of thought. The last time there was an established school of thought ... was in the 12th or 13th century."
He continued: "Your greatest assets, the head of the spear that you need to defend this country, are Muslims that share your values. We need to build interfaith, intercommunity platforms to have a debate publicly."
"Muslims need to be begin to feel uncomfortable before they start feeling reformed."
Benjamin Baird is coordinator of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.